2 comments on “The “Pretty” Paradox: Airbrushed on the Printed Page

  1. Thanks for this post. I try to make my characters “average” in various ways, and exceptional in others. Unless it’s important to the character, I leave how pretty or slim she is up to the reader’s imagination. Most readers probably imagine slim, or pretty, because of the stereotypes, but at least it’s their choice. Since my characters are often non-standard in other ways (mixed race, bisexual, alcoholic, etc.) I don’t really feel like pushing it by making their average looks stand out. Tho the female lead in one of my recent fantasy novels starts out with a shaved head. ;)
    Growing up, my favorite characters had intentionally unexceptional looks. Meg from Wrinkle in Time. M.M.Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess. Arkady from Second Foundation (I’m not sure how she was described, but I imagined her as rather average.) These girls were like me, or at least how I imagined myself at the time. Plain. Unpretty. Nothing much to look at. But they were smart and adventurous. Moreover, they took matters into their own hands and flew across the galaxy or ran away from the castle to live in the woods, things I myself wished I could do.

  2. That’s a good point about leaving things to the default. I discussed this with a friend, and I think I’d be perfectly happy if the books didn’t mention either way whether the women are pretty. Either way people are happy, whether they prefer to imagine beautiful or average characters. I’m sure I’ve missed tons of books that just didn’t say, and so they stayed off my radar. I’m okay with that.
    I definitely agree about it needing to be important to the character. In one book I’m writing, it definitely is important that the main character be plain; it’s part of her characterization, and part of the plot as well. In this year’s NaNoWriMo, though, it’s not important, so I don’t think I said either way, even though neither of the two main characters are in any way exceptional. If the reader wants to imagine a pilot whose ethereal beauty shines through the grease stains on her face, well, that’s their prerogative. ;)
    I mostly get annoyed when it’s physically implausible. Unless there’s some heavy-duty magic going on somewhere, a sword-maiden is going to have fantastic arm muscles and man shoulders, yet they still always end up looking like will-o-wisps. Sigh.
    I can’t believe I forgot about Meg! I loved her because she was plain and despaired of it at first, but eventually forgot because she was talented and clever in so many other ways. I love characters like that, who aren’t pretty but are resourceful, clever, adventurous, and all that.
    I think the reason why the pretty thing bugs me most with clever characters is because it’s as though the author is saying, it’s not enough to be smart or funny or a crack shot. If she’s not beautiful as well, this character is deficient. And that’s a disturbing message to pass on to young girls.

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