What is a princess? That’s the question I asked myself after my daughter went gaga for princesses. Just before turning three, she fell for princesses and pink and everything girly. That’s hardly a unique preference among little girls. A significant proportion of toddler girls – and a few boys as well – become obsessed with pink and princess clothes to the exclusion of all other colors and styles. The phenomenon is so widespread, Princeton researchers came up with a name for it – the Pink Frilly Dresses stage.

When my daughter’s predilection rocked our previously gender neutral world, I was astonished by its intensity. I was also a little embarrassed. Here I was, a down-to-earth feminist mom, and – because her toddler will was so much stronger than mine – I found myself walking down the street hand-in-hand with a little person dressed in a glittery Princess Ariel top paired with a fuscia tutu and a garish tiara. Her magenta tights added one last blinding feature to the mix.

Beyond my superficial chagrin, I was also concerned with what it all meant. Girls who focus on the beauty ideal – which the princesses exemplify – are more likely to suffer from low-esteem in adolescence. Once we start comparing ourselves to others and to photo-shopped images of impossibly beautiful women, we can’t possibly win. This made me wonder if my daughter’s princess obsession was a bad omen. Was she heading down a road that never ends well for women?

Helpless to change her mind and subject to the gift choices of well-meaning relatives (aka my in-laws) who gave her princess books and clothing and accessories, I was left with little choice but to observe my princess-loving daughter while examining my own antipathy towards princesses. Who were these royal maidens anyway?

As a child of the seventies, I associated princesses with the “sleepy trio” of Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. These ladies are so passive that two of them literally sleep through parts of their story. I never related to them as a child. Instead I loved the sparky sidekicks – the dwarves and the mice and the funny godmothers – because somehow I didn’t see myself in the princesses.

Thankfully, princesses have evolved. My daughter’s passion exposed her to the sleepy trio, but also to a growing canon of Disney princesses who weren’t created by regressive men. In the contemporary Disney films, Belle is smart, Rapunzel industrious, and Tiana honest and resolved. The newest princesses, Elsa, Anna, and Moana, are all the brave heroes of their own epic stories. 

Though the princesses have come a long way, their body shapes and faces still conform to a conventional – and limited – beauty ideal. If I’d had the opportunity to watch these films as a child, I suspect I might still feel alienated by them. All these years later, I can see that disassociating myself from the princesses wasn’t just about their passive personas, it was about their looks.

I have an oblong face and a big nose. On some level, I must have known that getting by on my looks wasn’t a viable option. Distancing myself from the princesses was a kind of defense mechanism. I’m not sorry that I never focused on the physical, neither in myself or in others, but looking back, I acknowledge something I never really thought about before having a Little Princess daughter. I never felt beautiful.

My daughter has no such dissociation. When she looks at the princesses, she sees herself. She definitely believes she’s as beautiful as a princess. I never want that to change.

As early as six years old, however, girls start to feel bad about their appearance. That’s the age when they start to be influenced by the ubiquitous beauty ideal: the touched-up ads, the models, the post-surgical bodies, and the “perfect” faces that inundate us in the media. This is the age when we need to let our daughters in on the secret that there are loud voices in this world telling us we’re not good enough. Be alert and aware, we can tell our daughters, and make a conscious choice not to listen to them.

I won’t kid myself that this plan is foolproof. Part of parenthood is accepting that your kids are going to have challenges and crises. Our job as parents is not to ensure our children never face times of trouble, but to give them love and the tools of resilience they need when they do.

My daughter has her own path to take. When she first fell for princesses, I resisted. But I soon understood that her passion came from a deep place. Her love for princesses isn’t tied up with their waist sizes or their passivity or anything negative. For her, this love was joyful and fun. My issues are my own and I needn’t impose them on her. And besides, there are a lot of things much worse than princesses. As for the color pink? It’s definitely growing on me.