Disney's Princess: A Breakthrough for Curly Hair

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Disney / AP

Recently, my 4-year-old came downstairs clutching in her hands her severed blond ringlets. Why did she cut off her corkscrew curls? "Because no princesses have curly hair," she said.

I was astonished, though I probably shouldn't have been. She'd been complaining for a while that no Disney princesses have curly hair like hers. We even went so far as to seek out a ringletted royal online, where we discovered we aren't the only family that has detected anticurl prejudice. A thread on Yahoo! Answers asks, "How come no Disney Princess has curly hair?" YouTube led us to Princess Giselle, as portrayed by Amy Adams in Disney's half-animated Enchanted, but my daughter roundly dismissed Adams' gorgeously coiled tresses because the princess she plays has barely a hint of curl whenever she inhabits her cartoon self. My daughter's takeaway: in the fantasy realm that is Disney's raison d'être, straight hair is the stuff of dreams.

But now Disney is setting the record, um, straight, with its release of The Princess and the Frog. The protagonist, Tiana, is Disney's first black princess — and she's got curly hair. Although Tiana's skin color is generating far more buzz than her hairstyle, it would be a mistake to overlook the significance of her coif. There are plenty of black women who spend tons of time, energy and money straightening their hair — including the U.S.'s much imitated First Lady. Disney easily could have bestowed smooth tresses on Tiana, yet it didn't.

Scientists know that girls can develop a negative body image at a very young age. In a new study from the University of Central Florida, nearly half of its 3-to-6-year-old participants fretted about being fat. About a third said they would like to change their appearance — adopt a new hair color, for example, or lose weight.

Surprisingly, the study — unlike other research that has linked little girls' concern about their body image to an increased risk of eating disorders down the road — did not observe the young participants' self-esteem taking a hit after watching animated princess movies. Nevertheless, the Florida researchers recommend using these mini-chick flicks to lead into conversations with kids about what beauty is all about. Some talking points: Pencil-thin princess waists are not real. And it's possible to look good without butt-length, straight hair. I'm having a hard time selling my daughter on that last bit. For one thing, she refuses to believe that Tiana has curly hair, despite numerous viewings of the trailer. "She's wearing a wig?" she suggested.

I have plenty of friends who naively announce their intentions to steer clear of Disney princesses and all their insidious influence. Of course, their daughters are still toddlers who have yet to traipse off to preschool and encounter pop culture, sandbox-style. I was once one of those mothers and still strive to be. I've never bought my girls a Cinderella or Ariel costume, and our DVD collection boasts no Disney titles, yet my daughter informed me last week, apropos of nothing, that Sleeping Beauty is to be referred to as Sleeping Beauty only when she's sleeping. Awake and alert, her name is Aurora. In other words, no matter how protective parents try to be, these princesses are pervasive.

But I didn't think they were dangerous until my daughter clipped her curls. Now, I've realized, Disney is making my spunky, elfin girl feel bad about how she looks.

In response, I logged on to the "Anti-Princess Reading List,", a cleverly titled list of books starring sassy girl protagonists who can act tough while prancing around in a tutu. We're making our way through that list, which puts more stock in brains than in beauty.

But although I'd expressly planned not to take her to see the new Disney movie, I've switched course. My daughter is curious about the curl factor: How much is there? And is it more on the wavy side or full-blown curly? The trailer offers little insight. Perhaps that's intentional. What I'm more interested in is that the film's website describes Tiana as a "smart, tough and determined" waitress from New Orleans who "can hold down three jobs and still have time to dream." That sounds like a princess I could curl up with.