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.
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.
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