Are Disney Princesses a bad influence?

December 3, 2009

I read about an interesting study that was published recently and thought I should share it with you. It has to do with girls age 6 and under, how they feel about about body type, and whether this is related to Disney Princess movies. As some people may know, girls learn to care about appearances at a very young age. As Po Bronson says in his Newsweek article on the subject:

My daughter’s been infatuated with Disney princesses since she was 3, and she’s also now showing some early concerns with her body image. It’s important to her to “look pretty,” or “look cute.” She’s said things like, “Those sneakers make my feet look fat.”

More about the study after the break.

The study, which was released this week, was conducted by Dr. Sharon Hayes and Dr. Stacey Tantleff-Dunn on 121 girls aged 3-6. First, the girls were shown video clips for 14 minutes. Half of the girls watched princess video clips and the other half watched non-princess cartoons, such as Clifford.  Then each girl was given 15 minutes to play in a play room while being observed. It was expected that the girls who watched princess clips would spend more time than the others in appearance-related play like dress-up, but this was disproven. The observers found no statistical difference between the choice of play of the girls who watched princess clips with the girls who did not.

A second part included asking the girls questions. 31 percent of the girls admitted that they always worry about being fat, and a further 18 percent said that they sometimes worry about it. Lastly, when asked to pick the “Real Princess” between pictures of girls of varying weights, 50 percent of girls picked the thinnest one.

Surprisingly, the results of the second part were in no way affected by which of the clips the girls watched. Girls who watched princess clips weren’t more or less likely to pick the thinner girl as the “Real Princess” or say they worry about being fat.

Despite the results, Hayes and Tantleff-Dunn still think the scrawny cartoon women has an effect on the girls, even if it’s more subtle and affects all the girls rather than just those who happened to watch a certain clip on the day of the experiment. And it’s not just thinness, but overall beauty that is affecting these girls. Which characters like Sleeping Beauty and the Ugly Stepsisters, good characters are often shows as being beautiful and thing, while the bad characters are ugly and overweight. Beauty is thus associated with kindness, while ugliness is associated with cruelty.

In Bronson’s words:

So where’s the body-image concern coming from? This experiment wasn’t conclusive on that point, but it had clues. Many of the girls in the study were indeed heavy–as typical of America today, 22 percent were obese and another 12 percent overweight. So for some, their concern could certainly come from conversations with Mom and Dad about not getting fat. The girls said things like, “Being fat is bad,” and “My mommy thinks she’s fat.”

Asked what they would change about their physical appearance, though, skinniness wasn’t the big concern. Instead, these girls wanted to change their hair color, their clothes, and their skin color. According to these young girls in Orlando (40 percent of whom were nonwhite), it helps to be a princess if your hair is blond and skin is white.

As an Indian girl, I definitely see where they’re coming from. Since there were no Indian princesses, I turned to Pocahontas as a role model (wrong type of Indian, I know) because she had the hair and skin color that was closest to my own. Girls younger than 6 haven’t started comparing themselves to what they see in the media yet, so instead they adopt the persona of one. I remember being so infatuated with Pocahontas, I would dress up as her for Halloween. I even wanted to change my name to Pocahontas. They often look for whatever looks most like them and, among the Disney Princesses, this was Pocahontas. Even when I had moved on to my Spice Girls phase, my favorite was Scary Spice just because she looked like me.

In the past, Disney wasn’t as good about keeping their princesses multicultural. Early princesses all had fair skin and blonde hair. It started in the 50s with Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Even The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Beauty and the Beast in 1991 introduced white princesses, although they were no longer blonde. It took until 1992 when Aladdin came out to introduce Jasmine, a nonwhite Disney Princess. Then came Pocahontas (who for the longest time wasn’t considered one of the Disney Princesses because she was Native American) and the most recent addition, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog.

As a conclusion, girls learn about what they are “supposed to” look like at a young age, in terms of race, thinness, and overall beauty. When they’re young, they primarily get these ideas from the cartoons they watch, such as Disney. Some may even get ideas from people around them, such as their parents. Wherever they get it, it’s surprising to see how many girls have their perception so skewed by the media at such a young age.


11 Responses to “Are Disney Princesses a bad influence?”

  1. Najela Says:

    They also have Mulan as a Disney Princess. I think it’s a marketing ploy to be honest. I mean I like disney and all, but they are tapping into markets that they never tried to reach before by making multiracial princesses.

    Children learn from their parents and their parents are the ones that are buying this products and taking there girls to see these movies or letting them be babysat by the television. Parents are talking to their kids like they used to. Or we say one thing, but they see another. Parents tell their girls “You’re beautiful just the way you are.” and all they see are these skinny women that look nothing like that, the message is confusing. In an ideal world, when a parent tell their children that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, the media should back that up.

    I found your blog through the nerdfighters group btw. I find this very interesting.

  2. Hi there, nice site with good info. I really like coming back here often. There’s only one thing that annoys me and that is the misfunctioning of comment posting. I usually get to 500 error page, and have to do the post twice.

    • Turk Says:

      I wish I could fix that, but this site is run by wordpress. I have never had that problem, nor have I ever heard of anybody else having that problem, but I am sorry for the difficulty.

      Nevertheless, thanks for the positive feedback! 😀

  3. Andrea Says:

    So many people are obsessed with blond hair…. I would like to know why. It’s not new at all either. What is the infatuation???

