February 13, 2017

Physical beauty – do we writers perpetuate stereotypes?

As social animals, we humans value physical attractiveness very highly. We instinctively associate good looks with various other positive traits, such as friendliness and honesty. Fairytales and proverbs remind us time and again that “beauty is only skin deep” and “not all that glitters is gold” (or “all that is gold does not glitter”, to quote J.R.R. Tolkien), but somehow sociobiology has wired us to think differently. 

Attractiveness isn’t only an important factor in mate selection, we unconsciously take it into account in all spheres of life. Empirical research shows that visually attractive people find it easier to get good jobs and are perceived as more competent. Researchers have demonstrated that physical beauty has a significant impact on teachers’ judgments of students, jury judgments in simulated trials, and voter preferences for political candidates. Conversely, people who are perceived as physically unattractive suffer various forms of painful social rejection. To quote just one example, the degree of stigmatization and body shaming induced by obesity in today’s society is outrageous and horrible.

The unrealistically high standards of beauty and fitness, particularly female beauty, perpetuated by movies, commercials and magazines (where photos are routinely digitally retouched) are responsible for lots of insecurity and body image issues among women. (Many men aren’t immune to this either, only girls tend to get fixated on a pretty face, luxurious hair and a perfectly toned body, whereas insecure guys want to have muscles, muscles, muscles...) What struck me lately, though, is that we fiction writers are unconsciously (?) guilty of perpetuating this ubiquitous beauty fetish too. 

As I see it, there’s a heavy bias in genre fiction (with the possible exception of crime fiction) to feature physically attractive main characters, simply because both authors and readers are drawn to them. Romance and fantasy reflect this bias particularly strongly - the main characters tend to be much more eye-catching than the average mortal. You only need to look at the book covers. (I don't read romance, but I tried to select a cover that is actually pleasing to the eye, with no oiled muscles or scary silicone curves. And as regards fantasy, the covers of the Conan series reflect a certain visual esthetic that remains popular. Yes, the Conan covers kinda overdo it, but there's a definite tendency in fantasy literature to feature strong manly men and lovely sexy girls; even if they're warrior princesses who can kill two dragons before dinner without batting an eyelid, they still need to be lovely. Brienne of Tarth in G.R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series is a notable exception to this rule.)

On a personal note; IRL, I’m very conscious of how the world overvalues physical beauty. I’ve always hated (and largely ignored) the social pressure for women to be “beautiful” and to use various artificial means of enhancing their looks. If guys don't use makeup or nail varnish, why the hell should I? (That’s my own brand of feminism for you.) But I digress. The real reason I’m writing this post is because I’ve recently realized that as a writer, I’m much less immune to the social fixation on beauty than I thought. 

All the main characters in my books are physically attractive.

Not necessarily drop-dead gorgeous in the conventional sense, but definitely not ugly. Some of them might FEEL unattractive and insecure (Olga in Olga i osty is addicted to sweets and somewhat overweight, with a cello figure, and has huge issues with this, but she’s also described as having “eyes like Penélope Cruz”, and the other main character is strongly attracted to her curvy body, not just to her personality). Brune Keare a.k.a. Anguish from the Darkgleam series is thin, wiry, swarthy, with unkempt hair and scars on one cheek – but while he has nothing in common with the standard muscle-bound sword-and-sorcery heroes, he’d still be a solid 7 on a 1-to-10 attractiveness scale. And I'm pretty sure his appearance plays a role in his popularity as a character. I don’t think stories about an outlawed sorcerer who’s pudgy and bald would have had quite the same appeal. 

Even worse, all the important female characters in the Darkgleam series are described as pretty or attractive, and either slim or thin. When I realized this, I felt ashamed. The Darkgleam books are dark fantasy, not romantic fantasy... but still, it’s disconcerting that as a writer, I’m unconsciously helping perpetuate the stereotypes I’m theoretically against.

The next time you’re reading or writing a work of fiction, take note of the characters’ appearance and of the feelings it evokes in you. Are you, too, vulnerable to the physical attractiveness bias?

(Note for English-language readers: My books mentioned in this post were published in Polish. I’m hoping to get them translated into English someday. You can learn more about the Darkgleam series here and about Olga i osty here.)

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