Stage And they lived independently and diet-free ever after

Gemini Ink and Magik Theatre take different routes to the same goal: deposing Prince Charming and the beauty industry

(Photo illustration by Julie Barnett)

The Princess says, "I would gladly trade away all the beauty and riches in the world for my intelligence any old day." Or at least she does in Robert Munch's book The Paper Bag Princess, as adapted by Dave Cortez, director of the Magik Fairy Tale Theatre, a touring company under the auspices of San Antonio's Magik Theatre. Cortez and company make the rounds of the city's elementary schools, playing to audiences in preschool through second grade. Not too early to begin broadcasting this message to little girls.

Bett Butler, director of literary arts center Gemini Ink's Writers in Communities program, is co-creator of the Beauty Is... Skin Deep workshops. In partnership with the Girl Scouts of America, Gemini Ink offers the program to teen and pre-teen girls in the area. Butler cites some disturbing statistics: Forty-two percent of first-, second-, and third-grade girls want to lose weight. Seventy percent of normal-weight girls in high school feel fat and are on a diet.

"When I worked with elementary school girls in an after-school program several years ago," writes Butler, "I was struck by the negative self-image that so many had. I kept hearing comments like, 'My nose is too big,' or 'My lips are too thin,' or 'I'm too fat' (all of this from absolutely beautiful third- and fourth-grade girls!). They had all bought into the increasingly narrow standards of beauty presented constantly in the media. If they didn't look like Britney Spears or Beyoncé, they were ugly; if they weren't as thin as Mary-Kate Olsen, they were too fat. So when our executive director asked me to design a project for a funder interested in improving the lives of girls, it was a no-brainer."

The new Walt Disney release, Ice Princess, illustrates how fairy-tale myths persist in pop culture messages about finding fulfillment. The protagonist is a tennis-shoe-and-cardigan-wearing math whiz who is unhappy until she uses calculus and physics to transform herself into a modern American version of royalty: a beautiful, popular celebrity. Stand in any grocery store checkout line, and you'll find no shortage of tabloids in Spanish and English obsessing over the appearance of television and movie stars, and the ups and downs of their relationships. Young girls are susceptible to these messages that reinforce beauty and a man as key ingredients for self-worth, say researchers and activists such as Jean Kilbourne.

A series of six Beauty Is ... Skin Deep workshops with the Girl Scouts last year was so successful that Gemini Ink Program Manager Erika Birck applied for a large grant to expand the program to more venues in San Antonio and outlying areas, including La Vernia and Bandera. The workshops are open to all girls (not just Girl Scouts) in age groups 11-13 and 14-17.

Designed to get girls thinking critically about the constant bombardment of media messages about appearance, the two-hour workshop is led by a professional writer who talks about the psychological techniques advertisers use to sell products, and how images of women in the media are idealized through digital manipulation. Writer and teacher Jenifer Hamilton, who has taught three of these workshops, notes that the girls "knew a whole lot more than I thought they knew about media trickery. One of them threw out the name Photoshop; they were hip to airbrushing." But, she adds, awareness alone isn't enough to combat deeply ingrained messages about the primacy of appearance in determining female value.

The workshop design calls for the introduction of on-topic poetry and prose by women writers. Participants also explore in writing their own feelings about beauty, self image, and self-worth. "Sometimes," Butler observes, "there are real revelations, because creative writing is wonderful for exploring truth, for bringing what's deep inside out into the light of day."

But maybe the little girls in the audience at a Magik Fairy Tale Theatre performance won't need a body-image workshop when they hit their teens. They'll have learned - from the Paper Bag Princess who outwits the dragon, saves the Prince, and then decides not to marry him (he's sort of shallow and vain) - that it's more important to be smart than pretty. Even though the new company-within-a-company, formed to bring theater to schoolchildren minus the expense of bussing the kids to Magik's Beethoven Hall, plans to present a new selection of plays every few month, the messages, guided by Magik's philosophy of providing relevant role models and not condescending to children, will remain intact. Magik Executive Director Richard Rosen admits that the company attempts to tell stories that reflect egalitarian values and emphasize children's potential as individuals, regardless of gender. Magik often works actively to model alternatives to traditional gender roles. As the father of a daughter and a son, Rosen hopes to help young women find ways to empower themselves, and help young men combat the often dysfunctional messages they receive about how to look at and interact with women.

Cortez, whose current Fairy Tale program features the theme of unexpected heroes, agrees there's a sense of purpose in the work. "We can change kids' lives," he says. "We can make kids' lives better." Princesses', too.

By Laurie Dietrich

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