Do fairy tales contribute to our obsession with good looks?

I was participating in a chat with a group of ladies the other day. We were discussing hair colour. Every single one of us has hair that is either highlighted, coloured or streaked. I must say that I think it is fabulous that women have so much choice now about hair colours and styles and I go to the hairdresser regularly for cuts, treatments and highlights but I did start me down the path of wondering why it is that women are never satisfied with the way they look. Everyone of this group of women is also very weight conscious and most of them are forever on some or other calorie counting weight-reduction diet or another. I am precluded from these conversations now as a latent allergy to wheat has severely reduced my intake of cake, pizza, pies and other luscious food of a refined wheat based nature.

The lemon and lime fruit drop fairy that features in Sir Chocolate and the sugar dough bees story and cookbook (available at the end of March 2017) has multi-coloured hair. This idea was inspired by the recent modern trend of two and three toned hair.

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From a very young age, weight watching and the need to be slim becomes a topic of great importance for many girls. Women feel compelled to try and keep their weight down. Of course, there are health benefits to keeping an eye on your weight and not becoming significantly overweight but there are also health threats to being very thin. These threats never seem to really make it to the front page in the same way as the negative coverage of obesity. I have known a number of women over my life time who have struggled with the debilitating effects of anorexia, bulimia, abuse of laxatives and obsessive exercise routines. These disorders have a devastating impact on the life of the sufferer and also on the lives of the people who love them.

When I was a young teenager at school, I was very fashionable to have big, curly hair. Those of us with straight hair resolved the problem by having perms. I recall the nights of misery trying to get my ramrod straight and very fine hair to curl. The perm would drop out within a week leaving my hair looking just like rats tails. My Mom tried to help by teaching me how to pin curl my hair but this resulted in a million pins poking into my head all night. My hair does not curl. It required very tight twirling, a vicious pinch and then a criss-cross of hair pins to get my hair to retain any sort of curl. I spent my days feeling exhausted with heavy eyes and an aching head from lack of sleep [and probably a lack of oxygen as I lay on my face all night to avoid the poky hair pins].

The media bears a lot of the blame for our culture of obsessing with “thinness” and our looks. I wonder, however, if our traditional fairy tales don’t also contribute.

Think of these famous fairy tales:

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs written by the Brothers Grimm. This story depicts a young and willowy girl who is “the most beautiful in the land”. The fact that her jealous stepmother tries to murder her and she ends up living with the seven dwarves in a cottage in the woods is quite beside the point. Snow White is so beautiful that her dead body, enshrined in a glass case, causes a passing price to dismount from his horse and open the coffin to kiss her, dislodging the poisonous apple piece that has resulted in her untimely [coma? – can’t be death as she comes back to life]. What did I learn? Her great beauty results in her happily ever after;
  • Cinderella, another tale by the Brother’s Grimm. This story details the life of another spectacularly beautiful young woman who, subsequent to her father’s remarriage, becomes the family servant. Cinderella’s Step-Mother and two “ugly” sisters are very spiteful towards her because of her unparalleled beauty. All the ladies of the land are invited to a ball at the palace so that the young and handsome Price can choose a bride. Naturally, Cinderella is precluded from attending by her Step-Mother’s nasty wiles but Cinderella’s fairy Godmother comes to her aid. Cinderella attends the ball and her beauty turns the Prince’s head to such an extent that when she disappears unexpectedly at 12am, he scours the land with her glass slipper, in order to find her and make her his bride. This is another tale about great beauty triumphing over all.
  • Beauty and the Beast is a traditionally fairy tale written by French Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. This is the story of a selfish and unrepentant young Prince who is turned into a beast as a punishment for his selfish ways. The spell can only be broken if the bad tempered and ill-mannered beast can win the love of a beautiful maiden. Enter Beauty whose father has been taken captive by the Beast and locked up in his dungeon. Beauty agrees to take his place but is allowed to live in the enchanted castle and roam freely. Naturally, Beauty’s incredible good looks enchant the Beast to such an extent that he undergoes and entire personality change and falls in love with Beauty. This tale also has a happily ever after ending with our handsome couple falling deeply in love.

Generally speaking in these delightful fairy tales about ever-lasting love the hero’s choice of lady is purely looks based and he has either, not met her at all or met her very briefly. This certainly lends itself to a belief by young girls that good looks are the deciding factor and that personality and other achievements don’t matter.

