How to Describe Women Without Degrading Them

The Expanse's Avasarala is too busy looking fabulous for any sexist nonsense.

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

Hermione dressed up for the dance in Goblet of Fire. The fourth Harry Potter makes a point of how long it took Hermione to straighten her hair, and how it’s not always worth doing.

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

Glimmer, Adora, Scorpia, and Catra dressed up for the Princess Ball. The She-Ra characters have so many styles and so little time!

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

Uhura messing with Mirror Sulu For example, don’t use skimpier clothes to show you’re in the evil universe now.

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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  1. Cay Reet

    I think it’s also important to remember that a woman will not pay the same attention to her attire in every situation. Back home after a long day, she’ll most likely lose the bra for comfort and hang out in an old sweater and a pair of sweat pants or yoga pants. Not because the yoga pants are tight, but because they’re very comfortable to wear while you’re doing housework or hanging out on the couch with your dinner. Women generally do not hang out alone at home in lacy underwear and perfect makeup – that’s a male fantasy. Likewise, clothing for bed is usually not chosen for looks, but for comfort. Women also keep ‘period panties’ in their wardrobe – old and cheap panties they wear during their period, because it’s much less of a problem (and cheaper) if they get stained with blood and the stain doesn’t wash out.

    On the other hand, a woman going out for a night will pay attention to her looks, will do a makeup as professionally as she can, will carefully choose all parts of her wardrobe and all accessoires to fit together, will colour-coordinate her appearance. A woman just going for a drink with friends, on the other hand, will not make as much of a fuss of it. It always depends where she expects to end up.
    A woman who goes out a lot in a more or less modern setting and has many formal dinners/parties to go to might have a ‘little black dress’ of sorts – the style depends on fashion and on how confident a woman feels about her body, but in a lot of formal situations, you can’t go wrong with a black dress going down mid-thigh to knee level as a woman. Black can be combined with every colour and, if it’s not patterned itself, every pattern, which means that one dress can be combined with many different types of shoes, purses, shawls, belts, etc. Since all of those are usually cheaper than a dress, that saves money.
    Likewise, a woman in business may have two or three business costumes in different, but complimenting colours, so she can switch out jackets and skirts or trousers during the week, creating a different ensemble every day. Generally speaking, black, grey, beige, and red or blue fit well with each other and can be freely combined. With white blouses underneath, you can walk around looking a little different, but always professional every day for relatively little money – especially if the cuts of your costumes are more on the classic side which never really goes out of style.

    My female characters look and dress very differently.
    Jane Browne dresses comfy when she can get away with her ‘cargo pants and hoodie’ signature outfit, but she can very well dress up for a social gathering (or wear twin-sets and skirt as the ‘niece’ in one book). She’s aware of the way she dresses herself, because it’s part of her job. Every agent, no matter the gender, should know how they present themselves in a certain situation.
    Her alter-ego Jane Doe (from an alternate universe series I’m writing myself) prefers leather jacket, tight jeans, and heavy boots for her criminal work, but also knows how to dress up and change her looks for situations where that’s useful (such as conning someone). When going out, once she has gone nominally legal, she prefers an evening suit, since her girlfriend usually wears beautiful dresses.
    Edith Grand, a soldier/former mercenary who turns up in both series, is very tall and strong in build and usually dresses in uniforms, uniform parts, or similar clothing. She keeps her hair in an altered crew cut and usually doesn’t mind her looks too much – they’re not important for her work or her life.
    Gabrielle Munson dresses in male clothing, because she pretends to be a man. She wears dark suits, white shirts, a slouch hat, and always gloves, both to hide her not-quite-male hands and because her necromantic power sometimes bleeds into her hands and makes them feel icy cold.
    Maddie Dempsey, who has a male alter ego in the vigilante known as the Eye, dresses feminine as the girl reporter she is in her official life, but in a baggy suit (with a padded vest to look more male in build underneath) when out as the Eye.

    Generally speaking, it pays off to think about what your female character is going to do in their clothing. If it’s more of a party or a formal affair, clothing will be more expensive and they’ll pay more attention to their looks. If it’s for travelling through the country side, clothing will be far more practical and made from fabrics which do not tear easily, they might forego makeup and will usually just gather their hair somewhat. If they’re working, their work will dictate what they wear or how they do their hair – from representative clothing and coiffed hair for a secretary to dungarees and a braid or bun for a mechanic.

  2. uschi

    Thank you for this article Chris, I think it is much needed!

    As a not conventionally attractive woman myself, I’d like to add that having a gorgeous female protagonist often feels alienating to me, even if it was intended as wish fulfillment, as I have trouble identifying with that. I much prefer average-looking protagonists, but maybe that is just a personal preference.

