Not too long ago I had a revelation at a Medical Spa. It wasn’t a happy one.
I wanted to know what to do about some mild acne scars on my face. I sat across from the doctor who owns the place for a consultation. Without even looking at my scars, he first asked: “So when did you break your nose?”
I think my answer was something along the lines of: “Uh, what??”
I hadn’t been aware that my nose had been broken up until that point, but he handed me a mirror, and sure enough, my nose is crooked. It definitely leans to one side. Oh.
Then, while I was still digesting that bit of information, he asked me this little zinger: “So, did you have ‘Bell’s Palsy’ as a child?”
He then proceeded to show me how the right side of my face displays mild muscle weakness in comparison to the left side, making one eyebrow higher than the other, one eyelid slightly more droopy, and my lips puffier on one side. In effect, my face is asymmetrical, or crooked.
Holy cow! Forget the stupid acne scars! I’m a freak of nature!
I declined the recommended scar treatment: a $500 laser session to burn off a few layers of skin. I went home afraid to look in the mirror.
I was reminded of this experience as I got to thinking about how women’s looks are described by writers. This isn’t a discussion of how much detail writers should include in their character descriptions. Instead, I’m reflecting on something that’s always bugged me just a tad: so many female literary heroines are gorgeous, beautiful, stunning, ethereal, amazing, attractive, or as we hear so often today, “hot.” Their bodies are perfect according to current fashion, which lately seems to mean “tiny, skinny stick arms and big boobs.” (Thanks to a friend for that quote. It pretty much sums up today’s standard of beauty for me).
But what are real women like?
We have scars. We’re overweight or underweight. We have grey hair. Too many laugh lines. Stretch marks. Flat chests and flabby arms. Too tall. Too short. Too young. Tool old. Puffy eyes from lack of sleep. Blotchy skin and frizzy hair. We’re imperfect and…asymmetrical. And yet, each woman is of great value to someone. She’s a daughter, a mother, a sister, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker. She’s your child’s beloved teacher, the pharmacist who remembers everyone’s name. Your Mom. When did a child ever care if Mom looked like a supermodel? Why do female characters in books have to look that way?
I know that not every writer does this. I’m also not suggesting that all writers should go out of their way to describe female protagonists in as unappealing a manner as possible. I’m just asking for a little reality.
I found a touch of that reality in a book I read a few years ago. Sadly, I can’t remember the title, but I remember this. The main character, a woman, took a moment for self reflection. In essence, she thought this: “So, I’m ten or more pounds overweight. I’m shorter than average. My eyebrows are way too thick. So what?”
So what indeed! J