Saying goodbye to the princess phase

Guest post by Kelli Kirk


When my daughter Violet was a young toddler, she had no use for dresses. She screeched and flailed around if I tried to put her in one. She was extremely physical. She walked early, she climbed anything in sight and she had no fear.

I liked it and dare I say, I was even “in your face” about it! She was an aggressive monkey, climbing around on everything, wearing her hair very short and always running ahead of everyone including the boys. “To hell with these people who raise the foofy-girly girls,” I told myself.

I have a picture of her on Santa’s lap when she was 2 with a tear-stained face. I had cajoled her into wearing a fabulous red vintage hand-smocked dress for the occasion and she immediately threw a fit, demanding her pants. I felt guilty and I didn’t do this to her again, but I secretly did occasionally pine for putting her into a dress.

And then, her third birthday arrived. The day my daughter turned three, a gift of princess clothes appeared from a neighbor. The hot pink, jewel encrusted, “Dress Up” box included a tiara, a wand, pink plastic “heels”, and plastic jewelry.

I had witnessed other people’s girls hitting the Super-Girlie stage and looked down upon it scornfully. I was solid in my understanding that I had a strong, highly energetic, athletic, no-nonsense girl who could care one fig less about “dress up”.

I looked at her face though as she opened that box of princess clothes, and I could see she was instantly smitten. She carried that wand around all day, and slept in a tutu. The next day, it was very clear someone had flicked on the “princess gene.” I actually embraced it a little at first.

It was fun to buy her dresses she’d always refused. For about three months straight that winter, she insisted on wearing a pink ballerina leotard every single, solitary, day. In the bitter cold she would scream every morning if I forced her to accompany it with a coat, or warm tights.

If I forced her, I would arrive at preschool pick-up to find she had abandoned the tights and coat in the hallway and was running around with only the dread pink ballerina leotard again.

Over the following couple of years, Violet and I visited every possible inch of Princess World: Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, and Jasmine…. The Disney princesses; the non-Disney princesses; The vintage Princesses in books. We worshipped at the altar of princess dresses, princess clothes, princess cakes, princess dishes and princess pajamas.

And….then came the fairies. The wings, the sparkles, the pixie dust. Every night for two summers we took walks dressed like fairies, inquiring what the fairies eat, reading about fairies, leaving small dishes of food for the fairies.

Every Halloween I hoped against hope to sew for her a creative, clever and scary costume. I knew someday she would ask for something really smart and funny – because she is so imaginative! And, for several Halloweens she demanded the same store-bought Super-Girlie costume – usually a marketed princess character.

Or, as a close friend emailed me once near Halloween, “Well! What’ll it be this year: the Princess Fairy or the Fairy Princess?”

My brief, initial delight in the dresses was long gone, replaced by a terrible sense of discomfort. I worried, and I developed an actual hatred for those princess outfits. I tried my best to de-emphasize them.

She seemed obsessed about her physical appearance, the costumes, the wands, the plastic heels. She was far too wrapped up in pursuits of tulle and glitter and rarely wanted to play physically.

I would lie awake and feel anxious: What about her self-esteem? What about teaching her to rely on inner strength? What about being self-contained? What about science and math!? What about Betty Friedan??

The year she turned five, I signed Violet up for tae kwon do. She reluctantly agreed and to my almost palpable relief, she enjoyed it. However, she insisted on wearing a fluffy dress with a huge skirt every day to class, frequently asking the Grand Master to fix her hair clip. She would change into her uniform onsite in the DoJung bathroom, refusing to be spotted in the shameful, loathsome and plain uniform.

And then a couple months before her sixth birthday, she woke up one morning and for the first time in about three years came out of the bedroom dressed in jeans and a very plain t-shirt.

Stunned, I purposefully said nothing to her about it. She combed her hair, put on her shoes and we left for school. I kept glancing at her in the back of the car, sitting there calmly looking out the window in her jeans. The next day it was back to a big-skirt dress again.

But, then! The following day it was back to the jeans. On the way to school I casually asked her about the jeans. She nonchalantly informed me, “Mom, I really can’t climb trees much in dresses and I’ve been getting to the top of that big one in the yard. I need to practice.” I picked her up later that afternoon and we ran to the park.

