There’s been a lot of talk lately about the sexist ways women are described in fiction. Given the normalization of the male gaze, this has left some men feeling unsure of how to write a positive description. And it’s not just men who describe women in problematic ways. While women are less likely to objectify female characters, internalized misogyny can still sneak into our work. So let’s look at the cultural baggage that comes into play when we describe a woman’s appearance and how we can make our description women-friendly.
Pushing Back Against Cultural Pressure
The first thing to be aware of is simply that our culture obsesses over the appearance of women much more than it does men. This means that women are held to a higher standard when it comes to their looks, they are expected to invest more time and money into looking good, and the public feels entitled to scrutinize every detail of their appearances. In many places, a woman can’t even walk to the corner store for eggs without strangers commenting as though she’s on a runway and not on a personal errand.
Not only are women expected to look flawless, but they’re also expected to look that way without effort. Most women have to invest in their appearances to meet society’s expectations, but if they don’t hide their efforts, they could be labeled as vain, shallow, or manipulative. This creates a constant Catch-22, making it impossible for the vast majority of women to live up to cultural standards.
Avoid Over-Focusing on Women’s Appearance
To avoid reinforcing this pressure, first compare your description of women to your description of men:
- Are you spending more words on the appearance of women?
- Are women more likely to be described as attractive than men?
- Are some women described as repulsive while the less-attractive men are given more neutral description?
You’ll want to have more physical description the more important a character is. However, if you find that you’re spending more words per woman than per man because you have a slew of minor male characters and no women in similar roles, that’s a big problem that you’d better fix.
Her Appearance Should Reflect Her Effort
Instead of writing women who were born looking photoshopped, be realistic about the amount of effort that goes into a polished appearance.
Not all women put much effort into their looks, so not all female characters should either. But if a woman isn’t paying attention to her appearance, that should show with details like frizzy hair, chapped lips, ruddy skin, or wrinkled clothes. Maybe her hair is cropped short so she doesn’t have to comb or style it, or maybe she has a messy bun that’s actually a half-assed bun and not an artful display. Don’t present these things like they are a problem – women don’t need to look perfect, and some women focus their energy elsewhere. But also don’t use their lack of effort to make them seem special or better than other women, aka, “not like other girls.”
On the flip side, let some female protagonists invest in their appearances. A female character might wear cosmetics, spend some time with her hair in curlers, or hog the bathroom for an hour every morning. Don’t describe this as unattractive or a personal failing. On the contrary, the time she puts into her appearance should make her look good. After an hour in the bathroom, she might emerge with shiny curls, perfect-looking skin, long dark lashes, and a smooth, color-coordinated outfit.
Validate a Wide Variety of Looks
After that, it’s important to give women a wide variety of appearances and treat all of them as valid ways to be.
- Please include some women who are heavy, old, hairy, or have other traits outside the zone of conventional attractiveness. Present those things as neutral in value and just one trait of her appearance, not something that defines the way she looks.
- Don’t penalize women for being feminine. Wearing frills, lace, or pink doesn’t make a woman silly or frivolous. Similarly, rejecting those things doesn’t make her tough or practical; that is, unless she’s changing out of her lacy skirt for practical reasons, like she’s about to go hiking.
- Don’t force white standards of beauty on all women. The darkness or paleness of a woman’s skin should be described as a neutral trait. Let black women have natural hairstyles that are described as normal and professional. If you are writing about a woman of color with blue eyes, don’t single out her eyes as her most beautiful feature.
When working to counter cultural pressure, it’s critical to remember that reverse pressure is still pressure. For instance, if you say that women shouldn’t wear burkas because burkas are sexist, you’re only reinforcing the notion that other people get to decide what women wear. If you say that women should wear whatever they want, burkas or bikinis, now you’re actually removing pressure. The same goes for weight loss or anything women do to meet cultural expectations.
