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Beauty and the YA Protagonist

Disclaimer: While I'm not a "Christian" writer (meaning my books have no evangelical intent and little to no theological basis/message), I am a Christian writer (ie a writer who is also a Christian), and some of my opinions in this particular piece are more openly influenced by my faith and will mention it.

If that doesn't bother you, carry on.

I have recently seen a few tweets/posts about how readers are tired about the trope where a YA Protagonist doesn’t know that she’s pretty until The Boy ™ points it out.

On one hand, I get why this is frustrating for a number of reasons (three reasons that I can think of without much effort).

  1. (Probably the main one) it puts the protagonist’s self-worth (at least in this aspect) in the hands of someone else, usually a romantic interest, which could be read as a character not having value without said romantic interest.

  2. The majority of YA protagonists are stunning. If they appear on the covers, they rarely look like anything other than models. If they are described in the book, their “flaws” are often miniscule. If there’s a film version … yeah, they are going to look like movie stars (because … movie stars).

  3. It implies physical beauty has a great deal of value. That it’s sort of an achievement that must be unlocked on the protagonist’s journey to happiness or completion or whatever it is she’s trying to achieve.

So yeah, I get why sometimes this trope can deliver a bad message. The protagonist fusses about not being pretty enough or dismisses her looks until The Boy™ says that he thinks she’s beautiful and now suddenly *POOF*, YA protagonist finds her self-esteem.

On the surface, this is fraught with peril, so to speak. If your sense of self-value is given to you by another, that other has the power to take it away just as easily. It puts physical beauty on a level with more useful or moral traits (intelligence, strength, kindness, integrity).

However, for a few reasons, I think this trope is sometimes very useful, and here’s my breakdown of why it still has a place and how I think it could be re-envisioned to give a lesson that is not only harmless, but that a lot of young women do actually need to hear.

"Stop Telling Me I’m Pretty."

I once got into a debate with another woman of faith because she disliked that a lot of literature aimed at Christian women goes out of their way to convince them that they are beautiful and she knows she’s not.

She knows she’s not.

I fell on the “If God made you, you’re beautiful” side of things, to which she returned, “God made cuttlefish, and they’re homely.”

First off, Cuttlefish says, “Excuse you. I’m the majestic, color-changing tentacled ballerina of the deep blue sea. I’m fabulous.

Cuttlefish feels pretty

But it breaks open an interesting idea of what we mean by “beautiful.” We generally mean “desirable” or sexually attractive. A cuttlefish is not sexually attractive to humans. (Or at least it shouldn’t be ... I'm not going to Google sexy cuttlefish. If you want to risk it, go for it.) It probably is to other cuttlefish (just assuming). That does not, however, mean that a cuttlefish isn’t beautiful. I think they’re kind of gorgeous, honestly. Not in the way my husband is, but in the way my cat is, sure.

so handsome

But humans, we’re not given this distinction between other humans. When we talk about beauty, nine times out of ten, it’s in the context of sexual attraction and desire.

Because of this …

Beauty as a concept is largely dependent on the opinions of others, specifically potential mates.

Yeah, I’m going to say it even if it is cliche because it’s true: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Because of this beauty is kind of a mess because beholders are screwed up (considering the D&D version has tentacles, they are also probably into cuttlefish … just sayin’).

Beauty standards a mix of things society and entertainment flash in front of us as an ideal (which changes every few generations as well) and personal preference (maybe derived from early experiences). Our views on what people we find beautiful should have as little value as our opinion on pizza toppings or whether we like summer more than winter or our taste in fashion.

The idea of a “fixed” standard of beauty, one that is measurable, has been attempted. We have our golden ratios and our theories of natural selection. However, all of that is a meaningless genetic lottery, and if beauty is measurable in that way, it has as much value as one's height (I say knowing that I have a major preference for tall guys … like, seriously, I find Ryan Stiles from Whose Line Is It Anyway? ridiculously attractive because ...oooh, tall guy. That’s about 90% of my thought process for whether or not I find a guy good looking. I’m … weird that way).

I have very particular tastes in men ...

Why should I care if a face lines up with some mathematical standard? What use is that? Just that it appeals to my eyes slightly more? Does it have any use beyond that? Does it do anything?

But, Heidi, you say, we need beauty to give us joy!

Sure. We need flowers and kittens and color-changing, tentacled dancers called cuttlefish.

But to say those things are beautiful but a human is not because they don’t conform to a mathematical standard …

I’m not buying it.

Because, and this is the major crux of my point:

Beauty only matters in how it makes us feel about it.

And I think to myselfffffffff, what a wonderful worrrrrrrrld

We could go into the theological purpose of beauty. Is it to proclaim the glory of God’s creation? Is it to make us long for a more perfect world?

But really the only reason beauty as a concept matters is if it speaks to us and makes us want something. Whether that longing is the desire to create or to shelter or to admire or (and a lot of Christians get up in arms about this because to them lust/physical desire is just bad, always) something sexual, that is where the innate value of beauty lies.

I don’t personally think that all sexual desires born out of physical appearance are bad. I find my husband physically attractive (Oh, yeah, he’s tall. He’s verrrrrrrry tall). I know he finds me physically attractive. It’s not why he chose me as his life partner, and it’s not why I chose him as mine, but I’d have to lie to say it wasn’t part of the equation. Humans are complete creatures, and there is something in us that longs for beauty in a partner …

But how that beauty will manifest is very personal.

It's also true that how we feel about a person influences how we feel about their appearance, so having a love interest find you physically attractive as part of the whole relationship package is healthy… and so is the longing to be seen that way.

So the desire to be seen as beautiful by a loved one isn’t bad. It isn’t bad for the loved one to see us as beautiful either.

So why is the trope “bad”?

Again, it goes back to the first point. It makes it seem as if ONLY the guy can give the girl the self-esteem to see herself as pretty.

Now, would I like every woman out there to have the clarity to see herself as a beautiful part of God’s creation, beautiful because she is made in His image, because she is a gorgeous, color-changing tentacled ballerina of the sea … or wait… that was the cuttlefish … To see their self-worth not because of but in spite of the opinions of others.

Swim on majestic sea ballerina. Swim on.

Yes, but that doesn’t make The Boy ™ telling them necessarily a bad thing. Based on my experience talking to other women and seeing how other women talk about themselves, most aren’t seeing themselves this way. Having The Boy ™ say it is no worse, in my opinion, than me needing the occasional pick me up of my husband telling me I’m beautiful … and I do need that.

It’s not the only thing I need, and it shouldn’t make who I am, but wanting that as part of the complete package, part of my life story, is okay, and building that desire into a YA Protagonist’s Romance so the reader can vicariously be told she’s beautiful … it’s not a bad thing either.

So yeah, I get it. That should not be the whole focus. A fleshed out romance involves more than, “He says nice things about my looks.” A fleshed out character should not rely completely on The Boy ™ telling her that she is beautiful for her value.

But the trope in and of itself isn’t bad. It just shouldn’t be the “only” thing. It should be placed in a framework of personal growth where we can tell that the YA Protagonist is learning, where she’s getting a truer picture of herself and the world around her, where she’s being led to the truth … and if part of that is through a romance and her partner letting her know that he finds her to be beautiful …

I’m okay with that.

And so is the cuttlefish.

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