Literature has the power to harm or help the way women are viewed. In the past, women were poorly represented, particularly in literature by men. However, now that women are more likely to be protagonists, there are still some stereotypes and descriptions that I find harmful.
For today, I want to address descriptions and how we can use our descriptions of women to be inclusive and to discourage body shaming.
Below are some practices I use to make sure I’m describing women and girls fairly by not evaluating them based on their appearance. This takes practice. Even I have to break out of the bad habits that have been perpetuated for decades.
Cut the word “beautiful” when describing women
I first noticed this issue when reading Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen. While I enjoyed the other aspects of the book, his descriptions of women grated on me. Every woman introduced in the story was evaluated by the male character as either beautiful, not beautiful, or “could be beautiful without all the dirt” (my summary). This measures the women’s value based on the male’s gaze and opinion of her. Is she attractive? Then she’s interesting. Is she ugly? Then she’s pitiful, poor girl. Is she dirty? Well, she could be beautiful, so maybe that makes her worth talking to.
This is an older book, and I don’t see this quite as often in newer work, but I think writers are still quick to evaluate a woman’s appearance based on her beauty without realizing they are doing it.
It reminds me of a video from the 1950s about body care and grooming that Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed. In the video, women are compared to the “beauties in nature” that are meant to please men. When a woman with a few wardrobe errors walks by a man, she is accused of not letting him enjoy the beauty or “act like a human being.”
This is what our grandparents grew up with, and we’re still recovering from the idea that women exist to be beautiful.
While you may not choose to be this extreme, I’ve personally try to cut the word “beauty” (or any of its synonyms–pretty, attractive, etc.) from my descriptions unless it is necessary. In most cases, it’s simply not important to evaluate the appearance of the character.
However, there are a few cases where an evaluation can say something about the narrator. For instance, in a romance, the narrator will more than likely be attracted to the love interest. But what features do they find attractive, and can most of those features be personal rather than physical? Can you still cut the word “beauty” and be more specific about what the character notices? What physical aspects of women have been traditionally considered unattractive that we can uplift?
There are other reasons to use the word. Maybe you want to use the word beautiful to emphasize a beauty not typically represented. Maybe it’s important to the story that a woman is beautiful. Maybe you want to show that all women are beautiful in their own way.
The main thing I try to do is avoid further engraving the idea that there is only one kind of beauty or that a woman’s worth is connected to her beauty. The problem isn’t in the word “beauty” itself but in how it is used.
Choosing the right words when describing women
Just as the word “beauty” is an evaluative statement of a woman’s appearance, any word that has a negative or positive connotation is an evaluation of a specific feature. While I think it’s okay to use positive connotations, I do avoid negative ones.
Some examples: plain, pasty, unattractive, bony, pudgy
These words highlight the negative aspects of a neutral feature. Instead, neutral or positive words would be better.
The hard part about this is not knowing what words are considered negative or positive to the reader. Everyone has different feelings associated with different words. For instance, people often call me “skinny,” but I have always viewed this as a negative word.
A character may also directly evaluate their own appearance based on things that have been stereotypically represented as “bad,” but it’s important not to overdo this or make your reader self-conscious about their own similar features. Does every girl, for instance, have to be self-conscious about her freckles? Maybe it would be good to have a characters who love their freckles, giving the reader permission to love their own.
But what about villains and unlikeable characters?
Too often, I think, ugliness is associated with meanness. If we can tell someone is a villain or meant to be unlikeable because of a mere description, there may be something wrong. While these characters can certainly be unattractive physically, I think it’s important to avoid perpetuating these stereotypes. Even though you’re describing a villain, negatively associating certain features with villainy can be harmful.
Avoiding evaluations based on weight when describing women
Weight descriptors can especially carry connotations. With this, I think about how I would want someone to describe me. As someone who is perpetually thin (the kind that makes moms beg you to eat seconds when you’re stuffed), I grow very insecure when I’m called “skinny” or “bony,” especially when it’s someone’s first reaction to meeting me. This tells me that this is the first thing people notice about me. I would much rather be described by my personality. If appearances must be described, then yes, smallness is a big part of my appearance and may even affect my personality in some ways–such as how I walk or sit or fidget. Still, I’d want a writer to emphasize something else as well.
I mention this because I’ve noticed that much of the body shaming movement focuses on empowering heavier women while shaming “skinny” women, and that may be why strangers feel it’s okay to tell me I need to eat more (yes, this has happened). It’s important that, in celebrating one type, we aren’t shaming the other type.
People are often insecure about their weight, so I think it’s okay for your characters to mention their concerns about their own appearance by describing themselves negatively. To me, what is more important is how your narrator views others. If they are describing another girl or woman with negative words such as “skeletal” or “pudgy,” for instance, the reader is expected to view the neutral characteristic (thin or full-bodied) as negative.
There are ways to describe size as well with a focus on smaller details. For instead of saying “she was skinny,” you could describe her “thin wrists” or “long fingers.”
The point isn’t to avoid describing weight but to provide neutral or positive descriptions.
Describing all types of women
I don’t think the answer is that we avoid descriptions altogether, nor that we only describe what we as a culture have traditionally considered to be beautiful features.
It’s okay to write that a woman has hunched shoulders, that her nails are dirty, or that her hair is frazzled. And it’s okay to write that a woman has curvy hips and manicured fingers. There are all kinds of women, and their appearance is only a small part of who they are.
If we overthink this, we may never write a description again. Go with your gut and describe as truthfully as you can.
In the end, a woman’s appearance is only a minuscule part of who she is.
That’s why the next point is so important.
Describe non-physical aspects of your characters
Like I said above about how I would want to be described, it’s important to give a full picture of your character. Otherwise, you are only revealing the tip of the iceberg. Show us how she is soft spoken or snorts when she laughs. Show her being bold or cautious. Let her be real and flawed and relatable. Because the point isn’t that you make all of your female characters “perfect” according to a traditional measure. The point is that we don’t determine their value based on their appearances. Instead, we introduce what they look like and then jump into getting to know who they are.