Are Disney Princesses Ruining Your Daughter?

Emily Oster

8 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

Are Disney Princesses Ruining Your Daughter?

Probably not, even if their physical proportions are not human

Emily Oster

8 min Read

When I was young, my 1970s feminist mother instituted a prohibition against Barbie, which she felt promoted a negative image of women. She pointed out, correctly, that if Barbie were a real person she would be unable to stand, pulled down by the weight of her boobs. The body image wasn’t realistic, on top of the fact that (more in the 1980s than now) Barbie was defined primarily by her bikinis and relationship with Ken. I took the no-Barbie rule very seriously. When a friend who was moving away gave me a Skipper doll as a parting gift, I hid it in the closet. It’s probably still there, perhaps next to the wine cooler I stashed in the 11th grade.

As a kid, I was sure I would do things differently with my own children. They’d have all the Barbies they wanted, on top of never having to eat the peanut butter that you stir up to mix in the oil, which always gets crumbly at the bottom. As an adult, of course, I’m aiming to emulate my mom pretty much all the time. I unapologetically serve the crumbly peanut butter. We never quite live up to our parents, though, so I have not held the same line on Barbies. My children haven’t ever been really into them, it’s true, so I haven’t been fully tested.

This all came to mind last week, when someone wrote me an email the crux of which is this paragraph:

I now have three girls. My oldest is a big fan of Disney princesses, and I have friends who make a big deal about how girls who like princesses grow up to be less successful than girls who like superheroes. I was wondering if the research supports that? And if so, what exactly “less successful” means?

I got curious reading this. What, precisely, do we know about Disney princesses and their impacts, nefarious or otherwise?

There is an excellent book from about a decade ago, called Cinderella Ate My Daughter, in which Peggy Orenstein explores the entire girly-girl culture, from princess play to child beauty pageants. The book talks through research around stereotypes and girls’ self-esteem and ambitions. Disney princesses are a part of the girly-girl culture. But the book, and the concerns, are about much more. It’s not clear that the princesses are all, or even a large part of, the story. This question needed more digging.

Maybe it’s surprising (or maybe not!), but there is a sizable academic literature on the Disney princesses. The most well-documented fact from it (see e.g. here) is that there has been significant evolution in the princesses over time, in particular in how traditionally feminine they are.

Conceptually, think about the difference between Snow White and Elsa (from Frozen) or Merida (from Brave). The plot of Snow White centers around the need for rescue by the prince. The plots of Frozen and Brave, on the other hand, do not revolve around getting a man, nor do either of these princesses end up with a wedding. They’re portrayed as strong and capable (albeit with some emotional baggage).

This comparison reflects a general trend in this set of films, which can be documented using various kinds of text analysis or structured coding of movie elements. The later princesses are less likely to collapse in hysterics (looking at you, Cinderella) and less likely to need saving by a handsome prince. Romantic love, which is central to the early princess movies, becomes less central in later ones. Princesses simper less and shoot more. They have also become somewhat more racially diverse; there is more to be done there.

The fact remains, though, that they are princesses. They wear dresses. They dance. They twirl! And many of these actions are traditionally female-associated. Does this mean that girls who play with princesses are destined to feel the need to adhere to more gender stereotypes?

Here, the research is much less clear.

What academics can do is look at how children interact with princess-themed activities. An example is this paper, which studied a sample of 3-to-5-year-olds. The researchers set up a structure where they gave children a box of costumes, some of which were Disney princess costumes and some not, and looked at how the kids played with them. They interviewed the children and their parents afterward.

They found that girls preferred the princess costumes (playing with them 59% of the time) and that much of the play focused around beauty. For example, one girl put on a Cinderella dress and said she looked pretty. The children engaged in princess-like movements while wearing the dresses. Twirling — which occurred in 11 of 27 participants — was the most common. Ballroom dancing also occurred. Boys were at least partially excluded from (or uninterested in) dressing as princesses or playing princess. They preferred the superhero costumes.

What do we make of this? My sense is that the observations will be familiar to many parents. The paper reporting these makes a link back to evidence that gender stereotypes can be harmful to girls, but this is indirect. It’s not clear from the research that this princess play is actually changing anything. It might be! It just isn’t obvious from what we see here.

Similarly, we have research that surveys children (like this study) and shows that girls who engage with more princess media also display more gender-typical behaviors and attitudes. But which direction the causality goes on that is unclear — is it the attitudes that cause the engagement, or vice versa?

