Disney Princesses: A Little Girl’s Icons

You’ve probably seen the above images floating around the internet the last week or so under the title “Disney Princesses with Realistic Waistlines Look Utterly Fabulous.” Basically, it’s a collection of modified images of Disney princesses that takes their tiny little waistlines and expands them out to something a little more reasonable (even though they are still remarkably thin). The author is right. A little Photoshop makes these digital women look a little more like real women. We’ve seen enough of real women being Photoshopped into tiny semblances of themselves that seeing it go the other direction is a bit refreshing.

Some comments that I’ve seen on this in social media want to suggest that criticizing a cartoon is a bit ridiculous. “We all know that these images are fantasy, so why does it matter if their waistlines are 18 digital inches.” I would suggest that it matters because these images form us. More specifically, they form the young women and young men that view them. Let me explain.

In Christian circles there is this thing called an icon. An icon is usually a picture of a saint or a person from Scripture. They are pictured so that Christians will model their lives on the icon. It’s intended to be a goal that we all desire to live up to. https://turtlemom3.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/resurrection-anastasis02.jpg

This rather famous icon of the resurrection of Jesus is a good example. The image is intended to call to mind Jesus’ power over death as he pulls Adam and Eve from their graves. It reminds us that Jesus has conquered evil, as “death” is bound forever below. It images Jesus’ resurrection power so that we might see that it is enough power for all that life may put before us. A Christian icon is intended to inspire the viewer to holiness and faithfulness. This particular icon hangs on my office wall, only about 8 feet from me in my line of sight all day. As I counsel and disciple students, I’m reminded that the power of the resurrection is enough for them and for me.

These Disney princesses, along with Barbie and the Abercrombie models and lots of other commercial successes, are secular icons. We see them. We try to be like them. We want their story, their appearance, their friends, and their hopes. Cartoons and commercials and dolls aren’t just cartoons, dolls, and commercials. They are icons that shape our hopes and dreams.

Like the religious icons, we will never be like them. I cannot love the way Jesus did and the way I’m told he did by the image on my wall. I can’t conquer death. But I want to try.

This is precisely what the marketers want us to do. They want a little girl to see that doll and want to be like her. They want her to buy Elsa barrettes and Elsa tiaras. They want her to dress up like Elsa and wait for the emergence of the sequel.

The marketers have their own version of this for their parents. The images from Abercrombie or Victoria Secret are not about a product. They are about what we cannot be. They are intended to create a lack in us, to show us that we don’t live up to the icon. And then we buy their product in a desperate attempt to look like the poster. We may or may not feel good about this in the moment, but we will surely know soon enough that we don’t look like the model.

Like the religious icon, we cannot live up to the images in the cartoon, commercial, or doll. But trying to live up to these secular icons isn’t making us more holy. It’s killing us. It’s making us starve ourselves. It’s making us puke in bathrooms. It’s making us spend into financial devastation. And the disappointment of failure is making us cut ourselves and kill ourselves

I’m a new parent that is still trying to figure out what to do about all this. I don’t have all the answers. Should we take these images away from the gaze of our children? I suppose this approach is also a fantasy. My little boy talks about Skylanders all the time. But he has never seen the show a single time and only owns one piece of clothing with their image. I don’t think I could keep these images from him if I tried.

And it seems to me that parenting may require that we deal with the realities of our culture even from a young age. Even if I can shelter him for a while, he will eventually see Frozen whether I show it to him or he sees it somewhere else. More importantly, when he gets a little older he will be seeing rap videos and prime time TV and much that I don’t even want to think about while on the internet. So maybe I have an opportunity now to teach him that women don’t have 18 inch waists; that it shouldn’t even be her aim

Whether this means that we need to have elementary lessons in postmodern deconstruction, I don’t know. I tend to think that we can talk about some of this with our kids now and make them aware of the fantasy in these images. We have talks with our 6 year-old about his preposterous idea that “girls don’t drive trucks.” We teach him about a God who is invisible and yet came to earth as Jesus. If we can talk about the Incarnation and Resurrection then surely we can talk about how real women don’t look like Elsa or Snow White. I imagine that those conversations will stutter and stammer just as our talk about God sometimes does. But our hope is that these talks will make slow and steady progress like water over a river stone. This is all that the images from Disney can do. Like the media that continually bombards him, we will need to be consistent.

Maybe we also need to petition Disney and Mattel (Barbie’s creator) about providing more realistic images. While I don’t think this is a bad idea, it is only likely to work when massive amounts of people vote with their dollars. I place far more hope in the ability of parents to tell different stories than getting Disney to do so.

What are you doing with your children to help replace these secular icons with more realistic hopes? Have you noticed the ways that you are being shaped by icons that are aimed at you by marketers? Tell your story in the comments.

The analogy of marketing as a secular icon comes from James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom. I highly recommend the book.

