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Little girls or little women? The Disney princess effect

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And yet, the Finucane and Orenstein critique does resonate with many familiar with modern American girlhood as "hot" replaces pretty in pink, and getting the prince takes on a more ominous tone. Parents and educators regularly tell re-searchers that they are unable to control the growing onslaught of social messages shaping their daughters and students.

"Parents are having a really hard time dealing with it," says Diane Levin, an early childhood specialist at Wheelock College in Boston who recently co-wrote the book "So Sexy So Soon." "They say that things they used to do aren't working; they say they're losing control of what happens to their girls at younger and younger ages."

It only takes a glance at some recent studies to understand why parents are uneasy:

•A University of Central Florida poll found that 50 percent of 3-to-6-year-old girls worry that they are fat.

•One-quarter of 14-to-17-year-olds of both sexes polled by The Associated Press and MTV in 2009 reported either sending naked pictures of themselves or receiving naked pictures of someone else.

•The marketing group NPD Fashionworld reported in 2003 that more than $1.6 million is spent annually on thong underwear for 7-to-12-year-olds.

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