Then there are the stories that depict beautiful and very powerful ladies, as follows:

  1. Think of the story of The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. The Snow Queen is depicted as an extremely beautiful woman in a white fur coat. She is also a very powerful witch who is able to bewitch Kaye and make him forget all about his special friend, Gerda, and his home and loved ones;
  2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis is another series that features a very powerful witch. The White Witch is also described as a very beautiful woman. She comes across Edmund, one of the four main characters in the book, and enchants him with her magic Turkish delight. She persuades Edmund to betray his siblings and come to her magic castle.

These are but five of a complete plethora of fairy and other tales for young girls that could have the undesirable side-effect of making them feel that good looks and a slim body are essentials to find love and happiness in life or to attain success and power.

Before we point fingers at the media for our looks obsessed society, I suggest that we look at our bookshelves and consider the impact of the messages we are passing on to our daughters in our favourite fairy tales. I am not suggesting for one minutes that we do not read these tales to our children but it is always a good idea to put ideas and viewpoints into perspective so as to pass on a balanced message.

Robbie Cheadle is the author of the Sir Chocolate book series.

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Blog: robbiesinspiration.wordpress.com

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36 thoughts on “Do fairy tales contribute to our obsession with good looks?

  1. Interesting piece, Robbie, though if I remember rightly, the Brothers Grimm didn’t write anything – they simply stole fairy takes from other cultures (a lot of them from the French tradition). They also changed some of the stories in later editions of their books, destroying the structure of many of the original tales. Just sayin’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is indeed true, Colin. Most people don’t know that though and think the Grimm’s brothers are the authors – I thought it would be a bit complex to recognise more than one author. Your point is well made though that the original story might be different but these are the versions we read/teach to our children usually.

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  2. Hi Robbie.. retracing comments and find you are another one of whom I follow I have been unfollowed so I will rectify after the comment.. As the FOLLOW button now appears instead of Following..
    I was one of those who had perpetual perms too.. 🙂 In my teens well into my 40’s.. Then I let it grow out and allowed it to kink in its natural form.. with a little help now and again from some curling tongs or I just blow dry it straight..
    I confess to having uses hair dye in streaks of highlights of blonde in my 40’s. An attempt no doubt to find some hidden youth. 🙂 Then the highlights over took and I kept getting lighter and lighter with each hairdressing visit.. 🙂
    But since my 50s. I have left it alone.. And it now appears to be going darker, what you see now is natural all be it I can see the various hairs of grey now showing their silver highlights when the sun catches lol
    And I love those stories by Brothers Grimm.. 🙂
    Sorry to hear you are wheat intolerant.. Many more are finding this is the case.. And I bloat when eating bread so try to avoid eating …
    Thank you for your lovely visit Robbie..
    And now to reclick the follow Button.. ❤ xxxx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sue. My mom used to dye her hair red for years and years. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and now she leaves it natural. I think she worries about anything with chemicals in it. It looks lovely now as it is very white. I also love fairy tales but do wonder if these sorts of unrealistic role models don’t add to our obsession with body perfect. I am glad you re-followed as I really enjoy engaging with you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think dear Robbie that from Children we are indoctrinated though many mediums to change our images.. When I grew up Twiggy was the sensation Model.. Meaning girls had be thin in order to feel attractive.. Its all a matter of perspective on where we live.. In some countries they prefer their woman to be an out-size 🙂 lol..

        And likewise about the follow.. Its happening a lot your the forth person like this.. Also comments are not coming back into my notification boxes, I wonder it comments I leave are being seen too as many do not respond.. So I will engage in the Happy Engineers advice yet again.. I am spam in one persons blog, she can not seem to get me out of there.. LOL.. So we keep trying xxx 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have also experienced a few unfollows which where not enacted by me. I have seen a few grumblings on other sites so I think it is a general problem at the moment.

    In Africa there is a mixture of attitudes towards the female body shape. A larger wife is a sign of wealth so it is certainly not frowned upon by society. I do notice that a lot of the younger African girls are very thin though, so I think the Western concept of thin being better is taking hold here to.