Related Post: Double Standards, Women, and the Church


  1. says

    So I have been fighting with myself for a while as to if I was going to say anything, but I feel like I could say this to you, Jeremiah. I am really bothered by the waistline photoshop article that has been circulating around, and I couldn’t put my finger on why it was. I have always been someone who says, “It’s a cartoon!” While you’re changing the waistline, you might as well shrink their heads and gigantic eyes, take out talking animals, anything that is not realistic, etc. It’s a cartoon! It is not meant to depict an actual woman, or she wouldn’t be shooting ice out of her hands either. I think that the unusual body proportions serve to indicate that these characters exist outside of reality. This whole trend of calling Disney out is odd to me because I never looked at cartoon characters as a depiction of something to strive for, whether that be for their skinny frames or their seeming reliance on a prince (an argument for another time). They were entertaining and had catchy songs. The only thing I lusted after was the library in Beauty and the Beast and the ability to communicate with animals! So it’s bothersome to me that so many girls looked up to them in this way. I get defensive because these movies and characters were a beloved part of my childhood, so I feel the need to stand up for them when they are attacked. Granted, I have always been a “skinny” girl and thus didn’t have those sort of stresses. Maybe that’s why. While I most certainly see the need for more body positivity, I feel like the trends lately have instead been more skinny-shaming. Every person in a magazine is assumed to be photshopped, and Megan Trainor asserts that boys are “all about that bass, no treble.” I know many of these images are correct, and every girl needs a positive anthem to identify with, but if “skinny-shaming” is mentioned it is dismissed as either non-existent or occurring so rarely it isn’t worth a mention. Some of those girls actually ARE that size. Let me just mention the times in high school where I was asked if I had an eating disorder. Seriously! Or the fact that there are plus-size sections in most stores these days, but I have struggled to find clothes that fit. Special ordering a bridesmaids dress (and even my engagement ring!) because they didn’t carry my size in store was not cheap, but I felt like I couldn’t complain because it would be considered out of line. So while it may be good to suggest that Disney include characters of more sizes, altering the existing ones suddenly paints another picture. Healthy doesn’t equal NOT SKINNY; healthy is a different size for everyone. Hope this makes sense in your reading it, would love to hear your feedback!

    • says

      Malorie, even if the characters are meant to be fantasy, imaging them with impossibly tiny waistlines still makes that impossible figure an ideal. I suppose we could all be sad that we don’t have their giant hair and eyes too, but no one is killing themselves to make their eyes larger. If they do then Disney should rethink that too.

      I actually agree that these stories can be a beautiful part of childhood. I have intentionally cultivated my son’s love for Frozen in spite of the music that just keeps coming back. I did so because the female characters are strong and generally competent (except that whole “fall for a guy on a first date and he turns out to be an evil manipulator” thing). We love Lion King (and on and on). Its because these stories are so wonderful that I think we should call upon the creators to think carefully about how these subtle images accumulate for our children. We can tell a beautiful story without making these kinds of sociological errors.

      I would share your concern about skinny-shaming. This often happens when a cultural problem is confronted. The opposite problem is often incurred. I have to believe that we can talk about unnaturally altering persons to look skinny without shamming persons that are skinny. Skinny should never equal bad. In fact, we know from research that people that are slightly underweight live considerably longer than any other body type. That has to be a good sign.

      My point in highlighting the story of Photoshopped Disney images is this: You are a beautiful young woman that self-reports being so thin that she can’t find appropriate clothing. And yet, your body type is more like the Elsa on the right than the Elsa on the left. When writing this article I researched women’s images with the tiniest waistlines and their measurements because I wanted to take a guess at what the waistlines on the princesses was likely to be. Their are women that have corseted themselves every hour for years and have gotten down to about 16-17 inches. Even those women look basically like the Elsa on the left. I have no interest in criticizing even those women (though I know some would). But I am concerned that our “icons” would be such that the ideal being imaged is not natural for any person.

      (BTW: I think the fact that people would be so focused on women’s bodies that they would be wondering about your eating habits is sad and offensive. You are a brilliant and fun young woman. Yet someone couldn’t get over that you are thin? Weird and offensive. I know that you have a healthy enough self image that you likely realized that it was their problem and not yours. Not every young woman would be able to do so.)

      • says

        I definitely agree with the points you bring up here! And of course the image on the right is even considered “skinny,” though more realistic/healthy. I think that we need to include more of these realistic images in our cartoons and other cultural mediums, but the problem I had was the alteration of already existing characters. I think this implies that they are not already fine the way they are, the equivalent of saying, “you need to put some more meat on your bones.” They do this type of Photoshop (increasing waist size) in the Megan Trainor music video as well. Like you said, I think by combating one problem we tend to go too far in the other direction. How about not using Photoshop to alter images at all? Just a thought. I think the right response is inclusion/representation of all body types, not alteration of the ones that already exist.

  2. says

    This is not only true of cartoons and clothing, but what bothers me most is television. Women on television in the United States are unnaturally beautiful and often wear revealing clothing that is anything but professional. I prefer watching British television as their characters usually look like real people.

    Here, female police detectives are gorgeous and wear skin tight, low cut clothing. Really! Why do we not complain about that, women?

    Men in business wear suits that look like robes in their cut and shoes that look like boxes. Women in business who wear the same type of clothing are considered to be inferior at being females. When I was in business, trying to dress to be accepted without being either sexy or considered too uptight for anyone to want to do business with was a huge challenge.

    Yes, the cartoons and the clothing lines need to change. We expect women to be able to do anything today in their careers, but we still have these stupid, unrealistic barriers for females that most people don’t even realize are there.

    The place to start is with television programs. Talk about them, people. Complain about them. There are many social issues that have changed because television changed first to make people appear to be bigots if they disagreed. It’s time people took this cause to the media and stop making females feel like they have to look like models, when in reality, if we look like models in the workplace we aren’t respected. But, if we don’t look like models we are thought to be inferior females.

    You can start with Disney, but all of the media needs to change. Is the American public so shallow that all the people on television (especially the females) have to look like models in order to get us to watch the shows?

  3. says

    An icon is more than what you make it out to be. An icon is a gateway to Heaven. This is why it is to be venerated. It has breathed into with the very breath of Christ himself.

    Disney, Barbie, etc. Not comparable to an icon.

  4. M.A.N. says

    Jeremiah, I think talking with your son and not just hiding these things from him is an excellent place to start. If you keep things like Frozen from him it might actually make him want them even more. If you expose him to them and address the concerns you not only encourage his critical thinking skills, you’re being involved in his life and guiding him as a parent should.

    I fall firmly on the side of using these things as “teachable moments” so kudos to you

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