Monday, May 21, 2012

The Effects of Disney Princesses and Barbie on Young Girls

[Caution: This paper was written by me nearly three years ago, just so readers know the time frame this was in. Also, if you wish to read more about topics like this, please feel free to click the "Kerry-ing for a Cause" tab above. Thank you.] 

     Whether or not parents realize their children are influenced by the images, they are. According to Helga Dittmar, Emma Halliwell and Suzanne Ive, authors of the article “Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- to-8-Year-Old Girls’”, girls, as young as six years old, are affected by the images of Barbie to be thin. Dittmar et al continues to state that about eighty percent of younger girls have a fear of becoming obese. Along with Barbie, Disney’s Princesses also “encourage very young girls to emulate their heroines,” according to Kira Coshrane, author of “The Dangerous World of the Princess” (22). These images can have negative effects on young girls. Creators for Disney and Barbie dolls should make changes in how they present princesses and Barbie. The creators should create new images. The media plays an important role in how these girls think. Barbie and Princesses are main contributors. If the creators of Barbie and the Princesses would create new dolls and new princesses, ones with a healthier body image and who are more independent and act more intelligent, then girls would have a better figure to admire.
Life size Barbie compared to a healthy "skinny" woman
     Young children are very impressionable. Young girls notice Barbie’s and the princesses’ physique, and in return, they believe that is how they should look. Girls tend to idolize Barbie and the princesses. They wish they had their hair, their skin, their clothes, their car, their boyfriends and mostly their body. Barbie and her perfect, plastic, manufactured body and the princesses and their highly unrealistic proportions and not-drawn-to-scale bodies have been a classic image for beauty. Girls tend to think that Barbie and these princesses are what the norm is and are how they are expected to look when they are older.  Since they are exposed to her so young, and young girls are not usually exposed to types of images other than these, they do not realize that Barbie and the princesses are not “the norm.”  Unfortunately, Barbie’s physical perfection is impossible according to Dittmar.  In a study referenced by Dittmar, real women have less than 1 in 100,000 chance of looking like Barbie and having her body proportions: “Were Barbie a flesh-and-blood woman, her waist would be 39% smaller than that of anorexic patients, and her body weight would be so low that she would not be able to menstruate (Rintala & Mustajoki, 1992)” (Dittmar). Barbie would have to starve herself, and become severely malnutritioned in order to look like herself. Young children cannot realize this fact, and most adults do not tell them these facts. They continue to idolize these images.
      Like Barbie, the princesses have highly unlikely proportions, and perfect body, hair, and complexion. However, unlike Barbie, they also can stereotype women as unintelligent, and dependent upon men to save them. Kira Cochrane states, “Based around Disney princesses such as Snow White, Cinderella and [Aurora] from Sleeping Beauty, it encourages very young girls to emulate their heroines. Be pretty, be helpful…” (22). While being helpful is definitely a good characteristic to have, princess stories do not teach young girls to be independent, to help save themselves as opposed to waiting for their prince to come along. Cochrane continues to say how she thinks that there should be something “that encouraged girls to be dangerous, too. Because if any group needed to be encouraged to take risks, it’s young women” (23).  Unfortunately, there are girls out there that will continue to believe in princesses and princes. They do not learn how to take risks, but to sit around waiting for their prince to help them. Then, these girls become adults, who feel as though they are actual princesses and wait for their princes to come save them from this horrible world, Alexandra, a friend of mine, being an example. Alexandra is twenty years old, and signs her name “Princess Alex”. She never learned that she was not a princess, and that there are no real princes either. She continuously compares her boyfriends to the princes in the story books and movies, always thinking the one she dates will be the one who saves her, rescues her from this “horrible world.” She used to say this world is horrible, and in fact, still does, because of the people who told her that she was not a princess and that she should stop waiting for her prince. Whoever she was dating at the time was her prince in shining armor, until they broke up with her, broke her heart, then they became a frog in her mind. She would say that she was “the real Cinderella and that one day [her] prince would come.” She never learned to become independent, to deal with this “horrible world” by herself, on her own. Women, like Alexandra, do not realize the impact these images from their childhood had on their ability to be independent, as well as intelligent, young women.
