Why the viral phenomenon of "realistic Disney Princesses" matters
Let’s talk about how Disney Princesses are getting real. Sure, they may still be the same unrealistic cartoons on the big screen—but on the Internet they’re being altered to reflect realistic body proportions, realistic hair and, most recently, realistic beauty.
This movement to reimagine these idealized characters as real people, with real physical attributes and human “imperfections” isn’t just some Internet trend. It’s an important statement that desperately needs to be made.
Body image insecurities are pervasive in our culture, and the mainstream media plays a key role, especially starting when we’re young. There are plenty of studies and statistics that point to the media’s role in shaping our self-image, and the dangers we face when we strive to emulate those unrealistic ideals we see in film and on TV. While some may scoff at the idea that fictional characters could trigger such issues, I’ve broken down, from a psychological standpoint, why childhood characters could leave a lasting impact on the way we see ourselves, and why it’s so important that we continue this dialogue on realism in the fantasy world.
In cognitive development terms, the brain is made up of categories called “schemas.” For example, we don’t see a chair so much as we see an item that our brain can categorize as a chair, thanks to our schema for “chairs.” It’s quick and it’s efficient – and it’s why we get bewildered when we see something that we cannot immediately identify.
The crazy thing is that we are not born with schemas. Schemas are created through observations and experiences. This means that young children have to learn that chairs are chairs – but pencils are not chairs, and saltshakers are not chairs.
Here’s something else about the human brain: at its most basic level, it doesn’t understand pictures. It’s why we’ll cry during a sad scene in a movie or feel deeply for a TV character, even though we understand on an intellectual level that we’re staring at a screen. The brain doesn’t fully understand the concept of images, and it certainly doesn’t understand manipulated images, including Photoshop and animation. (We can intellectualize it, of course, but not so much when we’re kids.)
This means that animation can have just as big of an effect on a child’s schema as what they observe in real life. Which is huge, since we have schemas for everything: not just chairs and pencils and saltshakers, but what our culture values and what our culture deems “beautiful.”
Imagine being a little girl, surrounded by movies, TV shows, dolls, posters, calendars, books, arts & craft supplies, all with princesses who are not only the center of attention, but are considered the most beautiful, most loved, and inevitably the happiest of all. And all of these beautiful princesses have physical attributes that are unrealistic.
This information is taken in alongside other experiences, like Photoshopped women in magazines, a hyper-emphasis on weight loss, and a very overt message that our society prioritizes a woman’s appearance above all other traits. It quickly becomes a breeding ground for body image problems, unhealthy thinking and issues of self-esteem.
It doesn’t matter if we understand on an intellectual level that no one has a body as narrow as Aurora’s, or that Snow White’s makeup never smudges. It doesn’t matter that we know that Ariel is a mermaid and we’ll never look like her, much like we’ll never have a talking fish named Flounder. We look in the mirror and a lifetime’s worth of experiences that created our schema of “ideal beauty” are reflected back.
From the time I was 12 until I was around 20, I decided that I had a stocky, unsightly body, even though I was a completely healthy weight. Why? Because my ribcage width was roughly twice the width of my head.
It sounds completely and totally absurd, but I believe I was comparing myself to unrealistic role models I grew up with— those Disney princesses, all of whom have ribcages that are smaller than their own heads. I also grew up during the era of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, whose professionally-toned bodies were Photoshopped even further to make their frames exceptionally tiny.
I never once looked in the mirror and said, “I don’t look like Snow White! I don’t look like I’ve been Photoshopped! I am a failure!” But I would look in the mirror and feel fat and misshapen — and it is downright luck that I didn’t succumb to the detrimental behaviors that other girls who were my age can fall into.
And this was all before the advent of “thigh gaps” and jutting hip bones, before the coolest store for teens opened up, carrying only small sizes. If the environment that I grew up with gave me such anxiety about how my body looked, then I cannot begin to imagine what it’s like being a teenager now.
Would creating Disney Princesses with more realistic waistlines solve our body image epidemic? Of course not. The problem is so deeply rooted in almost everything we do, see, and consume, that one broad stroke is not going to be a cure-all.
But it’s a start. By showing how unrealistic certain idealized characters are, we can start talking about how their traditional appearances have impacted us, and, hopefully, change the way we see ourselves. Maybe even executives will pay attention, and make changes in the way they portray characters in the future. (Disney has, in recent years, made an effort to diversify their female protagonists, and given them more heroic qualities—so that’s a start.)
So thank you, Disney Princess artists of the Internet, for bringing these issues to light. There’s a reason these “realistic Disney Princesses” continue to go viral—they’re images we all need to see to continue an important dialogue on the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.
(Images via Bored Panda/Loryn Brantz)