Disney's Body Image Problem

How Disney princesses negatively affect childhood body confidence


For many of us, Disney's animations were some of the first stories and characters we would be inspired by and idolise. But like every type of media, whether it intends to or not, it promotes a message to the audience. So what is Disney telling our young selves about body image?


What Body Standards Has Disney Promoted?


Recent research into how bodies are represented in Disney animated films has concluded...

"We observed that body thinness was associated with attractiveness"

These findings made me realise, what do all Disney Princesses have in common? From Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, and Tiana to Aurora among the rest, they all share extremely thin waists. We see this thinness closely associated with attractiveness and desirability as each end their fairy tales with the man they desired or were sought after by a particular Prince Charming.


The case can be argued that these characters are stylised and exaggerated drawings, but the influence these media representations can have on children and teens cannot be overstated. Research has found that the effect of thin media representation resulted in stronger body dissatisfaction in those 19 and younger.

"Body image was significantly more negative after viewing thin media images than viewing images of either average size models, plus size models, or inanimate objects."

I shared this with a close female friend, who found it both relatable and relieving that she wasn't the only one who felt this way in her youth. She recalled Belle from Beauty and the Beast being her favourite and that her mum brought the character's yellow dress from the Disney Store, which she put to good use running up and down the house in. But when it came to photos wearing it, she would pose, pushing her arms into the sides of her waist to make her body appear slimmer.


It is clear physical body representation is impactful and important.


How Artists Are Reimagining Disney Princesses


It seems that not only researchers and my friend have noticed the exaggerated and often, for many, unrealistic body proportions that Disney Princesses are drawn with. Instagram artists have reinterpreted your favourites, providing us with a solution to the question: what would Disney characters look like if they were everyday people?


The results are both hilarious and relatable. Whether it's Belle's make-up melting off in the rain, Jasmine ungracefully struggling to climb onto the magic carpet or turning Pocahontas' graceful singing in the wind into a realistic and messy face full of air. They are a far cry from the idealised imagery of the originals, but is that a bad thing?


Another Instagram artist has taken a more body-positive approach, reimagining the princesses as plus-sized in her series of images called "Chubby Disney Ladies".

"It's important for everyone, not just children, to see positive depictions of people like themselves. Variety is beautiful, and essential, and I will continue to promote that message as long as I can."

These reimaginings strive to do what Disney has not and portray a variety, the real and the relatable.


So Has Disney Been Listening?


If we look at a recent Disney Animated film, Encanto from 2021, we are actually presented with a variety of all shapes and sizes for both male and female characters. You have Luisa, the muscular and tall sister, while also having Isabela, perhaps the more traditional wearing a dress but by no means as thin as previous female characters were. Even the film's lead, Mirabel, is given body and face proportions differing from the Disney characters before.


For the first time too, audiences are given a Disney Princess that wears glasses. This was a topic of much importance for a then 9-year-old girl, Lowri, who campaigned to Disney's heads by writing, "please may you make a Disney Princess with wears glasses?". Like a fairy tale, her wish was finally granted 3 years later with the spectacle-wearing Mirabel and she received acknowledgement by the writers who invited her to the BAFTAs.


It seems Disney is finally deviating from their traditional body types by making each character unique, with different shapes, faces and features. Only time will tell if they continue to strive and represent many that felt abandoned by their previous animations.