In some versions of Cinderella the lost shoe is made of squirrel fur; in others it is solid gold. But the glass slipper—sharp, easily broken, transparent, and requiring great craftsmanship—feels right. It is an object that requires careful handling, that cannot be bent or stretched, only broken. It’s delicacy is part of its magic.
Delicacy is a feminine ideal that has always felt out of reach to me. I long for small hands, long spindly legs and a tiny nose. To call something delicate implies fragility but also fineness, lightness, and equilibrium. Delicate features are both diminutive and well made, a combination that is alluring in its grace and vulnerability. We are attracted to things easily broken. Delicacy implies a need for care and restraint, it is a beauty which imposes, inhibits.
We use the phrase “delicate balance” to emphasize the difficulty of stability, a recurrent motif in fairy tales. The easily broken requires constant awareness and attention. The prick of a single spindle is enough to put a delicate princess to sleep for a century. Fairy tales are defined by delicacy, thin windows of opportunity, brief moments of connection.
There is a particular beauty to things which are easily destroyed: glass slippers, crystal coffins, a girl small as a thumb. In fairy tales, fragile objects are carefully tended to, eliciting tenderness in the people around them. In Wonderland, every move Alice makes seems to destabilize. Fairy tales are full of warnings to be careful.
In terms of food, a delicacy is something rare and expensive, often with an element of difficulty in preparation or discomfort in consumption. Some delicacies are young animals, consumed for their tender, inexperienced flesh, others are naturally poisonous foods specially prepared to remove their deadly toxins. In the Philippines, embryonic eggs are eaten by sucking translucent unborn ducks from shells delicate as fine china. Eating the developing birds is supposed to give strength to pregnant women.
Delicacy describes that which is easily injured or prone to sickness. A delicate constitution is one easily upset. A delicate stomach is one that struggles with digestion. But that difficulty is born out of sensitivity, an exceptional responsiveness.
A delicate instrument is one capable of distinguishing barely perceptible differences, fine-tuned, well-made. Delicacy requires great skill, it calls for deft handling, it begs both care and skill.
Women strive for delicacy. We long for thin bones, small waists, dainty features. It can be easy to dismiss such longings as frivolous, to equate them with subservience and weakness. But maybe our hunger for delicacy has more to do with a yearning for our sensitivity to be acknowledged, a longing to be seen as fine-tuned and deserving of attentiveness.