So I’ve been talking a lot about race and beauty, but beauty of color isn’t the only kind that too often goes unappreciated. Any beauty that doesn’t fit the very narrow and exacting definitions we’re too often fed get dulled down and pushed aside.
Too often we praise authors who write stories about vague and ambiguous characters that readers can project themselves into. I never liked that kind of writing. Because, like I said before, what we look like matters. It affects how we move through the world. It affects how people think of us. How we think of other people. How we think about ourselves. People treat people differently based on looks. It is a sometimes unfortunate but always unavoidable truth.
What a character looks like matters. Because, for a lot of us, we cannot simply insert ourselves into vague mainstream stories. How can a woman of color honestly insert herself into a mainstream story where no one ever registers her race? How can a plus-sized woman be expected to easily insert herself into a story where no one even acknowledges her body size? As a plus-sized woman of color, that kind of world feels more like science fiction than erotica.
When I was younger, I yearned for stories that felt more honest, more real. Where the women whose stories I stepped into looked like the women around me. Women who could really exist. Whose bodies and stories held weight and took up space.
I didn’t want characters so open they could be anyone.
I needed characters so full they felt real.
I wanted characters who reflected my world. Who were so beautifully unique that they could be no one else but themselves. Who were of all different shapes and sizes. Different races and cultures. Different orientations and different expressions. I wanted to see all kinds of beauty, celebrated and embraced. I wanted to see the kind of stories that celebration could breed.
And, I get it. I do. That ask is easier said than done. For all the momentum of the body positivity movement, that acknowledges that everyone has the right to be beautiful, we still don’t feel quite comfortable talking about beauty in any kind of detail. Especially the further from the mainstream, socially accepted standards of beauty someone seems to be. Too often minority beauty—from BBWs to women of color to characters with more androgynous features—is fetishized, coming pre-packaged with all manner of heavy, problematic baggage. And it’s hard—if not impossible—to determine where the lines of appreciation are. Am I celebrating “one rolling midsection and tameless will” or am I creating a fetishistically dishonest distance by treating a body I don’t know how to desire as “a landscape (…) a palatable vastness?” Do terms like caramel-colored or café au lait skin embrace diversity or are they part of the problem? Do cliches reduce people to offensive stereotypes or can cliches sometimes profoundly speak to people?
Too often, there seems to be no right answer. It seems easier, in the face of all that, to stay safe in ambiguity.
After all, when we leave things vague, the reader always has the option of imagining whomever they want as that character, right? In the face of all that controversy, it seems better to place the burden of diversity in the hands of the reader. After all, diversity seems too heavy and lofty an ambition. Especially for some smutty erotica book, right?
But, when we make minority beauty optional, when we rely on readers who’ve been raised on a very specific and limited vision of beauty to see what they’ve been taught doesn’t exist, we erase it. We erase people. We live in a world where, as Little Bear Schwarz in “My Right to be Sexualized” says, “terms like ‘pretty’ and ‘ugly’ have been dropped on us, like rigid, rubric lead weights, without our having any say in what defines them.”
When we don’t talk about minority beauty, when we don’t explore it, it’s not as if those of us outside the expected standards become exempt from those rigid weights. We’ve just been quietly pushed aside. Been silently but surely shown our place. Because no one shies away from something worth celebrating. No one covers up that which they find beautiful. When description of us is minimal or nonexistent, it always makes me think of the adage “If you can’t think of anything nice to say…” Is that why so little was said? Because we, as Schwarz says, “are deemed too old, too fat, too dark, too disabled, too modest, too religious, too depressed, too anxious, too oily, too curly, too scarred, too lumpy, too flat, too tall, too short, too shorn, too pierced, too inked, too queer, too saggy, too colorful, too gray, too bald, or too hairy to be sexy? It’s not because we are seen and respected as dimensional, thoughtful beings. It’s because, ‘no one wants to see that.’”
When we refuse to—when we celebrate authors who don’t—describe us in our entirety, our beauty becomes unspeakable.
