Recently, actress Ashley Judd pushed back against a crapstorm of public criticism of her appearance by writing an essay about the endless “conversation” about women’s bodies. Her statement got me thinking about a decision I made early on in my writing career.
I don’t describe my heroines physically. In my recent release, Snowbound with a Stranger, I say nothing about Dannie’s body, except, I think, that her hair is long enough to put into a ponytail. I did that on purpose. And I’m here today at Long And Short Reviews to tell you why.
1. How a Woman Looks is the Most Boring Thing About Her.
It’s true that first impressions are frequently based on physical appearance. But I think there’s a lot more going on when we first meet someone. What we think is a response to a woman’s looks is actually a response to the whole package of who she is—the way she carries herself, the way she dresses, her voice, the way she looks at you, the way she smells.
Then, as we get to know her, we learn her personality, her intelligence, her sense of humor, her strengths and weaknesses, her history, her dreams—and the way she looks becomes linked in our minds and senses to these impressions of her. I look into my husband’s eyes, for example, and while they’re objectively a stunning blue, the reason they’re beautiful to me is that I know and love the man he is. His eyes are not a single physical part that I admire, but one inextricable aspect of his whole hot-as-love self.
I’m much more interested in how the hero reacts to the heroine this way—holistically—than I am in watching him catalogue and rate her body parts. It tells me more about who she is and who he is. Which brings me to…
2. A Woman is More Than The Sum of Her Parts.
Ever watch a movie where a female character walks into the frame boobs-first? Then the camera slowly pans down and piece by piece her body gets observed and judged: kind of like those helpful cuts-of-beef diagrams that show the chuck, ribs, and brisket sections of the cow.
I’m not a cow. I have a personality. There are things that matter to me, things that hurt me, and things I’m proud of. I don’t like being looked at in sections and I don’t like being judged on the supposed quality of each of my sections, either. I’m a whole person. And so, I hope, are my heroines. Describing them one part at a time feels cruel and unnecessary to me, because…
3. It’s Bad Enough That Men Look At Our Bodies Critically. We Don’t Have to Do it to Each Other and Ourselves.
I see no reason to talk about things like full lips and luscious bosoms. It sets up a competition of body parts that leaves no one feeling good. How often do we look in the mirror and say things like, “OMG, My ass is huge in this dress. My chest is too small. THERE’S A HAIR GROWING OUT OF MY NECK. WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?”
(Wait, did I just say that out loud?)
The truth is we have spirits inside these bodies. The right people will respond to the beauty of these spirits. They shine through whatever we look like. Yes, we should try to be healthy physically. Yes, we can admire the way our bodies move and what they can do. But we are constantly being judged critically by many men and other women based on how the various parts of our bodies look, and it ain’t right. Not to mention…
4. Physical Descriptions Add Very Little to the Story.
You ever notice how half the time the model on the book cover looks nothing like the way the heroine is described in the novel? Or, when a book is made into a movie, the actress cast to play the lead role bears no resemblance to the character in the book?
What’s funny about this is how little it matters. We picture characters our own way in our heads anyway. Who cares if they’re redheads or blondes? Unless the author is using a shorthand like redhead=spitfire/brunette=serious (which, by the way, YAWN), the character’s appearance signifies very little except to help us get a vague picture in our heads. But I can do that on my own.
In some stories, however, our heroines relate to their bodies in complicated ways. Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me is one great example. In that book, Min’s relationship to her own physicality is relevant to the plot, and Crusie discusses her body only insofar as it relates to the central conflict and to the development of Min’s character. She also addresses the burden of social expectations about weight and appearance, and in this context, it makes sense to describe Min physically. In Fault Lines—my upcoming contemporary romance —the heroine is a rape survivor who struggles with the contrast between how she sees herself and how she is seen, so I bring up her appearance because it’s relevant to do so.
If it’s not relevant, though, I don’t bother. Because it often does more harm than good. Whatever we gain by knowing the color of the heroine’s hair or the length of her legs, it’s not worth what we lose by dissecting her physically. And we do lose something. Every time we participate in making our heroines into physical objects whose bodies we have the right to examine critically, we’re saying it’s okay for men and other women to do that to us. And it ain’t.
Of course, it’s fully possible for an author to describe a heroine respectfully. Most authors do exactly that. I probably will do so at some point in my career. But for now, I’m making the simple choice of not doing it at all.
And by the way…
5. I Don’t Describe My Heroes, Either.
Well, maybe a little. I almost always talk about their hands and eyes, because I think these are avenues of emotional expression—men in particular often convey their feelings this way rather than talking about them. Sometimes I’ll also talk about a man’s build. I stick to descriptions that give an overall sense or impression rather than those that cut the man into parts. I do this because I don’t think men should be objectified either. As a writer, I’m interested in who a man is inside. And I know from experience that it’s the spirit inside a man that makes him attractive.
I have a feeling that lots of people will disagree with me on this point of view, or at least take issue with my blanket statements. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. I think it’s a great subject for discussion, and I welcome your opinions. Although I don’t physically describe Dannie from Snowbound with a Stranger, the story is super steamy, emotional and fun. A free copy of the book goes to one random commenter, so join in the chat!
Rebecca Rogers Maher lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and children. She is the author of theRecovery Trilogy—I’ll Become the Sea, Snowbound with a Stranger and the forthcomingFault Lines (September 2012)—from Carina Press.
Snowbound with a Stranger is now available from Carina Press.