NEW YORK -- Fairy tales offer children a fantasy world of magic, romance and adventure, where pumpkins are transformed into crystal coaches and a kiss from a handsome prince can bring a young girl back to life.
But tales like "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Snow White" are also sending strong messages about the importance of having a beautiful appearance, according to a new study by Purdue University sociologist Liz Grauerholz and Lori Baker-Sperry, an assistant professor of women's studies at Western Illinois University.
Grauerholz and Baker-Sperry examined 168 Brothers Grimm fairy tales to study how fairy tales deal with beauty in "The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children's Fairy Tales." The study was supported by the Purdue Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
Beauty or ugliness is referred to in 94 percent of the Grimms' fairy tales, with evil characters often being described as ugly. In "Cinderella," the most reproduced of the Grimms' fairy tales, beauty in women was referred to 114 times. The stories don't focus as much on the appearance of the male characters, with less than 35 references in each tale, according to the study.
"I think the message that's given to girls is that beauty is one of the most important traits for females in our society. You can be many other things, but you're very much expected to be beautiful and to spend the time that is necessary to achieve that," says Grauerholz, associate professor of sociology at Purdue. "Boys don't get the message as much that it's so important to be handsome, although most of the princes are. But there are not continual references to it."
The Brothers Grimm fairy tales were written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century. Originally written in German, they were translated into English in 1851, and five of them have been reproduced more than 100 times: "Cinderella," "Snow White," "Briar Rose" (also known as "Sleeping Beauty"), "Little Red Cap" (also known as "Little Red Riding Hood") and "Hansel and Gretel."
The heroines are usually beautiful in the Grimms' tales, and ugliness is seen as a sign of evil in 17 percent of the stories, according to the study. Many argue that in the simplistic tales, beauty or ugliness is used a symbol of each character's capacity for good or evil. There are notable exceptions to this - Snow White's beautiful, evil stepmother, for instance - but ugly characters with kind hearts are hard to find.
"A lot of the response we've gotten has been, oh come on. What's wrong with beauty?" Baker-Sperry says. "Most people who have responded negatively or questioned this have not questioned the findings that beauty is really pervasive. They just question whether there's a problem with that."
Baker-Sperry says the lengths adolescent girls go to in seeking society's beauty ideal, such as developing eating disorders and seeking plastic surgery, are argument enough that the preoccupation with beauty can become dangerous. It affects boys as well in their view of women, Grauerholz says.
"In some ways I think boys get the same message, which is what's important about girls is what they look like," she says.
Neither researcher advocates tossing fairy tales off children's reading lists, citing the lessons about human nature and the grand illustrations that usually accompany the classic tales. Both Grauerholz and Baker-Sperry read fairy tales to their children but say they try to point out the stories' preoccupation with looks.
"My daughter is really interested in fairy tales. She's 4. We'll talk about it and I'll say, 'Just because in this story this ugly person is bad, do you think people who aren't attractive, do you automatically think they're bad?"' Baker-Sperry says.
Grauerholz hopes the fairy tales will continue to evolve to include ordinary-looking or ugly characters as the heroines or heros, as in the 2001 animated film "Shrek," whose happy ending has a beautiful princess turning back into an ogre and leaving the prince at the altar.
"What I think is so interesting about 'Shrek' is that it's the opposite of that ugly duckling story. The princess becomes the ogre in the end. But that whole movie was about twisting the fairy tales around," Grauerholz says.
"The thing about folk tales is they have been told over and over. That is the beauty of them. They are adapted to fit the particular needs of a time period or a culture. To question these fairy tales is all part of the tradition. Does this still do what we want them to do? It's OK to change them."