It's well known that young girls are very self-conscious about their bodies, but it may not be because of the unrealistically thin Disney characters they see on TV, as is often assumed.

A new study featured in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology suggests that while the media's portrayal of beauty does influence how young girls see themselves, they aren't likely to suffer short-term consequences from watching Cinderella, a conclusion in sharp contrast to earlier studies which suggest that the self-esteem of older girls and women suffers after short-term exposure to thin, beautiful models on television and in the movies.

During the study, 121 girls were taken into a room with a "playmate" -- a trained research associate in her 20s who had experience working with children. After chatting for several minutes, the playmate asked each girl how she feels about the way she looks. Thirty-one percent indicated they almost always worry about being fat, while another 18 percent said they sometimes worry about it.

Half of the girls watched parts of animated children's movies such as Cinderella that featured young, beautiful characters and appearance-focused comments, such as Gaston telling Belle in Beauty and the Beast that she is "the most beautiful girl in town, and that makes her the best." The second group watched parts of animated children's movies such as Dora the Explorer and Clifford the Big Red Dog that do not contain any appearance-related messages.

In a room that featured a dress-up rack of costumes, a vanity, dinosaurs and more, children then spent about the same amount of time on appearance-related play activities, such as brushing their hair at the vanity, regardless of which set of movies they watched.

While older girls and women tend to compare their bodies to the models', younger children may be more likely to adopt the persona of the princesses while playing, the UCF researchers said.

The number of girls worried about being fat at such a young age concerns the authors because of the potential implications later in life. Studies have shown that young girls worried about their body image are more likely to suffer from eating disorders when they are older.

"We need to help our children challenge the images of beauty, particularly thinness, that they see and idolize and encourage them to question how much appearance should be part of their self-worth," said Stacy Tantleff-Dunn, who directs UCF's Laboratory for the Study of Eating, Appearance and Health. "We should help them build a positive self-image with an appreciation for many different types of body attributes."

Citation: Sharon Hayes, Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, 'Am I too fat to be a princess? Examining the effects of popular children's media on young girls' body image', British Journal of Developmental Psychology', 2009, doi: 10.1348/026151009X424240