The psyche of children held for ransom.

This story just kills me.  It’s bad enough that teens are bombarded, at every turn, with the message that physical beauty to impossible standards is what it takes to be normal or liked.

(The above film comes from Dove and is part of their natural beauty campaign.  Ironically, Dove is owned by Unilever, which also produces the Axe products, the commercials for which all-but-own the trademark on being shallow and promoting the same psychological problems that the new Dove campaign purports to be fighting.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Dove is putting out this message, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that it’s for the nobility of the message and not to sell beauty-enhancing products to “normal” women.  Also ironically, I thought the model was prettiest when she first sat down in the chair.)

In an effort to peddle their cosmetics to young women, companies will ignore the ramifications of their own message, such as the sharp increase in eating disorder during the last 30 years and the additional damage that can be done to those with an eating disorder.  Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and strikes most frequently in children who are in an environment where there is immense pressure to succeed and/or to be perfect.  Spreading this message, that success or perfection requires arms like bone, has the potential to crush self-esteem and, in so doing, to trigger and heighten anorexic symptoms in a person.

But now that message is getting spread to children.

Department stores go all out for their holiday campaigns, and this year Barneys New York is partnering with Disney for their festive extravaganza. Photos and even a short film picture iconic characters like Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck walking the runway in designer clothing, but they’re barely recognizable. In fact, their bodies have been stretched so long and thin their heads are bobbling above figures much slimmer than Barbie’s.

According to Women’s Wear Daily, Barneys collaborated with Disney to take their characters into a realistic fashion world for their “Electric Holiday” campaign, set to debut at their Madison Avenue flagship store on November 14. The highlight is a film, also debuting in November, about Minnie Mouse’s fantasy to attend Paris fashion week. As such, our favorite animated characters have ditched their signature garments for high-end clothing to wear down the runway.

This is what the Disney characters of old now look like.

An image of a tall, pencil-thin Minnie mouse.

I don’t think I’m overshooting when I say that this is unconscionable.  In Disney’s case, they are selling the trust of children to an enterprise that will severely fuck up some of their minds in order to addict them to a standard of beauty that absolutely, positively has nothing to do with beauty.  In the context it is intended, the above image will traumatize many and kill others by exacerbating the pull towards an eating disorder in those vulnerable to it.  It will hold the self-image of boys and girls alike hostage to a product that will never unmake the damage the advertisements have done.  It will create, in the minds of children, a new criteria for being a worthwhile human being.  Alongside the values that merit self-esteem such as honesty, compassion, hard-work, and study, there will now be the need to look like that.

And they’re doing it to children.  To children!

Whatever young people are in your life, make it a point to tell them that this isn’t real.  Tell them that Minnie and Daisy have stopped being role models, and that what is happening here is serious.  Tell them that Minnie is not beautiful in this picture, because she isn’t.  Talk about mental illness and what campaigns like this can do to a person, and tell them about the people who care so much for money that they have forgotten that.

To all you women out there, and to all you children about to be deceived by a cartoon, these people are lying to you, and I am so, so sorry.  For some of you, your brain will adopt that lie and for the rest of your life your brain will never stop deceiving to you.  I know what that’s like and it’s hell.  I am so sorry.  I wish there was more I could do.

Human beings can be so sick…

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Benjamin

    I hate to disagree with you about a subject that is so personal, but I think an unstated major implication in what you said is that eating disorders are caused by or can be contributed to by media or the images therein. You mention that eating disorders have been on the rise in the past 30 years, however the link you provide mentions that the incidence of eating disorders has risen, not the prevalence. The point of skepticism holds true, that correlation does not equal causation, and better quality evidence is necessary before we can hold Disney accountable for mental illness in young people.

    The research I’ve read, from the National Eating Disorders Association, cites the following as causes of eating disorders:

    Troubled family relationships
    Social problems.
    Failure at school, work or competitive events.
    A traumatic event.
    Major illness or injury
    Other psychiatric illnesses.

    In addition, Wikipedia lists dozens of biological, genetic, biochemical, and environmental pressures that could cause or contribute to eating disorders, but only a single reference to the effects of images in media.

