Saturday, September 10, 2011

Princesses with Frogs, Ponies with Wings

I've recently finished dozens of books. The one advantage of being underemployed is plenty of time. And libraries are one of my favorite uses of free time. Arkaedi knows the poetry section better than most three year olds, I would imagine.

One book in particular, called Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is a light, poppy, conversational book about a woman (Peggy Orenstein) who has a little girl. This little girl is enamored of princesses. Specifically, the trademarked Disney Princess line. This book is my first exposure to this culture. Somehow, perhaps due to her age or our peer group, Arkaedi has no interest in princesses. Having lived in either Seattle or Ithaca, I am surrounded by parents who closely monitor what their children watch and read. There is an across the board tendency to avoid commercial toys and games. I don't think anything of that stuff, really. To me it's a relic of the past. I even call her "Princess" sometimes, but she doesn't usually respond. She prefers Arkaedi. Or, as she says, "Unkaedi." I hope that she is just pronouncing it incorrectly, but perhaps it's a code word, and she is actually a changeling. Maybe the real Arkaedi is in fairyland.

Today I had my first taste of what could be in store for me. We were at a friend's party, for a little girl Arkaedi's age. The theme was unicorns. "Ponies!" Arkaedi immediately exclaimed. This was awesome. She even got a goody bag that included her own unicorn toy. We got into a discussion about unicorns, pegasus, ponies... but she didn't care. They were all ponies. "You call them that! I say they are ponies with wings! Ponies with horns!" She will have no dictionary nazism. Things are what she says they are! I actually came out of the conversation a little excited about unicorns, no matter what we were calling them. Which is strangely embarrassing.

I loved the unicorn party, because it was not exclusively corporate. They weren't a trademarked type of unicorn (Sorry, pony with horns). They were just fun magical toys, and the kids were enamored. The imaginative play was there, the ubiquitous scripting that invades most children's activities was avoided. It was great.

The one thing that really sticks with me from the Peggy Orenstein book, however, is the association of looks with a girl's value. Beyond the corporate shilling, which I think I can mitigate to some extent, there is the larger problem of "Princess" being code for thin, white, and perfect. This is a lot harder. For one, my normal nickname for Arkaedi is Pretty Sue. Sure, I tell her she is smart, and strong, etc. Which research does indicate is very important to avoiding some of the traps of self esteem being tied to looks. But I still call her Pretty. Many times a day. As if enforcing the concept of pretty as central to her being. Or, more accurately, focusing everyone on her looks.

And the other side of the problem for Arkaedi: She IS pretty. She is really gorgeous. Everyone says that about their kids, of course. But Arkaedi is prettier than a lot of kids. Her big blue eyes, her amazing hair... these are going to get her attention. At three, she doesn't know that. She doesn't seem to even know what pretty is, in truth. She says I'm pretty, which is a sure sign that the concept is not sinking in. Whatever I am, it is most certainly not pretty. I have never occupied the same general area as pretty. Scruffily handsome, maybe, on my best day. But Arkaedi has learned that pretty means smart, beautiful, awesome... whatever she feels like. Pretty is Pony with Horns, not Unicorn.

I wonder how I can hold on to that idea. Or if I should abandon calling her Pretty. Switch to some other nickname. I can certainly come up with a great nickname, if I need to improvise. Something that tells her how powerful, amazing, courageous, charming, and wonderful she is. Something that tells her that when I'm sad or confused or feel like a failure all I need to do is look at her to feel like life is perfect. Something that tells her that I need her to be her, with all her heart, every day of her life.

I'm sure I'll come up with something good. Then she'll change it if she wants. That's Unkaedi.

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