There have been some interesting posts on this blog lately about gender, weight, and photoshop (see the posts by Aeron Haynie, two by Susan O’Doherty, and by Rosemarie Emanuel. They have resonated for a number of reasons. First, of course, I’m a woman in this culture and by no means immune to the pressures to look thin. Second, I’m a parent, and I want both my daughter and my son to be healthy and happy without starving themselves (and, believe me, both boys and girls are liable to do so, though I still think their pressures are different). Third, I’m currently teaching a first-year seminar on Cinderella, and “lookism” is never far from my mind as I discuss the tale.
After all, Cinderella is one of the original examples of a woman rewarded for her looks and (as discussed in Susan O’Doherty’s first post and in the Ms. Mentor column she cites) for being a “pleaser.” She’s “as good as she is beautiful,” we’re told, and her goodness looks an awful lot like being a doormat: dressing her sisters’ hair for the ball they deny to her, in one version; completing absurd tasks without complaint in another. While neither Perrault nor the Grimms comment on Cinderella’s weight, many revisions make at least one of the wicked stepsisters fat, and the Disney version—the version most familiar to all of my students and, I suspect, most of us as well—turns the heroine herself into a Barbie-doll with similarly unrealistic proportions. (For a clever examination of the looks of the Disney princesses, check out this blog post from last fall .) Whether she’s thin or not, though, all versions of Cinderella seem to agree that she simply has to show up looking beautiful to snag the prince, and thus to achieve the epitome of feminine success.
We can’t, of course, blame Cinderella for a culture preoccupied with looks, and I’m not claiming that without the tale we’d all be better off. Rather, I want to suggest that the discussion my co-bloggers are having here is worthwhile, and is one with deep-seated roots. While most of us don’t really believe that just showing up in a ballgrown and glass slippers is enough to earn us success (however we might define it), still the tale is tenacious. If it’s about virtue rewarded, can we try redefining virtue to emphasize intelligence, or thoughtfulness, or generosity, without associating that with self-abnegation? While we’re at it, can we de-emphasize the looks of our female leaders, stopping the commentary on the pantsuits and hairstyles that inevitably accompanies a female leader though not her male counterparts and competitors? Can we stop calling assertive women “difficult” or “shrewish” when men with similar qualities are “confident” or “assertive”? Those of us with opinions and a little backbone are no longer doomed to the fate of the “ugly stepsister” (actually, they’re beautiful in Perrault’s version); it would be nice if our language and our commentary reflected that new reality.