Body Image Enters The Chat

Will Ursula From The Little Mermaid F*ck My Kids Up?

I’m just a mom standing in front of a screen asking it not to be sizeist, racist, and ableist.

Written by Elizabeth Narins
Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Shutterstock, Getty Images

Ever since my no-TV toddler beelined for the Ariel cupcake at his friend's 3rd birthday party and my babysitter called out sick for two consecutive weeks, I've been toying with the idea of letting Disney into the little guy's life. (Does TV count as a caretaker?!) Beyond my irrational fear that moving images will render my kid comatose, I'm worried that the Disney films we all grew up on will do all sorts of irreparable damage to his innocent little mind. Hear me out.

Consider the cast of The Little Mermaid: Beyond maybe Flounder, Sebastian, and Flotsam and Jetsam (and don't even get me started on those psychos), every merperson and their dad has an enviable six-pack. And then there's Ursula, the evil biatch who not only steals voices (the nightmares!) but is also the only notable person of size in the movie. What's a kid to think about that? Will my son watch and learn to equate evil with XXL? Sorry not sorry, but I'm not sure I want him to become a cog in the system that makes it hard as hell to find larger-bodied clothing on racks and impossible to fly in an airplane where seats actually accommodate the average ass. But because the idea of denying my kid the joy of Disney is plenty upsetting (his poor, unfortunate soul!), I started thinking about which Disney classics won't f*ck my kid(s) up. And guess what? Crickets.

Mostly to confirm whether my concerns were absurd, I asked Zoë Bisbing, the psychotherapist behind Body-Positive Therapy NYC, if I should straight-up delete Disney's account. (As the sea witch herself would say, "Life's full of tough choices, isn't it?")

Her take: "When we see fat characters portrayed in a negative light as stupid, threatening, or less valuable — and never the star or the one you want to be, it intuitively filters into our unconscious bias that drives a child toward a thinner doll or thinner child to befriend," she says. Read: I'm not nuts.

But she doesn't think Ursula herself is the issue. The real problem, she says, is that we're not seeing fat characters portrayed in a variety of roles. "There are only fat bad people. It's the lack of anything counter that absolutely informs our biases," Bisbing says.

That doesn't mean one brush with Ursula will set your kid up for negative body image, self-loathing, and insecurity. After all, every child is dealt a different deck of cards made up of genetic and environmental risks for those things. In other words? "We don't know which kids are going to be the kids that internalize this sh*t and have a negative self-esteem or self-body concept develop," she says.

So what — pray tell! — is the game plan, I asked? Bisbing says the first step is to self-assess. If you value body diversity, body positivity, and social justice, start by owning up to your own feelings about different body types. Do you think fat people are bad, lazy, or undisciplined? Do you think that perspective is just and call it out when it's not?

Once you do your own work, there's no need to vet Netflix until there's nothing left for your kids to watch but PBS. Rather, channel your critical thinking skills and model them for your children by identifying instances where characters are portrayed unfairly. "It's really about raising awareness," she says. "It's saying, 'Something is funky here. Just because Homer Simpson is fat doesn't mean he's going to get diabetes.'" You can also make sure your kids have easy access to books, hell, even clothing catalogs, that feature fat characters living their best lives — like larger-bodied ballerinas and baseball players. "It's not enough to turn off The Little Mermaid," Bisbing says. "We need to buffer the noise of diet culture and have something to counteract those messages."

One of Bisbing's favorite "buffering" books is Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder, which I honestly could not have added to my Amazon cart faster. Especially after Bisbing gave these efforts a name that I'm totally buying into: It's "scaffolding" for a body-positive home.

And while we all know moms wear enough hats, identifying as an everyday body-positive activist can really rub off on even two and three-year-olds, she says. "Coming from a family where even one parent is like, 'there is something very wrong in our culture,' plants the seeds in our children about causes that are worth fighting for."

At the end of the day, Bisbing lets her kids watch all sorts of Disney. But when she came across The Berenstein Bears and Too Much Junk Food, she tossed it. "A cautionary tale about eating too much positions fat as a bad thing, a sin, and a consequence of your actions — I don't see value there," she explains.

And hey, if you don't gatekeep (at least a little) smut from your kids, who will? The key here is being realistic. "In the same way we can't raise colorblind kids, we can't raise body-blind kids," Bisbing says. "You can try, but it's not very effective."

That said, now's no time to start feeling sorry about yesteryear and all the ways you already messed your kid up by pressing play on god knows what videos. "Becoming a body-positive parent isn't about feeling bad for everything you've done before this moment," she says. "It's about taking the opportunity to pivot, learn, and unlearn. It's never too early or late to start."

The same goes for racism and ableism, two legitimate issues in the classic story, Disney's animated version, and the May 2023 live-action revival, in which Halle Bailey plays Ariel (and seriously heard it from her haters.)

To that point: Beginners probably won't always get it "right." "As long as parents are asking the questions," — like, why does Ariel want to walk so freaking badly when it's clear swimming should be her varsity sport?— "it's not about having the answer but thinking critically about bias."

And raising eyebrows, fellow moms, is something we're all more than capable of doing. (Even after a few harmless hours of letting our kids be watched by, er, watch TV.)

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