I watched her that day, wild uncombed hair and jeans black with mud and pine needles. She looked so grown up, like a big school girl.

I realized with a surprising ache in my stomach that the princess dressup phase was truly coming to an end. It had a beginning, a defined middle, and finally an end.

Today, Violet is a wonderfully active, artistic, sensitive, clever eight year old girl with all the mud, and pine needles and also the sports, and sometimes tulle and glitter on top of it. I love all of these things myself and I love her.

And somewhere along the line I realized: I really didn’t take enough photographs of those princess costumes.

Comments on Saying goodbye to the princess phase

  1. We're in the midst of the dresses/fairy/princess phase with my almost-4-year-old now. I'm looking forward to the end. Thanks for the reminder to take lots of photos during this journey. 😉

  2. Thank gawd I'm not the only one who has loathed and worried and kept up at night wondering about how this princess/fairy/mermaid phase will really affect my 4 1/2 yr old. We're still going through it…and I don't actually mind the fairies so much…and it's not a huge obsession…it's just ALL the time!

    Great writing, thanks so much!


  3. Thank you for writing this post. MY 18 month old just went from cars and baby dolls to all the glitter and glam. The glitter and gam came from grandma. I have been worrying about how to deal with the girly girl phase because I am not. You are making me feel that there maybe an end to it. Again Thank you!

  4. My baby sister is like this. She's fifteen years my junior, and both my stepmother and I are not girly *at all*. At first it was annoying, but now we are used to it. We indulge her. Heck, sometimes we even have girl nights where we do nail polish and each other's hair…and weirdly enough we love it! I think sometimes it's important to remember that not everyone is alternative. Some girls grow up to be very mainstream, not for any social obligation, but because that is the person they are. Shunning someone for who is naturally like that is very similar to those who shun us because of our tattoos, funky hair colors, or hippy ways. If my sister grows out of this stage, that's great, but if she doesn't, that's great too. I just want her to be happy and secure, and to know that we'll love her, no matter who she grows up to be.

    • Oh absolutely — I've got several friends who are great examples of the pendulum swinging from an offbeat upbringing. My oldest friend group up feral in a school bus … and now lives in the 'burbs, drives a minivan, and is a middle school principal. I've written here about my mom trying to hard to raise me gender neutral … and how I ended up loving frilly dresses and fashion despite it all. 🙂

    • well put Annelise,
      I was once a staunch advocate for challenging the ultra gendering of kids, young people, hell even adults but then one wise woman said to me that its all about choice and that we engage critically in our choices so we find what is and feels right for ourselves.
      It also made me think of how I challenge, I come from a family with quite traditional female roles (Im a bit of a black sheep!) .
      When my niece was born I bought her a 'my first transformer' which my mother gave me the 'wtf' glance. I explained when I was young I wanted to play with my brothers toys (hence why i was getting in trouble for always taking his stuff) and that a variety of different toys means she get to create, develop and use a wide range of different skills. Since then mum has bought her grandchild doll houses but also carpentry sets!

      • My aunt, bless her, gave me a tool bench & tool set for toddlers when I was around 2. Someone actually said "you son will love this" and got a weird look when she said "actually, it's for my niece". I was a weird mix of tomboy and girly-girl growing up…getting dirty with the boys or playing with their cars and trucks in dresses and pink tights!

    • Exactly! I think what we really need to focus on is giving our children room to grow into who they want to be. We don’t need to force them into dresses any more than we need to force them out of dresses.

      It’s like that book featured here on the site a little while ago about the boy who likes to wear dresses. His folks just gave him space and support. We all stood around and applauded–now lets show our own kids the same courtesy.

  5. This is a relief to read. I'm a total tom-boy and while I do dress up, I try not to focus on looks too much, but my daughter is OBSESSED with what she wears, the shoes and dresses. She has a uniform for school, but only ever wants to wear a uniform skirt. I thought I was going crazy. But, as she's getting nearer her sixth birthday she is mixing it up a little and it's good to know that she will find a good mix for herself and won't focus on what the "popular" girls wear, but come into her own style!

