There are no women who look like me in books. Not when they're supposed to be pretty, anyway.
Recently, I was reading yet another book about a girl with a "perfect nose." The perfection of her nose was only mentioned in passing, but I caught it immediately.
Every time a female character is described as having the "perfect nose," I know exactly what it will look like: the opposite of mine. It will be delicate and small and fine. It will never be bulky and arched and bold. It will never dominate her face. Of course not. That would be ridiculous.
In the book I'm reading now, a character contemplates cutting her hair short in a moment of defiance. But then she stops herself at the last minute, realizing that she's not that self-destructive. She's not that far gone.
I am that far gone, apparently. I got a buzz cut!
Literature is full of examples of specifically adorable women. And it's sort of amazing how happy I am when I run into one who isn't.
Someone whose beauty isn't described as "effortless." Women are always being praised for being effortlessly gorgeous. They don't even know it! They just are! Even when they just wake up! Even when they haven't taken a shower in weeks! Even when they're covered in ticks and leeches!
I used to think I was effortlessly beautiful. And then it turned out I was just a kid.
Now I usually look better when I got sleep last night and I washed myself and I put on some clothes that are at least a little flattering. And when I stand up somewhat straight.
It's kind of amazing how influenced I am by the way beauty gets described to me by the world. There are a million tiny message, everywhere I turn, about what makes someone beautiful. I think I know them all. Even when I don't care, and I'm not thinking about any of this at all, it still registers somewhere in the soup of my consciousness. "She was perfect -- the kind of girl every boy would fall in love with, even in preschool. You know the kind -- big, doe eyes, a pert little nose with a spray of freckles across it, a wide, laughing mouth, and billows of golden hair. Her coltish legs made her look fragile and fast at the same time." Mmhmm... figures.
I'm not bitter. I swear. But I notice.
And then I notice when she's different. Flat-chested! I already love her! Snarl-haired! Yes! Of average height. Not tall and slender, not tiny and delicate. Hooray! Is she a little soft? Fantastic! Maybe she has short hair? We'll take just above the chin! She's my kinda girl.
But she is almost never soft and flat-chested at the same time. And she would never, ever, ever be soft and flat-chested and big-nosed and of average height. That just doesn't work. Of course it doesn't work. We all know that it doesn't work.
I know. I've seen it.
In life, as in literature, I notice the girls and women who are differently beautiful. You know what I mean. Not like "Oh, everyone is beautiful in their own way." Like, YES. She is rocking it! I have never seen that before, and I didn't think it could be done.
And then I saw her sitting across from me at an event. She had gray hair in a buzz cut, long before I thought about buzzing my hair. She was full-bodied and broad-shouldered and sharp-featured and graceful. She was a professor at FIT, I'll never forget that. She was stunning in this way that I can't even explain. Weirdly, I felt reflexively proud of her husband, sitting beside her, for being with a woman this cool-looking.
It is so nice, so refreshing, to run into someone like that. Someone who opens up this whole world of other possibilities.
An older woman, she must have been in her mid 70's. She wore jeans and a plain white t-shirt, with her long white hair pulled into a ponytail away from her craggy, elegant face. No breasts to speak of, but something hugely feminine about the way she moved.
I like it when it's older women. Women I can maybe one day become.
They are rarely described to me at all, let alone described as beautiful.
Someone pulled me aside at a party my mom threw. "Your grandmother is gorgeous," he said. A handsome gay man comfortable saying such things. But at first, I thought maybe he was joking a little, being sweet. Do people really think that, outside of the family? And then I was enormously thankful that he had said it.
It's interesting how used to the same descriptions we are. How we have memorized all of the variations of prettiness. We have read them all. We have seen them all on TV.
But I want to write a book with a heroine who is 5'5″ with a nose like a hawk and gentle eyes, full lips, broad shoulders, and barely any breasts. I haven't done it yet, for some reason. I wimp out at the last second, afraid that no one will want to read it. That my friend was right. People want to imagine the same pretty girls, over and over. Or if she is so different-looking, then the book will have to be about that, somehow. I write girl characters who I never describe at all.
When I was a kid, I wrote because I wanted to read my own stories. Maybe this is the start of all writers.
I want to be braver. I want to be more selfish about my stories. And I want to write a character who is short and fat and mixed race, with fine hair and thin lips and a wide, snub nose, and eyes that cut through you. An elderly, stunning woman. A woman so remarkably different that you can't figure out if she's beautiful or not, and you stop trying almost immediately, because she's too interesting for you even to waste time on it. Women who are full of surprises. Who look surprising. You didn't think they would be starring. You didn't expect them to be so fascinating. You didn't expect people to fall madly in love with them. To want to be them.
It's amazing how sensitive I am. How much I notice the way women are described. It's amazing how relieved I am when I meet a character who looks even a little like me. Or who looks even a little different from what I expect her to. It's a breath of fresh air, after having been underwater without knowing it. It's a treat. It's a shock of green against a desert vista.
It's a really good reason to be a writer.
Who knows what stories we'll tell tomorrow? Next year. In ten years.
I think there will be some surprising women in them.
What does YOUR perfect heroine look like?
A version of this piece appeared on Eat the Damn Cake, where there's always a conversation about beauty and the rest of life going on