    I’m not convinced that media is to blame here. I don’t doubt that the incidence of eating disorders is on the rise, but so are the incidences of ADD/ADHD, autism, and other developmental or cognitive disorders. In both of these cases, broadened criterion, increased surveillance, and social awareness is adequate to explain the numbers. Are you sure the same doesn’t hold true for eating disorders?

    • JT Eberhard

      Good comment. I would argue that the research is there to tie the two together.

      First, it has been concluded that perfectionist streaks lend themselves toward eating disorders, which is likely why the children of well-educated parents are more vulnerable to them. The media about physical perfection plays directly to that tendency and moves it away from things like doing well in school and over to being thin. I think the images kids are presented with today push perfection as the standard and, in doing so, make matters worse for those with a predisposition for EDs.

      Additionally, there are plenty of legit sources that tie modern media down as a cause of anorexia.

      Western culture and society also play a part. Girls (and, to a lesser extent, boys) are exposed to a wide range of different media which constantly reinforce the message that being thin is beautiful.

      At the same time, magazines and newspapers focus on celebrities’ minor physical imperfections, such as gaining a few pounds or having cellulite.

      Obviously, I believe that EDs have strong genetic precursors, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. There are some psychologists who do not believe the media contributes, but even they almost universally admit that EDs are exacerbated by the way beauty if projected in our media.

      …the relentless barrage of images we all “consume,” of the unattainable thin ideal, do affect us. That’s us, you and me, who don’t have eating disorders and who will never develop a full-blown ED. (They affect those with eating disorders, too; they just don’t cause such illnesses.) If you don’t believe it, read this study, which found that girls as young as three years old are internalizing that thin ideal, and judging themselves against it. No surprises there, really; kids get it, and by “it” I mean the unspoken cultural messaging. Their survival depends on getting “it,” learning to navigate society’s expectations of them. We know that when we say one thing and do another, kids pick up on what we do. Rightly so. And in this case, what we’re doing has serious consequences for us and our children.

      But I will edit the article to say it exacerbates, rather than causes these things.

      • JT Eberhard

        It should also be noted that there are two clearly defined species of eating disorders: control-driven and self-eteem driven. While media doesn’t much affect control-driven EDs, it can very much play hell with those fueled by low self-esteem.

        • iknklast

          I think it would be fair to say that my eating disorder was driven by both; I had a sense that everyone else was in control of my life, so I took control of the one thing I felt I could control. I also had such low self-esteem that it was truly negative self-esteem – using words like “pond scum” and “mutant” to describe myself. I had also been told by my mother that I was so ugly no man would ever want me (and it took me a while to figure out that it wouldn’t matter much if I didn’t have a man, because in the world I was brought up in, only freaks lived alone). I would have to say, I don’t think the media played much of a role with me, but that was mostly because we had no television and we didn’t take the kind of magazines that use these sorts of pictures. I still believe that media can make a difference, because we tend to measure ourselves against other people to determine what the “norm” is, and if the “norm” is presented as Barbie or Twiggy (OK, I’m old…), then we’re going to feel like something is wrong with us.

          Sorry if I’m rambling and incoherent. Didn’t get back from FFRF convention until after 2:00 in the morning, thanks to a hold up at the airport in Denver.

    • Michaelyn

      I think it’s safe to say that images in the media and what we’re told is “beautiful” plays a huge role in eating disorders.
      In fact, look at a province in Fiji where eating disorders were unheard of *until* the introduction of television in 1998 where they saw Americanized ideals of beauty.
      From this wikipedia article: (It’s wikipedia, I know, sorry. You can find a better article if you have the time.)
      “Media portrayals of an ‘ideal’ body shape are widely considered to be a contributing factor to bulimia[1] (Barker 2003)…. A survey of 15–18 year-old high school girls in Nadroga, Fiji found the self-reported incidence of purging rose from 0% in 1995 (a few weeks after the introduction of television in the province) to 11.3% in 1998.”

    • Miriam

      Actually, research supports the role of media in perpetuating eating disorders and body image problems. For instance, this study: I think this is what Michaelyn is citing, too.

      Obviously media does not CAUSE eating disorders all on its own; that’s not how mental illness works. But it can certainly create an environment where they are much more likely to occur.

