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Disney dysmorphia: The celebration of Disney’s first plus-size protagonist and the disappointing history behind it

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Disney has a nasty habit of selling a specific body type. 

The bodies of our beloved Disney princesses are known to be skinny with a waist smaller than their head. It wasn’t until recently that we started to see any other body type depicted in Disney animations. 

As a company, Disney is both constantly groundbreaking, and chronically behind the times; its newest short film falls into both categories.

Disney dropped their short film “Reflect” in early fall, and people are still talking about it, but not for the positive reasons one may hope. 

The film motivated both controversy and celebration for viewers, probing the deeper question of why a film like this is only now coming into Disney’s repertoire.

The two-minute short film features a young plus-size ballerina overcoming fears of her body size.

While it's significant that Disney is branching into this new genre of inclusive content, we must push the question: why is this the type of representation we’re getting?

What type of message is spread when the first feature of a plus-size heroine in Disney is focused on her negative relationship with her body?

“Bodies exist to get through life,” second-year Heidi Longwell said. “Yet companies like Disney do not let these characters exist beyond their bodies.”

Films featuring plus-size protagonists rarely tell a story that is not tied to their relationship with their bodies. The message is always about the character overcoming their perception of themselves, never just a person living a life that isn’t tied to their body. 

By setting their stories apart, and focusing on their body, it becomes a subliminal message that people not “traditionally skinny,” need to find something wrong with their body.

If the people on our screens aren’t happy with who they are, why should we be?

“Disney has a long history of praising skinny bodies,” Bettina Judd, associate professor in the department of gender, women & sexuality studies, said.

The first iteration of Disney’s princesses made their first appearance in 1937 with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Created in a time when waists were cinched, and bodies soft and thin, the princesses were molded after an ideal of a woman that was problematic to begin with.

As children, we grow up and watch these princesses on screen, dreaming of their stories, and finding comfort in their nostalgia. Yet, we are all the while subconsciously internalizing the fatphobic nature of these films.

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“Fatter bodies are maligned and used as a symbol of laziness and a lack of discipline and moral depravity,” Judd said.

The films never outright say, “Fat is ugly.” In fact, they don’t need to when their characters say it for them.

The only non-conventionally attractive characters in Disney films are the villains.

“It’s easier to see a person as flawed if they don’t look pretty,” Longwell said.

The villains are old, fat, have warts, and have large noses — the “Little Mermaid” villain Ursula is a prime example. None of these features are evil, but in the realm of Disney, only a villain can have these features.

Disney ties femininity to their protagonists. Their princesses are the fairest of the land.

It is not something we recognize as children, this Disney dysmorphia, but as we grow into ourselves, we develop stigmas about what it means to be feminine. These films tell us that to be skinny and beautiful is to be feminine, and that being anything else is unfeminine — dare I even say, villainous.

This is the message lying in between the lines of hope and love the stories sing into our ears.

It is easy to use bodies as a punch line — the low-hanging fruit that Disney indulges in. This does not excuse the behavior though.

As the industry grows more aware of the changing times, the jokes change direction, and the inclusion becomes more frequent, yet it is not enough.

We need content where characters can exist beyond their bodies. 

If the goal is to raise awareness, the existence of the character alone will do the job. It is unnecessary and arguably immoral to capitalize off their negative self-reflection.

While it is a good start for Disney to create a film featuring its first plus-size protagonist, it is only a start. 

We need films to talk about a multitude of things, not just a person's body, and as we descend further into the 21st century, the need for this media will only grow.

It’s taken 99 years for the first plus-size protagonist, how long until the second?

Reach writer Emma Schwichtenbergat opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @emaroswitz 

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(3) comments

More Inclusive than Thou

The two-minute short film features a young plus-size ballerina overcoming fears of her body size.

How about fears of male ballerinas over trying to throw and catch her?

More Inclusive than Thou

So now that the political left is as badly overweight as is the political right, its no longer medically bad to be overweight.

All that diabesity stuff was apparently just fat-phobia

And meanwhile the current young generations life expectancy has been downgraded further...

Are we going to re-think tobacco use as well?

More Inclusive than Thou

So now that the Left is becoming eveb fatter than the Right, it's no longer physically unhealthy to be fat.

In fact, it is now dangerous not to be fat, but to say "fat".

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