What we do not have are studies that would (say) randomize long-term exposure to princesses while holding everything else constant. Sure, some parents keep their kids away from princess media (or, for my mom, Barbies), but those behaviors are likely linked to other change in media exposure. Apropos of the original question, there are no research studies that link metrics of adult “success” with princess exposure as a child.

Based on what we see, I think any such links are a big stretch. Further, as the princesses get less girly, these concerns become less salient.

There is, however, a final issue that deserves more discussion. Princesses may be less traditionally feminine in their behavior now, but — not to put too fine a point on it — their appearance hasn’t evolved much. They are all conventionally attractive. Shiny hair. Clear skin. Big breasts. They are all thin.

This is, of course, obvious from looking at pictures. But we can also study it with data. Like in this paper, which measured the waist-to-hip ratio of Disney princesses and found it was an average of 0:5. This was significantly smaller than in the villains (average of 0:66). It is totally unrealistic as an actual body feature. By comparison, at her thinnest, Kim Kardashian reported having a waist of 24 inches with hips of 39 inches. That’s a ratio of 0:61!

BuzzFeed (bless their hearts) published this amazing article in which staffers were Photoshopped into princess proportions. The Little Mermaid one below might be my favorite, as it further illustrates that the princess eyes are really out of proportion.

A side-by side of Ariel from the Little Mermaid and a real human body, photoshopped to the same proportions.

This proves that literally no one could look like Ariel (without significant and dangerous plastic surgery). But it doesn’t prove it matters for self-image. That is: we can’t know whether the princesses are fueling body-image issues any more than we can prove it for other media.

On the encouraging side, we have one randomized controlled trial of 120 girls between ages 3 and 6 in which body image wasn’t affected by princess media exposure. Granted, this is a short-term exposure and it’s just one trial. The ways in which modern society imposes a particular body ideal on girls are undoubtedly more complicated than one set of movies. Still, I don’t think it would kill Disney to introduce some princesses who were slightly more normal-size, or at least had biologically feasible human proportions.

To answer the original question: I do not see anything in the data that would suggest your child will be less successful if they like Disney princesses, although we’d likely do well to remind them as they age into puberty that princess proportions are not for people.

I would be remiss not to mention by far the best thing I read in doing this research, which is this essay by an eighth grader on the possible impact of Disney princesses on girls. It makes many excellent points about the insanity of the princesses’ appearance (e.g. “In the movie Frozen, it is very clear that Anna’s eye is bigger than her wrist, which is not true for a normal person”). The essay ultimately concludes that Disney princesses could cause girls to have an unrealistic body image. However, I personally came away thinking that if this middle-schooler is reflective of our youth, Disney has an uphill battle to ruin them.

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The AAP’s guidelines recommend sleeping in the same room as your baby “ideally for the first six months.” However, the risk of SIDS is dramatically lower after four months, and the evidence in favor of the protective effect of room sharing is quite weak (both overall and even more so after four months). There is also growing evidence that infants who sleep in their own room by four months sleep better at four months, better at nine months, and even better at 30 months.

With this in mind, it’s worth asking why this recommendation continues at all — or at least why the AAP doesn’t push it back to four months. They say decreased arousals from sleep are linked to SIDS, which could mean that babies sleeping in their own room is risky. But this link is extremely indirect, and they do not show direct evidence to support it.

According to the data we have, parents should sleep in the same room as a baby for as long as it works for them! Sharing a room with a child may have negative impacts on both child and adult sleep. We should give families more help in navigating these trade-offs and making the decisions that work best for them.

#emilyoster #parentdata #roomsharing #sids #parentingguide

The AAP’s guidelines recommend sleeping in the same room as your baby “ideally for the first six months.” However, the risk of SIDS is dramatically lower after four months, and the evidence in favor of the protective effect of room sharing is quite weak (both overall and even more so after four months). There is also growing evidence that infants who sleep in their own room by four months sleep better at four months, better at nine months, and even better at 30 months.

With this in mind, it’s worth asking why this recommendation continues at all — or at least why the AAP doesn’t push it back to four months. They say decreased arousals from sleep are linked to SIDS, which could mean that babies sleeping in their own room is risky. But this link is extremely indirect, and they do not show direct evidence to support it.

According to the data we have, parents should sleep in the same room as a baby for as long as it works for them! Sharing a room with a child may have negative impacts on both child and adult sleep. We should give families more help in navigating these trade-offs and making the decisions that work best for them.

