Get Girls Outside to Counter the “Princess Industrial Complex”


I never thought I would have three daughters. In fact, I didn’t expect to have three children, period. We got started a little late, and things didn’t happen as quickly as we expected once we decided the time was right to start a family.

So I feel extremely blessed to have three beautiful, happy, healthy girls. I cherish this time with them. They are young and innocent. But the teenage years are coming, and that scares the heck out of me.

The teenage years are when you start to lose your grip as a parent, and the uncertainty of relinquishing control over many aspects of what your child does, sees, and experiences is a tough pill to swallow.

These years of pre-adolescence are no cakewalk either, of course. Young girls are bombarded with messages in the media about what’s supposedly important as they grow up, such as their appearance, social status and desirability to boys. There’s no doubt in my mind that boys and girls are instinctually and innately different, play differently, and socialize differently from an early age. But there’s also no doubt that girls are targeted from an early age with unhelpful, and many times harmful, messages that inform their worldviews.

Last week Heather took the girls to Target for some back-to-school shopping. There are rows of toys, clothes and accessories brimming with nothing but pink, sparkles and princesses marketed exclusively to girls. There’s nothing wrong with pink and princesses, but if that’s all we expose young girls to then it has an impact on them. And it’s not a positive one.

Journalist Peggy Orenstein wrote a book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter. In it, she discusses the multi-billion dollar princess industry that Disney and its imitators have created. Ornstein equates the princess culture that young girls today grow up in as a gateway drug to a self-centered, hyper-sexualized, Kylie Jenner-worshipping adolescence. Her research suggests that the “princess industrial complex” is fueling many of the body-image insecurities leading to depression, eating disorders and anxiety among preteen girls.

We’re pretty aware and wary of these issues, but we still find our house infiltrated by these influences. From our girls’ craft cabinet, to their dresser drawers, to our television, it’s hard to escape Elsa and Ariel.

Ultimately, it’s not Disney’s fault if our girls grow up self-obsessed and self-destructive. It’s our responsibility to raise strong, self-aware and self-confident young women who understand that their self-worth has nothing to do with their ability to look pretty and sparkly. There will always be outside harmful influences to contend with.

And so I don’t believe that the answer lies in “protecting” our girls from all things princess. That’s an impossible task, and this sort of sheltering may backfire in making them more interested in the things they’re denied.

Rather, I think the best way to combat the negative byproducts and influences of princess culture is to counter it with positive ones that build character and curiosity, not obsessive self-consciousness.

Now that we have two years under our belt as parents with a new focus on outdoor living, we’re more convinced than ever that the best way to accomplish this is to get girls outside and active in nature as much as possible.

Outside is the antidote for the prim, proper and perfectly groomed expectations placed on a “little princess.” Scraped knees, blisters, mosquito bites and dirty fingernails are part of the experience when kids are out exploring.

Nature is a place to be creative, imaginative, adventurous, and to step outside of comfort zones. That’s what being a kid is all about.

There are many reasons that exposing kids, and especially young girls, to the great outdoors as much as possible is important, including:

It builds confidence. When we first started taking our girls out on hikes, it was a struggle. We’d often have to cajole them along, and they often wanted to be picked up and carried. Now we can hardly keep up with them. I never thought I’d have to jog to keep up with our recently turned four year old twins. They’ve gained confidence in their own abilities, and increased their stamina, which has led them to want to embark on longer and more challenging adventures. Sure, there are some bumps, bruises, and occasionally tears along the way, but in the process they’ve learned what it takes to adapt to and operate in different environments and that they’re capable of more than they (or us, frankly) thought was possible.

It promotes creativity and imagination. Nature play is unstructured and adventurous. It requires kids to be in tune with their senses and aware of their surroundings. Richard Louv, author of the great book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, wrote that, “As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow and this reduces the richness of human experience.” Whether we’re on a trail or a beach, exposure to the stillness and starkness of nature promotes a unique sense of wonder for kids that no other environment offers.

It fosters connection. Lots of research has shown that parents, and particularly fathers, play a key role in helping their daughters develop healthy body images as they grow up. This is best accomplished through spending quality time together, and in the process praising a child’s character and intrinsic qualities, rather than focusing on her appearance and achievements. Time spent outside, exploring nature, is some of the best time to bond and connect as a family. Many of the distractions – from screens to toys – that are everywhere inside, are removed from the experience. It’s a time to test boundaries, create shared memories, and draw closer to one another so that when the tough times of adolescence do come, children know they can count on their family for support.

Just as it’s not easy to combat the harmful messages that girls are exposed to in popular princess culture, it also can be hard to let go outside for fear that they’ll get hurt while pushing their limits. That’s because all the fun is off the trail for kids, and not within its groomed contours. Unfortunately, off the trail is where the scrapes, cuts and bruises happen. But we’ve come to understand that if we don’t allow our kids the freedom to explore and test their own boundaries, then they won’t become the outdoor-loving kids that we’re hoping to raise. And we know that the lessons they learn outside will help lay the foundation for their growth into strong, confident and courageous young women.

Family, LifeJay Harrington