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Disney Princesses and Self Esteem

Christine Trulock

Dr. Stahl

SPCM 4900

Damsel in Distress: How the Disney Princess Influences Young Girls’ Self Esteem

For decade after decade, little girls have dreamed about being rescued from their ordinary lives by a handsome and mysterious prince and taken off in to the sunset only to live out the rest of their lives as a beautiful princess – big emphasis on the beautiful part. Growing up, girls are bombarded with images of beautiful heroines and princesses in TV shows, movies, and even toys. Although many times, these heroines do display personality traits that encourage young girls to be strong and independent, many times these are overlooked and emphasis is placed more on the impeccable beauty of these fictional characters. This paper will explore the portrayal of women in the media, more specifically Disney films, and how these portrayals influence young girls’ self esteem and body image.

Princesses are taking over the country. They can be found in every toy store across America, prancing around in pink and purple. To call princesses a “trend” among young girls would be the understatement of the century.

Sales at Disney Consumer Products, which started the craze six years ago by packaging nine of its female characters under one royal rubric, have shot up to $3 billion, globally, this year, from $300 million in 2001. There are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items. ‘Princess,’ as some Disney execs call it, is not only the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created; they say it is on its way to becoming the largest girls’ franchise on the planet (Orenstein, 1). 

Any hope of this trend dying out will falter. Young girls are enamored with these heroines, and Disney laughing all the way to the bank.

Walt Disney and the Disney franchise have trained young girls to believe that in order to be special and loved and feel good about themselves, they must look a certain way. For the most part, the movies teach young children valuable lessons or fables, however usually the heroine, with whom the child is supposed to relate, is illustrated as having an unattainable beauty. Each of their heroines portrayed in the popular movies are illustrated as a tall women, with many curves, a tiny waist, delicate facial features, and luscious locks. Snow White, the princess in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is the only heroine to possess shorter hair and even she “has gotten slimmer and bustier over the years” (Do Rozario, 38).

Although these heroines are aesthetically pleasing, the target audience of young girls can sometimes get the wrong idea. Recently, I was watching a young group of girls play “make believe”. Three of the girls decided to play that they were Disney princesses while the fourth, and slightly chubbier, child reluctantly decided to be the mom. When I approached the fourth little girl and told her that she also could be a Disney princess, she responded, “No I can’t. Princesses don’t look like me.”  This comment broke my heart. This young girl had been bombarded with so many images from the media, and specifically Disney movies, that she believed herself to be inadequate to the other girls, not to mention cartoon characters.

Thin body images are engraved in the minds of girls in our society. When young girls begin to mature and develop, thoughts about their own body image begin to surface, causing young ladies to become insecure and dissatisfied.  The media, including Disney and its heroines, play an enormous role in invoking these feelings of insecurity. “All of the cultural and media messages that present a thin ideal body type evoke a sense of anxiety” (Belangee, 5). Young women today are constantly bombarded by images of the “ideal” body image – Disney heroines, Barbie, and other dolls influence them when they are as younger. As they grow older these images become more mature - models, actresses, and singers, airbrushed to look as though they are a size zero.   

After so many years of being brainwashed into thinking that there is a certain way that women are supposed to look, young girls begin to look for ways to mirror the women in the media. Individuals become confused about what is healthy for their body. This confusion causes people to develop dysfunctional eating habits and change psychologically. The fear of gaining weight is not gender specific; however, eating disorders are more prevalent for females. Females feel the need to be accepted by males and the rest of society. Males are more immune to the pressure of societal acceptance.  It is proven that women in our society overestimate their body size therefore, being thin becomes the goal and thus the eating disorder is developed (Comer, 260). As a result of society and the media, eating disorders are becoming rampant in America.

Although there are no studies that directly relate the viewing of Disney movies and playing princess with low self-esteem, there is evidence that girls “who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs” (Orenstein, 3) – that is, being perpetually poised and beautiful – have a higher risk of becoming depressed later in life (Orenstein, 3).  A recent study conducted by Girls Inc. in 2006, found that girls feel an overwhelming pressure to “please everyone, be thin, and dress right” (Young).  All these girls need are a glass slipper or a poison apple and they will be ready to star in their own Disney movie. The heroines in the Disney movie are constantly on their “A” game. They always look fantastic. Even when Belle from Beauty and the Beast, is a poor French farm girl, she is strikingly beautiful and wears a beautiful blue dress that accentuates her perfect curves.  Esmarelda is the heroine in the classic tale, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and is a homeless street performer. However, her costume is the most beautiful and exotic red dress that clings to every curve of her body. The dress even accentuates Esmarelda’s breasts and her six-pack abs.

Is this the kind of message that we want to send to the young women in America? In order for girls to be special or feel like a “princess” that they must look a certain way, dress a certain way, and act a certain way? These movies, books, toys, and other merchandise are the foundation for many girls’ childhoods, and at such a young age these girls are extremely impressionable. Disney may need to focus more on the fact that these heroines contain traits that can help them to be strong, independent women, and less on the fact that they must be thin, beautiful, and dress a certain way in order to bag the handsome prince.





Works Cited

Belangee, Susan E. "Individual Psychology and Eating Disorders: A Theoretical Application." Journal of Individual Psychology 62 (2004): 3-17. Print.


Comer, Ronald J. Fundamentals of Abnormal Psychology. 2nd ed. New York: Worth/W.H. Freeman and Company. Print.


Do Rozario, Rebecca-Anne. "The Princess and the Magic Kingdom: Beyond Nostalgia, the Function of the Disney Princess." Women's Studies in Communication. 27.1 (2004): 34-59. Print.


Orenstein, Peggy. “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?.” New York Times Magazine 24 Dec 2006: 1-6. Web. 17 Nov 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24princess.t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1>.


Young, Taiia S.  “The Supergirl Dilemma: Girls Feel the Pressure to be Perfect, Accomplished, Thin, and Accommodating”. Girls Inc. Oct. 12, 2006. Web. Nov. 17, 2009.  http://www.girlsinc.org/news/press-releases/p2-1-36.html