As a romance writer, I have to write about beauty; in particular, the perception of beauty. I have to transform my characters into people readers can fantasize about, and at the same time, make them human enough that readers can identify with. In the past I succeeded in getting my readers to perceive a two hundred pound short woman as beautiful enough to deserve a HEA with a Nubian god… no easy task. Though I am listed on this site as writing contemporary romance, most of my novels are multicultural in nature. As a multicultural romance writer (and a person transplanted from one culture to another) one thing is obvious to me: different cultures have different perceptions of beauty.
Let me give you two examples. I am from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts where a woman with a large derrière is considered sexy irrespective of height. Here in America, being tall and slim is a trademark of beauty especially among some of the more dominant cultures, and a large backside is just "a fat a$$". My family has a trademark large backside that they proudly tout and a tendency to gain weight on that area.
Two years ago, after the weight gain of child birth I decided I was a little too plump. Through diet and exercise, I lost a significant amount of weight. My family was shocked. They described me as being “dried up” and bemoaned the fact that I lost the family trademark “assets”. On the flip side, my American co-workers repeatedly complimented me on how wonderful I looked without the excess weight. Some even were inspired to enter weight loss programs. Two different reactions, two different cultures, two different perceptions of beauty.
Another perception of beauty that is quite different is the existence of a gap in the front teeth. I have a large gap between my front teeth. In St. Kitts, and several other Caribbean Islands it is considered sexy. But in the US, it is just ugly teeth. No dentist that I had been to in St. Kitts ever offered to fix my gap. Since coming to the US, every dentist has suggested that I get retainers to close my gap. I’ve responded to each in the same way, “In my culture, it’s a sign of beauty.” An associate of mine, a migrant from the Caribbean with a pronounced gap between her front teeth recently succumbed to the pressure of her dentists. She got retainers and after a year her gap was successfully closed. I spoke about it with her and she had mixed feelings. Her Caribbean friends were not as excited to see her gap removed as were her American friends. Two different reactions, two different cultures, two different perceptions of beauty.
As a writer of multicultural romance, I have to ensure that I capture beauty in relation to the cultures that I am writing about, and the individuals I am writing about. While a six foot tall woman with a 0 dress size, Double D cups and slim hips may be considered beautiful among some US cultures, in many Caribbean and some African cultures that woman is just top-heavy. Some European cultures favor the blond hair, blue-eyed alabaster skin look and others, the raven black hair with the olive skin tone. In the photo above the wearing of a disc in the lip by women is a sign of beauty in the Suri culture (Ethiopia). The bigger the lip disc, the more cattle she receives as a dowry in marriage.
In writing, we have to be cognizant of the different perceptions of beauty, especially when it is germane to the story. How do I get around the different perceptions of beauty in my multicultural romances? I emphasize the commonalities: the internal beauty that manifests itself in things my characters do and say. I make my readers fall in love with the personality of the character, not the physical attributes. After a while, that person could be a bald headed sumo wrestler or a double amputee with scar tissue for a face, the reader feels the beauty emanating from that person.
How do you deal with different perceptions of beauty in your writing?