body image

Barbie Doll Churches and the Disney Princess-ification of Christianity

By Derek Penwell

The Princess Backlash

Have you ever had occasion to hear a parent hold forth on the subject of Disney princess culture? You know what I’m talking about, how Disney princesses are all about beauty and helplessness.[1]

Strong opinions on the subject abound, to be sure. Peggy Orenstein wrote a scathing critique of the princess industry for the New York Times in 2006, about how disgusting it is that young girls should, in virtue of their socialization, live with paternalistic expectations about what it means to be feminine. Ugh! The whole princess thing.

Barbie’s another culprit that certain concerned parents and cultural critics have in their sights. Barbie, it is argued, distorts the body image of young girls.

Marge Piercy has written an important piece of critical poetry, entitled, Barbie Doll. The poem is about a girl, socialized in the heart of doll culture, who’s told early on she has a big nose and fat legs. After trying for so long to fit the picture of what a girl should look like, “her good nature wore out like a fan belt,” and she cut off her nose and legs.

The tragic irony of the poem, of course, is that she finally achieves the elusive beauty she’s sought in life when the undertaker reconstructs her body for viewing in the casket.

Barbie’s measurements, were she to be human-sized, would be a totally unrealistic 38–18–34. Only one in every 100,000 women will ever have this body type. And so, the thinking goes, offering this to young girls as a normative guide to cultural expectations about appearance borders on the criminal.

The upshot of all this disgust with Disney princesses and Barbies is that many parents believe growing up is tough enough without imposing irrational standards of beauty and dependency on young girls. Insecurity is easy enough to come by during adolescence, without heaping dump truck loads of false femininity and body image guilt on top of it.[2]

If you happen to be the parent of a young girl who approaches you with questions about whether she should go on a “diet,” it can make cold chills run down your spine. If you hear your young daughter worry out loud about whether she’s fat, it can inspire a violent reaction.

“I’m fat.”

“No, sweetie. You’re beautiful!”

“How come I don’t look like that?” she says, pointing to an image on the TV.

What do parents say?

“Well, honey, now that you mention it, I have noticed you’ve been packing it away at meal time. Maybe if you’d just ease up a bit on the Oreos.”


“You know, punkin, maybe if you spent a little more time in the gym you wouldn’t have to worry about that unsightly cellulite.”

No! Good parents (yes, that is an explicit value judgment) say something like:

“Honey, you are beautiful! We couldn’t love you anymore than we do right now–just the way you are.”

And you mean it, don’t you? Your daughter doesn’t have to look like Princess Jasmine or Barbie to gain your love–or even to be successful in everything she does.

But, as a parent it’s infuriating to think that the culture has built up such unachievable expectations in young girls that they go through life furiously trying to be something not only that they’re not, but something that they’re not even genetically capable of realizing–no matter how many hours they spend on the elliptical machine.

So, when we hear young girls walking around complaining about how fat they are, responsible adults, one hopes, tell them to stop talking that way.


Because if you say something long enough, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to start believing it.

The Plague of the Barbie Doll Church

I would like to suggest that many congregations are laboring under the same kind of unrealistic expectations about what it is they have the potential to be. Held up as models, congregations see portraits of “beautiful” churches–where the sanctuary is filled every Sunday, the youth are constantly in search of overflow space, and there are 115 different small groups from which to choose.

These churches are doing “exciting” things, “cutting-edge” ministry! The clergy are appropriately good-looking; the parishioners all have movie-star smiles and poofy hair; and the parking lots need shuttle buses and special signs to help you remember if you parked in “Dopey” or “Sneezy.”

When there’s some breaking news that involves religion, CNN doesn’t call Brother So-and-so from down at First Church of the Perpetually Underwhelmed for comment. They call “real” ministers, the clerical equivalents of Snow White or Belle.

When denominations get ready to hold their conventions and parachurch organizations look for people to help make decisions about weighty matters, they usually don’t go recruiting at the hispanic congregation renting space at the downtown YMCA. They troll the deep waters at St. Behemoth’s in the suburbs.

Look, those enormous Barbie churches–God bless ’em. Don’t get me wrong. God loves really beautiful, successful people, too. But why should every other church have to live with the burden of trying to duplicate a kind of success that only one in a 100,000 is ever going to achieve?

If you spend any time around congregations, and if you listen really closely you’ll hear the institutional insecurities of tweenage girls who compare themselves to Barbie: “We do the best we can, but it’s not much. We don’t have many resources. We’re just a small congregation.”

Why aren’t there more grownups wandering about telling these congregations, “No, honey, you’re beautiful just the way you are! Quit talking like that, or pretty soon you’re going to start believing it?”

And before you jump all over me for buying into the whole “participation trophy” culture, where the most important thing to concentrate on is self-esteem, I’m not suggesting that churches shouldn’t aspire to healthy transformation–any more than I would tell my daughter that adopting healthy habits is a bad thing. I’m not questioning improvement–just the models toward which we point as appropriate for emulation.

If you allow little girls or congregations to absorb the message that they should look like Cinderella or Big Steeple Christian Church, you shouldn’t be surprised when, after trying everything they know to try and foundering on the shoals of unrealistic expectations, all they can manage is an endless rehearsal of what utter failures they are.

So, here’s my modest proposal:

I hereby call for a moratorium on any self-referential utterance by a congregation that includes the words “small church.”

Just stop. Don’t say it anymore. It sounds too much like a pre-pubescent girl gazing into the pages of Seventeen magazine and endlessly repeating, “I’m too fat.”

Quit talking like that, or pretty soon you’re going to start believing it. And that’s an infinitely greater tragedy than failing to fit into a glass slipper, or not being able to build a parking lot big enough to need a shuttle bus.

  1. Seriously, it’s enough to want to make you throw up in your mouth a little. Hint: Let the cursor hover over one of the characters, and let the nausea begin.  ↩
  2. I’m aware that boys also increasingly have to combat body image issues themselves.  ↩