Beauty Standards

This story is paired with “Snow White” from Children’s and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 


I yawn. The words on the page converge. People warned me that inattention might be a side effect of the pregnancy, especially at such a young age, but Shakespeare has never held my interest, even before.

“What do you think it means?” My tutor taps the page.

I frown at the faded print. “I don’t know. I can’t understand it.”

“Read it aloud.” She sits back and folds her hands behind her head, enjoying my struggle.

“ ‘Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye.’ ” I yawn again and rub my stomach. Sometimes I think I can feel it kicking, the boy, the girl, whatever it is. I hope it’s a girl.

A servant enters with a cart of tea and scones and fruit. He starts to serve us, but my tutor gasps and slaps his hand. “Idiot,” she hisses. Round red fruits tumble to the floor, rolling. “Didn’t they tell you? You aren’t supposed to serve those anymore.”

The servant looks from her to me, his face the color of the apples. “I—I’m sorry. There’s a new chef, he mustn’t have been told—”

“It doesn’t matter,” I say, shrugging.

“Yes, it does.” My tutor waves away the servant, who scrambles to pick up the apples. I watch him scurry out of the room with the cart.

“I don’t see why everyone’s so fussed about apples,” I say. “They don’t bother me.”

“Well, we don’t want you to have to think about what happened. You don’t need any reminders.”

“I can’t remember anyway.” My finger finds my belly button through my dress. “Tell me the truth. Why’d she try to kill me?”

My tutor chews her lip.

“Aren’t you tired of my asking?”

She sighs. “Because you were prettier than her.”

I wait for her to say more, but she doesn’t.

I laugh. “That’s it?”

“To her it was enough. You were prettier.”

“Says who?”

“What?”

“Prettier says who?”

She blinks. It seems we’ve switched places: Now I’m the one who’s stumped her.

“Well.” She chuckles. “Her little mirror, I suppose.” She looks at the grandfather clock and stands, gathering her things. “I must be off. Finish reading this for tomorrow.”

She leaves the room, and I push away my copy of Love’s Labours Lost. Shakespeare claims that beauty is bought by judgment of the eye, but this mirror, the one I’ve heard about, seemed to decide for everyone. Perhaps Shakespeare is wrong. Perhaps people listen only to the mirror; I wonder who put it in charge.

* * *

My dresses don’t fit anymore. I feel myself growing larger, wider. I don’t feel fifteen, but fifty. People stop coming to see the fairest in the land, the girl whose beauty surpasses all others’. Even my prince visits my room less.

Do I no longer meet the mirror’s standards?

When the baby comes, it’s a girl. She’s healthy and smiling. She’ll be pretty too, they say. Like I was. I don’t know when they started using the past tense.

As I feed the child, I glance at the mirror. It’s not the same one, of course, not the mirror my stepmother used. But I can’t imagine it’s much different. All mirrors are the same, in the end: glass. Glass that’s supposed to reflect the truth.

I half-watch the reflection. I see me, but I’m not sitting like I should be. I’m standing, and my stepmother holds an apple out to me, the younger, prettier one. I take it, but it isn’t me. It’s my daughter. And the older woman isn’t my stepmother. It’s me.

The baby slips in my arms and starts to cry.

I squint into the reflection of mirrors within mirrors within mirrors. It’s an endless projection of the same.

The nurses come and take the baby away to calm her.

I leave—slip through the cracks in the palace. I head towards the woods; the way returns to me. I only treaded it once, but I still remember.

The house peeks out of the trees; I never thought I’d be back here. I realize now it’s the only place I’ve felt happy.

But even the dwarves don’t greet me the way they used to. They’re still kind, though not like they were in the good days. They ask me to do housework again. In the good days I didn’t mind. I was pretty then. I had that, at least. Now I don’t feel like picking up a broom.
Alone in the cottage, I sweep the floors. I dust the table and chairs. I put away dishes. I eye the doormat—the same spot where I stood not even two years ago, where I opened the door and let her in and took the apple.

I laugh. It was stupid of me, yes. But what the queen really did—it had nothing to do with the apple. What the queen really did was worse than trying to kill me.

She made beauty what I was known for. She made it the only thing I had.

So that even if the apple didn’t work, even if I lived, one day I’d fatten and wrinkle like her, and have nothing.

I depart the dwarves’ cottage without leaving a note.

At the palace, I flag a servant. “Where’s the huntsman?”

“He’s in the courtyard.”

“Bring him to me.”

“What should I say it’s regarding?”

“I have a personal favor to ask him. He’ll be familiar with it—he’s been asked it before.”

The servant nods and hurries off.

I stare out the window and place my hand on my chest, feeling it thumping, thumping, slower, slower, readying itself for the moment, the one that a boar’s heart and a huntsman’s mercy have only delayed.


christine-collinsChristina Elaine Collins is a Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction writer and an MFA candidate at George Mason University. Her fiction can be found in various literary periodicals such as Jabberwock Review, Weave Magazine, and Rose Red Review, as well as in anthologies from Tenebris Books and Fey Publishing.