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07th Feb 2024

Disney Princesses can help a child’s self image, science says

Jody Coffey

disney princess

The impact that film characters have on their children’s outlook of the world and themselves is a concern for many parents.

Whether it’s Moana, Aurora, Merida, or Cinderella, Disney princesses may play a role in how your child sees themselves.

However, there may not be cause for concern.

Recent research from the Brigham Young University found that having favourite princesses did help — not harm—young children’s confidence in their bodies.

The study, which included 340 children and their caregivers, focused mainly on how the body type of a favourite Disney princess could influence a child’s body esteem and how confident they feel about their bodies.

It also studied their masculine or feminine play.

The responses were collected from caregivers about how much their kids liked or felt good about their bodies.

Credit: IMDb

“People are critical of Disney princesses. They say that you shouldn’t let kids watch them because it’s bad for their body image,” Jane Shawcroft, a doctoral student researcher in the Department of Communication and lead author of the paper, explains.

“However, because there is so little female-centred children’s media, we thought that Disney princesses could be good for kids.”

Disney princesses were broken down into three body categories: thin, average and above average/heavy.

For example, Moana from the 2016 movie was regarded as having an average body size, while Princess Jasmine, from the film Aladdin, was labelled as being thin. 

Across the categories of body size, there were 323 characters (not just princesses) from 61 Disney films.

The caregivers were first surveyed when their children were three years old and again a year later to determine if there were any changes in body esteem and gendered play.

Shawcroft says that these two markers—body esteem and gendered play—were among the highest concerns for parents where Disney princesses were concerned.

The body size of a princess made a significant impact on how children felt about their own bodies and the way the chose to play.

‘Average’ sized princesses had a positive impact on children’s self-esteem

For example, children who adored Moana, who was deemed to have an average-sized body, were more open to exploration during play and had higher self and body esteem the following year —this was true for both genders.

Shawcroft says this may be down to how active the princesses are in their storylines.

“They’re running and climbing enormous mountains and fighting things,” said Shawcroft. “For these princesses, their stories are more about what they can do with their bodies than how their bodies look,” she explains.

“Princesses with average body size creates a protective effect, strengthening how confident children feel about their own bodies and freeing them to play in different ways.” 

Credit: IMDb

Meanwhile, princesses who were categorised as ‘thin’ did not harm children’s self-esteem, worsen outcomes of body image or gendered play as children who had a thinner favourite princess showed no change in either area. 

For both boys and girls, Elsa from Frozen was the most popular princess, followed by her on-screen sister, Ana.

With these findings in mind, Shawcroft says that Disney princesses are more influential than people think.

“With children’s media, people tend to be critical or dismissive of what kids, especially girls, like.

“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.”