Let Me Use Cognitive Development To Explain Why Disney Princess Waistlines Are An Actual Problem

Just before Halloween, Loryn Brantz decided to digitally alter Disney princesses so that they had realistic waistlines. Their ultra-tiny waists were replaced with waistlines that could actually be a physiological possibility. While it was a breath of fresh air for some, others saw it as blatant pandering. Some dismissed the whole project, not getting the “big deal” of Disney princesses looking the way they do. Many scoffed at the idea that these cartoon characters could in any way affect body image issues in women.

So let me quickly break down why creating children’s movie princesses with extremely tiny waists is a bad idea all around, using my trusty friend: cognitive development.

To put into offensively simple terms, the brain is made up of categories called “schemas”. For example, we don’t see a chair so much as we see an item that our brain can categorize as a chair, thanks to our schema for chairs. It’s quick and it’s efficient – and it’s why we get bewildered when we see something that we cannot immediately identify. This is also why we see shapes in clouds and faces in inanimate objects (and Jesus in our toast, but that’s for another time).

The crazy thing is that we are not born with schemas. Schemas are created through observations and experiences. This means that young children have to learn that chairs are chairs – but pencils are not chairs, and saltshakers are not chairs. This is why a toddler might label every single four-legged animal “doggie” or every male figure “daddy” until he or she has had more experience with the rest of the world.

Here’s something else you should understand about the human brain: at its most basic level, it doesn’t understand pictures. It’s why we’ll cry during a sad scene in a movie or feel deeply for a TV character, even though we understand on an intellectual level that we’re staring at a screen. The brain doesn’t understand images, and it certainly doesn’t understand manipulated images, including Photoshop and animation.

This means that animation can have just as big of an effect on a child’s schema as what they observe in real life. Which is huge, since we have schemas for everything: not just chairs and pencils and saltshakers, but what our culture values and what our culture deems “beautiful”.

Imagine being a little girl, surrounded by movies, TV shows, dolls, posters, calendars, books, arts & craft supplies, all with princesses who are not only the center of attention, but are considered the most beautiful, get to find true love, and inevitably live happily ever after. And all of these beautiful princesses have waistlines that are the same circumference as their necks – something that is downright impossible to achieve, even with a corset on.

The frightening part is this is all internalized. It’s taken in alongside other experiences, like Photoshopped women in magazines, extremely skinny celebrities, and a very overt understanding that our society prioritizes a woman’s appearance above all other traits. It quickly becomes a breeding ground for body image problems and unhealthy thinking.

It doesn’t matter if we understand on an intellectual level that no one has a body as narrow as Aurora’s. We look in the mirror and a lifetime’s worth of experiences that created our schema of “ideal beauty” are reflected back.

Is it any wonder that eating disorders are on the rise and affecting children in elementary schools? A lot of these kids are from good homes, with conscientious parents (not “parents who let the TV raise the children,” as many would like to accuse), but still a victim of their pervasive environment.

I’m usually wary of individual anecdotes when discussing a social problem. Far too often, people like using their own personal experiences to prove or disprove larger issues. I saw it in the responses to the princesses’ realistic waistlines: many people rolled their eyes and essentially said, “I watched Disney movies as a kid and I never had an eating disorder, so therefore there isn’t a problem.” But, for the sake of storytelling, let me throw in my own story:

I’m naturally skinny. I’ve been downright scrawny on occasion. However, from the time I was 12 until I was around 20, I decided that I had a stocky, unsightly body. Why? Because my ribcage width was roughly twice the width of my head.

It sounds completely and totally absurd, but remember what I grew up with. I grew up with those Disney princesses, all of whom have ribcages that are smaller than their own heads. I grew up with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, whose professionally-toned bodies were Photoshopped even further to make their frames exceptionally tiny. I grew up around the time when “heroin chic” lost its qualifier and just became “chic”.

I never once looked in the mirror and said, “I don’t look like Ariel! I don’t look like I’ve been Photoshopped! I’m a failure!” But I did look in the mirror and felt fat and misshapen — and it is downright luck that I didn’t succumb to the addictive and detrimental behaviors that other girls my age fell into.

And this was all before the advent of “thigh gaps” and jutting hip bones, before the coolest store for teens opened up, carrying only small sizes, before the Victoria Secret models became just as skinny and narrow as their high fashion counterparts. If the environment that I grew up with gave me such anxiety about how my body looked, then I cannot begin to imagine what it’s like being a teenager right now.

Would creating Disney princesses with more realistic waistlines solve our body image epidemic? Of course not. The problem is so deeply rooted in almost everything we do, see, and consume that one broad stroke is not going to be a cure-all.

But it’s a start.

If anything, addressing the toxicity of hyper-skinny Disney princesses is a good jumping-off point. It’s far too easy to say, “it’s just a cartoon!” or to lay the blame squarely on the parents for letting them watch it in the first place. But maybe, once we understand how these messages affect us – and that they affect us in ways we might not have considered before – maybe then we can address how big of a problem this is, and how it is so much more than the way artists sketch out princesses. TC mark

Like this post? For more lessons learned about the modeling world, check out Abby’s Thought Catalog Book here.

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