Monday, August 11, 2014

Fat is Not a Fairy Tale

Fat is Not a Fairy Tale
Jane Yolen, 2000
Gustav Dore

I am thinking of a fairy tale,
Cinder Elephant,
Sleeping Tubby,
Snow Weight,
where the princess is not
anorexic, wasp-waisted,
flinging herself down the stairs.

I am thinking of a fairy tale,
Hansel and Great,
Bounty and the Beast,
where the beauty
has a pillowed breast,
and fingers plump as sausage.

I am thinking of a fairy tale
that is not yet written,
for a teller not yet born,
for a listener not yet conceived,
for a world not yet won,
where everything round is good:
the sun, wheels, cookies, and the princess.
"Cinderella," Edward Burne-Jones

Like pretty much every female, I've had my share of body image issues. I'm not the ideal size of a model or A-list actress, although I'm overall healthy, but it's hard not to cave to societal pressure which says that beauty is found in such a narrow standard.

Yet the thing that strikes me about this poem is that fairy tales themselves don't promote the hourglass figure, but recent visual interpretations of fairy tales do. For that matter, pretty much any visual media-films, billboards, the fashion industry-promotes that same figure; fairy tales are hardly alone in this. That's the beauty of tale that can be told or read-when a little girl hears that the princess was the most beautiful in the land, she can picture whatever she wants in her head (which is, most often, herself). Fairy tales very rarely highlight specifics of appearance, other than a preference for blonde hair over all. 
Willy Planck

For example, the princess in The Frog Prince is described as "so beautiful that the sun himself, who has seen everything, was bemused every time he shone over her because of her beauty." Cinderella is hardly described at all other than the effect that her clothes have on her. Sleeping Beauty was given the gift of beauty and looked lovely in her sleep, but in none of these instances was any feature described in detail at all. They could have been tall or short, petite or large, any hair color, it's all up to the imagination (Snow White is an exception, but if anything proves that beauty is found in non-blondes as well). (All of these examples are taken from Grimms).

And while I'm all for promoting finding beauty in all shapes and forms, we have to be careful not to go to the opposite extreme and criticize the naturally skinny. The poem would seem to indicate that anyone with a tiny waist is anorexic, which is certainly not true either. And while we shouldn't judge people for their weight, we should be concerned about people's health, and healthy bodies come in many varieties-health is not just about a number on a scale, but an indication of the body's ability to fight off infections and keep you alive longer.
Sure, Disney princesses have unrealistic and ideal bodies. But how is that different than most celebrities on the red carpet? The women below do not represent an average group of people either

Yet, many internet reviewers love this poem and seem to agree with the idea that fairy tales themselves, not the media overall, embody unfair beauty standards. 

But I do like Yolen's positive spin at the end, about anticipating a future that does celebrate more body types. How does this poem strike you?


  1. This poem makes me think of the chubby princess in the newest Erstwhile tale "The Twelve Huntsmen": Of course, the lady illustrators of Erstwhile have a history of depicting characters of various shapes, sizes and colors. One particularly noteworthy example: I remember the commenters over there being very positive about how the heroine was taller than her prince in their version of "The Singing, Springing Lark".

    1. Very interesting! I hadn't heard of Erstwhile before reading about it on your blog. It's so refreshing to see, as you say, a *variety* of shapes and sizes. So often I feel like, if media is going to present an alternate figure, they have one token "very large" woman but pretty much never have average-looking people in between XS and plus sizes. So I feel like it even further emphasizes the difference between small, attractive women and larger women.

      But I'm not surprised at all there was positive reactions to an unusually sized princess, we love seeing people we can relate to portrayed in a positive way. And thanks for commenting, it's always interesting to me to hear the male side of this issue!

  2. As in so many other cases, I think it's mostly Disney that has promoted the popular image of tiny-waisted princesses and other fairy-tale heroines. (In a related issue, let's not forget it was not until 1991, in Beauty & the Beast, that a Disney heroine was allowed to have brown, not blue eyes.)

    Great post, Kristin! And I'm pleased you chose the non-body-type-specific Burne-Jones illustration! Beautiful without being deathly thin!

    1. Absolutely, Disney has been key in what we picture visually when we think of fairy tales for almost a century now. However, I think Disney (and other relatively recent fairy tale illustrations) are just a few examples of an overall culture that promotes a certain beauty standard. I think of Disney as more of a symptom than the cause of narrow beauty expectations, although now, with such issues being talked about more often, it would be nice to see them take a leading role in presenting more healthy body types.

      But yes, I did try to find examples of fairy tale illustrations where the princesses had more curves-even in the Dore if you look closely Sleeping Beauty's arms have roundness you probably wouldn't see today.

      On a related note, there are several online articles where people are discussing how children's toys have become increasingly gendered in recent years, like this:

      Not only have the toys become more segregated in the aisles and the girls' toys pinker, but classic figures such as Rainbow Brite and Stawberry Shortcake have grown older-no longer plump, cute little girls, they're now slimmer and sexier

  3. I would imagine that the old fairy tale tellers/collectors, namely Perrault, the Grimms, and their contemporaries, would consider today's "beauties" quite ugly, in a far-too-thin-scarecrow kind of way. The 17th, 18th and 19th-century idea of beauty was a lot more plump and curvy than today's. I'd imagine that Perrault's mental image of Cinderella would have been more in line with the lush beauties of the paintings of his contemporary, Rubens. Pillowed breasts? You bet.

    1. Exactly! Beauty standards change so much over the years. People tend to desire that which is least attainable-to be plump and curvy during times of scarcity and hard labor; and now the disciplined, toned body in a world of sedentary office jobs and cheap fast food. But fairy tales themselves are hardly to blame!

  4. I know this post is quite old, but I immediately had to think of fairytales like One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes where the cinderella-esque herioine is starved by her family *in order to make her undesirable to men*, but is helped by a kind animal and becomes plump with rosy cheeks and therefore beautiful.

    I also was reminded of illustrations of Hänsel and Gretel that portray the children as fat which, considering that their family was close to starvation, seems pretty ridiculous to me. (Interestingly I have yet to see a picture of a fat Hansel in the chicken coop)

    Being exposed to the same standard of beauty over and over again is annoying at best and harmful at worst, but fairytales are in my opinion the wrong medium to criticize.

    1. Amen! And thanks for bringing up that insight from One Eye, Two Eyes, Three Eyes, I hadn't remembered that part!