By Gabby Vachon
For the last decade, The Disney Channel has successfully launched the careers of the most popular teen superstars. But are these young Hollywood starlets getting thinner, and what message does that send young viewers?
I was perusing Tumblr when I found this picture of the three “generations” of Disney stars.
Now, the composition was clearly a shout-out to the children of the 1990s, but it led my thoughts in a completely different direction.
Are the Disney stars getting thinner and thinner?
I decided to research a little further into this hypothesis and the results are, to say the least, alarming.
The first row featured what they consider first generation (in this case my own), with stars like Raven Symone and Hilary Duff. I didn’t perfectly remember their body shapes and sizes, nor do I think I consciously noticed them at the time (ah, the innocent eyes of a child not yet warped by society), so I Google-Image searched them in their TV show heyday. Let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised. These starlets were curvy, healthy girls, which is not to say that being thin is unhealthy. However, with the images kids are presented nowadays, featuring a girl who is still happy and beautiful without being a size 0 is refreshing. Hats off to you, early 2000s Disney!
Might I also point out that both these actresses left the teen spotlight in a completely elegant DUI-free manner? Healthy bodies lead to healthy minds, perhaps?
The next row is the second generation, the recently grown-up Disney darlings: Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato. We all know what they look like now, but just for argument’s sake, here’s a refresher of their Disney prime-time bodies. Granted, they certainly didn’t resemble their Disney predecessors, but their small physiques weren’t turning heads.
However, we know the pressure to be thin was omnipresent; take Demi Lovato, who combatted an eating disorder for several years. You might not think the disparity in size is so dramatic, and I concur that it isn’t greatly noticeable. But compare this next group of girls to the first and you will be singing a different tune.
The third generation, currently lighting up the preteen small screen, is composed of Bella Thorne, Zendaya and China Anne McClain. I don’t know much about them, and they DO seem a tad bit younger, so I can obviously forgive the lack of curves, but my lord some of them are thin.
I’m not trying to say that their weight is unhealthy. I don’t know their metabolism, genetics, natural build, what have you. But I will say that comparing Hilary Duff to China Anne McClain, two girls not so far apart in age at the time catering to the same adoring demographic, worries me.
Disney Channel original shows are targeted towards 9 to 14 year old girls. Within that age range, girls are no longer children; their bodies start changing and they become conscious of the societal pressure to be thin. However, they are not yet fully mature enough to separate the media’s images from reality, leading to unhealthy comparisons. “A 1996 study found that the amount of time an adolescent watches soaps, movies and music videos is associated with their degree of body dissatisfaction and desire to be thin.” The research doesn’t lie; these homogenous role models are dangerous.
This also would not be the first time the Disney Channel gets in trouble for their body negative outlook. Episodes from two different sitcoms, Shake It Up and So Random!, have been pulled off the air after the backlash they received, mainly by their former star Demi Lovato, because of an eating disorder joke. Indeed, on Shake It Up, one of the characters said: “I could just eat you up, well, if I ate.” Making light of a mental illness is something the Disney Channel should know better than to do!
When my friends and I flipped through our pre-teen magazines in elementary school, we thought Hilary Duff was the most beautiful person in the world. We wanted to dress like her, wear our hair like her, everything she did was FLAW-LESS. But when I imagine young girls thinking the same way about this new batch of actresses, it irks me a little.
The young actresses of today seem to dress more “grown up” then their predecessors, especially on the red carpet. On the shows, they wear more makeup, have romantic relationships earlier, and somehow always have perfectly styled hair. Fourteen-year-olds just don’t look and act 14 years old anymore. But for a young teen? If she wants to look and act her TV idols that is what she must look like. These two pictures show Hilary and Zendaya on the red carpet. Can you believe that at the time their picture was taken, they were both 16?
And let’s not forget the obvious growing sexualization of young women in the media. A study by Psych Central evaluated the sexualization of women on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, a publication that frequently displays teen idols such as Taylor Swift and Britney Spears. “In the 1960s, they found that 11 percent of men and 44 percent of women on the covers of Rolling Stone were sexualized. In the 2000s, 17 percent of men were sexualized (an increase of 55 percent from the 1960s), and 83 percent of women were sexualized (an increase of 89 percent).”
In addition, the American Psychological Association researched the sexualization of children in advertising. They “coded the ads over a 40-year period in five magazines targeted to men, women or a general adult readership. Although relatively few (1.5 percent) of the ads portrayed children in a sexualized manner, of those that did, 85 percent sexualized girls rather than boys. Furthermore, the percentage of sexualizing ads increased over time.”
These studies clearly demonstrate the emergence of both women’s and young girls’ sexualization, thus the proliferation of the idea of a woman’s perfect body. Clearly this problem goes beyond the realms of young TV actresses. It is a general societal issue we are facing in the 21st century.
You may not think that TV stars affect us or our vision of the human body and its aesthetic. And perhaps you’re right, it may not affect you. But children are still learning about the world that surrounds them, making them more vulnerable to the messages sent by the people they look up to. If the superstars they plaster on their walls look a certain way, do they have to look that way too? These are important questions that need to be addressed with individual children, but kid’s TV programs have a share of the responsibility as well.
There is still a lot of good left in the world, and progress is being made to rectify the situation. In France, for example, beauty pageants for young girls were recently banned. Certain groups in America recoiled at this “breach of freedom.” According to them, sending toddlers down a runway squeezed into tight dresses and high heels to be judged by a panel of strangers isn’t exploitative; it’s just another extracurricular activity.
But countries like France, and hopefully many others in the near future, are realizing that judging a child solely based on his or her looks just isn’t healthy. Hopefully, this step will stimulate conversations around the world about the environment in which children of the 21st century are developing, and what we can do to improve body positivity.
Gabby Vachon blogs at The Fudge Perfection Project, a “delicious piece of self-love cake” dedicated to helping teens embrace body positivity and challenge notions of perfectionism. FPP also gives conferences, speeches, meetings, and workshops at elementary and high schools, as well as maintaining a YouTube channel. To find out how you can get involved with her work, check here.