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Kate Middleton becomes a princess tomorrow. And we've been buzzing for weeks (make that months) about how her wedding dress is sure to launch a thousand copycats and her alleged Buff Bride workouts (if the tabloids are to be believed, she's dropped from a size six to a size two -- egads!) will inspire brides everywhere to shed for their own weddings.
But we've been ignoring the real question: What's up with all these grown women wanting to dress like a princess, look like a princess -- and weigh what we think a princess should weigh?
We expect little girls to go through the princess phase. We fuel them for it from a tender age on a steady diet of Disney Princesses and pink everything. But the key word is phase. "Oh she'll outgrow it!" parents say hopefully whenever anyone wonders whether our modern princess culture teaches girls to pin their self-worth exclusively on their appearance and prince-nabbing abilities. (For more on that, check out the fabulous Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein.)
Except, I'm not so sure we do outgrow the princess phase. One of my best friends admits she had Disney Princess posters on her bedroom walls well into high school. At the ripe old age of 26, as smart women, with college degrees, careers and hobbies, we dressed up as Belle, Pocahantas and Snow White for Halloween. And when we're faced with a real life princess -- especially one almost as doe-eyed and wasp-waisted as the cartoon versions -- we get all kinds of giddy. Mothers are keeping their daughters home from school to watch the wedding, while drinking tea and wearing princess costumes. Since they can't have Kate's dress yet, brides are on a waiting list for Disney's Rapunzel wedding dress.
Because somehow, in a haze of tulle and tiaras, we've forgotten that being a princess sucks. After all, the fairytale Royal Wedding of 1981 ended in tragedy. As Gail Collins puts it in this week's Opinionator column, being a princess is "a non-job" that millions of women and girls nevertheless aspire to achieve. Worse, it means crazy in-laws and a life of rules and public scrutiny so intense Lindsey Lohan will think you've got it rough. And hello, body image issues galore! Fergie endured constant mockery about her weight. Sweden's Princess Victoria was anorexic. And Diana battled bulimia throughout her reign, calling it her "escape mechanism" to cope with the pressures of princessing.
When you think about it, princesses symbolize everything that's wrong with our beauty culture. We expect them to be beautiful and demure. They should be desirable but never in charge of their own desires. Their main achievement in life is marriage and they don't get to have careers -- though, fingers crossed, Kate Middleton could set a new precedent there.
And oh my goodness, do we want them to be thin.
We've worried a lot about whether Princess Kate, already facing the royal weight debate, will end up battling an eating disorder like Princess Di. But I think we need to take a closer look at our own princess obsession -- and the toll it takes on the body image of all us commoners.