#emilyoster #parentdata #roomsharing #sids #parentingguide
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It was an absolute pleasure to be featured on the @tamronhallshow! We talked about all things data-driven parenting and, in this clip, what I call the plague of secret parenting. To balance having a career and having a family, we can’t hide the fact that we’re parents. If mothers and fathers at the top can speak more openly about child-care obligations, it will help us all set a new precedent.

Watch the full segment at the link in my bio 🔗

#tamronhall #tamronhallshow #emilyoster #parentingsupport #workingparents

It was an absolute pleasure to be featured on the @tamronhallshow! We talked about all things data-driven parenting and, in this clip, what I call the plague of secret parenting. To balance having a career and having a family, we can’t hide the fact that we’re parents. If mothers and fathers at the top can speak more openly about child-care obligations, it will help us all set a new precedent.

Watch the full segment at the link in my bio 🔗

#tamronhall #tamronhallshow #emilyoster #parentingsupport #workingparents
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Invisible labor. It’s the work — in our households especially — that has to happen but that no one sees. It’s making the doctor’s appointment, ensuring birthday cards are purchased, remembering the milk.

My guest on this episode, @everodsky, has come up with a solution here, or at least a way for us to recognize the problem and make our own solutions. I’ve wanted to speak with Eve for ages, since I read her book Fair Play. We had a great conversation about the division of household labor, one I think you’ll get a lot out of!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentdatapodcast #parentingpodcast #householdtips #fairplay #invisiblelabor

Invisible labor. It’s the work — in our households especially — that has to happen but that no one sees. It’s making the doctor’s appointment, ensuring birthday cards are purchased, remembering the milk.

My guest on this episode, @everodsky, has come up with a solution here, or at least a way for us to recognize the problem and make our own solutions. I’ve wanted to speak with Eve for ages, since I read her book Fair Play. We had a great conversation about the division of household labor, one I think you’ll get a lot out of!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentdatapodcast #parentingpodcast #householdtips #fairplay #invisiblelabor
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Prenatal vitamins 💊 If there is any product that seems designed to prey on our fears, it’s this one. You’re newly pregnant and you want to do it right. Everyone agrees you need prenatal vitamins, so you get them. But do you want to be that person who just… buys the generic prenatal vitamins?

Good news: fancier vitamins are not better.  Folic acid is the most important prenatal ingredient. Iron (with vitamin C) and DHA are also nice to have. Other included ingredients have only weak or no evidence to support their use. (If you do not consume animal products, add B12, plus a few others depending on your diet.)

Vitamins are just vitamins. Any prenatal vitamin that contains these is enough. 

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article with everything you need to know about prenatal vitamins.

#emilyoster #parentdata #prenatalvitamins #pregnancydiet #pregnancytips

Prenatal vitamins 💊 If there is any product that seems designed to prey on our fears, it’s this one. You’re newly pregnant and you want to do it right. Everyone agrees you need prenatal vitamins, so you get them. But do you want to be that person who just… buys the generic prenatal vitamins?

Good news: fancier vitamins are not better. Folic acid is the most important prenatal ingredient. Iron (with vitamin C) and DHA are also nice to have. Other included ingredients have only weak or no evidence to support their use. (If you do not consume animal products, add B12, plus a few others depending on your diet.)

Vitamins are just vitamins. Any prenatal vitamin that contains these is enough.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article with everything you need to know about prenatal vitamins.

#emilyoster #parentdata #prenatalvitamins #pregnancydiet #pregnancytips
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When it comes to introducing your newborn to the world, timing matters. It’s a good idea to minimize germ exposure in the first 6-8 weeks; after that, it’s inevitable and, very likely, a good idea! This doesn’t mean you need to be trapped inside. The most significant exposure risks are from seeing other people at home — family, etc. These interactions are not infinitely risky, but they do pose more risk than a walk or a trip to the grocery store, since they involve closer interaction. Think simple and make sure everyone is washing their hands before holding the baby. 💛

#parentdata #emilyoster #newborncare #parentingadvice #parentingtips

When it comes to introducing your newborn to the world, timing matters. It’s a good idea to minimize germ exposure in the first 6-8 weeks; after that, it’s inevitable and, very likely, a good idea! This doesn’t mean you need to be trapped inside. The most significant exposure risks are from seeing other people at home — family, etc. These interactions are not infinitely risky, but they do pose more risk than a walk or a trip to the grocery store, since they involve closer interaction. Think simple and make sure everyone is washing their hands before holding the baby. 💛

#parentdata #emilyoster #newborncare #parentingadvice #parentingtips
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The first edition of Hot Flash is out now! Comment “Link” for a DM to learn more about the late-reproductive stage.

