Disney: (Not) The Happiest Place on Earth

Growing up under the influence of Disney princesses fueled my insecurities.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I grew up within the lonely fortress of a boarding school halfway across the globe in Taiwan. In that time, I developed a strong habit of tabulation. I obsessed over analysis, and even my favorite movie became a victim of my childhood analytics. To this day, I can remember with clarity the most important numbers in my life: there were six bedrooms on my floor, 625 ceiling tiles in my dorm room, and 88 minutes in Disney’s “Mulan.”

“Mulan” easily became my most watched movie as a child. I saw the glittering city of dragons and good luck in the pictures of Chinatown my parents sent me in the mail. I imagined the red lanterns strung across streets and liveliness in my fantasies of home. I’d sneak into my caregiver’s room past my 8:00 p.m. curfew and beg her to watch the movie again with me, desperate for the thrill and musical numbers the film provided. Sitting on her plush rug, the kind your hand sinks into when you run your fingers through it, I became enthralled with the imagery of a normal girl saving her country.

Ironically, Mulan herself became the epitome of perfection. I wanted nothing more than to be exactly like her. She demonstrated a sense of strength and initiative and cunningn I wanted to emulate: she proved her worth in a way I attempted to do as well. I transcribed her narrative onto my skin, learning every line and plot point meticulously.

But Mulan wasn’t just strong and clever. She was beautiful and thin. Other Disney princesses also portray slimness and conventional beauty as a trend, and I began to wonder if I was defective because I didn’t have those traits. In my attempt to resemble Mulan mentally, I began to pick apart my own body, trying to find the bones and silhouettes that looked like hers and the other princesses.

My tabulations slowly began to include numbers of my weight. I moved to New York, but I didn’t lose that habit and the desperation to resemble the characters I grew up with. If anything, they multiplied. I visited Disney World for the first time, met my idol, and found myself learning she was just as thin in real life as in the movies. I spiraled into insecurity, surrounded by restrictive concepts of beauty, and I grappled with understanding body image and my own self-hate.

When I see my little cousins watching the original Disney movies, my instinct is to cringe. The media we consume is a direct reflection of how we will inevitably learn to view ourselves, and it feels like I have an obligation to protect them from the expectations they could learn from the movies. When I talk to my friends, especially women, about this concept, it’s often a resounding agreement that growing up surrounded by the original Disney princesses and their unattainable standards has caused a wave of insecurities. Very few people escape the idea that you must fit a certain standard in order to have a happily ever after.

But the solution isn’t to just delete all such media from the world, because the ideas have already been transcribed onto us. It’s simply not possible to completely erase these messages, because they’ve been normalized. They’re such an ingrained part of our society now that they are seen as representative of a “normal girl’s childhood.”

But we can begin to make changes by calling out the internalized biases we have. With time, more people grow aware of these ideas being presented to children. Many of the kids who grew up watching the original Disney princess films are now able to have a voice in new media put on screens, and, as new animated movies suggest, bring a well-welcomed range of body types, sizes, and colors. In new movies like “Turning Red,” we see characters who differ from the traditional beauty standard, characters with hijabs and different skin colors, characters with visible disabilities—in essence, characters who would be virtually unheard of in the original films.

I hope that with the new films available, children like my little cousins will have evident examples that their bodies aren’t mistakes, as I was led to believe about myself. It’s important to continue to promote these changes, and hopefully, with time, numbers representing weight will stop affecting kids’ perceptions of themselves.