“I am too skinny.”
“My hair is a curly mess.”
“My hair is too straight. It hangs limply on my shoulders, no body to speak of.”
“I hate my freckles.”
“My feet are too big.”
“I hate my knees.”
“I wish my hair were blonde/shiny/naturally curled like [insert minor character here].”
These are the words of female protagonists, and almost any YA female protagonist. The idea behind these words, usually said with some dissatisfaction as she impatiently runs a brush through her hair or gazes into a mirror, is that the protagonist is indeed pretty—she just needs a bit of sprucing up to find her prettiness, like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries or Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality.
I understand the impulse. We want our protagonists to be relatable, and most girls have one or two flaws (or eighteen) they will sigh at as they glance at their reflections. In our photoshopped, unreal standard of beauty, even pretty girls will find ways they don’t fit the standard. (This video by the BBC illustrates my point well.)
And weirdly, this is why I submit that if a protagonist is pretty, we should just let her be pretty.
I actually think the nitpicking protagonist is doing more harm than good, adding more flaws for real girls to stress about.
I’m not talking here about the protagonist for whom gaining self-confidence is part of her character arc. Those girls will need to start from this place of self-deprecation. In this post, though, I’m talking about a protagonist who, in describing her looks for the reader, adds that hint of self-critique…and that’s where we leave her, unless you count the moment when Love Interest says she’s pretty and she’s surprised.
Just to illustrate, let’s imagine we have a YA novel in our hands in which the female protagonist is a bit too skinny (according to her headmistress), and her hair is huge with unruly curls. This is common enough. Now let’s imagine three potential target audience readers:
The first potential reader is the girl who sees eighteen flaws when she looks in the mirror. She reads the protagonist sighing about her TWO MINOR flaws and feels even more hopeless about her own.
The second potential reader is a girl who has several visible flaws, according to herself. When she reads the protagonist’s laments, she snorts derisively. “Like you have anything to complain about.”
The third potential reader is actually a pretty girl, if she’d let herself believe it. She’s on the skinny side, and she has curly hair. As she reads, her eyes widen slightly. “That’s something to be worried about? …I had no idea.”
There is a remote chance that the reader will have absolutely the right response to the protagonist’s “flaws,” thankful that, like herself, the protagonist struggles with self-confidence. But I think I’m right when I say that for the majority of readers, this is overall a negative experience: it either rubs salt in the wound, or it cuts a new one.
I’m not just hypothesizing here. Throughout my teenage years, I collected a list of flaws, mainly from media I consumed, mainly from pretty girls in movies or books who were themselves self-conscious about something minor and non-essential. I’m an INTJ, a pattern-finder. The pattern I found did not encourage carefree looks in the mirror, and I learned that even when I did feel pretty, it was more socially acceptable to complain about my looks, becoming part of the vicious cycle.
I certainly don’t think of myself as a victim here, so this isn’t a pity party. I am happier with how I look now than I have ever been. But I am a case study, I think, of how these nitpicking protagonists might actually be driving against the good work we want them to do. We want them to empower girls, to think, “If she can find love/save the world/learn to be comfortable in her own skin, I CAN DO IT TOO!” But so many teenagers can relate to the flaws without relating to the epic journey the book’s heroine is on. We’re still stuck in normal life, and our acne is going strong, thank you very much.
I’m honestly not sure, because this problem may be inherent in human nature rather than just in YA novel-writing. Characters are “real people” to some degree, and real girls nitpick their flaws.
But do they need to be real in that sense? I, at least, am writing fantasy. If we can write a world that can have multiple skin colors without the racial tension of America (and it has been done), why not write a world where girls don’t nitpick their appearances? Has someone already done this? If so, DO TELL, DO!
One idea might be to acknowledge differences without assigning them a number on a scale of prettiness. One girl has curly hair and is pretty; one girl has straight hair and is pretty. Could we mention body/hair/skin specifics without immediately saying, “I wish it were more like [usually minor antagonist]?” I personally long for the day I read of a thoughtful, hardworking protagonist who smiles at herself in the mirror, thinks, “Cute!” and leaves for the day.
Another idea might be to have the protagonist scarcely think of it at all. After all, protagonists usually have bigger concerns on their hands than how their hair looks.
THE REAL QUESTION
When I say I think we should let our protagonists be pretty, I don’t mean they should look like they’re on the cover of Vogue. I know many beautiful women who would never be up to Vogue’s ridiculous (and fake) standard. I also know I would raise a skeptical eyebrow if every female protagonist an author trotted out was always tuned to Sailor Moon or Disney Princess specifications. That’s not the pretty I mean.
So by asking to let our protagonists be pretty, I’m not asking them to fit a certain beauty standard that Hollywood would agree is “pretty.” After writing all this, I realize I’m just asking them to stop nitpicking. Can your protagonist be skinny without describing it as “too skinny?” Can your protagonist be buxom without self-consciousness? Can a protagonist have curly hair without wishing it were straight, without silently lamenting the curls when Cute Boy #1 walks into the room?
So I guess the real question is, would we be able to find beauty in diversity of appearance?
I just read a novel in which the universally-admired woman was self-conscious because her shoulders were too buff and all her working out had made her breasts smaller as her muscles developed. You just can’t win in a world where this is being written. The world needs to change if being too fit is a problem.
Maybe writing new beauty standards for protagonists won’t do much without society changing too. But maybe writing can call for certain changes to the problems—or at least not perpetuate them.