Skin Deep: Beauty in Fiction
A NOTE: I talk about women in this post, but a lot of this is true for men too, on a different level. While men in fiction are occasionally allowed to be bald, potbellied, and old, there are still unrealistic standards for them–they tend more towards the static masculine than anything beauty related, but it’s a problem nonetheless. I’ll leave discussion of these to a man who isn’t traditionally ‘masculine’. He’s better suited to the task, for obvious reasons, than I.
I want to take a second and talk to you a little bit about life as an ugly woman.
A note: I don’t want your sympathy pretties. I don’t want to hear about how beautiful I am in a voice that steadily descends in octave to denote sincerity. It’s untrue, and I don’t need the pity. I’m aware it’s untrue, and there is still no lack of confidence in me. Would you tell a man with an IQ of 79 that no, he was so intelligent, no really?
You wouldn’t. The evidence to the contrary would be right in front of your face. He might be many other things–among them, handsome–which you could compliment, but if he can’t get through his times tables at forty, calling him intelligent would seem like an insult. He might even think you’re being sarcastic. You might, in fact, sting him, and he’s an okay guy, so you certainly don’t want to do that.
On the other hand, there are a lot of women on this earth. If every single one of us were as beautiful as our friends (and the body-positivity movement) tell us we were, Vogue would run out of cover space.
Why–why–is it so important, whether or not you’re beautiful?
Well, because ugly women get the shaft. You’re not insulted twenty-four seven, or often at all–ugliness is such a taboo thing in our society that an ugly woman might go her whole life without ever hearing the phrase ‘ugly’ thrown at her. Don’t be silly, all her friends say. You’re beautiful.
Life as an ugly woman is like life in a zoo with a narcoleptic zookeeper. You’re subjected to a sort of gentle, well-meaning neglect, simply because no one notices you. You can’t count on heads turning when you walk into a room, or the watchful eye of an interested bystander to keep you happy. When you need or want things, you have to ask for them, and you have to be willing to wait the normal amount of time for these things to come to fruition. A lot of us, I think, accept early on that a glossy magazine-style life with expensive accessories and trendy makeup probably isn’t the way to go. There are, after all, no ugly women in the glossy magazines.
It’s–not that bad. It’s just life. You simply have to develop a voice, learn to be a little more aggressive in expressing yourself. You have to let people know, in a way your face and body can’t, that you’re there, and you’re there for a reason. (I feel like, were this lesson taught widely, our self-confidence issues would all but vanish. The cue isn’t to wait for media to bestow the title of ‘beauty’ on you, it’s to go out and express yourself regardless of whether or not you have that title. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, so whether or not you claim it for yourself doesn’t really matter. Taught feminine passivity, etc, garbage you’ve heard a million times before).
I could talk a lot about body-positivity, and the way my hackles raise every time I see the phrase ‘you’re beautiful just the way you are’. No, some of us aren’t. It’s hard to accept, because of the importance this culture places on beauty, but some of us simply aren’t. Again–it’s in the eye of the beholder. Time, maybe, to stop clinging to such a passive attribute for validation.
And beauty is, actually, rare. Slightly more common, maybe, than a genius level IQ or Mother Theresa-like kindness, but rare nonetheless. It’s also an evolutionary advantage, much like intelligence or strength, which you can train and sharpen somewhat, but which, in the end, you’re either born with or you aren’t. I want to repeat this, so all my smarts-loving readers understand: beauty is exactly the same kind of advantage as intelligence. Being smart isn’t inherently ‘better’ than being beautiful. Being beautiful isn’t inherently better than being smart. You didn’t work for either one. You received a gift, and did with it what you would.
And yet, if you believed movies (or television, or books–pick your media) this world is populated almost solely by smart attractive people, thirty-five or under, who have picked a variety of interesting professions and lived strange checkered lives.
Being average-looking is living in a majority that is treated as a minority. You’re underrepresented, unacknowledged, in spite of the fact that you make up a large percentage of the population. It’s knowing that when ‘your type’ is cast in a movie–usually as ‘average woman’ or something similar–it will be played by a beautiful young actress in not quite as much makeup. If, in five hundred years, aliens land on our war-scoured and desolate planet, the artifacts they unearth will indicate that average people–real average–simply didn’t exist.
There are ‘unattractive’ women portrayed, of course. The most famous example, probably, is JK Rowling’s Hermione Granger–though even she ‘pretties’ as the series continues, transforming in the dance scene of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire into a mysteriously attractive creature whom even her friends don’t recognize at first.
What I want from fiction–what I think would constitute real body-positivism, and not just the ‘naw gurl u pretty’ sham of it we have now–is more women who are not described head-to-foot, more women who are not attractive, even in makeup and a ballgown. More women, maybe, who don’t give two shits whether or not they are beautiful. More ugly women who don’t feel the need to put lingerie on to assure the world of their worth (a note–every time I see one of these articles bandied about on Facebook, the woman therein is actually just larger, but very pretty anyway). Women who are, frankly, ugly, and who are called ugly, and who know they’re ugly–and who do something important anyway. Women with lazy eyes and huge noses and tiny thin lips, whose lives don’t, not once, feature a hatred of said body parts.
Women who might not be perfect representations of sexual attractiveness, but who nonetheless deserve–and have earned–respect. Because respect, like self-confidence, is a thing earned and not given. And it’s a thing, weirdly enough, you can’t earn from something you simply have, like beauty or intelligence–it’s a think you can earn only through your employment of said traits, the way you conduct yourself in society. And, deep down, respect is what we all really want, and what you need, rather than the much-vaunted ‘likeability’, for a beloved character.
I’d like to live in a world where two people can spot a woman across a room, and identify her: ‘Melanie’s the one with the big nose’. And that’s okay. She does have a big nose, and now we know which one Melanie is. Melanie also takes care of shelter dogs, earned a PhD in Russian Lit, but you can’t see those things, so it’s not how we identify her in a crowded room. Her nose is noticeable, so we notice her by it. No need for discussion.
If we really think feminism and body-positivity are about increasing self-confidence, we’re wrong. Self-confidence can only be increased by one thing–determination to be self-confident. Movements don’t exist to make you feel better about yourself. They exist to increase representation, increase dialogue–increase that respect we talked about. They exist to help you show the world you’re important–no matter what you happen to look like. Feeling good about yourself comes before all that shit. Not after. Not during.
So, next time you’re writing a lady character, maybe step back for a second, and think about self-worth and respect. No, she’s not beautiful anyway. She’s not beautiful no matter what. There’s no chrysalis moment where she slaps on lipstick and a slinky dress and becomes bizarro-world desireable.
But if you want to write her, she matters, right? Maybe attractiveness doesn’t need to enter into it at all. Maybe she, like the vast majority of us, gets stepped studiously around in coffee shops, has to learn to interject opinions into work discussions.
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe, when casting your ‘average woman’, you should stick to the realism you otherwise so studiously cling to–and represent her as, truly, average.
Not because she’s beautiful, inside or out, but because she, too, is worthy of attention.
I know, I talk about this stuff a lot. But it’s been a while, so here are the most recent thoughts. If anyone’s curious, this post was inspired by this article, which a friend shared on Facebook, and which I found utterly, utterly refreshing: Kaila Prins says you don’t have to care if you’re beautiful, and I think she’s right.