There are times when we expect hormonal shifts. Our reproductive lives are bookended by puberty and menopause. We discuss those changes often because they are definitive and dramatic — a first period is something many of us remember clearly. But between ages 13 and 53, our hormones are changing in more subtle ways. During the late-reproductive stage (in your 40s), you can expect a lot of changes in your menstrual cycle, including the length and symptoms you experience throughout. It’s an important time in our lives that is often overlooked!

🔥 Hot Flash from ParentData is a weekly newsletter on navigating your health and hormones in the post-reproductive years. Written by Dr. Gillian Goddard, Hot Flash provides all of the information you need to have a productive, evidence-based conversation about hormonal health with your doctor.

#emilyoster #parentdata #hotflash #perimenopause #womenshealth

The first edition of Hot Flash is out now! Comment “Link” for a DM to learn more about the late-reproductive stage.

There are times when we expect hormonal shifts. Our reproductive lives are bookended by puberty and menopause. We discuss those changes often because they are definitive and dramatic — a first period is something many of us remember clearly. But between ages 13 and 53, our hormones are changing in more subtle ways. During the late-reproductive stage (in your 40s), you can expect a lot of changes in your menstrual cycle, including the length and symptoms you experience throughout. It’s an important time in our lives that is often overlooked!

🔥 Hot Flash from ParentData is a weekly newsletter on navigating your health and hormones in the post-reproductive years. Written by Dr. Gillian Goddard, Hot Flash provides all of the information you need to have a productive, evidence-based conversation about hormonal health with your doctor.

#emilyoster #parentdata #hotflash #perimenopause #womenshealth
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There are plenty of reels telling you how to parent. Plenty of panic headlines saying that “studies show” what’s best for your kid. Even good data, from a trusted source, can send us into a spiral of comparison. But I want you to remember that no one knows your kid better than you. It’s important to absorb the research, but only you will know the approach that works best for you and your child. 💙

Now tell me in the comments: what’s a parenting move you’ve made recently that feels right to you?

#parentingcommunity #parentingsupport #parentingquotes #emilyoster #parentdata

There are plenty of reels telling you how to parent. Plenty of panic headlines saying that “studies show” what’s best for your kid. Even good data, from a trusted source, can send us into a spiral of comparison. But I want you to remember that no one knows your kid better than you. It’s important to absorb the research, but only you will know the approach that works best for you and your child. 💙

Now tell me in the comments: what’s a parenting move you’ve made recently that feels right to you?

#parentingcommunity #parentingsupport #parentingquotes #emilyoster #parentdata
...

Let’s talk about sex (after) baby! Today on the podcast, I was lucky enough to speak with @enagoski about her new book on sexual connection in long-term relationships. Especially after having kids, this is something many people struggle with. Emily tells us to stop worrying about what’s “normal” and focus on pleasure in its many forms.

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #parentdatapodcast #emilyoster #emilynagoski #comeasyouare #cometogether #longtermrelationship #intimacy #relationships

Let’s talk about sex (after) baby! Today on the podcast, I was lucky enough to speak with @enagoski about her new book on sexual connection in long-term relationships. Especially after having kids, this is something many people struggle with. Emily tells us to stop worrying about what’s “normal” and focus on pleasure in its many forms.

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #parentdatapodcast #emilyoster #emilynagoski #comeasyouare #cometogether #longtermrelationship #intimacy #relationships
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Ever wondered if you can safely use leftover baby formula? 🍼 The CDC says to throw out unused formula immediately because of the risk of bacterial growth. However, research suggests that bacterial concentrations do not appreciably increase after 3, 12, or even 24 hours at refrigerator temperatures. Good news! This means there’s not a strong data-based reason to throw out formula right away if you store it in the fridge.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on another common formula question: should you throw away old formula powder?

#emilyoster #parentdata #babyformula #babyfeeding #parentingstruggles

Ever wondered if you can safely use leftover baby formula? 🍼 The CDC says to throw out unused formula immediately because of the risk of bacterial growth. However, research suggests that bacterial concentrations do not appreciably increase after 3, 12, or even 24 hours at refrigerator temperatures. Good news! This means there’s not a strong data-based reason to throw out formula right away if you store it in the fridge.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on another common formula question: should you throw away old formula powder?

