Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

my grandmother
my grandmother

“Wow. You’re tall,” said the stranger in the elevator looking at me.

My grandmother narrowed her eyes. “No. You are short.”

I focused on the panelling while we finished the silent ride to the 7th floor.

Tonight was my last acting class, and the instructor video taped our final scenes. Four other pairs went before my partner and me. Everyone in their scenes was beautiful. Not that insane beauty of superstars, but beautiful. Who could doubt that Jody’s Doc was pining for Louise’s Meg? Or that Scratch’s doctor loved Elyce’s Agnes? One reason I like British television is that the actors tend to look like real people. Yes, they have their share of magazine-cover beauties, but they seem able to allow possible looking people on TV.

Of course, when I saw my own self on the tv screen, well, I did not see things the same way. My own image brought out that teen-self–why couldn’t I just be prettier? But then what? If we were all prettier, so what? We still have to feel.

Someone once asked me if the heroine in my novel was pretty. “Sure,” I said. “Of course,” he said. That was the end of the conversation, but I didn’t mean she was drop dead gorgeous. She wasn’t stunning and prettier girls are in the book, but if you make a girl not pretty in fiction, it seems you have to have her angst about it. Or maybe even embrace it, but you would have to talk about it. I wanted a character who was pretty enough to get a certain someone’s attention, but not so pretty as to have to raw attention to the fact. Real life pretty.

Besides, if her boyfriend describes her as pretty–well, he would, wouldn’t he? The boyfriend is not likely to complain about her looks–unless he’s a jerk. If he’s a good guy boyfriend he ought to tell her she’s beautiful because to him she is. This hardly means she has to look like Eva Green.

This probably says more about my own issues than anything, but I usually make my bad guys better looking than my heroes. And my mother used to complain about ugly bad guys in movies. “Evil is supposed to tempt you. It should look tempting.”

I never saw my grandmother look away, slouch, or ever look as if she didn’t believe she was beautiful. She was mystified at my inability to get a date. Not that she said so. She just stopped asking me about boys.

In fiction, how a character feels about his or her looks means more than their actual appearance. So, in your stories, how good-looking is everyone? How important are looks to you?

10 thoughts on “Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

  1. How important are looks to you?

    I know this isn’t what you meant, but when I first read that question something in my brain sputtered and it occurred to me that I attend way more to people’s “looks” — as in what they do with their eyes — than to their appearance. There are the looks (glances) of those who are drop-dead gorgeous, and know it, and know YOU know it, and they acknowledge that, yes, this probably puts the two of you on completely different planes of — I don’t know, cosmic significance or something. At the other end of the continuum are those whose appearance doesn’t really matter because they “know” they are ugly but wish otherwise; their looks (eyes) are cast down and to the side, and when you get to know them they never actually look at you. I often wish I knew these people better but, well, eyes as windows to the soul and all that, and they live in essentially windowless (or well-shuttered) houses.

    Somewhere in the middle are the people and the characters who are by turns (a) self-conscious about their appearance and (b) interested enough by everything else that they don’t think much at all about their appearance in the first place. What they do or don’t do with their eyes, signaling approachability (or otherwise) — that’s more likely to attract me or keep me at arm’s length than what they do to their face and hair in the morning, y’know?

  2. The attractiveness of a given person or a given character is resident in what that individual does and how the action is performed. Thus, for me, action not only is character, it translates into how a character appears. Beautiful persons have to perform, I argue, as much as less beautiful or significantly less beautiful persons do, otherwise the world will pass them by. What a joy it is to see someone doing something beautifully or gracefully. It is humorous to see someone beautiful/handsome spilling soup in their lap or tripping over something because they were caught up with their reflection in a window or mirror.

    On a more personal level, your beauty emerges from the things you write and the visual art you create, one reason being you put something of yourself into the things you create. This is not surprising for those of us who see it (them). Part of the beauty that emerges from you is resident in the fact that you are too busy doing things to notice its presence. Thus does radiance trump everything. This is true of persons and the things they create.

