The classic Walt Disney animated films have long been criticized for the problematic messages they transmit to impressionable girls. These include the idea that you need a man to be happy, that you should wait around until you meet the man of your dreams, and that, once you marry the prince, you will live happily ever after.
While the studio has worked to modify such myths in recent releases, new research suggests the princesses at the center of these films are also problematic in a different way. They offer their young female viewers an unobtainable notion of feminine physical perfection.
"Disney princesses have extremely small waist-to-hip ratios that are nearly impossible to achieve naturally," write anthropologist Toe Aung of Pennsylvania State University and independent researcher Leah Williams. They argue that such characters "might heighten or reinforce our preference for lower waist-to-hip ratios, and the perception that physically attractive individuals with lower waist-to-hip ratios possess morally favorable qualities."
Way to build girls' self-esteem, Walt!
It has been clear for a while now that Disney animated films perpetuate the beautiful-is-good stereotype. A 2010 study examining 21 such features found physically attractive characters "displayed higher intelligence, lower aggressiveness, and greater moral virtues," and "were more likely to achieve positive life outcomes at the film's end."
Given that beauty is a somewhat subjective trait, Aung and Williams decided to focus on a measurable quality: the female characters' waist-to-hip ratio. Using screenshots, they measured "minimum waist and maximum hip widths" for the 11 official Disney princesses, including Cinderella, Snow White, Pocahontas, and Mulan; Anna and Elsa, the main characters of the phenomenally popular Frozen; and seven Disney villains, including Maleficent from The Sleeping Beauty and Ursula from The Little Mermaid.
They found the median waist-to-hip ratio of the characters was a ridiculously low 0.535, meaning their waist measurement is 53 percent of their hip measurement. That is far below the 0.7 that is generally seen as ideal.
Most strikingly, it's even lower than that of the traditional Barbie doll, which is 0.56. Such hourglass figures are "nearly impossible to achieve naturally," the researchers note.
The researchers further found that the Disney princesses' waist-to-hip ratios "were much lower and less varied than those of female villains." The less-savory characters didn't have a single body type; the princesses did.
If girls are subliminally absorbing the message that tiny waists are ideal and/or symbolic of virtue, it's a problem, and not just from a health perspective. When it comes to attracting men, these messages may be counterproductive: A 2013 study of male preferences found "low-to-average waist-to-hip rations—0.65 to 0.75—were usually regarded as the most attractive."
"Very low waist-to-hip ratios make a woman's appearance atypical, and this may decrease her attractiveness," the researchers write. Indeed, a low ratio may very well signal not desirability, but rather poor health, in that such a waist "limits the space for abdomen organs and muscles, thus impairing their function."
So if you're holding on to an inaccurate ingrained image of what a woman's figure should look like, ignore the Frozen sisters' waistlines and listen to their lyrics. It's time to let it go.