Self-esteem, body size and Disney princesses

5 minute read

Having a less waify, more active favourite princess goes together with healthier body esteem among little kids, it seems.

You may perhaps have gleaned from my back catalogue of Back Page musings that I am not a princess kind of gal. At least, I never aspired to be a princess.

I avoided Barbie like the plague, initially because my 60s era feminist mother found Barbie’s body shape to be, in her words, “misogynistic, if not masochistic, in the extreme”. Flaaaaat feeeeet.

Later because if the good lord had wanted me to be a Barbie Girl she wouldn’t have made me love Mint Slices and bacon sangers so much.

Disney princesses were not my go either. Snow White – too passive – lies around waiting for her hero. Cinderella – too shallow – has to get a makeover from an external supernatural being to become “attractive”. Belle – saviour complex – rescues the ugly guy and gets rewarded by him turning into a hunk.


(By the way, did you know there are 13 “official” Disney princesses, and three “former” DPs?? My immediate question is what the hell did Tinker Bell (Peter Pan), Esmeralda (Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Jane Porter (Tarzan) do to get kicked off the sanctioned list. Knowing Tink, they probably ran a floating craps game and got caught dealing fairy dust.)

But I digress.

You’ll note that none of my criticisms of Disney princesses are about their body size. My problem with the girls has always been about their actions, or more precisely their lack of actions. Early on the DPs were forever needing to be rescued. Tiresome.

Lately of course Disney has started to get the message. Moana, Mulan, Merida, Raya – all kick-ass action girls. Moana and Merida even managed it without a bloke. Good for them.

So my eye was caught by some new research out of the University of California-Davis: Ariel, Aurora, or Anna? Disney princess body size as a predictor of body esteem and gendered play in early childhood.

Jane Shawcroft, a doctoral student researcher, and co-authors at Brigham Young University categorised Disney princesses into three body categories. The categories researchers identified were thin, average and above average/heavy. For example, Moana was coded as having an average body size. Princess Jasmine, from the 1992 film Aladdin was coded as being thin.

By far the most popular princess among both boys and girls in this study was Elsa from the 2013 film Frozen and its sequels. The next most popular princesses were Moana followed by Anna, also from Frozen. Elsa and Anna are not “official” DPs, by the way. They’re listed by Disney as “honorary official princesses”. Go figure.

The study focused primarily on how the body type of a favourite DP affected children’s body esteem, and their masculine or feminine play. These two criteria — body esteem and gendered play — were parents’ most-cited concerns about Disney princesses, said Ms Shawcroft.

The team estimated body esteem by collecting responses from caregivers about how much their children liked, or felt good about, their bodies. A different assessment quantified children’s masculine or feminine play based on their choice of toys. Play guns, for example, were considered stereotypically masculine. Pretty things and dolls were considered stereotypically feminine. 

The study included 340 children and their caregivers living in the Denver area in 2020 and 2021. A little more than half the children in the study were girls and about 84% were white. The team surveyed caregivers first when the children were three years old and again a year later to measure any changes in body esteem and gendered play.

Whether a princess was average or thin made a big difference in how the children who loved them felt about their own bodies and the way they chose to play. Children whose favourite princesses had an average body — such as Moana — had higher body esteem a year later. These children were also more open to exploring play that was both stereotypically masculine and feminine, and this was true for both boys and girls, researchers said.  

These effects were driven by how frequently the children pretended to be princesses when they played. The more a child pretended to be a princess — if their favourite princess had an average and not a thin body — the better they felt better about their own bodies and the more open they were to different types of gendered play, researchers found. 

Ms Shawcroft said part of what might explain these results is that Disney princesses with average bodies were more physically active in their stories.

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


An important finding, said Ms Shawcroft, was that having a favourite princess who was thin did not change children’s body image or gendered play.

Instead, the researchers described the benefits from having a favourite princess who has an average body as a protective effect for the young children who loved them.

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

She said that researchers learned that DPs matter much more than most people believe, particularly for children — both boys and girls.

“With children’s media, people tend to be critical or dismissive of what kids, especially girls, like,” said Ms Shawcroft. “Disney princesses really matter to young children, and we should also recognise that media centred on women and that tell women’s stories are important.”

No argument from me on that score. Here’s the thing, though. Not one DP in the study was classified as “above average/heavy”.

Come back to me when Disney produces a few chonkier princesses, Ms Shawcroft. Don’t hold your breath, though.

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