Beauty's in the Eye of the Bookholder

Fairy tales may damage girls' self-esteem, study says

MONDAY, Nov. 24, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- As you tuck your daughter into bed tonight, you may want to think twice about what bedtime story to read to her.

Classic fairy tales, such as Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, are loaded with subtle -- and many not so subtle -- messages that beauty is inherently good and should be rewarded, while people who are ugly are evil, wicked and mean.

These messages may have more of an effect on girls and their self-esteem than parents realize, new research contends.

"Parents need to be aware that all literature is teaching children something, and we should be aware what those messages are," says study coauthor Liz Grauerholz, an associate professor of sociology at Purdue University. "You need to raise questions and have a dialogue with your children about the meaning of these fairy tales."

Grauerholz says that's exactly what she did with her own daughters. "I didn't want my daughters to think they were only valuable for their looks," she says.

For this study, Grauerholz and her colleague, Lori Baker-Sperry from Western Illinois University, analyzed 168 fairy tales written in the 1800s by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm -- popularly known as the Brothers Grimm. Nearly half of these tales have been reproduced in children's books and movies.

Five of the most popular tales are: Cinderella, Snow White, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), Little Red Cap (Little Red Riding Hood) and Hansel and Gretel.

Grauerholz says she wanted to document how girls and women are portrayed in these fairy tales. Results of the study appear in a recent issue of the journal Gender and Society.

The researchers found 94 percent of the stories talked about physical appearance, and there were an average of almost 14 references to appearance per story. There were many more references to women's beauty than to men -- one story referred to male physical appearance 35 times versus 114 times for women's beauty.

And, those who weren't beautiful didn't fare well in the Grimm Brothers' tales. Nearly 20 percent of the stories linked being ugly with being evil. Also, in many stories, ugly people were punished, the study finds.

Does this mean you should pull beloved fairy tales off your youngster's bookshelf? No, says Grauerholz, you just need to offer your children another point of view and help them think about the messages in these tales.

With young children, she recommends changing the stories. Tell Cinderella to your child as if she were male. Or change the ending so she decides the prince wasn't right for her after all and lived happily ever after by making her own life.

Grauerholz points out that the messages in these tales are very similar to messages your children receive from today's popular media.

"We are so bombarded with this message [that beauty is good], it becomes invisible," says Grauerholz. But, she says children are picking up on it.

"This is quite a comprehensive problem," notes child psychologist Robin Goodman, from the New York University Child Study Center. "Media advertising, pop stars, TV, peer interaction -- there are so many things other than fairy tales working against women, and boys are also getting messages on how to treat girls."

She says she doesn't believe that fairy tales are the root of the problem, but that they do reinforce certain stereotypes. And, like Grauerholz, she doesn't think banning the books is the solution.

"These stereotypes exist, so you better help your children deal with them," says Goodman. "Tackle stereotypes head on, as early and as often as you can. They're not going away, so equip your children with ways to deal with them."

Goodman also points out that not all of the messages in fairy tales are negative. In Beauty and the Beast, the heroine learns to love the Beast for who he is, not what he looks like.

More information

To learn more about raising girls with a healthy self-esteem, visit the New York University Child Study Center's About Our Kids Web site. And, here's an article from the Nemours Foundation about building your child's self-esteem.

SOURCES: Liz Grauerholz, Ph.D., associate professor, sociology, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; Robin Goodman, Ph.D., psychologist, New York University Child Study Center, and clinical associate professor, psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine, and director,, New York City; October 2003 Gender and Society
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