As a girl I spent copious amounts of time dreaming about the day Prince Charming on his blue unicorn would gallop across a field of sunflowers to save me. I’ve always had a rather inventive imagination and yet, being a good little girl, I never veered far off script. The rules of life were clearly defined for me in fairy tales, which I dutifully followed.
The stories of my childhood established first and foremost that a girl must be beautiful, and not just run-of-the-mill pretty, but stunningly attractive with golden hair, preferably, that sparkles like spun gold and piercing blue eyes the color of the summer sky. She must also be thin, of course, with a waist smaller than her head according to Disney’s illustrations. Like Sleeping Beauty, she exists in a state of suspended animation until the day a courageous, rich and powerful prince awakens her with a kiss, a declaration of his undying love. Then, and only then, can a girl’s “happily ever after” begin.
The stories of our childhood provided a blueprint of the world with our experiences eventually coloring in the details. We identify with characters and craft our sense of self around them. The male and female roles that fairy tales prescribe form the basic structure from which children develop their own identity and sense of purpose.
Our parents never intended to entrap their daughters in a glass cage; most of us were raised by well-intended parents who simply passed on the traditions of their own childhood. The misogynistic stories lining the shelves of the children’s section of the library aside, the entertainment industry thrives on perpetuating violence, sexual objectification and the damsel-in-distress characterization. It’s no wonder that while women today have more freedom and opportunities than ever, the majority of us quietly suffer intense self-doubt under the facade of success. Thankfully the tide is turning with the phenomenal success of the “Frozen” sisters, and we will undoubtedly be flooded with more heroine-driven animations in the future. In 100 years, girls may truly be raised in total equality, but at the moment, they are being raised by us: the daughters of misinformation and messed-up fairy tales. Those of us indoctrinated with Cinderella and Snow White deserve a rewrite.
History of Fairy Tales
So fundamental is our need to tell stories that prehistoric man drew on rock in caves to record the legends of their time. Storytelling fulfills an intrinsic need to explain, dissect, compose and extract meaning from the chaos around us.
Most modern fairy tales are adapted from stories written over 200 years ago by The Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, who published the first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1812. The majority of their narratives originated from German spinners. In the 19th century, spinners were predominately women who worked together at night. They told stories to keep themselves awake during the long hours, thus the phrase “spinning a tale.”
The Grimm brothers took great liberty editing the original legends to fit with patriarchal German society. The original “spinner” stories included ancestral rape or the attempted rape of a young girl by her father. The Grimm brothers replaced the male predator with a stepmother envious of the young girl’s beauty.
Fairy tales routinely cast less attractive or older females as evil and violent, thereby promoting the idea that girls should be fearful of other women. The evil female characters are also portrayed as strong, determined and capable of changing their situations even without the aid of a man, the opposite traits of the feminine ideal. The heroines, meanwhile, are depicted as beautiful and helpless, doomed to tragedy without the assistance of a strong male.
While women today have freed themselves from many shackles of antiquated expectations, modern fairy tales have not veered far from the ideals presented hundreds of years ago. Feminine stereotypes are continually perpetuated, especially when it comes to beauty. If anything, the importance of attractiveness has actually intensified in the age of plastic surgery and Photoshop. While girls are encouraged to pursue a wide range of opportunities today, they are expected to do so looking their youngest, thinnest, most beautiful best.
In the world of legends, marriage is the ultimate goal for most heroines. The elusive “happily ever after” begins the moment she says, “I do.” A ll is made right with the world, evil is crushed, the sun is always shining, and she can peacefully glide toward her prince’s castle into a life of privilege and bliss. Perhaps it is this idealized expectation that makes the reality of marriage a devastating disappointment for so many. Even real-life princes fall far short of their fairy tale counterparts (as Princess Diana confirmed).
Marriage by any estimate is hard work. We need not crush children’s expectations with the realities of the tumultuous ride of love, but it would be helpful if marriage were just one ingredient in “happily ever after,” instead of the whole recipe. Then perhaps girls would be better prepared to find a suitable substitute for fulfillment should their true love become less than true.