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  4. I totally agree that the importance of a woman’s beauty is drummed into our heads from a young age while boys are taught to be strong and to achieve. Such a shame that little girls are seldom the hero in the story despite being equally capable.
    I also had the poodle 80’s perm and suffered a chemical burn on my scalp at one point. The things we do for “beauty”…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your comment about chemical burn made me smile because my hair went all frizzy at one stage and I did look like the proverbial poodle. I have never forgotten that perming and excessive highlighting of hair do not go together. It took me weeks to grow that mess out.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. n interesting and thoughtful post, Robbie. I loved fairy tales as a kid, and still do. I’m sure in some way, they impacted my views of how women (and men) should look and behave, but they also opened a wonderful channel to imagination and the endless possibilities of “what-ifs.” I balanced my love of princesses and fairy tales with a love of science and exploration. I was the girl who had the rock collection and telescope instead of a doll collection, but I was far from a tom boy. 🙂

    And I was lucky back in those big curly hair days, as I’ve always had wavy hair…and forever wanted it to be straight. Now I can achieve that look with a big round brush and a blow dryer. And I would love to let the gray come into my hair naturally, if only it wouldn’t take so long for it to grow out from the roots. I have fairly long hair and have always envied older women who have long white-gray hair and don’t have to use color!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was also a mixture in my childhood days. I played in the sand and climbed trees with my male cousins but I also wore pretty frocks and ribbons in my hair. I would not wear shorts or trousers until I was 11 years old. When I hit my teens I became very figure and fashion conscious.

      I also love fairy tales and my kids and nieces and nephews have heard them all from me but I do think it is good to let them know subtly that it doesn’t work like this in real life. I have seen so many little girls develop eating disorders and it seems to be happening younger and younger.

      BTW, I also like natural grey and white hair but then I don’t have any grey yet so may feel differently when it actually happens.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We sound very much alike in our childhood and teen years, Robbie! And you’re lucky you don’t have the gray creeping in yet. It’s the only reason I highlight my hair! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I think fairy tales probably do contribute to an obsession with good looks (in terms of both weight and overall appearance). It may be even worse when fairy tales are made into Disney movies or whatever. Indeed, in the media generally, the goodies tend to be amazingly good looking and the villains are usually rather plain. I’m glad the real-world isn’t like that. I wouldn’t want to have to spend my entire life as a baddie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, Bun, you are very humorous indeed. I actually did think about the Disney interpretations of these fairy tales when I was writing this post. They make the whole situation worse with an even more unobtainable representation of females. There depictions of male heroes are equally unlikely and unrealistic.

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  7. In my heart I believe everything is beautiful. I was not raised that way. As I have advanced in years, I allow myself to make up my own mind and as a result, I am happier than I have ever been. ❤ Oh and I decided that the grey that began showing up in my hair was nothing more than glitter and I love glitter.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Definitely points to ponder. We think it begins at home as we are raising our children with respect for themselves and respect for others and that beauty is not the exterior but the interior. The world however promotes the exterior in that you are only something if…. if you wear these jeans… if you fix your hair this way… if you dress this way…. if you believe this…. if you etc. The world objectifies women and men as objects rather then people, short ones tall ones, skinny ones and not so skinny ones, yellow ones, black ones, white ones and the list goes on! Lets get back to the family which is the foundation of the world. Oh well, just a thought.

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  9. The older tales use so much of a symbolic language, that I think the ‘beauty’ of the inevitable princess was probably a reflection of an inner, rather than corporeal beauty. The Queen in Snow White, for example, is an example of narcississtic vanity and comes to a sticky end… as does the White Witch. Physical beauty is clearly not what it may seem to be… and as such, these old tales are moral tales. But I do take your point, especially with the sanitsed versions we seem to tell children these days. Many of their original messages have been watered down to a point of pointlessness and the ones they do give children may be inadvertenty damaging. The older versions now hold too much horror to inflict upon growing minds…or so they say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your insightful comment, Sue. I do agree that the original versions of many fairy tales do have a moral point and that in the retelling (especially the Disney versions) this has been lost to a certain extent. The horror of fairy tales never bothered me when I was younger – less scary in my opinion than the early morning news these days. My favourite fairy tale is the Elvin Mound by Hans Christian Anderson.

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      1. Joseph Campbell once wrote the human subconscious is hard wired to seek out gods, myths and archetypes It is the very substance embodying humanities highest ideals. Fairy tales and literature are merely the magical conduits.

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  10. When I was small, not only the color of my hair was dark chocolaty-brown, but it was also cut very short; my skin was a little darker too and my eyes were unoriginally brown. I did not correspond to the European fairy-tale Beauty standard. I loved fairy-tales and I remember dreaming of having long golden curls and bright blue eyes…I loved Snow-White the most because her hair was black, but even her shiny black hair made me feel quite dissatisfied with the boring color of my hair.

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    1. This is the point I was making. Dark hair and eyes are so lovely. I have blue eyes and blonde hair but it is ramrod straight and I could never achieve the fairytale goldilocks curls. There is a lot more diversity in fairytales now with contributes from a much bigger range of cultures which helps with this stereotypical idea of beauty.

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