Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On beauty

Folks who write and read in the romance genre deal with beauty a lot: heroines and heroes are often (almost always?) physically attractive. Even Margaret Mitchell's assertion that "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful" is disingenuous considering the novel that followed. None of this is unexpected: it's part of the fantasy that we want to buy into, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to be beautiful.


Perhaps the danger is in wanting it too much or in going to extremes to achieve beauty. Recently, Isabelle Caro, a French model who openly struggled with anorexia, died, likely due to complications of her condition. The extremes are stark.

But even less severe attempts to sate an overblown vanity can have consequences. For instance, in their quest to "feel pretty," women submit themselves to dangerous diets and elective surgeries. Even when they experience negative outcomes, such as complete loss of nipple sensation after breast augmentation, some women count the cost as worth it.

In recent years, popular press has paid a lot of attention to body images promoted in film and magazines, and I submit that romance novels similarly reinforce the necessity of physical beauty. As a genre, they collectively feature and extol prettiness. For instance, romance novels rarely feature heroines with unibrows, big noses, or flabby thighs, and I have never read a bald hero with a beer gut. I can think of only one book I've read that starred an overweight heroine -- Lori Foster's Too Much Temptation -- and even then, the focus of the story was the character's flab and how she was likable despite it. I did read an interesting book, Mary Balogh's A Secret Affair, that considered the heroine's great beauty a social defect that she had to overcome, and I thought that was an interesting take.

I'm not saying that all romance novels should feature physically unappealing characters, but an angle on this issue might be the fresh twist that some writer (or reader) is looking for. It would certainly be a challenge of characterization: writing a believable attraction based on something other than the character's pretty eye color or ripped abs.

What about you? Have you read (or written) anything that deals with beauty in a head-on or fresh way? Recs appreciated.


Nerine Dorman said...

I hear what you say about the hyper-reality so prevalent in contemporary media. In my fiction I try to portray characters who are quirky in some way, though I like to try bring across some of the ideals I find attractive in the physical archetypes I encounter.

To many, novels equal escapism from the mundane, so we're in the business of fabricating dreams for our readers, and in dreams, many things are better than in the real world.

So, while I feel one should give what people want, it should be tempered with some touchstone of the real. I don't like stories where everyone is beautiful. I can think of a few authors out there who love bandying around that adjective.

Show, rather than tell, I say.

Mary Quast said...

I have read some books recently where the main characters have had physicial issues to overcome. One herion began her story missing an arm. I've noticed many shapeshifters prefer women with "a bit of meat on their bones".

No matter what the character looks like, the writer needs to take her on a journey. I love how a character finds her inner beauty and simply glows as the result. I agree, Show, rather tell.

carabristol said...

Romance is about fantasy--all women are pretty, all men are hunky, serious misunderstandings and baggage are resolved in mere weeks (sometimes less) and everyone lives happily ever after. No one has serious money problems, or health issues. Personally, when I'm reading a romance, I don't want to read about an unattractive hero with a beer gut who's stuck in a deadend job. I want a hunk with potential! But I understand where women would want a heroine they can relate to...and if the heroines are all rail thin (but stacked) and gorgeous, it's not a true reflection of reality.

I AM seeing more overweight heroines in romance fact, I think it's becoming a trend. A fledgling trend, but a trend. Two authors who feature plus-sized heroines come to mind: Francesca Hawley (who I will interview on my blog Jan. 28) and Gerry Bartlett.

For me, the issue is age. All the heroines are still young. Thirty-something seems to be the max age. For heroes, mid-thirties seems to be the max. People 40, 50 and older need romance, too!

BTW, I had the HARDEST time posting! The blog would not recognize my URL, I had to use my OLD wordpress URL.

Savanna Kougar said...

Vivien, I don't know your choice of romance novels. However, there are many small print/epublishers who feature plus-sized heroines. And as Cara said, Francesca Hawley is one of the authors. She writes for Ellora's Cave. Also, Celia Kyle is another author who favors 'fluffy' heroines.

I've also seen blurbs for all sorts of health conditions that the heroine or heroes are overcoming. So, I'm not certain how that fits into what you're saying.

That being said, I UTTERLY AGREE about the whole entertainment industry and its absolute abuse of women. I mean who the hell cares about how thin you can be... planning on entering a concentration camp soon? I could get on a whole huge soap box about the horrors of this society, and so-called ideas of beauty.

However, as Cara said also, it's about the FANTASY!!! Read literary fiction if you want that kind of realism. I don't. For a number of reasons that I won't get into because it could be a hundred page paper on the subject.

I wouldn't be interested in a beer gut, bald guy, so why would any of my heroines be interested? I'm not saying I'm a prize. Currently, I doubt any guy would be interested in me, either. Again, I won't go into those details.

Okay, my heroines are NEVER EVER rail thin and stacked. Why? Because I personally do not find that physically beautiful. I can't stand the way super models look these days. In turns my stomach.

Yes, my heroines are beautiful in their own unique way. The hero is, of course, drawn to and sexually excited by her beauty. However, it's who she is that causes him to fall in love with her, to love her with devotion.

Also, my youngest heroine is 27. My oldest heroine is 100 years old.

And, yes, my heroes are handsome in their unique and powerful way. They are also ultra masculine and they ARE NOT guys.

And, of course, my heroines are attracted to their heroes... but they haven't hopped into bed just because of ripped abs, or some other physical attribute... yet. And, if they do there will be much more to the story than a matter of physical attraction.

Savanna Kougar said...

PS, if you're looking for a contemporary with more realism, I suggest reading Bekki Lynn's erotic romance novels. She's outstanding at writing a more realistic contemporary perspective.