As children we are taught to “play fair” because “fair is fair” and when something isn’t fair, whether it’s deliberately cruel or arbitrarily ruled, we learn to see that something as broken. Then, somehow the term “fairest of them all” starts getting tossed this way and that, and we’re just supposed to take it to mean physical beauty. Now, that’s not fair.
So what if “fairest of them all” was originally intended to refer to SnowWhite’s physical beauty and the aging-though-still-gorgeous Queen’s envy of it? There is a lot more to be admired about the girl who traveled beyond the seven hills. There is even a great deal to pity with regards to the Queen and her actions.
Alright, fine, I’m completely biased. The story of SnowWhite is by far my favorite fairy tale. All that really means is me plus writing this particular post equals a little too much fun on my side of things.
The Mirror Is
So here’s the thing about looking at very old stories and trying to find relevant lessons for modern living: it’s too tempting (read: easy) to focus on the surface details. It’s too easy to equate each character in the story to different individuals in the life-story you tell yourself about who you are and why. The tricky (read: necessary) thing is to view the whole story — especially if it’s your favorite story — as representative of your whole self.
You are the fairest of them all who travels beyond the Seven Hills to triumph over your chosen obscurity. You are the Seven Dwarves ever digging deeper and deeper, without any plan but to hide and discover. You are the Talking Mirror who knows your truth better than anyone, and the Queen who decides to blind herself to that truth and act in accordance with that blindness.
You are all these things, and I am all these things. In this way, every story we read becomes a mirror reflecting back to us our view of ourselves. What do these mirrors say when they talk and how do we interpret those messages?
From the Start
When we are very young our brain is constantly in search of familiar patterns to ground us in a situation. This Christmas, when my not-even-5-feet-tall-and-all-grown-up cousin entered the house, my two-year-old niece ran up to her and said, “You’re little,” and then took a step back to show off her whole self and said, “I’m little, too.” My niece pretty much didn’t leave my cousin’s side for the rest of their visit together.
To me, that’s what it means to be “white as snow.” No pretenses, no filters besides the simple rules put in place by her parents, just absolute and joyous innocence. Remember, SnowWhite is a child of about seven when her story takes its dark turn; the so-called Age of Reason.
When we learn right from wrong we don’t just apply it to those actions which get us into trouble, but also to the process of comparing ourselves to others in our natural search for patterns. That means that while we are learning to be good, we are also learning an idea of wrongness in connection with being different. Do you see where I’m going with this?
An Old Story
I remember the very first homework assignment that signaled my descent down the slippery slope of chronic underachievement due to OCD subtype Sinner/Doubter (underachievement so bad I eventually failed English my freshman year of high school despite having the skills and motivation to write a novella giving a very different treatment of SnowWhite from the one given in this post). I was in the second grade and was supposed to turn in a collage about dental hygiene. It was turned in late, improperly executed, and was both my first D grade (my first ever grade below a B) and my first definitive reason to feel bad about my appearance.
My second-grade health teacher assigned seven-year-old me a craft project that should have been easy: go home, cut a bunch of pictures of bright smiles and toothbrushes and toothpaste ads from some magazines, and glue them to a piece of paper she was kind enough to provide. Now, I grew up in a very crafty household, but the only catalogs not summarily trashed were The American Girls Dolls and Victoria (the fancy interior design one, not the lingerie one). The doll magazines were routinely turned into elaborate paper doll setups by yours truly, and the other was Mommy’s special magazine and would have resulted in a whole heap of trouble if they were cut up for anything.
I didn’t know I could/how to ask my mother not to throw away the “useless” magazines so I could go through them, or for her to pick some up for me at the grocery store; and, time passed and passed until the project was late and I was in academic trouble.
It Gets Complicated
At first I wanted to try a workaround of family pictures with our own bright smiles, and that was when I noticed the difference in color from my own smile to that of my parents and my sisters and — by extension — all my classmates and teachers. My teeth are brown/discolored/not white, and they have always been that way. I’m serious, my baby teeth came in brown and the adult teeth that followed came in brown.
