Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Fall 2011 OAM Home | Oberlin Online

Shattering the Glass Slipper

Why the color pink has noted feminist author
Peggy Orenstein ’83 seeing red

(photo courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers)

If Peggy Orenstein ’83 ever needed to be reminded of the relevance of feminism, it came with the raising of her daughter, Daisy.

A contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and Salon among other publications, Orenstein made a name for herself in 1994 with her first book, the best-selling Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, in which she chronicled the struggles of middle school girls in two different communities. She followed that book with Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World, and another bestseller, Waiting for Daisy, a memoir about her quest to have a child.

Raising Daisy, now 8, presented a new challenge for Orenstein when she found herself at battle with a pink menace — the Disney princess culture in which little girls learn to conflate beauty with self-worth.

"It seemed that even as new educational and professional opportunities unfurled before my daughter and her peers, so did the path that encouraged them to equate identity with image, self-expression with appearance, femininity with performance, pleasure with pleasing, and sexuality with sexualization," she writes in a note to readers at Amazon.com. That’s what prompted her to write the bestseller Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, which comes out in paperback in January.

"We tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be, but we don’t really help them figure out how they’re going to do that or gird them as they get older with an understanding of what the issues are," Orenstein says. "There are things they can battle against, or be made aware of, and be stronger for that."

Just as Disney princesses subtly encourage girls to define themselves by beauty and sexiness, women face micro-inequities as adults, she says — such as expectations about how they should speak to people at work, or how they should dress.

"Inequality today can be more insidious and more about environment," she says. "It’s little things that wear you down over time. You get enough mosquito bites, and you’ve got malaria. Women tend to blame themselves."

And for that reason, feminism is far from dead, in her opinion. "It’s a living idea that moves and shifts depending on ordinary life," she says. "The challenge is to keep it front-and-center, fresh, interesting, and dynamic — to continually reinvent your approach and your ideas, to get people to care and act."

Orenstein’s own way to do that is to make her feminism funny, without sacrificing the force of her argument. For instance, she asks how we want girls to be judged —"by the content of their character, or the color of their lip gloss?"

"My use of humor and my tone come from ideas about toppling hierarchy, from my women’s studies background," she says. At Oberlin, Orenstein "turned every class into women’s studies" and spent the spring of her junior year assisting the feminist writer Robin Morgan with Sisterhood Is Global, an anthology on the status of women around the world. She stayed the summer in New York to work as a fact-checker at Ms.

"I was getting to know all these famous feminist women," she says.

"It radicalized me."

Emerita Professor of English Kathie Linehan even remembers Orenstein’s humor when she presented her honors thesis on Katherine Mansfield: "She can drill through to people with her sense of humor, and then, she has something solid and thought-provoking to say."

After graduation, Orenstein worked at Esquire, Mother Jones, and at the short-lived 7 Days, founded by Adam Moss ’79.

"She had an amazing sense of humor about her own ideas," says Moss, now editor-in-chief at New York. "She was a serious person who never took herself too seriously."

The intellectual climate of Oberlin had a lifelong impact on Orenstein, who says she still thinks about lessons she learned from her professors: "I am who I am because I went to Oberlin."

Though she gives credit to Oberlin, Orenstein’s feminism can be traced to her childhood. As a junior in high school, she was diagnosed with anorexia — a battle that would later intensify her interest in issues affecting women and girls. But perhaps the roots of her high-spirited and humorous take on feminism go back even further.

Orenstein discovered feminism in sixth grade, when she and a friend read the "Wonder Woman" comics in Ms. In their own version of dress-up, they tied towels around their necks and leapt between garage roofs in her hometown of Minneapolis.

"I associated women’s lib with this exhilarated feeling of flying," she says. Decades later, it seems her main concern is ensuring that her daughter, too, can soar.

Liz Logan ’05 is the senior editor at Make It Better, a regional magazine for Chicago’s North Shore. Her writing has appeared in Time, the Plain Dealer and Time Out Chicago.

Peggy’s Princess Diary:
Wit and Wisdom From the Author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Reflecting on news that Disney went into maternity wards to present Princess onesies (one-piece infant outfits) to new baby girls: "So you start with the Disney princess onesie and work your way up to the Disney princess wedding dress. What I’m thinking is that maybe they can market a Snow White coffin so you can go womb to tomb."

— from Feministing.com

"I live in Berkeley, California: if princesses had infiltrated our little retro-hippie hamlet, imagine what was going on in places where women actually shaved their legs?"

—from Cinderella Ate My Daughter

"Adult women I have asked do not remember being so obsessed with pink as children, nor do they recall it being so pervasively pimped to them. I remember thinking my fuschia-and-white-striped Danskin shirt with its matching stirrup pants was totally bitchin’, but I also loved the same outfit in purple, navy, green, and red (yes, I had them all—there must have been a sale at Sears)."

—from Cinderella Ate My Daughter

On the statistic that nearly half of 6 to 9-year-old girls wear lipstick or gloss: "I don’t know why the percentage is not zero."

—from Mother Jones

"I’m not saying that if you wave a magic wand at 2 you’re going to be sexting at 13, but parents really need to understand the arc of what’s being marketed to girls."

— from the online talk show Themotherhood.com

"I am hardly one to judge other mothers’ choices: my own behavior has been inconsistent, hypocritical, even reactionary."

—from Cinderella Ate My Daughter

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