    You are wrong about one thing, in the second last paragraph here, you say all the princess’s started off blonde… The first Disney princess was Snow White who had black hair. The next two princess’s in films released in the 1950’s had blonde hair but no princess has had blonde hair since.

    Why is everyone always picking on the Disney princess’s anyway? There are lots of role models out there for girls, good and bad, but the princess’s always get ragged on and they were created as long as 73 years ago (Snow White) and Disney, filmmaking, depictions of women in film and consideration for the effect of public and fictional figures on young people have come a long way since then.

    I think the red hair on Ariel and the brown hair on Belle were very good indicators of their personalities. Ariel is rebellious, young, naive, wild. Belle is not interested in being a girl-clone, doesn’t care for dressing up, ties her hair back in a simple ponytail and has that one strand of hair that falls in her face which hints as her natural nature further.

  4. Wyatt Q Says:

    I don’t think they’re as shoehorned as it’s made out to be. I was recently approached in regards to why Disney princesses are out to get little girls and my response was ‘Why do little girls have to identify with the characters?’ Little boys, and adult boys, in addition, don’t typically suffer from insecurity resulting from inferiority to our elitist male role models (300, Fight Club, etc.) Even our younger role models, Power Rangers for me personally, didn’t make me feel stereotyped or insecure. It merely involved me in the fantasy. I honestly am starting to believe that many girls and women are beginning to use the media and these films as a vehicle to justify their self rejection, or rejection at the hands of others. You’ll find that someone with low self esteem has it, wether or not they have an ideal person to compare themselves to. I know many boys with the same lack of confidence and success in relationships as girls and women, but they don’t turn to some psychological influence to point the finger. Also, the Disney princesses have been Indian, Greek, Asian, Middle Eastern, White, now black as well, and in every shade of hair color. In fact, I have consistently heard of Jasmine, the dark skinned middle eastern princess, a defiant and independent woman, to be the most coveted and desired comparison.

  5. hi Says:

    This is very interesting and i do think this relates to me. I watched these as a child and I do feel that I have been brainwashed over the years first by disney, then the pop stars as I aged and now competing for mens attention against models in magazines etc. Its just the way it is i guess. This article has been good inspiration on my A level article on how women are portrayed in art throughout history.

  6. […] Study on body type (girls under six years old) […]

  7. Destinie Says:

    Hi there! I’m sure you mean well but some of your information is incorrect and I just have to disagree. First of all, you mentioned that girls 3 to 6 were used as the focus group. They actually did NOT grow up with these movies… the 80s and 90s kids did. I think we turned out fine. 3 to 6 yr olds are actually more exposed to shows such as Hannah Montana who I believe is a terrible role model!
    Another thing you mentioned is that we should be worried that children are saying that its bad to be fat……I really dont want to offend anyone but health-wise she is correct…..being overweight is bad for your health and could cause heart problems in the future…
    One thing that really jumped out at me is that you said that the first disney princess was in the 50’s ….Sleeping Beauty. I am sorry to say that you are very wrong. Snow White ….created in 1935….Black hair…brown eyes….pale….rounder face and more childlike body…..just sayin’
    Btw Disney only has THREE blonde princesses….
    in chonological order…

    Snow White… hair, brown eyes
    Aurora………….light blonde hair, dark eyes
    Cinderella……..Stawberry Blonde hair, Blue eyes
    Ariel……………..Red hair, blue eyes
    Belle……………Brown hair, greenish brown eyes
    Jasmine………Black hair, brown eyes
    Pocahontas…Black hair, brown eyes
    Mulan…………black hair, brown eyes
    Tiana …………black hair, brown eyes
    Rapunzel…….Blonde hair, green eyes

    huh….looks to me like their discriminating against blondes…

    and theres nothing wrong with a little girl wanting to dress up and be girly…

  8. A Concerned Mother Says:

    I actually wrote an article about this exact topic.

    Have you noticed that little girls are now obsessed with finding their ‘Prince Charming’? They don’t even bother trying to take care of themselves. They think ‘My Prince will take care of me, so I have to look beautiful for him!’.


    Another thing, little girls (and even boys) associate ‘ugliness’ with an ugly heart, and they start to make fun of anybody who’s different. Those who are overweight or not pretty to look at are generally hated. An example would be Ursula from the little mermaid or the ugly form of Snow white’s mother. They are degraded and made fun of.

    Personally, the ONLY Disney princesses MY children will know of are ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Mulan’, ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Tatiana’.

    I salute the Disney officials with my middle finger.

    Good day sir.

    • Destinie Says:

      “Tiana”……If that’s one of the only princesses your children will know, at least teach them her real name.

      I really don’t understand why everyone is so concerned with Disney princesses… The movies don’t raise your children, you do…

  9. Anonimus Says:

    Disney Haters?! Or Disney princess haters… Anyway. Was I the only one that saw in those cartoons more than just the beauty of the main female characters? I know that maybe a 6 year old can’t trigger a good heart, or bravery or true feelings, friendship depicted in all of those classic cartoons. That’s what Disney stood for then. All those girls are an example of independent, beautiful and intelligent women. They are positive examples. Of course, in our society if a woman is not good looking she won’t be taken much into account. But THIS is thanks to what media and fashion is promoting. Don’t blame Disney. Blame parents. Blame mass media. Blame fashion magazines.

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