As the project deadline approached, other kids turned in their posters early and our teacher had them stand in front of the class and talk about their poster and show off their bright toothy smiles. Watching bright smile after bright smile go in front of the class and show off their posters filled with more bright smiles made my stomach upset. The which feeling caused me to hide the blank roll of paper my teacher had given me in the back of a closet so I wouldn’t have to look at it.
The project was so late they called home to make sure my parents made sure I did it. My mother was not given any details regarding the execution except that my teacher had already provided the paper. So I had to dig the crumpled thing from out the back of the closet and decided — because the paper happened to be, dare I say, brownish — that instead of collaging I would draw the whole thing (every toothbrush and toothpaste and toothy smile) without using the white crayon at all. Here’s how my teacher felt about it:
“You could have gotten an A, but you turned it in late. You could have gotten a B, but you didn’t make a collage. You could’ve gotten a C, but you didn’t even finish coloring everything in; you didn’t even color the teeth white.”
It Keeps Going
How do you know to tell your teacher you left the teeth brownish on your poster because your own teeth are brown when — having smiled in front of her so many times — you can only assume she already knows your teeth are brown? How does your mother know what sort of reassurance you’re really looking for when you hint at interest about whitening toothpaste and strips and trays with gels and giant machines requiring appointments? Why do dentists and orthodontists feed into such self-consciousness when you reveal your teeth came in brown rather than explaining that sometimes nature just does that and then letting the conversation friggin’ end with that?
We live in a society that at some point decided white teeth are the norm and that it isn’t fair that not everyone has white teeth and that certain things need to be available to reign everyone into that norm. There are other norms with other products/actions meant to streamline our species’ appearance and behavior. We are each inclined to feel particularly badly about one or another or many, and all mine started with feeling my teeth were all wrong.
So it is, at the Age of Reason, the Queen comes in with her ideas about beauty and normalcy and chases away the confidence inherent in our innocence, and that chase pushes it out beyond the Seven Hills where Seven Dwarves embody The Shivers, our fears protective and redundant. The Queen, by virtue of her royal title, is a powerful figure, and yet she requires validation from the Talking Mirror.
Talking to Yourself
We are each of us the child fighting for her life, the woman fighting for validation, and the mirror spouting truths as simply as it is able. Having internalized some societal lesson that goes against some natural part of ourselves, this third part of us wakes; the will, the desire to be whole again. We surround ourselves with little hints and clues meant to guide us back to that wholeness.
We get really annoyed with advertising in general because we don’t want anyone else telling us who and what we ought to be. We crave certain foods or movies or music based on the slightest whims of our moods. We out-and-out talk to ourselves out of boredom or loneliness or the need to hear our thoughts as words in order to make sense of them.
Our brains and our bodies are constantly sending and receiving signals to aid in our survival and maximize our quality of living. What we say to ourselves as our own Talking Mirrors will either confirm we’re on the right track (self-validating), or point us in the right direction (self-correcting). The Shivers, our Lizard Brain fears, have a tendency to confuse the two.
Twisting Your Face
It is the human condition to get something wrong, to misinterpret, to make mistakes. It is the human condition to prefer to be right, to want to be understood, and to fight against admitting our mistakes. So it is that sometimes we take certain brain/body signals to be self-correcting when they’re self-validating, and others to be self-validating when they’re self-correcting.
We look at ourselves without a mirror and we like what we see or we don’t. We look at ourselves with a mirror and we like what we see or we don’t, but the use of a mirror isn’t likely to change our opinion. It simply provides a little more information than what we had before.
The Queen knows she is beautiful and powerful and can have whatever she wants. When she is worried about the balance of that little trifecta she turns to a mirror to reassure herself by providing a little more information, but she does not see that she chooses the meaning of the words. As the Queen, we decide what the signals mean.