    • Eileen

      I have to disagree with you, Benjamin. An article I read a while back stuck with me for a long time, and I do believe that the media has an effect on eating disorders. This article from 1999 made a huge impression on me years back, and I’ve kept it to give to skeptics of media’s effects on ED ever since.

      Please feel free to comment, and I realize that it’s from an article, but it does cite the book she wrote about the phenomenon.

  • Good intentions

    Very important article for all, especially parents, to read. However I would suggest one small change…
    My wife is one of those extremely skinny people with an uncontrollably high metabolism (So terrible, right! SMH). Some people naturally look like the Minnie in the picture, and are healthy that way. So lets not discourage them and tell them that they are not beautiful.

    • JT Eberhard

      Good point. :)

    • Goldaline

      Thank you! I liked this article but I immediately scrolled through all the comments to see if anyone had pointed this out yet. Telling children that skinny is not beautiful is not any better than telling them that it is. Both of them enforce a hierarchy where one body type is seen as superior to all others. There are better ways to fight this.

  • Beth

    Based on the title I thought this article was going to be about the psychological health of children who are kidnapped and held for ransom maybe even including cases like Jacyee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart.

  • smrnda

    I think some good evidence that the media is a factor in eating and body image disorders is the increase in the prevalence of these disorders among men in recent years, mostly since you can tie it to how much more often extremely fit male bodies are being used to sell products and how much more exposure males are getting to idealized male forms.

    My take on what Disney is doing is that even if we can’t prove causation, is it responsible to be showcasing highly unrealistic body types? Is there any reason to do that? Any reason to say “well, we are making this choice and it’s clearly better and more socially responsible than showing realistic body types here.” I think that with things like advertizement we ought to do a a ‘harmful until proven safe’ approach. The goal is to make money, and advertisers do this by creating desires where none existed, or by creating a problem (you are not okay with your body) since then they can sell you more stuff.

    This kind of reminds me of how some cosmetic surgeons go on about how helpful they are since they help people feel better about themselves and their bodies. They don’t ask why people felt bad to begin with.

  • concernedperspective

    I would just like to point out that even in cultures that have minimal exposure to “western culture” and still hold true to the big is beautiful ideal there is an equal percentage of cases of anorexia as in our society… 8% of a population suffers from anorexia, and that’s been found in every culture tested throughout the world..

  • Graham

    This article is poorly thought out, poorly constructed and poorly articulate; at best.

    First, Disney is not supplanting the traditional character cast with these; I say these because there are more which haven’t been featured here.

    Second this was done specifically for the opening of Barney’s in New York.

    Third, children are bombarded everyday in a variety of media formats to be a certain way. They are going to have to either become critically analytical or become sniveling sheep who are so sheltered by people like you that they won’t be able to think for themselves as adults.

    Fourth, crying about how Disney, “is doing this to children!!!!” is patently absurd, falsifiable and pointless. It detracts from an important point which you could have made and supplants it with opining hyperbole which only an ideologue could love.

    Fifth, your children, if you have them, are your responsibility and not Disney’s responsibility. If you don’t like the images then don’t let your child watch Disney. Oh right, Disney isn’t making cartoons with these characters anymore. You might also whine about the rampant sexism in mass popular culture. Very original daring and provocative.

    Sixth, if you can’t manage your children properly than you’re a terrible parent. You cannot expect Disney to raise your child and if you do, as this post implies, then you cannot get angry at it when it makes its own decisions. Either you parent or they parent. Your Choice!

    Seventh, stop trying to coerce social responsibility on companies. Its factually unimportant. They can choose to market to whomever they want however they want. It is your choice as a parent to determine what your children consume.

    • JT Eberhard

      It’s comments like yours that really tempt me on my policy of not banning people or deleting comments if they at least attempt to make an argument. Your comment is so blatantly unfair and so sadly lacking in compassion that I admit being tempted to erase it.

      This is just horrible.

    • RuQu

      Yes, this is an isolated release. However, if it is popular there, or goes over well, what will that do to the odds of Disney rolling out this re-imagining of Minnie Mouse on a larger scale?

      It is right and proper to express disapproval while the scale is still small.

