On Beauty

Yes, I just shamelessly stole Zadie Smith’s title.

What I want to talk about, however, is representations of physical beauty in writing – specifically erotic or romantic writing. I will easily admit that I have my issues with the idea of beauty (or the ideas society standardizes), so maybe I am just not the target audience… but I feel like I have never met anyone, man or woman, who didn’t have issues with their own body in some way.

Now, when I read a story about two people who’s beauty is extolled in all too many superlatives, I get put off. It just kind of destroys the fantasy because in my head, it becomes a Hollywood montage of perfection – and I just don’t find that all that romantic. As in “oh, really? The perfect Hunk has the hots for the oh-so-perfect model princess with the seamless tan, the thick hair and perfect nose?” Big surprise. I don’t think I’m ugly, nor is this a rant on how nobody ever writes about or makes a movie about someone falling for the chubby girl — but in writing we have that chance to pull people in with small details.

Say, you have a male narrator – I will be a lot more impressed with him, if he finds beauty in her crooked nose, her funny toes or the way her thighs touch rather than the perfection of her breast or the nobility of her face. Same goes for a female narrator. And it definitely – definitely! – is important when the female narrator describes herself. Confidence is good – vanity not so much.
Maybe what I really like to read is about fresh beauty, a beauty that is a little bit different.

I just read a stunning erotic short written by my lovely writing compadre Lorrie, and it was hot and amazing, like everything she writes. But what stuck in my head longer than the arousal was my love for the female lead, who was worried about her smeared and chipped finger-nails and who’s heels were a little too rough against her rear when she knelt. They were such beautiful descriptions that made the story – and the person! – come alive to me so much stronger and more vividly than bland words of perfection.

What do you think? What kind of beauty do you like to read about?

One Comment

  1. I agree about the sort of details that pull me in. One of the things that really sticks in my head is from a fantasy book I read. There’s a shapeshifter impersonating the narrator’s wife, but the narrator notices that the shapeshifter has straightened her crooked nose. Not only does it reveal the deception, but it pisses the narrator off—there’s a passage about the arrogance of changing her that way, as if she needed to be corrected, and how it makes her look less beautiful to him. I always really loved that.

    I also love when a writer points to unusual qualities that can be attractive. I, for one, am crazy for moles and freckles, basically anywhere. To me they’re obviously sexy, but I’ve discovered that some people are self-conscious about them (to the point that I’ve gotten more careful about talking about them). I don’t read very many descriptions of moles and freckles that I can think of, though.

    In contrast, however, I did just write a book about two very conventionally hot people. (Not exactly the hunk and model princess, but close). I really enjoyed the process in this case, though, because I was playing with it in a couple ways. For one thing, they both have characteristics that aren’t physically apparent but really affect their lives (for example, she can’t stand to be touched). For another thing, their looks allow them to be in the world in a certain way that was interesting to write about (they can get away with certain behavior that less conventionally attractive people can not). That’s to say that, while I still agree that it’s good to describe that kind of body in a more creative way than a bunch of superlatives (crossing my fingers that I did), I like to see these people portrayed as people, not as a default.

    And for a sense of what I mean by default, I read a string of four or five books in a row recently in which the heroine was described as “slender and small” in exactly those words. By the fifth one, I was ready to throw the book across the room, simply out of annoyance at the repetition.

Leave a Reply