Picking Your Poison
SnowWhite is most fair because:
- she is physically beautiful;
- she treats everyone fairly;
- she is innocent;
- she is confident;
- she is equally kind to everyone, including herself;
- she knows how not to overwork herself when hiking the Seven Hills; and,
- even though she is a princess, she knows how to perform all the menial tasks of running a household and does them when they are hers to do (perhaps even when they aren’t).
Given all of SnowWhite’s attributes, perhaps the Queen’s great flaw was asking who was “fairest” rather than “the most sexually alluring.” We know that rather than self-correct her question, she self-validated her fear of losing her little trifecta. Once that fear had been validated, she moved on to correcting what she perceived to be her problem.
She fixed her fury upon a child because of that child’s physical/developing beauty. She could maim the child, but the child is already well-loved and might go on to tell her story and that sort of verbal evidence could detract from the woman’s power by damaging her reputation as a fair-enough ruler. The child can’t be in a position to talk or draw any kind of attention, so the woman decides to have the child killed in secret and that the huntsman should bring back the child’s heart as evidence.
Having the huntsman cut out the heart will provide the woman with the idea she has taken the child’s fairness into her own being, and also prevent the huntsman from speaking about his part in the child’s disappearance. Yet the huntsman didn’t/couldn’t bring himself to kill the child and instead left her to the beasts of the wild wood. Remember, we are looking at the whole story as representative of the whole self; the child is not only who we are in our innocence, but the seed of who we are meant to be, it is our truth and as such can never be summarily taken from us.
Choking on Words
Our truth and the path that honors it are always around to haunt our memory any time we deviate or take a detour. We can fall in line with every societal pressure, but there is always some thought in the back of our minds to nag at us when something isn’t right. Then, we as the Queen turn again to our Talking Mirror for validation and instead find grounds for correction.
Yet much has happened in the interim between sending the child to her death and being told she is still alive. The child, that seed of truth, has been kept shielded by Seven Dwarves who fear for her safety and provide instructions for staying safe at home, based on their fears. The woman has been dealing with societal pressures and keeping records of them all in a sort of Poison Cookbook.
So, when the child turns out to be alive, the Poison Cookbook is put to work convincing the child there is no need in the world for her:
- Stay-Laces, lace a corset tight and tighter so the body may take up as little room as possible, not unlike keeping your head down and sitting in a back corner;
- Hair-Combs, rid your hair of tangles and your head of your troubles, not unlike limiting yourself to certain activities because of your sexual organs; and,
- The Classic Apple, choke it down and never bother anyone with your thoughts or opinions ever again.
Getting to Work
Every time the Queen goes after SnowWhite, the Seven Dwarves use that experience to reinforce the logic of hiding away and staying at home, even though theirs is the task of mining for valuable resources. When SnowWhite is finally done in by the apple, they place her in a glass coffin because our truth can never be destroyed, only put to the side to haunt our memory. As the Seven Dwarves — the protective nature of fear at work — mourn their failure to protect, other aspects of our nature mourn the loss:
- the Owl, the subconscious mind’s collector of Wisdom who complements the conscious mind’s purveyor, the Talking Mirror;
- the Raven, the mind’s insatiable Curiosity kept hungry by the Queen’s destructive doubt; and,
- the Dove, the heart’s desire for a Peace best kept by treating everyone, including ourselves, with equal kindness.
After following so long a bad chain of logic, correcting things that aren’t broken and looking for the wrong sort of validation, it can seem necessary for some outside person to have to come save us from ourselves. The arrival of the prince from who-knows-where isn’t someone doing the work for us. The Prince is born from our own mind’s ability to self-correct by taking all the information and signals we have been ignoring and misinterpreting and bringing it all together to plant in us an image of who we could be had we chosen to follow our truth from the beginning.
To live by truth we must recognize our truth, commit to cherishing our truth, marry our truth. In this way the apple will unstop our throats so that we may speak more kindly to ourselves all that we had intended to say when we first took up the role of mirror. When we live by truth, we are the fairest.
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