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.