Not pretty any more

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“The faint lines on her face seemed to have deepened. She looked severe and competent and suddenly much older, not even very pretty anymore—a woman used to dealing with emergencies, ready to take charge.” Eleven Kinds of LonelinessRichard Yates

Wading my way through the writing of Richard Yates a few months ago, I found the repeated statements about characters “not being very pretty any more” (or a variation on this) distracting. Perhaps it was a hallmark of the time – to write about a woman’s beauty (fading as it might be) as though it were the only real currency she had. Even if in the quoted case, Yates gave the ‘severe’-looking woman a new competence and ability to take charge, she virtually becomes invisible because she looks both older and less beautiful.

It occurred to me, though (and this is no lightning-bolt of revelation – it’s pretty much something that smacks us in the face daily), that while it might have been more common to write about a woman’s appearance in literature in earlier decades, it’s still the same.

I grant that when dealing in literature, the writer is creating a person: a description, physical as well, is warranted. It is also fiction, so the writer is creating a space, a scene, in which the character must exist and those around him/her react and perceive. Yet, the writer frames the physical appearance as the highest-value sum of the female character’s total worth. And that’s a choice.

My reaction to Yates was more a trigger to thinking about contemporary writing in media. While not every media outlet is the Daily Mail, with its headlines on so-and-so’s weight loss or weight gain, there are still more subtle value judgments associated with age, with beauty, with “health” – it’s all just couched in different language.

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