The princess was beautiful. And because she was beautiful, we know she was good. And because she was good, we know she was beautiful. And likewise the handsome prince. Because in fairytales goodness and physical beauty go hand-in-hand. And as in generations past, and as in generations yet to come, we teach this nonsense to our children: that the more physical beauty you have to show, the more value you have to offer as a person. I say, we don’t need a fairytale world!
From the cradle our children are taught about the value of physical beauty. Cinderella, for example, was the beautiful and morally good victim of her ugly stepsisters’ brutality. Why do we know that Cinderella was beautiful, even under the tattered rags of her soot-blackened dress? Why, because she was good, of course. Snow White’s virtual goodness was underscored by the proclamation of the mirror that she was, in face, the most beautiful in all the land. The vain and evil stepmother came in a sorry second. In Grimm’s account of sleeping beauty, (again, a child whose goodness was surpassed only by her beauty), the malevolent fairy that caused all her trouble was, in fact, quite ugly and unacceptable even in the company of other fairies.
Badness is described in fairytales by the presence of physical differences. Although contemporary versions of the classic Jack and the Beanstalk have tried to clean up the obvious ethical problems of that story, it remains that by virtue of the fact that the giant was physically different (e.g., big) Jack was given just cause for burglarising the Giant’s home and absconding with his treasures. Witches must be ugly, complete with warts and hooked noses. (In the Wizard of Oz, of course, Glenda, the good witch, was beautiful.) Trolls have to have hunched backs and sharp teeth. If a pirate is bad, he must be missing some part of his anatomy - a hook for a hand; a peg for a leg; a patch where an eye should be. Virtually every bad character in children’s classic literature is physically flawed in some visible way.
This may all seem innocent enough when the child hearing the story is not also physically flawed in some visible way, or if that “perfect” child does not meet another child who in fact has a visible flaw. Could it be that a cleft scar or a flattened nose or a crooked smile might be the symbol of inherent badness in a child to himself or to his friends?
The most common complaint of parents whose children have some sort of craniofacial anomaly is that the world judges others based on physical beauty. When beauty and perfection are synonymous. Where does that leave our children? Our children are very concrete thinkers and don’t really understand the theory that fairy tale beauty represents “inner beauty” (and aren’t we in fact, by using the term, “Inner beauty” simply continuing with the theme that goodness is beauty and beauty is goodness?
Of course, there are the examples of the fairytale metamorphs - those who start out ugly and turn beautiful. For instance, the Ugly Duckling does, in fact, grow up to be a beautiful swan. Beauty’s Beast is turned into a handsome prince by her love, and the Frog Prince becomes a handsome fellow again when he is kissed. But in each case, the value of the character is not realised until the change takes place. The Duckling had to become a swan before it could appreciate itself. Our children will not wake up suddenly someday and find themselves physically perfect. They were born with clefts and will always have a cleft, if only a repaired cleft. No matter how “good” they try to be, the cleft condition will not go away.
What our children do need is a Real World. They need a world in which they can learn that people come in all shapes and sizes and colours. They need to learn that everyone is different in some way, and we are all the same in many ways. They need to know that differences only mean variety, and that by sharing the “different-ness’ of each individual, we enrich the whole.
Current children’s literature presents many opportunities to teach the beauty of diversity. Look around in your bookstore and in your library. You will find books that feature children of various races. Some will feature children with cultural differences. Some children pictured will have some sort of disability or physical anomaly. Diversity is big on the minds of publishers lately, and for good reason. All children need to feel good about themselves and no child measures up to the harsh standard of “Physical Perfection”.
Scrutinise the stories you share with your child. Do they teach that beauty is a value statement? Consider retelling an old favourite, changed to allow for acceptable imperfection. Or, go ahead and tell the story in its classic form, and then discuss with your child questions such as, “Don’t you think Cinderella was a good person? Do you think she would have been just as good if she were not beautiful? Is it ok if a person is not beautiful?”etc.
Physical beauty is not a bad thing. In fact, it is wonderful to feel good about yourself and to feel that others look upon you approvingly. But it is not a value statement. We don’t need a fairytale world, because in a fairytale world only that which is judged by physical perfection is acceptable. We don’t live in a fairytale world, and thank goodness we don’t.