Introducing Girls To The Wonderful World Without Disney
Half of the clients in my Mentoring practice are teen girls and young adult women. They come from across North America and Europe. Inevitably no matter where they are from, three topics always come up in our work together – Insecurity about their looks, the drama and trauma and cattiness of female friendships, and their discouragement about how hard it is to find a guy who both wants and is ready for a real relationship.
I’d number in the thousands the times I’ve had these conversation and done this work with these girls, taking anywhere from a few minutes to a few years.
It always begins the same:
Unwinding the stories and ideas about “how life just is” that have been spun into them since before they could talk – stories and ideas that create limiting expectations and leads to unnecessary frustration, stress and anxiety.
Once they are free from the stranglehold of these messages, they suddenly come to experience themselves as whole and complete, exactly as they are. They don’t need approval or compliments or a smaller waist size. Rather than living with a sense that the future is clouded with obstacles and repetitions of past disappointments, the future for them becomes a blank canvas for them to fill in with intention.
Many of them haven’t had this sense of adventure and limitless possibilities since before they can remember. Armed with the new set of skills they must learn, they go on and find fulfilling intimate partners, build healthy friendships and lead positive, vibrant lives.
Helping girls overcome these issues for me is more than professional. It is as personal as it gets, because, I have a daughter too.
When my wife was pregnant with her, so many people told her she was having a girl (“Yep you’re definitely having a girl, they suck the beauty out of you!” – most moms probably recall such comments) that at one point we actually stopped talking about boys names.
We had already decided on two things:
One: If we had a girl, what her name would be
Two: We would NEVER, NEVER, EVER talk to her about her looks by using words like “pretty” “cute” and “beautiful and the stereotypical shallow aesthetic BS that girls get hammered with in modern society. Doing so also meant we would edit carefully any books we read her, shows we let her see and stories we told her.
Instead, we would endlessly praise and compliment her character (“funny” “kind” “helpful” etc), but not her appearance. We figured the world would attack her enough with that crap, and at the very least, we would set a standard for what really mattered.
She is now 4 years old. She has NEVER, EVER, EVER heard us call her pretty, cute or beautiful. We’ve never praised her physical looks in any way. The public around us has done it though 10,000 times.
It is a losing battle, and we know it. Eventually these inhibiting messages will make their impact. But if we are going to go down in battle, we are determined to not go down without at least one hell of a fight!
On the front lines of the battle is a war against the ever ubiquitous Disney Worldwide assault on girls, and the plethora of accompanying wanna-be copycats who have profited from the Disney way. They are seemingly everywhere.
Every major Disney classic builds on one specific mythological form: The girl whose life is unhappy, unfulfilled and not complete until a man sees her real beauty, kisses her and completes her. What a pathetic message to teach young girls about how life works.
Even the later more modern Disney films where the female protagonist can actually function without a man for more than 7 minutes – like “Pocahontas” – feature girls who are slim, sexy and, well, pretty damn close to perfect in their physical appearance.
The message this programs and winds into girls is profanely narrow and inhibiting, and amazingly effective. At an age where they can’t help but identify with these characters, they already begin to organize themselves to filter and sort the world from that mentality and by those values.
It is sick.
At Halloween this year, my now 4 year old daughter went out dressed like a Pink Flamingo. Last year she was a frog and the year before that an apple.
Walking the streets this year, she saw dozens of girls dressed as mermaids, most of them wearing slim, short, revealing tops and skirts that were by my standard, totally sexualized and inappropriate for a young child. They were outfits I would never let my young daughter wear.
Seeing all these girls dressed as Mermaids captured her attention. Then she uttered the dreaded words, “Next year I want to be a Mermaid too!” and somewhere a Disney executive smiled and updated his financial projections.
I replied: “Hmmmm… All these girls are being Mermaids. There’s nothing UNIQUE and CREATIVE about it. They are not even FUNNY and GOOFY! That wouldn’t be any fun. Don’t you agree?”
“Yeah,” she replied. She thought for a moment then said “Then I want to be a Sunflower!”
Whew. Tragedy narrowly averted. We held the lead for yet another day.
Catherine Steiner-Adair, a well researched and bold voice on the battle to save girls sanity around these issues, led a study in which she found that 80% of girls and women woke up in the morning, looked in the mirror and did a negative body check. They looked at themselves for what they don’t like and focused on what they wish they were, but aren’t.
What a lousy way to begin each day. And the training to be this way begins early.
Every time our children watch these shows with the cute, sexy Miley Cyrus’s (and the constant sarcasm in their dialogues), the provocative Mermaids with their glaring cleavage, and the countless images that show how you need to look if you ever want to be popular, attractive to Princes and have any hope for not dying a miserable old widow alone in a shoe with her cats, this message gets imprinted in them.
These imprints run deep. They form the foundation for how our children perceive the world and make meaning of life’s events. When an imprint is a single impression, it has power. When it is a whole mythological narrative, it has life-shaping power.
The mythological narrative for girls that is at the heart (or should I say “at the bowels”) of what is driving this obsession with looks, body image, etc, is so pervasive, it is unavoidable.
Therefore the effort to be avoiding it, reframing it, retelling it and reinforcing something else entirely (e.g. the internal qualities that lead to a high quality, fulfilling life) is a constant one. I’d even go so far as to say that the dominant, negative, inhibiting Disney-esque messages must be avoided, retold and reframed every day, multiple times per day.
To counter it, a prominent healthy mythology for girls to be adopting and living, must be taught, modeled and reinforced many more multiple times a day.
I find consistently that parents who do this with intention and uncompromising effort, are far more likely to raise girls who are free from these issues, than those who let pop-culture and well-intentioned adults train their kids to pay attention to their looks and to value how close they can come to looking like a Disney princess.
I’ve said many times that if as a parent, you don’t constantly feel that every time your children walk out your door or turn on a TV or open a popular magazine, that it is you and your values in an all out war against the prominent messages and values of the world around you, then you are probably not doing a very good job of parenting.
It is a constant battle, but one well worth fighting. Better to go against common culture and popular practices to set our kids on a confident, secure trajectory now, then to spend years battling to reset things later. We may not defeat Disney and its wanna-be’s… But we can raise our kids to live magical lives without it.
Jeffrey Leiken, MA empowers youth to lead extraordinary lives. Utilizing a cutting-edge, unique method of Mentoring and “Real-Life” Training, he guides teens and young adults to be confident, centered, excellent decision makers. He then teaches them sophisticated communication skills that enable them to generate consistent results in the real world ways that lead to leading fulfilling lives of true personal success. To receive his free report “The 13 Character Traits of Extraordinary People”, visit his website: www.Leiken.com