Is Disney making our daughters fatphobic?

How many main characters in Disney films can you think of who are fat*? What role do they play? And what body type does the princess/ the heroine/ the beauty have?

Many of the villains are fat: Ursula (in the Little Mermaid), Madam Mim (the Sword in the Stone), Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland). You might say “yes but there are plenty of skinny villains” but I challenge you to think of a main character, one of the “goodies” who isn’t ridiculously thin, hourglass shaped and doe-eyed. Tricky, huh?

What message does this give our children when they watch these films (usually over and over and over again!)? Those in bigger bodies are often evil, greedy, selfish and mean. Occasionally they are helpful and kind. But if you want to be the hero, the princess, the one who the best looking boy/man/prince/beast wants to marry, then you better be flawless, skinny but with an hourglass shape, and not too assertive or have any boundaries (being kissed by a stranger when you are asleep, anyone?)

It’s not just Disney, it’s everywhere. My daughter used to watch these cartoons about some gang of fairies flying all over the place, fighting off evil. Brilliant. Strong, empowering and a little bit badass. But I often talked to her about how ridiculous and unrealistic their body shapes were. If they were real, they’d be about 8 feet tall with a 25cm waist. It feels like it has become more radical too, with cartoons depicting such extreme shapes and features, including lips that appear to have been filled (Bratz, for example). This is no judgement on anyone who chooses to change how their face and body look, but is it what we want our young girls to be aspiring to?

Some people I talk to about this say things like “just don’t let her watch those programmes then”, but I don’t feel there is any point shielding her from the unrealistic images she will see in different forms throughout her life. As she gets older it will be from magazines, social media and basically all TV: reality shows and fiction. I feel it will serve her far better to discuss this, open her eyes to how unrealistic it is and build her resilience instead. I am all about taking the blinkers off from her, and from the women and girls I coach, so they can see these toxic images from diet and beauty culture for what they are. So they can learn about the diversity of beauty and of the human race, before they have to unlearn it.

She is (like all of our children) growing up in a biased world which discriminates on so many levels. I (like her, as far as I know at this stage of her young life) am privileged, in that we are white, cis, heterosexual and middle class. We have been born into a wealthy country and live in a relatively affluent area. I am what’s known as “small fat”, so although my body is a size that makes some things hard to buy, and I am probably technically obese (if I weighted myself and believed in the BMI, but that’s a discussion for another day) I know about discrimination based on weight and size. Although fat liberation has been a thing for decades, and the now very popular term “body positivity” came from that movement, it seems like fatphobia is the last of the “acceptable” types of discrimination. It can be disguised as being concerned for someone’s health. But in all honesty, of the people who discriminate against people living in bigger bodies, are they all really concerned about the health of the individual? What impact does another person’s health status have on them? I believe that a lot of the hatred towards people in bigger bodies comes from fear. Fear of getting to the same size as them. Fear of being unhealthy and seen as unattractive, lazy and stupid, because that’s how society has taught us to think. Starting with the Disney movies.

Sometimes people will say “I never thought about Disney films that deeply as a girl, I think you’re overthinking it” but this is the problem. We don’t necessarily make these connections in our conscious mind, but the 96% of our brain that is the subconscious is busy connecting the dots all the time. Which is why we grow up believing that thin is good, fat is bad. Slender is attractive and fat is ugly. Slim and beautiful gets you your prince, and you will live happily ever after.

Our daughters and all of the next generation need to grow up knowing that bodies are all different, bodies are diverse, as is beauty. We only believe that one type of look is beautiful because that’s what we’ve been taught. If we lived in another time and place, we would see a different shape as the “ideal body”, which proves that it is cultural, not fact. You can be attractive in so many different ways, and you are worth so much more than how you look. Let’s dismantle this idea of beauty being the most important thing about us. Is that what you want your daughter to believe about herself? Or do you want her to know that she has so much more to offer the world? Her strength, her skills, her brains, her kindness, her problem solving, her compassion, her wit, her humour, her tenacity, her discernment, her frikkin awesomeness! And that applies to you too – you have those qualities which as so much more valuable than your outer shell and appearance. And you deserve to believe it. Get in touch if you need some help getting there.

*I know that many people find the word fat difficult to hear, but I agree with the fat acceptance movement, that the word needs to be reclaimed and used as a neutral descriptor, rather than a judgmental term to be feared or used as an insult.

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