Of course, fairy tales are just the beginning of a much larger story of cultural bias. Rather than mirror society, movies and television continue to reflect the distorted themes originating in legends. Women are routinely cast as the damsel in distress, and males as the hero needed to save the day. Surprisingly, men dominate story lines on movie screens in even greater numbers than in decades past. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that females comprised a paltry 12% of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014, representing a drop of three percentage points from 2013, and a fall of four percentage points from 2002.
The center’s report came on the heels of a study that examined the dearth of female directors, screenwriters and other behind-the-camera talent. That examination into employment found that over the past 17 years, the number of women directing the 250 top-grossing films has actually declined by 2%. This lack of representation is undoubtedly part of the problem. People tend to tell the stories they know best, which are their own. Without more female screenwriters and directors, the story lines are unlikely to change.
At the Women in Film’s Crystal + Lucy Awards in 2015, Nicole Kidman stated, “Obviously we need to create more opportunities, it’s not an even playing field…We also need to put cameras in little girls’ hands and get them to tell stories and increase their confidence so that they can feel powerful.”
Reframing the Past
As children, boys and girls alike concoct their own personal fairy tale based on the stories presented to them. For most women, our “happily ever after” involved some form of career, but for many, the ultimate goal was that of mother and wife. When the white picket fence, adoring spouse and perfect flock of children fail to materialize in Technicolor reality, women are left with few role models to follow. Cinderella didn’t have a “part two” after Prince Charming underwent a mid-life crisis and left her with an upside-down castle, two kids with learning disabilities and no 401k. Even for the fortunate who found their Prince Charming, the “happily ever after” has undoubtedly been a bumpy ride.
Modern life is complicated, with a myriad of opportunities. And yet, as life choices pile up, painful disappointments can become a heavy burden. So, before we can write a new story for ourselves, we must address the traumas we have suffered along the way, which are inevitably coloring our view of ourselves and the world around us.
The past and the future are irrefutably connected. Brain research shows that the same regions of the brain light up when people are asked to remember an event in the past as when they are asked to imagine something in the future. Furthermore, researchers at the University of California demonstrated that a patient who suffers severe amnesia will have great difficulty imagining the future. Both studies confirm that our past experiences lay the framework for our imagination to construct our future.
The ability to convert traumatic experiences into positive wisdom-building story lines can help transcend painful setbacks and improve both emotional and physical health. In the late 1980s, Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of Psycholog y at the University of Texas at Austin, coined the term “expressive writing.” In his landmark research, often referred to as the Pennebaker Paradigm, he developed an expressive writing prompt to uncover the health benefits of writing about emotional turmoil. Since the initial experiment, the paradigm has been replicated in dozens of studies confirming a fundamental principle of health psychology that establishes an important connection between emotions and health.
Expressive writing deals with feelings more than events, memories, objects or people. It is often turbulent and erratic rather than a linear story line with a beginning, middle and end. It’s not so much about what happened as it is about how it makes you feel. Expressive writing pays no attention to rules or propriety; it is simply an expression of your mind and heart.
For this exercise, really let go and explore your deepest emotions about the most traumatic events in your life, which could be about your childhood, parents, friends, lovers, spouses, whatever or whomever caused you great pain. Please read these guidelines thoroughly before beginning.
1. Time: Write for 20 minutes per day for four consecutive days.
2. Topic: What you choose to write about should be extremely personal and important to you.
3. Write continuously: Do not worry about punctuation, spelling and grammar. If you run out of things to say, draw a line or repeat what you have already written. Keep pen on paper.
4. Write only for yourself: You may plan to destroy or hide what you are writing. Do not turn this exercise into a letter. This exercise is for your eyes only.
5. Observe the Flip-out Rule: If you get into the writing and you feel that you cannot write about a certain event because it will push you over the edge, STOP writing!
