Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful.” – Sophia Loren
Cinderella is probably the best-liked and best-known fairy tale in the world. The story has origins at least as far back as the ninth century in China (where a tiny foot size was a mark of distinction and beauty) and is common across Asia – Bawang Merah, Bawang Putih (literally, “red onion, white onion”) is a version from South East Asia where I currently live. What can modern beauty brands learn from the origins and development of the Cinderella story?
Cinderella’s modern name comes from Charles Perrault’s sanitized version of the fairy tale from the 17th Century, meaning the girl who ‘lives among the ashes’. Cinderella’s status and name is a symbol of debasement in comparison with her sibling rivals in the original story (she is called Cendrillon in France and Aschenputtel in Germany).
Cinderella is an archetypal story of unjust oppression and triumphant reward, known as the “Rags to riches” story. This is a common archetypal story in today’s beauty industry, with its mythology of how women can and should be beautiful, but it’s not the only archetypal story associated with beauty. Rebirth (transformation) is often used as a metaphor for the “instant” effects of beauty treatments, and Tragedy is the story of those who don’t nurture their bodies.
Has the mythology of beauty evolved over time in the same way that the Cinderella story has adapted itself to each new generation? Charles Perrault’s 17th century version is really the one that the modern Disney version of Cinderella takes as its model. Earlier versions of the fairy tale were darker and grittier, and arguably more realistic while at the same time showing Cinderella to be a stronger character than in more saccharine sweet modern rewritings.
For example, although Cinderella is oppressed in the modern version, she chooses herself to sleep among the ashes (see the Disney take), whereas in early versions of she is forced to against her will. Therefore, Cinderella’s ultimate triumph is much less a result of her own character and tenacity in modern versions. Many aspects of the old stories have been cut, such as Cinderella being cast out by her father (a common trope in fairy tales and, for example, King Lear by Shakespeare), and the desperate behavior of her sisters and their ultimate punishment.
Should modern brands stick to the modern Disney version of this story, or go back to the grittier, more realistic mythology of the past? In the old version of Cinderella, her sisters are so desperate to be the ‘beautiful one’ whose foot fits the tiny glass slipper that they are prepared to take a sharp knife out to cut away the pieces that are ‘surplus to requirements’ (in the same way as Procrustes did with his hotel guests).
Although this sounds shocking, consider that rates of cosmetic surgery continue to rise around the world, including in Asia. Do modern Asian women feel the need for instant fixes to make them beautiful?
In research I conducted with ABN Impact in China and Thailand, women across both countries agree that you cannot be beautiful without first being confident. However, for Shanghai ladies, confidence comes first, while for Thai ladies the social pressure for them to be beautiful drives a greater need for using beauty products to provide that confidence. The emotional needs of these women might therefore be very different. Do they need confidence and transformation or nurture and care?
Much of the deeper meaning and symbolism of Cinderella is about the rivalry between siblings. Cinderella’s sisters are actively involved in her mistreatment in the earliest versions of the fairy tale, and are ultimately severely punished for that (each has one of their eyes pecked out by the pigeons who earlier helped Cinderella “for their wickedness and falsehood”). Deep down, the sisters lack the inner confidence that Cinderella has in her own self-worth, which is why they are prepared to seek quick fixes to appear more attractive.
Many modern beauty brands communicate transformative effects such as “skin perfectors” and “flawless white” which set a standard of beauty that is arguably difficult to achieve. Other brands take a different line, focusing on the confidence that is needed to feel beautiful. L’Oreal’s tagline “because I’m worth it” perhaps expresses the need for confidence as the trigger or start point for feeling beautiful.
However, I think the most interesting modern beauty myth is being communicated by Dove and their Real Beauty campaign, which goes back to the origins of the Cinderella story. The campaign is not about ‘transforming’ yourself through the use of beauty products, but rather about the beauty that comes from within.
One of the great merits of Cinderella’s story, and why I believe children of all ages should go back to early versions of the story, is that, despite the magic help she receives, Cinderella ultimately succeeds because of her own efforts. She overcomes great obstacles because of who she is and through her own merit alone. Dove’s modern take on the “Rags to riches” story goes back to the heart of the Cinderella story. If you are a good person, believe in yourself and stick to your principles you can achieve your dreams.
Cinderella’s confidence can give children and adults who read the story self-confidence and belief in what they want to achieve. Surely this is a mythology that we should all believe in?
You can read more about the role of story archetypes in branding in Brand esSense: Using Sense, Symbol and Story to Design Brand Identity by Neil Gains, published by our partners Kogan Page.