After all, as Lillian Bustle said in her brilliant TED Talk on weight and beauty, “Nobody says to a tall person, ‘Oh, you’re not tall.’ And nobody says that because tall is not a dirty word. We as women are programmed to tell each other that we’re not fat because, to many people, both men and women, fat is the worst thing that you can be. Society has turned the word fat into a synonym for ugly. But that’s not what fat means.” Or as Jes Sachse, a model with a rare genetic condition known as Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, states, “So many people are trying to come to my aid and protect me from being exploited” because, from childhood, she was told any recognition of her condition must be a kind of slight against her, something best left unsaid or unacknowledged. She was “taught to deny that she was different. But over the years she instead developed pride in her body.”
We need to change how we as a society see minority beauty. We need to find ways to recognize and describe it without awkwardness or shame. Without fetishistically overvaluing it or dismissively undervaluing it. We need to be allowed to discover and delight in it, to allow ourselves to see it and be surprised by it. Because it may not be what we’re used to, but being met with, being challenged by, the unexpected can be good. It is the only way we can learn to see more. See better.
This is not to say we can never tell stories about traditionally pretty, able-bodied, heterosexual, white people. But if you’re going to tell a story about a pretty, white woman, tell me her story. Tell me who she is. What makes her special? What makes her different than any other pretty, white woman?
Does her hair make you think of sunlight you can touch? Do her eyes hold daydreamed worlds in their depths? Does the color of her skin put into mind the bared flesh of an apple bitten into, sweet and dewy from a shower, as it tempts your tongue?
Tell me about her. Let me know her.
Think about everyone you’ve ever dated or admired. Everyone has parts of themselves that are uniquely them. Things that make them different from everyone else in the world. Often, it’s the odd qualities about a person that become the most attractive features. A gap in their teeth that shows every time they smile honestly. The left breast that is slightly smaller than the right that she obsesses over and convinces herself makes her ugly but fits perfectly in your hands. Hell, it could even be the Donald Duck tattoo that she has on her ass that she can’t remember getting but doesn’t have the heart to get removed. These are the things we remember. These are the details that not only tell us what a character looks like physically, but who they are as a person.
And, I know, looks are not everything. Believe me, I know. My looks are not the whole of me.
But, as a plus-sized, queer woman of color, they are still valuable parts of me. They tell you a lot about me. They are worth seeing, worth speaking about. I am worth my weight in words, because, like Bustle, “not only am I not afraid to be seen, I’m worth looking at. (…) And, if seeing my body struck you so hard (…) mission freakin’ accomplished.” My looks have profoundly shaped me. Have indelibly colored my experiences. They have left marks on the whole of me that, without them, would leave me not just vague but vacant. Stripped down and hollowed out, I would no longer be me.
At that point, I could be anyone.
Personally, I’d rather showcase the unexpectedly sexy. Instead of hiding it, I’d rather highlight beauty that too often goes unseen. As writer Your Fat Friend states, “Fat holds so much power over so many people. When I use it to describe myself, I take back a simple, small, important thing: the ability to name and own my experience. When I talk about being fat, I take control of what that means. Instead of being forced into reductive conversations about weight loss and shame, I get to talk about my actual life.” It’s a treasure within ourselves to find beauty beyond the standard, to seek it and embrace it where we find it. In each other and in ourselves. Studies have shown, the more variety we see and are exposed to, the wider our vision and definition of beauty becomes. The more we begin to believe that beauty exists beyond the limits we’ve been taught so, like model Jillian Mercado who has spastic muscular dystrophy said, “people who were hesitant (...) because of the way that people might perceive them (know) there is a place for them.”
And, hopefully, once we do, the more beautiful and sexy and desirable we all get to be. Because, as beauty writer Sable says, “Beauty doesn't have to be a sort of institutional ranking to live up to — it’s equal parts armor as it is your utility belt to showcase exactly how you feel and who you are at any given moment. My own grasp and autonomy with beauty helps to make me feel awesome about lots of stuff that often has nothing to do with beauty — but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The transformative properties (internal as well as external) of taking your image into your own hands is not to be underestimated. The decision alone to do so is a power in and of itself.”