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Remodeling Minnie Mouse: Outcry may prompt changes in retailer’s plan

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Published Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, at 6:31 a.m.

A super-skinny Minnie Mouse has between now and Wednesday, when she walks the fantasy runway in the holiday windows of Barneys New York stores, to put on a few pounds and appease critics.

Not the typical challenge for an aspiring model.

But body-image activists, some of whom are parents of young girls, cried foul when a rendering of an emaciated, elongated Minnie began circulating with Barneys’ announcement of its holiday window collaboration with Disney. The “Electric Holiday” campaign is to feature a video in which Minnie fantasizes about modeling in Paris.

Most of the video’s three minutes, Barneys has said, will show Minnie with her familiar proportions. But for a five-second dream sequence on the catwalk, Minnie is stretched tall and thin because, as Barneys Creative Director Dennis Freedman initially explained, “The standard Minnie Mouse will not look so good in a Lanvin dress.” Mickey, Goofy, Daisy and other Disney characters will be refashioned similarly.

Ragen Chastain, a writer of the blog Dances With Fat, bristled. She launched a petition drive on change.org urging Barneys and Disney to “leave Minnie Mouse alone.”

“I don’t think they have bad intentions. But this constant drumbeat we give kids of a single ideal body is really dangerous,” Chastain said. “Kids don’t hate themselves (into being) healthy.”

The petition has collected more than 137,000 signatures, including one from Robyn Lawley, the first plus-size model to appear in Ralph Lauren ads. It includes statistics such as hospitalizations for eating disorders, which, from 1999 to 2006, rose 119 percent for children younger than 12, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Other studies report 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls say they want to be thinner, and 47 percent of girls in fifth to 12th grade want to lose weight because of magazine pictures.

“I’ve seen children at the ages of 7 or 8 already confused about their body images,” said Deborah Wagner, a developmental psychologist in New Jersey. “I would not say that if little girls look (at the remodeled Minnie) they’re going to stop eating. However, you do want to give children a healthy sense of their own bodies and what women’s bodies look like, and also the notion that girls can be girls, they don’t have to be women, they don’t have to be sexy.”

Sierra Filucci, a senior editor for Common Sense Media, a site that offers counsel on kids’ media usage, said the message is especially perilous coming from Minnie Mouse, an iconic character whom kids know from the time they’re preschoolers.

“What our kids see in advertisements and the media powerfully informs their sense of what’s acceptable and normal,” Filucci said. “We also can’t forget the effect that this kind of marketing has on boys too. If girls look at this new, skinny, glammed-up Minnie and believe that’s how they’re supposed to look, then boys are seeing exactly the same thing: that disproportioned, heavily made-up women are the norm, and what boys are supposed to interpret as sexy.”

A child who never passes a Barneys window can be influenced by trickle-down impressions from adults, said John Dolores, executive director of the Center for Hope of the Sierras, which treats eating disorders. “We’ve really created this culture of children who are going to be directed in that mindset that their body is never good enough and they have to continually do different things to make it better. The end result is a dysfunctional relationship with food.”

This is the second time this year that Disney has triggered body-image controversy, said Judith Matz, a therapist, licensed clinical social worker and co-author of “The Diet Survivor’s Handbook” (Sourcebooks). Disney closed its “Habit Heroes” exhibit at the Epcot park last winter after complaints that it reinforced fat-shaming stereotypes, with villains bearing the names such as Lead Bottom.

Parents rule

As awry as these campaigns can go, parents have the most influence on children, especially when they’re young, Matz said.

“What parents can do is not comment on their own body size, not talk about diets in front of children, not say ‘so-and-so looks great because she lost weight’ or keep magazines around the house that say ‘Lose 20 pounds in 2 days!’ ” Matz said.

If an older child notices the skinny Minnie, a parent might ask what he or she thinks about how Minnie looks and add, “I love Minnie just the way she is,” then pointing out that “sometimes for all of us there is a dress that doesn’t fit our bodies. We need to find a dress that’s right for us.”

Even adults should be aware that negative messages can be habit-forming, “accumulating in that shame place inside of yourself,” Matz said. “I really encourage people to consider, ‘If yelling at myself about my body really helped, I would be thin by now.’

“By the way, accepting that your body size doesn’t fit this thin ideal doesn’t mean you’re giving up on yourself,” Matz said. “What we’re talking about is, when you take really good care of your body, eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re satisfied, and you’re physically active and manage your stress, your body will settle at the size that’s right for you. The more people yo-yo diet, the higher their weight goes over time.”

Whether Barneys and Disney acknowledge it outright, the outcry may be prompting modifications to the video.

“Our intention was to keep the end of the short a surprise until its release on Nov. 14,” Barneys said in a recent post on its blog The Window. “But we can reveal it ends happily with Minnie — in her classic form — wearing the same designer dress she models on the runway.”

The statement also indicated the super-skinny-Minnie rendering that started the uproar was “intended to be concept art,” hinting that it won’t be used in the video, which leaves room for Minnie to grow.

“We are confident our lighthearted holiday project along with the video’s positive message will be embraced by not only the fashion world, but Disney fans alike,” the post ends.

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