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Disney Princesses and Body Image: Is This What Little Girls Should Be Looking Up To?

A still from the ballroom dance sequence in "Beauty and the Beast."
A still from the ballroom dance sequence in "Beauty and the Beast." By Courtesy of Wikipedia
By Emerson L. Giese, Contributing Writer

Every little girl has their favorite Disney Princess. From dancing around the kitchen in princess dresses to telling their parents that they want to be a princess when they grow up, the effect that the princesses of Disney have on little girls is undeniable. Little girls want to be hard-working like Tiana, smart like Belle, brave like Merida, and kind like Snow White. But can the desire to embody the princesses be detrimental to young girls’ images of themselves or their mental health? Is the idolization of these flawless women a good thing?

Disney princesses are known for their beauty as well as their character, or sometimes even more for their beauty than their character. Aurora has only 18 lines within the entirety of “Sleeping Beauty,” with the main emphasis centering on her appearance. She is saved because she is beautiful. She is loved because she is beautiful. This focus is evident even in the title.

In every Disney princess film, beauty is correlated with the good qualities in a character, while exterior ugliness, so to speak, is correlated with negative or villainous character traits. This association is obvious to anyone who has ever seen the movies, especially the kids idolizing these princesses, which makes the correlation itself an intrinsic part of the problem. If being older and bigger as a woman is portrayed as ugly in these movies, and this ugliness is then associated with being bad, how are the beauty standards for women going to become more inclusive if the portrayal of the “ideal” woman is forever perpetuating the negative beauty standards of present times? No little girl is going to accept the less princess-esque aspects of herself if they are ultimately associated with being a villain.

More specifically, Disney has been known for creating unrealistic body expectations for little girls as they transition into womanhood. Disney princesses are known for several defining characteristics: big eyes, impossibly small waists, perfect skin and hair, and a slender frame. It has been said that the eyes of the princesses are bigger than their waists; they ultimately have an impossibly doll-like physique, which little girls should not be associating with an achievable standard of beauty. What little girl should look at the big eyes and small waist of Belle and think that she is the most beautiful girl in the world, or that she wants to look like her as well as act like her?

This unobtainable standard has been shown to negatively impact young girls’ perception of themselves. According to a study published in “Psychology of Popular Media,” researchers investigating such discussions found evidence that the body size of children’s favorite princesses moderated the relationship between engagement with pretend play as princesses and certain developmental outcomes.” That means that when little girls found the most appealing characteristics (kindness, bravery, work ethic, etc.) in a princess, they often associated those characteristics with the way she looked. A little girl whose favorite princess is Moana, who has less exaggerated and more realistic features, will likely have far more healthy standards for her body than a little girl whose favorite princess is Elsa, for example.

Should the role models of young girls perpetuate an unrealistic and problematic standard of beauty? Should such charismatic and flawless women be associated with such an unobtainable physique?

The unrealistic standards of beauty that Disney Princesses present and their undeniable effects on young girls’ self-perception establishes a very problematic precedent. With a 100 year legacy, the princesses of the past are always going to be watched and idolized by little girls. So how does Disney move forward?

The addition of new princesses with a wider variety of body types would definitely be a crucial factor in resolving the problem, as it would help reduce the association of a distinct kind of beauty with goodness. While the princesses that already exist still play a vital part in the mindset of girls, creating princesses who don’t adhere to these traditional beauty standards can help override this association between beauty and goodness. This addition will allow girls to find beauty in different parts of themselves and not equate their self-worth with aspects of their physical appearance. Although Disney’s portrayal of women as princesses and role models has been an inspiration of all kinds for little girls, the corporation must understand the responsibility they hold to their viewers.

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