By Brazen Edwards

Disney princesses are beautiful, fearless, good-hearted women but often wafer-thin. At the same time, historically, bigger characters in Disney films either serve as comic relief or villains in sharp visual contrast to their skinny protagonists. Although there have been many plus-sized characters in the Disney universe, they’ve all been reduced to side characters not worthy of their own experience. 

But not anymore. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a new inspiring, and more realistic role model for today’s youth. The game-changing short circuit film titled Reflect is currently streaming on Disney+. It tells the story of Bianca, a young ballet dancer who “battles her own reflection, overcoming doubt and fear by channelling her inner strength, grace and power”. 

The short movie starts with an overweight young woman in a dance studio in her ballet attire, warming up before class. Once her fellow dancers join her, however, she doesn’t feel so confident, and she watches the mirror dissolve into shards of her own reflection. 

Can Bianca find her strength and keep on dancing? That’s the story’s true heart: tapping into your talent and realising you are just amazing as you are.

Why Body Image Matters In Media

Since the film is entirely about body image, it’s no surprise they went full-on, making the leading character obese. However, the influential home of children’s television and movies needs to go a step further and create a full-length storyline where the leading princess has curves and, more importantly, her looks have absolutely nothing to do with the film. Wouldn’t that be refreshing!? 

Although it’s courageous for writers to explore this subject more, for the sake of our young people, can we please get away from beauty being about how skinny you are? Researchers have hypothesised that media plays a significant role in creating and intensifying the phenomenon of body dissatisfaction. Consequently, it may be partly responsible for the sharp increase in eating disorders in the past 50 years. 

Society is changing, and it’s (thankfully!) become more prevalent that media, advertising and especially movies are breaking away from unrealistic expectations of beauty. The fact that TeenVogue wrote an article about the positive effects of this film is a massive step in the right direction. The piece showcases many comments from older women who struggled with body dysmorphia with their own dance battles or just growing up in general. 

In 2020, Disney pledged to “consciously, purposefully and relentlessly champion the spectrum of voices and perspectives in our world.” They go on to state that “we can’t change the past, but we can acknowledge it, learn from it and move forward together to create a tomorrow that today can only dream of.” 

I guess big change takes baby steps but overall, it got a welcome response from fans. Hopefully, this will only lead to more realistic and diverse characters. 

Things Are Slowly Changing

Disney recently came under criticism for pushing unrealistic beauty standards on children with their short film Inner Workings. This movie depicts a love interest with an enormous bottom, stick-thin arms and a tiny waist. It tells the story of an office worker named Paul who has to tame his desire to break out of his dull routine and have fun. 

Perhaps this new film, Reflect, is attempting to right that glaring issue that prompted such an outcry from fans. Screenshots of the cartoon shared across social media by US-based Twitter user @Glitch_Plantbro with the caption: ‘In no world did Pixar need to do this.’ caused a huge viral sensation bringing hundreds of thousands of negative comments. 

Although the online response also garnered some criticism, with people stating it’s just a cartoon and you don’t have to watch it, it highlights a larger problem in our society around overly sexualised and unrealistic beauty expectations. Since children are especially prone to influence, it is vital reality is reflected in the cartoons they’re initially exposed to when growing up. 

Another positive step in the right direction, however, was Disney’s 2021 feature film Encanto. It features a side character, Luisa, a bodybuilder with physical and emotional strength but most importantly, she’s in a body that is actually muscular and powerful. This is something that Disney has never celebrated before in their female characters, and there were reports that those working on the project had to fight for her to have that unique physique. 

Luisa is a minor character compared to her sisters, but the lack of merchandise dedicated to her has led to people complaining because their children loved her more than the other characters in the film. Perhaps not so unique after all? 

It just goes to show that audiences desperately want more depictions of diverse women on screen, so here’s hoping this new short film is a toe in the proverbial deep waters. Perhaps Disney will start showcasing more various body types, ethnicities and other differences and become even more courageous.