  6. I had a moment of freak out when my rough and tumble, totally mud-loving two year old cowgirl became enamored with all things that glitter. I worried that I had provided one too many hairbows and that had pushed her out of the possibility of being a future feminist. Thankfully, I came back to my senses when she insisted on wearing a tutu to the barn and proceded to ride her horse while wearing it. Her diverse interests and curiosity about EVERYTHING make her who she is- and i know who she is will continue to evolve and change. each of her incarnations as she grows will be gorgeous, fierce, and totally cause for celebration.

  7. You should have seen Amina this am. She managed to heap at least a pound of Hello Kitty, butterfly, and diamond encrusted clips onto her head. Then she topped it all off with a fabulous tiara. You have reminded me to pull out the camera more often. Thanks Kel. -Katie

  8. What a great post….and it reminds me to let my stepdaughters to be…be themselves and stop nagging about the bangs in the face and the side bangs that we keep going back to even when they grow out! I love my girls and i cant wait to marry their dad! They are who they are and hopefully the bangs are a "phase"!

  9. Sounds like your kid will be something like me…an intriguing mix of bad-ass independence with a fierce spirit but with a bit of girly-girl mixed in. Chicks like us ROCK, we are damsels, but certainly not in distress!

  10. It's really useful to remember that these things do change, and the dress or the toys do not have to be defining characteristics in a little girl's life. Take it from me: for my entire childhood, I loved nothing better than dolls, ballet, playing "mom", Barbies, you name it. But while enjoying all those things I was also growing up as a fiercely independent and feminist young woman courtesy of my parents (well, I did play "suffragette Barbies" once I learned what that was!) So these things change – it is the kernel of your daughters' spirit that matters in the end. Great to see so many thoughtful and loving moms on here! 😀

  11. Thank you so much for this post. I’m going to be a first-time mom to a little girl in about 5 months, and I have lain awake at night agonizing about this very subject. I am a fierce feminist, but I am also very girly and loooove all things princessy/glittery/frilly. I have struggled with how to share all these cute adorable things with my little girl while still allowing her to discover herself beyond the constraints of traditional femininity. Your post gives me hope that even if I dress her in sparkly dresses and cute hairclips, I won’t be preventing her from discovering herself either. 🙂

  12. I totally went through that set of phases, I wonder if my mom missed the dresses with out tights in the dead winter phase.

    Now I dress in jeans and tee shirts most days, but love my dress’ for the big nights out…

  13. When I was a little girl I was raised around many young boys, and NEVER had any female friends, I was quite the little feminist and wanted nothing more than to be just like the boys. I despised pink and loved bugs.

    Now, I’m turning 15, and I’m more of an anti-sexist in general. I despise gender rolling, but I would never look down upon a girl for wanting to be a princess. More so I think nothing of gender, for female OR male.
    I’m very girly now, and am now into a fashion from Japan that focuses on feminity, modesty, and being a princess.

  14. Kind of off-topic, but I’m really annoyed about the existence of the t-shirt pictured. I’d get it if it were just the “classic” princesses, but Rapunzel’s on there, which makes it look like they deliberately left out the POC (princesses of color). Why wouldn’t Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana look great on it?

    I guess that’s my big fear about the princess phase if I ever have a daughter. Disney makes movies with diversity, but so much of the merch available seems to ignore it.

    I think if I end up in Princess-ville, all I’ll be able to do is talk about the many good qualities of the various princesses that aren’t how pretty they are, so my theoretical daughter will have a takeaway once she’s done with the phase. “Wow, Cinderella’s life is really hard! It’s impressive that she can stay so positive when things are tough.” “I love Belle because she’s so smart!” “Tiana works really hard! That’s awesome.” You know. Stuff like that.

    • My Oh and I have talked about this – the Disney princess films are generally pretty good for providing female role models with a variety of backgrounds, strengths, interests and goals, but the merchandise has serious issues. And most kids privilege branded stuff over home made, which can make it an uphill battle to keep them away from the all-white-all-blonde pencil cases.

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