It's easy to understand why children love Disney princesses. Princesses are best friends with cute animals. They sing and wear beautiful dresses. There is magic and adventure and talking snowmen.

Many adults are worried about Disney princesses, especially because they tend to be unrealistically thin. The last thing parents want is for their children to feel their bodies are bad because the movies they watch showcase impossibly thin role models.

As a researcher who studies the effects of media use on children's development, I'm interested in what the data have to say. Research suggests that parents' fears may be somewhat overblown. Here are three insights from my research that can help put people's concerns into context.

Disney Princesses Are One of the Few Children's Media Cultures Focused on Women's Stories

My team and I reviewed all animated Disney movies as of 2019. We watched each film, recording every character, and found a 60/40 split in male vs. female characters. This pattern was consistent across decades and matches patterns in other studies of children's media. If you were to turn on a child-appropriate movie, statistics suggest it is more likely to be about a boy than a girl. Disney Princesses might not be perfect, but they are one example of stories about women designed for young children.

Children Know There Is More to Princesses Than What They Look Like

There are many reasons young girls like Disney princesses, beyond their skinny and sparkly veneer. Some researchers asked preadolescent girls why they liked princesses. Their answers included princesses' kindness, willingness to fight for others, independence, motivation to work hard, and courage to stand up to bullies.

Some Princesses Have Positive Effects, Some Have No Effect, but There Isn't Much Evidence of Negative Effects

It may surprise you that careful research on the relationship between body image and Disney Princesses has shown that children who engage with Disney princesses when they are 5 years old have better relationships with their bodies when they are 10 than children who do not engage with that media.

To understand this phenomenon better, my colleagues and I recently tested what happens when children engage in imaginative play where they pretend to be their favorite princess. We asked parents who their child's favorite Disney princess was, how often they played pretend princess, and about their child's body esteem. A year later, we followed up, asking again about how their child felt towards their body.

Some princesses, like Moana or Merida, actually break the "thin = princess" stereotype and have more realistic bodies. Using the data we collected, we tested to see if the relationship between playing pretend princess and body esteem over time was different for children whose favorite princess had a more realistic body vs. a more stereotypically thin body.

We found that children whose favorite princesses have a more realistic body (e.g., Moana or Merida) experience better body esteem a year later the more they play pretend princess. In contrast, for children whose favorite princess has a super thin body (e.g., Aurora, Cinderella), there was no relationship between playing pretend princess and body esteem a year later.

Not only were the ultra-thin princesses not a negative influence on children's body esteem, but princesses with realistic bodies had a positive influence on children's relationship with their bodies. This might be because princesses with more realistic body sizes are more active—moving the emphasis to what their bodies can do rather than what their bodies look like.

Let's Leverage Positive Princess Power

Maybe it wasn't your dream for your daughter to obsess over Cinderella. Maybe you're worried about your child's relationship with their body after watching The Little Mermaid. But the fact is, you can leverage Disney princesses to help young children see that women matter and have a better relationship with their own bodies.

This can be as simple as talking to your child. Ask, "Why is this your favorite princess?" You may be surprised at what they love about this character.  Maybe their answer will be appearance-based. If that is the case, talk to them about other good qualities. Yes, Belle is pretty, but she also loves to read and fights for the people she loves. Elsa's dress is amazing, but she also has family and friends who love her and want her to be herself.

By engaging in thoughtful conversations with your child and highlighting the positive qualities these characters embody, parents can empower their children to build healthy relationships with their bodies.

For Further Reading

Shawcroft, J., Gale, M., Coyne, S. M., Rogers, A. A., Austin, S., Holmgren, H. G., Zurcher, J. D., & Brubaker, P. (2023). Ariel, Aurora, or Anna? Disney princess body size as a predictor of body esteem and gendered play in early childhood. Psychology of Popular Media.

Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Booth, M., Keenan-Kroff, S., Shawcroft, J. E., & Yang, C. (2021). Princess power: Longitudinal associations between engagement with princess culture in preschool and gender stereotypical behavior, body esteem, and hegemonic masculinity in early adolescence. Child Development, 92(6), 2413-2430.

Shawcroft, J. E., Coyne, S. M., Zurcher, J. D., & Brubaker, P. J. (2022). Depictions of gender across eight decades of Disney animated film: The role of film producer, director, and writer gender. Sex Roles, 86, 346–365.

Jane Shawcroft is a Ph.D. student at UC Davis in the Department of Communication. Her research focuses on understanding how media and technology affect the social, physical, mental, and emotional health of children and adolescents. In particular, she is interested in finding ways that society, educators, parents, and other invested individuals can leverage media and technology to support positive outcomes for children, adolescents, and families.