    I’m Shelly Lowenkopf and I approve this message.

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  4. When I was in college, I thought about beauty. There was this one girl who I thought was beautiful, with porcelain skin and large eyes and that very pretty Irish bone structure. No one looked at her. At all. And then there was another girl with a weak chin and eyes too close together and a prominent nose… and half the campus was in love with her. How? Why?

    IMO beauty, or what we perceive as beauty comes from the way one feels about oneself. The first girl was awkward and insecure and hid herself in many ways. The second girl was outgoing and full of laughter and had a mane of hair like a lion and was a wonderful dancer who performed in skin tight leotards or less as if her shoulders weren’t sloping and her hips weren’t wide. (personally, body issues were what foolishly kept me from ever taking dance.)

    Do I make my characters pretty? Yes, I probably do (unless, like you say it’s part of the story) but then I also believe that there are so many ways to be pretty, that most people ARE pretty in their own way. And I think the bad guys should be really good looking. The worst evil is the one that you don’t expect, the one that makes you want it.

  5. My daughter has gorgeous, long, Irish-Setter-red hair, and has been fending off comments about it her whole life. We always crack up when people say “Wow, you have red hair!” I think she should grab a lock of it, look at it and exclaim, “really? Om my gosh, you’re right! I never noticed!” They also ask her if she dyes it, where she “got it” and then they ask me if I’m jealous. It both defines her in a good way and isolates her too, because it’s “different” and we all know how that goes in high school. She loves visiting family in Ireland where she’s just another redhead.

    I wanted to give the teenage girl in my novel red hair, because it is such a great symbol of how teenagers hate to stand out in any way, but I knew my own teenage daughter wouldn’t like it, and anyone reading the book and knows me, or her, would automatically assume the character was my daughter, which she isn’t (gosh this is convoluted!!!) .

    Rowena- I had a friend like that in high school. No standard-pretty in any way, but so confident that people flocked to her. I don’t begrudge people like that the attention, but I sure wish I knew how to get that confidence.

    p.s. Today I got my look-at-me fix from changing things around on my blog! 🙂

  6. There’s more I could comment on here, but I just don’t have time. I love that you brought up this point. I’ve thought about it while creating characters.

    I just wanted to say though that I especially love your grandmother’s quote: “Evil is supposed to tempt you. It should look tempting.” That’s great.

  7. loriaustex

    Okay…so what kind of beauty? The Navajo version — hozho? That particularly Japanese version — wabi-sabi? Beauty as symmetry, as the unattainable object of desire, as the embodiment of the vital force?

    I imagine (and remember, I make pix much more than prose) that one can tell a lot about a character by their sensitivity to, or obliviousness to, their appearance. But what do I know…I’m just a person who loves the way light falls on something that’s falling apart… 😉

  8. Have you read Fay Weldon’s ‘The Life and Loves of a She Devil’? That’s an interesting story about the revenge of a spurned (ugly) wife against the beautiful woman who seduced her husband – and it explores exactly this question good/evil, beauty/ugliness. True physical beauty is freakish – it’s the imperfections, the inner beauty that draws you in.

  9. JES, how a person looks at life seems the most attractive thing.

    Shelly, to rephrase my idea to JES–the prettiest people are the ones adding something to the world, I think. Hard to know when and if one is actually doing that though. Thanks for approving the message.

    rowena, self-perception is all I suppose. Too bad it changes every day. Hmm. Every few minutes.

    Sarah, red hair! I am jealous. If only i had red hair. ha. Lucky daughter.

    Shelli, I’ve long cherished the things my mother and grandmother said. Thanks.

    lori, yes, there are many ideas of beauty and why choose one? Life is beautiful as the saying goes.

    kate, the most beautiful women have interesting faces not perfect ones.

  10. One reason I like British television is that the actors tend to look like real people. Yes, they have their share of magazine-cover beauties, but they seem able to allow possible looking people on TV.

    Yes! That’s exactly the thing that makes BBC shows so realistic to me.

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