What do Children’s Fairytales Have to do with ED Advocacy?

What do Children’s Fairytales Have to do with ED Advocacy?

By Andrea Piazza, Primary Therapist at Center for Discovery

Diverse identity and body representation in children’s books is a crucial building block of a size inclusive culture.

The fairy tale princesses and character’s we grew up with have had an undeniably damaging effect on the expectations we set for our bodies. We grew up dressing like these characters for Halloween and pretending to be them in our imaginary games. What did we learn from these characters; that our looks are more important than our intelligence, that we need attractive bodies to have good lives? These narratives do not serve us. We need new narratives that take the good pieces from the classic stories we grew up with and then shift the focus from our bodies as a tool for power and security to our kindness as a tool for growth and happiness.

According to numerous studies, Body Dysmorphic Disorder has a prevalence rate of 2% to 13% in nonclinical adult student samples meaning its relatively common. Characterized in the DSM-5 as “a distressing or impairing preoccupation with slight or imagine defect(s) in one’s physical appearance.” Another to a recent journal article in The Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care by Himanshu body dysmorphia is on the rise. It’s easy to see how media consumption plays into the way individuals measure their own features against the cultural beauty standards.

As an eating disorder therapist, I am constantly helping clients investigate their own body image development. Characters in the movies and books they grew up watching are nearly universal archetypes for the qualities one needs to possess as an adult… which tend to be physical. Patients will mention dressing up like Hercules or Princess Jasmine and subsequently looking at themselves in the mirror attempting to suck in their tummy or flex their muscles only to be overcome by a child’s sense of inadequacy. In even more heartbreaking stories patient share how they were so excited to dress up or pretend to be these characters with no initial self-doubt, only to have someone say they would need to eat differently to look like that character.

Imagine a world where the characters we grew up modeling ourselves around were diverse with realistic bodies and had goals that were about accepting oneself and or others. How would our dress up change? How would our play have changed? It’s said that we learn just about everything we need to know by age 5 or within a critical period from 5-7. Imagine a world where we learned about body neutrality and inclusion and diversity during our critical period.

The critical period is Noam Chomsky’s idea that language acquisition is learned during a critical period in childhood. It’s the reason it is so difficult to learn a new language as an adult and that its likely that we will always have some challenges speaking it even if we do. It also makes sense why it feels so much more natural to have conversations around the ways we want to change and modify our bodies than the things we appreciate or like about our bodies.

Larger bodies are also villainized in the stories we grew up with. They are the bodies that are drowned in the seas or beat out by stronger more able bodies. They are the bodies that end up alone and bitter.

Even worse than that people of color and people of diverse ability are often completely absent from the narratives we grow up with. In this moment of finally valuing diversity and inclusion we start to realize how intentional we need to be to make change because it’s not something we have been practicing. We need stories that highlight the powerfulness of inclusion and treat it as something normal and basic. Imagine if we saw as many montages about inclusion and accepting ourselves as we are as makeover montages…

Stories like Peter Pan in Everland by Andrea Lynn Piazza and Nicole Warren where tropes are countered on every page from having open discussions on autism and adaptive technology, to women working while the man vacuums, are incredibly important. Even the details in the story can lead to a huge cultural value shift and to an overall healthier and more inclusive society. We need more children’s literature and media, in general, that focuses on body acceptance and inclusion.

By retelling classics with inclusive casts of characters in diverse circumstances we can create a new set of fairytale heroes for our children and therein new healthier expectations for their minds and bodies. It is important to understand the profound impact of seeing characters of all abilities taking part in the stories we already know and love.

Bjornsson, A. S., Didie, E. R., & Phillips, K. A. (2010). Body dysmorphic disorder. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience12(2), 221–232. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2010.12.2/abjornsson

Himanshu, Kaur, A., Kaur, A., & Singla, G. (2020). Rising dysmorphia among adolescents : A cause for concern. Journal of family medicine and primary care9(2), 567–570. https://doi.org/10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_738_19

Hartshorne, J. K., Tenenbaum, J. B., & Pinker, S. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition177, 263–277. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2018.04.007

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596