Focusing on the Person in the Body
When narration prioritizes the male gaze, women are presented like they’re on sale at a meat market. The attention goes to the size and shape of all of their body parts, and who they are as a person is ignored – bonus points if their bodies are compared to food or other consumables. This is what is commonly called “objectification,” and it’s what people have been criticizing in narration written by men.
Similarly, many of our stories stress that women must be beautiful, and they aren’t really beautiful unless they won the biological lottery. Women are all supposed to be that fairy-tale princess who is the youngest of three daughters and has lips as red as roses. This once again takes a woman’s personality and agency out of the equation, instead focusing on the inherent value she supposedly has.
Describe Her Persona
A good way to counter this is to focus on the personality your character has and how that’s expressed in a unique look.
- Does she love gardening? Maybe she has grass-stained overalls and tanned arms. Her hair is casually tied back so it’s out of the way.
- Is she artistic? Maybe she expresses her creativity with a carefully color-coordinated outfit with a patchwork skirt she sewed herself from fun patterned fabrics.
- Is she bad and broody? Maybe she wears a leather jacket with chains and black lipstick.
This doesn’t mean you can’t describe her body at all, but keep it general and neutral in value. Go ahead and say whether she’s young or old, but don’t present being young as attractive or being old as ugly. She might be tall or short, dark or pale, thin, or heavy.
Use Style for Wish-Fulfillment
Even when women write for other women, it can be hard to escape cultural pressure. Often, wish-fulfillment for women includes a character who thinks of herself as ordinary looking, so she’s relatable, but is still described as attractive – particularly in the eyes of other people. That way, women can still have the wish-fulfillment of being beautiful. This pattern may feel good to some women in the short term, but it still reinforces the pressure to be naturally good-looking.
Instead, you can give women wish-fulfillment by outfitting them with some smashing styles. If your protagonists go to a formal event, describe all the nice things they are wearing. While lots of women like dresses, every woman has different tastes and style preferences. Some women in your story may prefer masculine clothing – make her look dashing in a top hat and tailcoat. While we’re at it, please include male and nonbinary protagonists in the fun.
In addition to clothing, hairstyles, makeup, and jewelry are all good things to highlight. If you’re a style newb, you can look up some pretty pictures online and google things like “types of skirts” so you know what terms to use. Many outlets also write about the fashion choices in popular TV shows, so that can be a great place to get inspiration for speculative-fiction outfits. When in doubt, give an outfit two to three colors total, and choose either gold or silver jewelry – not both. For fun, include embroidery or jewelry featuring symbols such as plants and animals.
You can also give characters wish-fulfillment clothing for situations outside of big social events, but keep things practical. Don’t make her trek overland in a long, delicate skirt. Instead, give her a finely woven cloak that helps her blend in and makes her look mysterious.
If you are going to use physical features to describe a woman as good-looking, I recommend focusing on her face. That’s where we show our thoughts and feelings, so a description of a face is less inherently objectifying than descriptions of other parts of her body. However, resist waxing poetic about her lips unless a kiss is imminent.
Including Sexy Attire in a Positive Way
The most contentious part of designing a woman’s appearance is whether or not she is wearing clothing that is tight or revealing. All too often, sexy clothing is clearly included to please men, and it feels objectifying to women. However, that doesn’t mean that women in stories should never wear sexy attire. Women are often stigmatized for wearing sexy clothing or otherwise taking control of their sexuality, and never showing fictional woman in sexy attire won’t fix that. If you’re reading this article through, considering the issues raised here, and are willing to follow a few guidelines, then I trust you to narrate a scene where a woman is wearing a sexy outfit.
Break the Madonna-Whore Binary
The first thing you need to know is that attractive women are generally sorted into two opposing stereotypes: the “Madonna” and the “whore.”
- The Madonna is virtuous, modest, and chaste. She is naturally beautiful, but she doesn’t know that she’s beautiful or make an effort to enhance her appearance. Female love interests are almost always Madonnas.
- The whore is vain, manipulative, and promiscuous. She uses sexy clothing and makeup to look more attractive to men. She knows that she’s sexy and uses it to her advantage. In stories, she’s used for objectifying eye candy and the occasional one-night stand with a male hero.
