I used to write books alongside a friend, growing up. We just hung out and wrote. All of her girl characters were incredibly pretty in exactly the way you’d expect. They all had enormous eyes and rosebud lips and little slips of noses. They all had cascades of brilliant hair, and slender, long necks. I got mad at her.
“Why are they all like that?” I asked.
“Because it’s fun to read about pretty people,” she said.
“But what if girls can’t identify with them?” I said.
“Girls want to be more like the girls in books. They want to look more like them, too,” she said. “You don’t want to read about someone who isn’t really pretty because you want to imagine being really pretty.”
I didn’t think I wasn’t really pretty. I thought I was unexpected. We were only fifteen when we had this discussion. Later on, I became less sure of my different-beauty. Sometimes, automatically, I identified with the girl who was described as unattractive. The beak-nosed woman or the girl the boys weren’t in love with. It’s back and forth now. Sometimes I am the unattractive one. Sometimes I’m the beauty. Because I am some swirling combination of these things, and lots of things in between, I think. And I’m still looking for clues about how I’m supposed to identify.
Recently, I was reading yet another book about a girl with a “perfect nose.” Every time a female character is described as having the “perfect nose,” I know exactly what it will look like: the opposite of mine. It will be delicate and small and fine. It will never be bulky and arched and bold. It will never dominate her face. Of course not. That would be ridiculous.
Even the things I chose to do with my appearance, that I didn’t come into the world with, are not the things that girls in books would ever do, if they’re going to stay pretty:
On the first page of a book I picked up, a girl is described as having shaved her head because she’s “crazy.” The male protagonist is musing, “I have to get out of this city where the women are so crazy they shave their heads. I want a normal woman, you know, with hair.” This is a joke in the book. Of course normal women have hair. It’s a small request. The crazy bald girl is left immediately behind.
In the book I’m reading now, a character contemplates cutting her hair short in a moment of defiance. But then she stops herself at the last minute, realizing that she’s not that self-destructive. She’s not that far gone.
When I cut my hair off, of course I knew that it wasn’t normal (although I see women with hair as short as mine plenty in this city. Hell yeah, NYC!), but I didn’t think that made it crazy or unhealthy or ugly. Perhaps naively, I am surprised when the world disagrees.
(oops! too late! I don’t have any hair left!)
But literature is full of examples of specifically adorable (long-haired) women. And it’s sort of amazing how happy I am when I run into one who isn’t.
Someone whose beauty isn’t described as “effortless.” Women are always being praised for being effortlessly gorgeous. They don’t even know it! They just are! Even when they just wake up! Even when they haven’t taken a shower in weeks! Even when they’re covered in ticks and leeches!
I used to think I was effortlessly beautiful. And then it turned out I was just a teenager.
Now I usually look better when I got sleep last night and I washed myself and I put on some clothes that are at least a little flattering. And when I stand up somewhat straight.
It’s kind of amazing how influenced I am by the way beauty gets described to me by the world. There are a million tiny message, everywhere I turn, about what makes someone beautiful. I think I know them all. Even when I don’t care, and I’m not thinking about any of this at all, it still registers somewhere in the soup of my consciousness. “She was perfect—the kind of girl every boy would fall in love with, even in preschool. You know the kind—big, doe eyes, a pert little nose with a spray of freckles across it, a wide, laughing mouth, and billows of golden hair. Her coltish legs made her look fragile and fast at the same time.” Mmhmm…figures.
I’m not bitter. I swear. But I notice.
And then I notice when she’s different. Flat-chested! I already love her! Snarl-haired! Yes! Of average height. Not tall and slender, not tiny and delicate. Hooray! Is she a little soft? Fantastic! Maybe she has short hair? We’ll take just above the chin! She’s my kinda girl.
But she is almost never soft and flat-chested at the same time. And she would never, ever, ever be soft and flat-chested and big-nosed and of average height. That just doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t work. We all know that it doesn’t work.
I know. I’ve seen it.
In life, as in literature, I notice the girls and women who are differently beautiful. You know what I mean. Not like “Oh, everyone is beautiful in their own way.” Like, YES. She is rocking it! I have never seen that before, and I didn’t think it could be done. And she is doing it.
The woman I saw for a half an hour, sitting across from me at an event about unschooling. She had gray hair in a buzz cut, long before I thought about buzzing my hair. She was full-bodied and broad-shouldered and sharp-featured and graceful. She was a professor at FIT, I’ll never forget that. She was stunning in this way that I can’t even explain. Weirdly, I felt reflexively proud of her husband, sitting beside her, for being with a woman this cool-looking.
It is so nice, so refreshing, to run into someone like that. Someone who opens up this whole world of other possibilities.
An older woman, she must have been in her mid seventies, in jeans and a plain white t-shirt, with her long white hair in a ponytail, and a craggy, elegant face. No breasts to speak of, but something hugely feminine about the way she moved.
I like it when it’s older women. Women I can maybe one day become.
They are rarely described to me at all, let alone described as beautiful.
Someone pulled me aside at a party my mom threw. “Your grandmother is gorgeous,” he said. A handsome gay man comfortable saying such things. But at first, I thought maybe he was joking a little, being sweet. Do people really think that, outside of the family? And then I was enormously thankful that he had said it.
It’s interesting how used to the same descriptions we are. How we have memorized all of the variations of prettiness. We have read them all. We have seen them all on TV.
But I want to write a book with a heroine who is 5’5″, with a nose like a hawk, and gentle eyes, and full lips, and broad shoulders, and barely any breasts. I haven’t done it yet, for some reason. I wimp out at the last second, afraid that no one will want to read it. That my friend was right. People want to imagine the same pretty girls, over and over. Or if she is so different-looking, then the book will have to be about that, somehow. I write girl characters who I never describe at all.
When I was fifteen, I wrote because I wanted to read my own stories. Maybe this is the start of all writers.
I want to be braver. I want to be more selfish about my stories. And I want to write a character who is short and fat and mixed race, with fine hair and thin lips and a wide, snub nose, and eyes that cut through you. An elderly, stunning woman. A woman who you can’t figure out if she’s beautiful or not, and you stop trying almost immediately, because she’s too interesting for you even to waste time on it. Women who are full of surprises. Who look surprising. You didn’t think they would be starring. You didn’t expect them to be so fascinating. You didn’t expect people to fall madly in love with them. To want to be them.
(a reader named Laurie Skelton drew this for me when I wrote similarly about the lack of Disney princesses I could identify with as a girl. I thought a lot about this drawing as I was writing this post. It’s still the best thing ever)
It’s amazing how sensitive I am. How much I notice the way women are described. It’s amazing how relieved I am, when I meet a character who looks even a little like me. Or who looks even a little different from what I expect her to. It’s a breath of fresh air, after having been underwater without knowing it. It’s a treat. It’s a shock of green against a desert vista.
It’s a really good reason to be a writer.
Who knows what stories we’ll tell tomorrow? Next year. In ten years.
I think there will be some surprising women in them.
* * *
What would your heroine look like?
Unroast: Today I love the way I have gotten comfortable in more revealing clothing, for the summer. It’s convenient. I like when I don’t stop to think what people might be thinking.