In a world inundated with media messages and societal expectations, children are constantly exposed to images and portrayals that shape their perceptions of themselves and others. For young girls, the iconic Disney princesses have long been a source of fascination and admiration, thanks to their stories filled with tales of adventure, romance, and self-discovery. However, concerns have been raised about the potential negative impact of these idealized female characters on children’s body image and gender roles.
But do Disney Princesses really affect a child’s self-image negatively? A new study from the University of California, Davis, challenges these concerns.
What is the research about?
The paper Ariel, Aurora, or Anna? Disney Princess Body Size as a Predictor of Body Esteem and Gendered Play in Early Childhood, which was published online by the American Psychological Association Journal Psychology of Popular Media in August 2023, sheds light on how the enchanting narratives and strong character traits of Disney Princesses contribute to a child’s positive self-perception.
“People are critical of Disney Princesses,” said Jane Shawcroft, a doctoral student researcher in the Department of Communication and lead author of the study. But findings of the research suggest parents, caregivers and mentors might want to give the Disney princesses another look.
How was the research conducted?
For the study, the researchers categorized Disney Princesses into three body categories. The categories researchers identified were thin, average and above average/heavy. For example, Moana from the 2016 film by the same name, was labeled as having an average body size, while Princess Jasmine, from the 1992 film Aladdin was identified as thin.
Shawcroft and her fellow researchers estimated children’s body esteem by collecting responses from their caregivers about how much they liked, or felt good about, their bodies. They also quantified children’s masculine or feminine play based on their choice of toys. For instance, toy guns are considered stereotypically masculine, while dolls are considered stereotypically feminine.
The respondents of the study were 340 children and their caregivers living in the Denver area at the time of the study, which took place from 2020 to 2021. The team surveyed caregivers first when the children were 3 years old — and again a year later — to measure any changes in body esteem and gendered play.
What did the research find?
The findings revealed that children who had a favorite Disney Princess with an average body size tended to have higher body esteem and were more likely to engage in both stereotypically masculine and feminine play. This suggests that princesses with average bodies, who are often portrayed as being physically active and independent, may provide more positive role models for children than those with excessively thin physiques.
Interestingly, the study found no negative impact on children’s body image or play choices even when their favorite princess was thin. This suggests that the positive aspects of Disney Princesses’ stories, such as their courage, kindness, and resilience, may outweigh any potential negative effects of their body types.
“They’re running and climbing enormous mountains and fighting things,” said Shawcroft said of Disney Princesses. “For these princesses, their stories are more about what they can do with their bodies than how their bodies look.”
Shawcroft emphasized the importance of exposing children to a variety of body types in media and encouraging them to engage in a range of play activities. Children are constantly exposed to media messages about body image, and so it’s important to show children that there is no one right way to look or to play.
The study’s findings have significant implications for parents, caregivers, and educators, suggesting that Disney princesses can be a valuable tool for promoting positive self-image and gender-neutral play among children. By encouraging children to identify with princesses who embody diverse body types and engage in a variety of activities, we can help them develop a more realistic and healthy understanding of themselves and the world around them.
“With children’s media, people tend to be critical or dismissive of what kids, especially girls, like,” said Shawcroft. “Disney princesses really matter to young children, and we should also recognize that media centered on women and that tell women’s stories are important.”