6. Expect heavy emotions: Many people briefly feel a bit saddened or down after expressive writing, especially on the first day or two. Usually this feeling goes away completely in a couple of hours.
Now give yourself some time, maybe a week or two, to digest what you wrote. Then look back with compassion for yourself.
7. Focus on growth: Concentrate on the lessons you can learn from the bad experience, such as developing increased empathy for others, realizing that you are stronger than you thought, having the opportunity to meet someone better suited to your needs, or finding your life purpose.
If you do not want anyone to read your thoughts, you can destroy the writings, but you may want to share your writing with a confidant in your life, a therapist or counselor. You may feel an aha moment of clarity, or it may be an awareness that settles in over time, giving greater meaning to your present situation. There is no right or wrong outcome; it is purely a personal experience in exploration.
“So many people carry their secret stories of shame for years and years in their bodies, not just in their minds,” says Nancy Aronie, the author of Writing from the Heart. “But they feel lighter—less emotionally burdened—when they can literally let them out by putting them on paper.”
A New Story
After taking the time to evaluate and reframe your past, you are free to write a new story. The beauty of modern life is that you have the chance to be the author of your own tale. Women are no longer relegated to limited paths. Whether you are just starting out in your 20s or starting over in your 60s, there are boundless opportunities before you. You no longer even need Prince Charming…your happily ever after can begin right now.
Countless Baby Boomer women are opting to start a new career or business rather than retire. A friend of mine recently entered law school in her 50s. In 2014, the SBA reported that Baby Boomers represented the largest percentage of small business owners at 8.3%, compared with 7.6% for Generation X and only 2% for Millennials.
“They are wanting a second half that is full of purpose and meaning , using the skills and wisdom they have acquired over a lifetime,” says Bevan Rogel, founder of Encore Tampa Bay.
Creating a new story line can take on many forms. One of the favored techniques among therapists is a vision board which beautifully illustrates the life of your dreams. Believe it or not, visualization really works. For decades Olympians have used the technique to improve performance, beginning with the Soviets in the 1970s. Psychology Today reported that the brain patterns that light up while weightlifting hundreds of pounds are similar to those when simply imagining lifting weights. Numerous studies confirm the connection between thoughts and behaviors as a vital link to achieving your best life.
When you design a vision board with focus and purpose, it becomes a tool to help you set goals and map a path to your ideal life. It serves as motivation and a reminder about the road that you are travelling and the destination you desire. Unlike written goals, a vision board represents the story you are hoping to create rather than specific steps, allowing you to be flexible with your path.
Focus on how you want to feel in addition to material possessions and accomplishments. Think about every aspect of your personal and professional lives: Health, Family, Life Partner, Friends, Spirituality, Leisure, Career and Money. Consider all of these aspects when compiling pieces for your board.
What You Need to Create a Vision Board
For a physical board you can use a variety of materials: cork board, poster or even make your own. If you prefer an electronic version which you could use as a screen saver or print, you will need a scanner and a program such as Photoshop, Illustrator or even Word will suffice.
Use scissors, tape, pins, and/or a glue-stick to put your board together.
Gather magazines and newspapers that you can cut images and quotes from.
Collect photos, quotes, images of places you want to go, reminders of people in your life or relationships you want to manifest and anything else that inspires you.
Give yourself a stress-free hour or two to put your board together. You can even invite friends over to join you for a vision board party.
How It Works
If you are making an electronic board you will need to scan items you cut out to be placed on an artboard in a program of your choice. For the traditionalist, gather your supplies and arrange your pieces on the board to get a general idea of the design you like, then start gluing or pinning.
Place your vision board prominently in your office or at home as a daily reminder. Some people find the process of making the board enough to motivate them, but to achieve the optimal results, constant reinforcement works best.
As your life changes and goals shift, you can rearrange the board or make it a practice to make a new one every year. Regardless how you use it, let your vision board tell the story of your dreams.
Written by Jules Lewis Gibson, founder and editor in chief of GRAVITAS Magazine
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