Saturday, August 25, 2012

Perceptions of Beauty

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?


Liane Spicer said...

Quite true, Jewel. Perceptions of beauty are entirely subjective, both to individuals and cultures.

As a Caribbean national I fully appreciate the challenge of writing 'multicultural' fiction for a primarily US market. It's important that all kinds of beauty be represented not just in romance novels but throughout the media.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

That's a great post, Jewel! As a Caribbean woman, I know exactly where you're coming from.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is largely determined by culture. As I was reading your post I was remembering how struck I am by descriptions of heroines as somewhere between 110 and 120 pounds and well over five feet. Grown women - 110 pounds!!! Really??? I've seen this over and over again in romance fiction and also in thrillers or crime fiction. It's like some kind of writer standard that doesn't have much to do with reality.

I try to represent different sizes, shapes, shades, colours, etc. in my fiction but I'm not sure how many readers notice.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Eugenia, when I first started reading romance, I realized the women didn't look like me, at least height-wise. Everyone was tall and long-legged. I determined to have a heroine who was short. I made the heroine of my first novel 5'2" and overweight and my editor begged me to make her 5'6" instead. I compromised and made her 5'4".

Short women, overweight women, extremely dark women, plain women are very rarely represented in romance novels. The heroines in novels and movies tend to set the standard of what is perceived as beauty.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, I couldn't agree with you more. Fortunately for me, living in the US and coming from the Caribbean has really allowed me to appreciate the different perceptions of various cultures on beauty. With the US having such a diverse culture, especially if you are in a metropolis, you are exposed to multiple cultures and hence multiple levels of how beauty is defined.

Being an immigrant does have its advantages. Of course someone who travels extensively and live in various countries may be even more conscious of the different perceptions of beauty than I am.

Jewel Amethyst said...

BTW Eugenia, grown women well over 5ft and 110lbs is not unfathomable. I have a relative in her 30's who is 5'7' and under 100lbs. Even pregnant she didn't make it over 100lbs.

Living in the Caribbean where a little junk in the trunk is appreciated, she's tried continuously to gain weight. It just isn't happening. So there are those, like that. Unfortunately they are overrepresented in fiction both in print and on the screen, distorting the perception of what a woman should be.

KeVin K. said...

It has been almost twenty years since Valerie motivated me to write romances. Hit a couple of brick walls and went back to sci-fi, though she does poke me every now and then.

My first brick wall was black/white - pretty common now, but not so much then. Multicultural didn't me crosscultural at that time. The one small house that expressed interest in the idea was the redheaded stepchild of a bigger house which dictated the small house only publish minority authors. Pretending Val wrote it didn't count. (But I reread the ms a few years ago and it stinks, so the no-go was a good thing.)

My other brick wall had a female firefighter, Jazz, as the lead. Jazz was an alpha female, not stunning but attractive and imposing for her physical prowess more than her physical attributes. Pretty dull. So I threw her in a fire. Severely injured on the job part of her face was paralyzed, she lost a breast and there was other burn damage, and she needed physical therapy before she could get around - she was a long way from the physical strength that had been her pride. It did have an HAE ending, but the only editor who actually looked at it said "this is not a romance."

A few years ago I recycled Jazz as a mercenary in my MechWarrior novel "Wolf Hunters" complete with romance storyline as major subplot. She was a big hit. Apparently nerds think a kick-ass female is sexy no matter what she looks like.

I still want to write that romance, though.

Jewel Amethyst said...

"Apparently nerds think a kick-ass female is sexy no matter what she looks like." lol, Kevin.

That statement brought a smile to my face. As long as there is beauty emanating from inside, I'm sure readers would find it (at least some). It's the editors that's the problem.