     These images not only hinder girls’ abilities to become bright, self-sustaining women, but they also make the women fear becoming overweight. Some girls grow up still with the impression bedded in their minds that Barbie as well as the princesses encompass everything. They continue to idolize their bodies. In return, they become obsessed with body image, and develop a fear of becoming fat. They also fear that their children would become obese. My own mother, once a thin beauty herself, tried to sign me up for Weight Watchers when I was only eleven years old. The doctor had told her I was twelve pounds over the average weight for someone my height. My friend’s father told her she should go on a diet because she weighted more than her sisters. She was also nine inches taller than her sisters. In a study referred to by Dittmar, there are parents who think their five-year-olds are too fat, even some parents think their babies are too fat. They put them on diets and force them to work out, to insure their children do not become obese.  With children growing up with these images, as well as their parents putting such an emphasis on being thin, the cycle only continues. These children will then grow up to become obsessed with weight like their parents did.
     While parents have a strong effect on their children, there is another effect. Children are strongly affected by children around them, their peers. These children‘s peers also have negative body images, and their peers project their ideas of a healthy body image. According to Dittmar, the teasing of peers strongly affects children.
 “These findings emphasize not only the importance of social pressures of thinness but also attitudes toward weight. Indeed, 6-to 13-year-olds showed evidence of body dissatisfaction, with all age groups wanting to be thinner (Gardner, Friedman, & Jackson, 1999). Children from age 4 to age 6 were shown to favor a thin body (Musher-Eizenman, Holub, Edwards-Leeper, Persson, & Goldstein, 2003), and Cramer and Steinwert (1998) reported that 4-to 5-year-olds showed an aversion to “chubby” figures, whereas 3-year-olds did not” (Dittmar).
This is a result from other parents influencing their children to be thin, and the images of Barbie and the princesses that impact the children’s impressions of body image and behavior. These children, who are around the age of five, start to take in more of the world around them, which is why they are so impressionable. So, if what they have been told by their parents and the main images of their childhood, Barbie and the princesses, tells them to be thin, and other kids around them are not, there will be some teasing involved. They tease children who may be slightly overweight because for these children, that is not normal or acceptable. This teasing only hurts the overweight children’s self-esteem, and body image, which repeats the cycle of being obsessed with body image for young children.
      Some would argue that Barbie and the princesses empower girls to believe they can do what they want, that they are worthy of what Barbie and the princesses have as well. These images show girls that they can have the boyfriend/prince, the car/carriage, the dream house/castle, etc. The fact that Barbie can do so much, for instance, be a dentist, a nurse, a mom, a fashion designer, makes young girls realize they too can be any one of these occupations. However, there is a underlining assumption that in order to get all the things that Barbie and the princesses have, you must look and act like them. While Barbie may encourage girls to fulfill their desire of becoming what they wish to be as adults, Barbie, along with the princesses, put a lasting impression on girls that they must look and act a certain way to get these things. This only hinders the girls’ creativity, self-esteem, intelligence and independence. Girls think they must look and act like the princesses in order to get the prince to fall for them, and for him to save them; yet, it never occurs to them that they can save themselves. This fact helps to lower the girls’ ability to remain independent and intelligent. These images overall are poor images for girls to look up too.
Disney Token "Feminists"
     Others would say that not all princesses act dumb and are completely dependent on others. This is true. Ariel, or the Little Mermaid, is more independent than other princesses. In fact, her independence and desire to break free of her surroundings is the reason why she even meets her prince. However, Ariel’s figure is still unrealistic, which still sets a poor body image in young girls’ minds. Also, Ariel tends to think illogically. She was so obsessed with the prince and in love with him, that she started acting less intelligent. She would idolize the statue of Eric, and act like a typical girl, giggle continuously at what she imaged he would say to her, all the while never showing her truth strength and intelligence. She signed the contract with Ursula that almost lost her freedom, which shows she was not using her intelligence at the moment. Then, she needed her father and Eric to come rescue her from Ursula, a evil sea witch who wanted to harm Ariel, which does not show as much independence. Another princesses that shows a change in character is Belle, or the Beauty in Beauty and the Beast. Belle is intelligent, reads continuously, and does not need to be saved by any prince or her father. Also, the message from that movie is that true beauty cannot be seen.  This is a better image for young girls. However, most princesses do not act like Belle; and, there still is no princess that is not extremely thin, and that appears to have a flaw with her physically.
     There is no Barbie or princess that is not unrealistically thin. Likewise, there is not enough images from Barbie and the princesses to show girls how to be independent and intelligent. This negatively affects young girls. It teaches them that being unrealistically thin is normal and that independence and intelligence is not highly valued. The creators for Barbie and Disney’s princesses should work to create new images that are not as thin, and show more independence and intelligence. Then, girls would have better role models to look up to and the numbers of girls with body image issues and self-esteem issues would be lower. 

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