Needless to say I spent a lot of my middle school years silently praying that I would reach 5' 6". I was never going to be a natural blonde and I would never have blue eyes so my only hope of getting anywhere close to "perfect" lay in my ability to grow a little bit taller.
But this image of beauty wasn’t just coming from Sweet Valley High. It was coming from my television set, it was coming from the movies I watched, it was coming from every single one of my fashion magazines that always featured these angular women with fair-skin and spray-on-tans stretching their impossibly long legs across the pages I read. I never did reach 5’6”. I didn’t even reach 5’5”. I didn’t have impossibly long legs and my hips weren’t narrow and my butt wasn’t tiny. What I had was an hourglass figure that the boys seemed to like but the magazines told me was absolutely wrong. As a teen the approval of Vogue seemed much more important than the approval of the pimple faced teenage boys who kept staring at my chest. So the clothes everybody else was wearing looked slutty on me. My hair didn’t flip. Plus I had brown skin and an ethnic nose.
I was thirteen when I first contemplated the idea of a nose job. It wasn't even an issue of race for me. After all, when I was a teen the biggest female black singer was Janet Jackson and look at her nose. Janet changed herself to look the way magazines told her she should look and I wanted to do the same.
But of course I got over it and when I got to college any remaining insecurities about my looks flew out the window. It didn’t hurt that Sir Mix-A-Lot came out with the helpful, albeit blatantly objectifying single, Baby Got Back around that time. After hearing that it finally dawned on me that having a butt wasn't such a horrible thing despite the Kate-Moss-Heroine-Chic that was in at the time.
But it’s important to note that my previous insecurities didn’t come out of nowhere and they were frequently reinforced. I remember talking to an Asian friend of mine in college about her high school years. She was (and is) drop-dead-gorgeous. She started talking about who got Biggest Flirt or Best Hair (she got that one) in her senior year. "Of course prettiest went to a blonde," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "You know how that goes."
I do. If you lived in a town with a small minority population those kinds of high school honors always went to someone who was...well, let's face it, thin, perky and white. To say that it’s an issue of racism would be overly simplistic. The Caucasian teens who happen to be a size 10+ had the same or worse problems. It's more an issue of a media influenced idea of what is "beautiful." The magazines, the TV ads, the movies...they all told us the same thing: we were all supposed to look like the Sweet Valley High twins and if we didn't we weren't perfect.
I wasn't thinking about any of this when I agreed to take my son to see The Princess And The Frog this last Saturday. I've never been a Disney princess fan and I had extraordinarily low expectations going into the movie but was surprised to find that I genuinely liked the film and even found it to be extremely touching at times. But again, I wasn't thinking about my middle-school years during which I was making plans for a nose job.
The next day we went to Disneyland and in true Disney fashion, the park had already put together a special Mardi-Gras celebration designed specifically to celebrate (read promote) their new movie. My son stood with me and happily watched the festivities as Princess Tiana and a conspicuously ethnically diverse group of dancers made their way through the streets of Disney's New Orleans. I looked down and noticed a little black girl close to her mom’s side, clutching her new Tiana doll and beaming at the dancer playing Princess Tiana as she waved at her. Her mother leaned over to me, her smile mirroring that of her daughter and said, "My girl finally has a Disney princess that doesn't make her want to be something she's not."
Now I read The New York Times movie review and I know they feel that Disney’s The Princess and The Frog didn't delve deeply enough into racial issues which only tells me that the folks at the New York Times have never seen a Disney Princess movie before. Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock should know that Disney isn’t interested in probing the dark social issues of our times. They’re interested in creating characters that children will not only relate to but will actually WANT TO BE. They want the little boys of the world to go to the Disney store and buy the pirate hat with the Jack Sparrow dreadlocks attached and the little girls to buy the Cinderella dresses and slippers. Everybody knows that Disney Princesses are supposed to be the prettiest girls in the world. They're supposed to be perfect. For many little girls those princesses are what the Sweet Valley High twins were to me in middle school. And now there's one princess that doesn't quite look like the others...but she's still being presented as an ideal and the little girls are still buying into it and THAT means that there will be a few less adolescents wondering if they need to get a nose job.
I know we have a long way to go. I know the magazines need to stop photo shopping EVERY SINGLE PICTURE so we can stop comparing ourselves to bodies that cannot physically exist in nature. I know that we need to redefine "perfect" to mean being comfortable in one's own skin rather than aspiring to be someone else. But I think that all starts with the media and popular entertainment offering us a diverse group of role models. Princess Tiana is a small step in that direction. As an adult it's easy to dismiss this as just another silly princess movie, but for the girl clutching that doll? This movie was life changing.
Bestselling Author of:
The Sophie Katz Murder Mystery Series,
SO MUCH FOR MY HAPPY ENDING
Order LUST, LOATHING AND A LITTLE LIP GLOSS on Amazon or Barnesandnoble.com today!