Both the Madonna and the whore are unrealistic caricatures. This may shock you, but most women wear fairly modest clothing in their daily lives and then choose to wear something revealing when they go to the beach or to a club. They actually change how sexy their clothing is depending on what’s appropriate in that situation. It’s mind blowing, I know.
However, our stories keep sorting women into these sexist categories. So when a fictional woman wears sexy clothing in situations where it doesn’t make sense or acts really seductive, that’s a big red flag. It means she was designed as a “whore” – a sexual object for men. This is what you need to avoid when you depict women in revealing clothing.
Besides showing regular women occasionally wear sexy attire in reasonable and realistic ways, it’s also critical not to associate sexy clothes with any kind of character flaw. In many stories, villainous women will wear sexier clothing than heroines will, or a female protagonist will start wearing sexy clothing as an indication that she’s morally compromised or acting out. As soon as she recovers, she’ll wear modest clothing again. These depictions support destructive Madonna-whore stereotypes.
She Should Always Be in Control of Her Appearance
The demonization of sexual women is often in conflict with society’s frequent desire to see women be sexy. This desire doesn’t always come from men. For women, occasionally dressing up in sexy clothing can be a fun fantasy. So our stories have concocted a gross way of making female protagonists sexy while maintaining their Madonna status: the sexy clothing is forced on them.
At its most benign, this trope might involve a hired stylist who picks out the sexy clothing for the protagonist, and she grumbles but wears it anyway. Worse, she might have to wear sexy clothing because she’s going undercover as a French maid or because a man has tricked her into putting something skimpy on. Sometimes it’s a full-on Return of the Jedi situation, where the protagonist is a sexy slave who’s forced to put on a gold bikini. Regardless, these stories take away a woman’s control over her body and then treat that like it’s no big deal.
This pattern – wherein women have to avoid the stigma of being voluntarily sexual, and therefore control is taken away from them to make them sexual – is what links slut-shaming to rape culture. So, suffice to say, I really, really don’t want you to do this.
Please note that describing women in scenes where they are dressing or bathing is just a slightly less gross way to accomplish the same toxic goal. Women are not trying to present their half-dressed selves to the world, so don’t make your narration into a Peeping Tom.
Keep It About Her, Not Spectators
A common misogynist stereotype is that women like to weaponize their appearances. Supposedly, every aspect of how a woman looks is carefully designed to manipulate others. Though in real life cleavage is often the unintentional result of a normal V-neck shirt and a chest size that’s big enough, many men will assume it’s a calculated gesture meant for them. This idea is then used to justify harassing women, and it furthers the harmful narrative that women are secretly in charge through social manipulation or that women use seduction to control men.
That’s why it’s important to frame a woman’s appearance as being about her and not about the effect it has on other people. This goes double when she’s wearing something sexy.
- A woman may wear a short dress because she knows it looks good and that makes her feel more confident, but don’t say she wears it to wrap men around her finger.
- She can be wearing skinny jeans because it’s the current fashion, not because walking down the sidewalk will get people’s attention.
- If she’s gotten into shape at the gym, she might celebrate that achievement by buying herself a new bikini that shows off her abs and wearing it out to the beach. But she shouldn’t get the bikini to show up a rival.
This doesn’t mean that women won’t ever use their appearances to make the right impression. But if a character’s doing that in your story, it should be because she’s headed into a high-pressure situation – like a job interview. Don’t treat her clothing like it gives her mind control.
If you’re writing from the point of view of a man nearby, you can say what she’s wearing and that she looks good in it, but don’t describe all her body parts or suggest that men have no choice but to stare. The idea that men can’t help themselves around women is used to justify sexual harassment and assault.
Our culture still has a long way to go in responsibly handling issues of appearance and attraction, and Hollywood is not helping. When in doubt, put lots of women in your story, make them all different, and let their appearance follow their personality.
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