‘Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister’ and the Nature of Beauty

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Cover of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

I almost skipped ‘Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister’ by Gregory Maguire altogether. Years ago, in a fit of enthusiasm about some of the songs I’d heard on ‘Wicked’, I had bought and read the book in trade paperback. After reading ‘Wicked’, I thought there was something wrong with me, because to me it was odd, and not very compelling. Now, based on how much I loved ‘Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister’ I need to go back and re-read it, because clearly I must have been missing something.

The story is told from the point of view of one of the two ugly stepsisters in the Cinderella mythos. The stepsisters are Iris, who is plain and thin with a proud nose and an excellent eye for art, and Ruth, the elder, who is large and mute and slow. Their mother, Margarethe, has moved them from rural England, where their English father has been murdered by the neighbors, to Haarlem in the Netherlands, where her father had been born and she hoped to find her grandfather.

Instead of family, the woman and girls find a painter and his apprentice and a tulip merchant and his stunning daughter, Clara. The story unfolds in unexpected ways and explores not just the nature of beauty and virtue, but the fascinating history of the Dutch tulip craze and its aftermath.

In the interest of writing a spoiler-free review, I say this: I loved this book. The writing is lyrical and excellent, the themes are seamlessly interwoven in the story, and the characters are fascinating in this story that is both as familiar as a favorite toy and as new as a still-wrapped present.

But as wonderful a read as ‘Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister’ is (and it is!), more compelling is its underlying theme. Maguire compares and contrasts beauty and ugliness not only in the stepsisters, but in the paintings of a minor Dutch master, in the tulips the country has gone crazy over, and in the actions of the characters whether major or minor.

Even today in society, we have biases in favor of beauty. We assume beautiful people are more virtuous and intelligent, overall, until proven otherwise, and we assume plain people, or people who are actively difficult to look at, are inherently less beautiful on the inside as well.

Of course, this isn’t universally true. There is such a thing as being too beautiful. Once a person is viewed as being uncommonly beautiful, he or especially she becomes an object and no longer a person, and that person’s virtue or lack thereof, or intelligence or lack thereof become beside the point. Perhaps to protect ourselves, we tell ourselves that those truly stunning folks have no interior lives at all, allowing us to regain the ego ground we lose knowing we will never be in that league.

There is an important conversation to be had about defining beauty. In every era a particular female (and often male) body type has been in fashion and other body types have been devalued. Depending on the era, curvy women have benefited, short women, tall women, buxom or flat chested, women with oval faces or women with angular faces, curly hair or straight hair.

Outside the human form, beauty in the larger world goes beyond facts to fashion and preference as well. In contemporary times, the white marble statues of Rome were painted in bright colors to mimic life. Some people find the hustle and bustle of city life beautiful, while others prefer the stillness of a summer morning in the countryside.

Today’s dance explores these questions of inner and outer beauty and preference:

  • Have you read ‘Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister’? What do you think is the most important point it makes about beauty?
  • How have conceptions of beauty affected you in your life? Where do you put yourself on the beauty spectrum? Where have others put you?
  • How easy or hard is it for you to look past exceptional beauty or exceptional ugliness to the person within? What helps that process and gets in the way of it?
  • How do your perceptions of beauty affect your daily life? Do you make a point to surround yourself with beauty when you can? Ugliness? Why?
  • Has your perception of someone’s beauty or lack thereof ever changed when you knew that person better? Why?
  • How disconcerting is it for you when a beautiful person is ugly on the inside, or an ugly person is beautiful on the inside?
  • How comfortable or uncomfortable are you making the judgment that someone or something is ‘ugly’? ‘Beautiful’? Why?
  • Do the concepts of beauty and wealth belong together in your mind? Beauty and virtue? Beauty and intelligence? Why or why not?
  • How important is it for artists and writers and other creative people to create works that challenge traditional conception of beauty? Why?

As always, please share this post with the people you know through the handy buttons below. I rely on your word of mouth advertising to help me introduce the dance to more people. I welcome conversation in the comments and looks forward to hearing from you.

  • The Ugly Stepsister Strikes Back by Sariah Wilson BookBlast Giveaway (iamareader.com)
  • Perfection is Ugly! (antoniarapheal.wordpress.com)
  • Am I Beautiful, Too? (cravingfoodforthought.wordpress.com)
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