It's mid-morning on a weekday early in January, and 11 aspiring princesses are
about to have their dreams come true.
Sitting on the floor of My Girly Party in Farmington Hills, Mich., they're wearing pastel gowns adorned with sparkles, ruffles and tulle over their jeans and sweaters.
Out walks 19-year-old Danae Picklo, a vocal performance student at Western Michigan University. She's barefoot, wearing a bright red wig and a mermaid tail.
"Look at this stuff? Isn't it neat?" Picklo sings, her voice light and sweet. "Wouldn't you think my collection's complete?"
The girls, ranging in age from 3 to 8, stare in awe.
To them, Picklo is Ariel, the mermaid-turned-human princess from the Disney movie "The Little Mermaid."
And to them, this experience, which includes a make-up application, story, pink-frosted cupcakes, tiaras and pink princess tea, is bliss.
The princess craze is major, from parties, dolls, play castles and books to tiaras, play gowns, play slippers, princess wigs and everything in between. But what message does this booming culture -- which centers on pristine appearances, happy endings and finding a prince to love -- have for little girls?
Most experts and parents agree that the princess culture can be a minefield of good and bad.
"The age girls are expected to be conscious of their appearance has gotten younger and younger," says Peggy Orenstein, author of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture" (Harper Paperbacks, $14.99).
"Girls putting on a crown? Big deal," she says. "But she's going from her Disney princess (doll) to her Disney princess lipstick to her Bratz doll to the Kardashians."
Orenstein says it's not that she believes all girls who play princess at a young age will grow up to have issues. But she is concerned that princesses are "the only game in town" for girls.
Today's little girls don't just love princesses, they go through a noticeable developmental "princess phase," says Orenstein, who first wrote about the princess phenomena for the New York Times Magazine in late 2006. While kids have always engaged in "royal play," she contends, something has changed.
"It's 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," Orenstein says. "It's not just play princess but be a princess. It's often scripted play, based on the Disney movies. And it's playing with the 26,000 princess products, most of which are really geared toward appearance and an emphasis on defining the self outside-in rather than inside-out."
Al Neal, of Romulus says it just comes down to good parenting.
Neal took his two daughters, 7-year-old Sydney and 5-year-old Kelsey, to the My Girly Party playdate earlier this month. They also have each had a birthday party there, and often dress up like princesses at home.
"As long as they have proper direction at home and keep it in perspective, I'm fine with it," he says.
In 2000, Disney lumped all its princesses together into a brand called "the Disney Princess," which has accounted for more than $4 billion in retail sales, according to a 2011 Disney release.
And several local business people have discovered that even in tough economic times, anything you touch with a princess wand can turn to gold.
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