#emilyoster #parentdata #babyformula #babyfeeding #parentingstruggles
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What’s the most important piece of advice for new parents? Here’s one answer, but I want to hear from you! Share your suggestions in the comments ⬇️

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingtips #parentingadvice #newparents #parentingcommunity

What’s the most important piece of advice for new parents? Here’s one answer, but I want to hear from you! Share your suggestions in the comments ⬇️

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingtips #parentingadvice #newparents #parentingcommunity
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What's in the bag of a Vagina Economist? 👀 Someone please tell me this looks familiar to you.

What`s in the bag of a Vagina Economist? 👀 Someone please tell me this looks familiar to you. ...

Comment ”link” for a DM to learn more about tongue ties 🔗

Breastfeeding is often difficult, especially at the start. For babies with tongue ties, many infants (and their moms) struggle to get the hang of a good latch. This can lead to painful nipples and to inefficient feeding, and then low weight gain.

So what does the data say about the increasingly common practice of cutting tongue-ties in infants to improve breastfeeding success? Several weeks ago, @nytimes published a long and quite scary article on this topic.

After diving into the data, here is what I found. There is limited evidence that frenotomy procedures improve breastfeeding efficacy and the harms of the procedure are minimal. Many women do report that it alleviates pain and helps them with breastfeeding. However, it should not be a first-line treatment for breastfeeding problems.

#parentdata #emilyoster #tonguetie #tonguetiebabies #breastfeedingsupport

Comment ”link” for a DM to learn more about tongue ties 🔗

Breastfeeding is often difficult, especially at the start. For babies with tongue ties, many infants (and their moms) struggle to get the hang of a good latch. This can lead to painful nipples and to inefficient feeding, and then low weight gain.

So what does the data say about the increasingly common practice of cutting tongue-ties in infants to improve breastfeeding success? Several weeks ago, @nytimes published a long and quite scary article on this topic.

After diving into the data, here is what I found. There is limited evidence that frenotomy procedures improve breastfeeding efficacy and the harms of the procedure are minimal. Many women do report that it alleviates pain and helps them with breastfeeding. However, it should not be a first-line treatment for breastfeeding problems.

#parentdata #emilyoster #tonguetie #tonguetiebabies #breastfeedingsupport
...

Tag a friend who needs to hear this 💛 For many choices in parenting, there is no one right answer. We can use research and data to make informed decisions, but ultimately, it won’t tell you what to do. Only you can decide what will be best for your kids and your family.

I’m here to remind you to take a deep breath and trust yourself. I’ll be here to support you along the way. 

Thank you to everyone who submitted videos, including:
@sarah.consoli
@jess_lynn627
@nicolevandenwills
@thedrblair
@ncbenedict29
@haleycimini
@iamkellysnodgrass
@calesse_smith
@garnet__gordon
@jencoopgaiser87
@danigirl18c
@jamielundergreen
@carly_comber
@thecelebratingmama
@emilyannbynum
@eeliz413

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingadvice #parentingsupport #parentingquotes

Tag a friend who needs to hear this 💛 For many choices in parenting, there is no one right answer. We can use research and data to make informed decisions, but ultimately, it won’t tell you what to do. Only you can decide what will be best for your kids and your family.

I’m here to remind you to take a deep breath and trust yourself. I’ll be here to support you along the way.

Thank you to everyone who submitted videos, including:
@sarah.consoli
@jess_lynn627
@nicolevandenwills
@thedrblair
@ncbenedict29
@haleycimini
@iamkellysnodgrass
@calesse_smith
@garnet__gordon
@jencoopgaiser87
@danigirl18c
@jamielundergreen
@carly_comber
@thecelebratingmama
@emilyannbynum
@eeliz413

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingadvice #parentingsupport #parentingquotes
...

Congratulations on making it through another year of panic headlines! We’ve had some doozies this year, like aspartame causing cancer and the perils of white noise, but these headlines are very often based on poor data. Correlation does not equal causation. There will certainly be more panic headlines in 2024, but ParentData is here to debunk them for you.

#emilyoster #parentdata #happynewyear2024 #panicheadline #datadriven

Congratulations on making it through another year of panic headlines! We’ve had some doozies this year, like aspartame causing cancer and the perils of white noise, but these headlines are very often based on poor data. Correlation does not equal causation. There will certainly be more panic headlines in 2024, but ParentData is here to debunk them for you.

#emilyoster #parentdata #happynewyear2024 #panicheadline #datadriven
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