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Two years ago we brought our 6-year-old daughter to a gleaming version of little girl heaven.

We had succumbed to temptation, dropping a wad of money on a very average lunch at the Royal Banquet Hall at EPCOT in Orlando, Fla. At intervals, each Disney princess came out in full regalia, complete with painted face and enormous wig. Natalie beamed at each one, which both gratified and unsettled us as the meal wore on. Each princess stopped at our table with the same syrupy smile and high-pitched voice, greeting her with, “Hello, Princess! You look beautiful today.”

For centuries little girls have desired to become princesses. My childhood included such dreams, even though I was a tomboy who was rarely caught in a dress. I remember hearing feminists decry fairy-tale princesses who waited helplessly for Prince Charming to rescue them rather than taking control of their own destinies.

That fear seems to have passed somewhat, as more recent popular princess tales have a decidedly modern edge and attitude. Princesses rescue themselves and others, and they are usually smart as well as gorgeous. And, of course, they are well-endowed, all the better to fill out the requisite wardrobe of lovely dresses.

As a parent it’s easy for me to fall for princesses, who are rapidly taking over little girl lifestyles. There are Disney princesses, Barbie princesses, and Pony-Crazed Princesses, to name a few. Though saccharine, they seem better than the tartier offerings like Bratz dolls, who flaunt skimpy fashions and excessive eyeliner. Princesses seem sweet and safe.

But the princess culture to which my daughter is so greatly attracted carries its own dangers. “Playing princess” means dressing up in lavish, sparkly clothing, wearing glamorous makeup and jewelry, and then parading around. Little girls now get glittery makeovers, and every children’s clothing store carries at least one outfit emblazoned with “Princess.” Pint-sized princesses are adorable, and at best, this is fun, imaginative play. At its worst, it distorts a natural appetite for beauty and becomes an exercise in narcissism and materialism.

Being a princess, to a child, means looking great and having much. It doesn’t support any sense of purpose. Wealth and beauty are the ultimate experience, leaving little room for imagining a life of serving others and serving God. It’s an identity based on image alone.

Back at EPCOT, a scene played out at the next table that was harder to understand. A middle-aged couple, with no children in attendance, collected the autographs of each princess in their official Disney book. The woman was covered in collectable character pins, and she seemed at least as excited as Natalie.

The princess myth apparently followed her into adulthood, and it made me wonder what remnants are still with me. How much of my desire to dress nicely or to be appealing is a normal, God-given part of my femininity, and how much of it is a wish to conform to the idea of “woman” that the world proclaims I should be? What do I model for my daughter?

I waver between enjoying my daughter’s excitement at wearing a tiara and a need to point out that beauty is more than mass-produced shine and sparkle. I can point to Esther, a queen who used her beauty and influence to save her people. I can explain beauty of the soul, as shown by the woman who washed the feet of the Lord. Most important, I hope to help her recognize that her true identity is found as a child of God, a daughter of the King. And that’s what makes her a real princess.

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