Reading Grimm: If Beauty is Skin Deep

"The King's Daughter" | Art by R-Valle. Used with permission.
We’re obsessed with beauty. I get it. Pretty things are nice to look at.

But I don’t hide away in my room because I don’t have the grace of Gwyneth Paltrow or the glamour of Gal Gadot. Apparently that’s a thing you do in fairy tales, though.

In the Grimm story “The Crystal Ball,” the youngest son of an enchantress sets off to find the Castle of the Golden Sun and save the princess, who is “waiting for deliverance.” He feels the need to leave home because his enchantress mother had transformed his two older brothers into an eagle and a whale, respectively. (She thought they would try to steal her power because, remember, people in fairy tales do not trust each other).

After stealing a magic cap from a couple of giants, he finds the castle and is shocked when he meets the princess; though he had heard tales of her great beauty, she “had an ashen-gray face full of wrinkles, blear eyes, and red hair.” (Is red hair supposedly unattractive? I beg to differ, and so do all the Weasleys.)

I’m saddened women have been taught the value of beauty within a culture of ridicule and body shaming.

He is very disappointed, but the princess assures him this is not her usual form. She tells him to look at her reflection in the mirror to see her true appearance, and when he does, he sees “the likeness of the most beautiful maiden on earth, and saw, too, how the tears were rolling down her cheeks with grief.”

She explains to him how she is to be “set free,” but it doesn’t seem anything is holding her captive besides her ugliness. The enchanter who cursed her isn’t keeping her in chains, she just doesn’t want to leave. However, the son goes through the trials (including fighting a wild bull and stealing a phoenix’s egg) in order to break the curse, becomes the king of the castle, returns his brothers to human form, and marries the princess.

Most fairy tales about young women focus on their beauty. Stepmothers are jealous of their stepdaughters’ appearances, such as in “Snow White” and “Cinderella.” Princesses are consistently labelled as lovely beyond measure. They may or may not be described as “pious,” “clean,” or “humble,” but they are always beautiful. Princes fall in love at first sight because the princess is pretty, and for no other reason. In “The Crystal Ball,” it’s heavily implied that the son would turn around and leave if the princess truly was ugly.

I’m saddened women have grown up watching these fairy tales in their Disneyfied versions, have been taught the value of beauty within a culture of ridicule and body shaming, and have struggled with depression because of appearance. While there’s nothing wrong with wearing makeup or taking time on appearance, we shouldn’t feel pressured to do so when we’d rather be doing something else. We shouldn’t feel unloved because our bodies aren’t shaped like a model’s, we struggle with acne, we don’t wax our arms, our hair is turning grey, our skin is wrinkling, or we’re wider or scrawnier than average.

She explains to him how she is to be “set free,” but it doesn’t seem anything is holding her captive besides her ugliness.

“It is a barrier to gender equality if the newscaster, who’s a woman, has to spend an hour on hair and make-up and the man has to spend 10 minutes — who gets more time to prepare for their segment then?” says Renee Engeln, author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, in an interview with Pacific Standard. “And it’s a barrier when women are afraid to write things or say things online because they know they’re going to get hit with ‘You’re ugly,’ ‘You’re fat,’ or, even worse, a rape threat.”

So how do we push back in this culture of beauty sickness? For one thing, we stop devaluing ourselves because of our appearance and comparing ourselves to each other. Engeln suggests talking to a therapist or a close friend if self-deprecation is something we struggle with. For another, we can consider the content and photos we’re publishing on social media—if we’re posting things because we need people to tell us we look good in order to feel good about ourselves, we should consider Engeln’s earlier advice.

“For most women, not a day goes by without them wishing that some part of them were different,” writes editor Anna Hosain in The Huffington Post. I’m certainly guilty of thinking this through much of my childhood, and I’m not happy that insecurity still creeps into my adult life. What helps is being confident in my relationships; I know I could just roll straight out of bed, hang out my friends, and they wouldn’t care less (they’d definitely make fun of my bed hair, but they love me for me).

That’s how I counter my insecurity: by knowing that the people I care about most are going to enter the castle and not be deterred by my outward appearance. And treating others, including myself, with that same level of respect and acceptance is a step forward. We are so much more than our skin. We are so much more than beauty. We are loved.

Allison Barron

Allison Barron

Art Director at Geekdom House
Allison is like Galadriel, offering wisdom where needed but turning treacherous as the sea when competitive games are involved. She manages Geekdom House's arts initiatives, including Area of Effect and Incantatem. She spends the rest of her time writing for Christ and Pop Culture and Think Christian, playing D&D, and exploring Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.
Allison Barron

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