      Disney is also a widely trusted and respected source of children’s content. Yes, parents should review what their children watch before exposing them to it, but a parent cannot watch all of the content in advance. You watch a few episodes, declare a show “acceptable” and then expect it to stay that way. Disney as a mega-franchise has been widely given the “acceptable” label by parents for generations now, so this change to an unacceptable message is of concern. It is also of value to escalate the attention that it gets so parents who already “cleared” Disney content know to take a second look in the near future and make sure it is still acceptable.

      Finally, you seem intent on criticizing the way JT made his case, yet you do a terrible job yourself. While your format suggest you were attempting to compose an argument, it appears you forgot all of your key points in a rush to fit in as many insults as possible in a limited amount of space.

  • smrnda

    “Third, children are bombarded everyday in a variety of media formats to be a certain way. They are going to have to either become critically analytical or become sniveling sheep who are so sheltered by people like you that they won’t be able to think for themselves as adults.”

    Wow, you sound like a complete a-hole. I mean, let’s just get on the case of 10 year old kids because they aren’t adequately ‘critically analytically’ or ‘media savvy.’ You sound like all the grade A assholes who complain about bullying initiatives since ‘we need to teach kids to stand up for themselves.’ Advertisers keep going younger and younger so they can get kids who haven’t been able to develop the sophistication to figure out what they are doing.

    As for avoiding pop culture, unless you live in Amish country it just isn’t possible.

    “Seventh, stop trying to coerce social responsibility on companies. Its factually unimportant. They can choose to market to whomever they want however they want. It is your choice as a parent to determine what your children consume.”

    Sounds like the normal libertarian talking point that freedom means freedom of big business from social responsibility. If people think companies are doing something irresponsible, it’s less of an imposition to ask the companies to change than to ask the rest of us to put up with it. Plus, you can’t choose to avoid marketing or advertizing unless you lock yourself in a bunker.

    I ALSO am 100% sure you have to be male, so the whole body image thing doesn’t apply to you so much. Nobody is calling you ‘fat’ day after day. I’m sure you’re a ‘tough up and deal with it’ type, but I don’t think that’s anything to be proud of.

  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    The whole “idealized beauty” trope is injurious to everyone. As a transgender woman, it’s hard for me to ever see my own beauty because I have masculine features. I see myself in the mirror and only see a man staring back at me – and it’s that little bit of doubt of “will I be attractive” that keeps me from picking up a phone and calling a therapist.

    It’s heartbreaking to hear of children going through things like this. A child shouldn’t have to be surrounded by these spectres of perfection that cause them to doubt, to hurt themselves. Girls and boys who don’t quite “fit” with these stupid rules about what’s pretty and how manly can a boy be and how girly should a girl be. It’s terrible, to force people into boxes when their minds should be filled with other things.

  • RuQu

    While the primary harm here is to women, I think its worth pointing out that men should also be worried about these issues. There has been a consistent trend towards photoshopping men as well, and modern male “sex symbols” differ greatly from those of 40 years ago. Very few now have chest hair, or any visible body hair, and they have unnatural abs. Compare that to the Sean Connery era of James Bond, or the Burt Reynolds era of what “a man should look like.”

    It also does harm in relationships. Men are surrounded by women who look more perfect than even the professional models and actresses can really achieve, so what does that do to their perception of real women? Does a man look at his wife and feel dissatisfied with her appearance because he has unreasonable expectations when she is, in reality, just as attractive as the un-photoshopped stars he fantasizes about? How does this manifest in their love life, or in off hand remarks he makes? Does this generally contribute to a less happy relationship? Does his decreased sexual interest further compound the self-esteem hit his wife is already dealing with from being surrounded by these images herself?

    These trends are troubling for everyone. I’m also tempted to say, in what seems like a personal refrain lately, that they should be illegal. Is it not false advertising for “beauty products” to claim results that only computer manipulation can really do?

    • smrnda

      I totally agree with you there. You notice more and more idealized male forms in advertising, and yeah, if I look back a few decades I notice that ‘handsome’ male actors didn’t look as lean and ripped as they do these days. I’ve been reading about how body image issues are affecting more and more men.

      And yeah, there’s real damage to relationships because we get so much exposure to media standards of attractiveness – even if you know what’s going on and try to fight it, it has an effect.

      If we take the case of kids, I can choose to raise my kids without exposing them to toxic media, but so many other people will be exposed to it that they won’t escape its effects.