    I also think that we should try to get away from the notion that a love interest has to be beautiful (or instantly recognized as beautiful, as this is something I believe develops together with a positive relationship and attraction). Why not have one or two characteristics that are usually considered unattractive (such as a crooked nose, not-great teeth, large ears, whatever) described in a neutral tone, and not mattering at all in the developing romance?

  3. Tony

    “While we’re at it, please include male and nonbinary protagonists in the fun.” Yes please! I’d also like to see more male and nonbinary characters engaging in the examples of primping and showing off their bodies that you discussed how to describe respectfully.

    Additionally, I’d also like to see more men depicted in the sorts of sexualised ways that more often get associated with women (though I don’t think I’d want that for nonbinary characters, since “sex object” is one of the few depictions that gender-ambiguous characters regularly get when they show up at all). Labyrinth is my go-to example for that sort of sexy depiction of male characters, though it does veer into the “sexy costume = villain” trope that you mentioned.

  4. LizardWithHat

    That was very entlighting, especially the faux-soical-engineering part. Some concerens about the woman i write and draw are gone – but i found some points to correct too.

    I found it always easier to frist think of the personality and archtype of a character and base the cloth around that.
    I also tend to ask: “Do i belive a character would choose this clothing willingly? And why? When no: then don’t” – sometimes help avoid übersexy BS and other unpractical nonsense.

    Hope this makes a little sense ^^’
    Thanks a bunch :3

    • Cay Reet

      It definitely makes sense. Once your character is fleshed out, you know whether or not they’d wear something. And if they’d wear something in the situation in which you want them to wear it.

  5. Dave L

    One thing I would like to see more is a disabled woman who is considered (and considers herself) beautiful. Preferably w/out fetishization or infantilization. And if possible, w/ enough self-confidence that she is not desperately GRATEFUL to anyone who considers her attractive. Nor should another character get “special points” for considering her attractive, as if that’s not normal

    In the erotic graphic novel series “Omaha the Cat Dancer”, the sexually active Shelly Hine did not lose her sexuality or her interest in sex when she lost the use of her legs and had to use a wheelchair

    More of that, please

    And while we’re at it, can we have a cis character think a trans character is beautiful, w/out freaking out after learning that the beautiful character is trans?

    • JV68

      Just to touch on your second point: for the last couple of years the long running webcomic Questionable Content (seriously long-running, it started in 2003 and is still going 4000+ pages later) started a romance between series original, average straight/cis guy Marten and more recent character Claire, who is trans. They gradually become friends, and when Claire eventually tells him that she’s trans (which is also when it’s revealed to the reader) he’s completely accepting of her. It’s not actually until after she tells him that he decides, y’know what, I really like this person and I want to be with her, and the fact that she’s trans is irrelevant to him.

      QC is a super long run though, I think Claire first appears around strip #2000 or so, so be prepared for a slow build. Worth it though, IMO.

      Not to say that we don’t need more depictions of both kinds of relationships and character building: we absolutely do. I just thought you’d like to know that there are some out there.

    • Tony

      A good example that I remember of a disabled woman (or girl, given that the heroes in this series are kids) being considered attractive is Thorgil in The Sea Of Trolls, who loses the use of her hand in the sequel.

      Also maybe Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road? She’s not sexualised or anything, and I don’t remember whether she became a love interest to Max, but a lot of fans certainly found her attractive.

    • Jeppsson

      A possible example of an attractive disabled woman could be Paulina in Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette”.

      First, Paulina is really small. When she’s first introduced in the novel, she’s only six years old, but seems to be roughly toddler-sized. When she reappears in the plot, the MC Lucy sees “a poor child!” being trampled by panicking people who flee a fire. Turns out it’s Paulina, who’s now seventeen and as big as she’ll ever be.

      Second, I thought as I read the novel that she’d probably be diagnosed with something neuropsychiatric if she had lived today. As a child, she clings VERY hard to a VERY small number of people, while indifferent to others. When she becomes super upset, her reaction is to lie face down on the floor, dead still and silent for hours on end. She also has a real savant memory.
      As an older teen, she’s more socially competent, but she still reacts very oddly and detached sometimes. Like literal minutes after being trampled by a panicking crowd, she calmly points to her arm and says her shoulder has been dislocated. Most people would be scared, crying etc. She’s not generally unemotional, though, since she pours affection over the few people she does feel attached to.

      There’s more than one man who thinks she’s both funny and really beautiful, and she ends up marrying a man who the MC Lucy had a serious crush on (in the end, though, Lucy sincerely wishes them luck; she’s really fond of Paulina, who’s incredibly kind, even though she’s a bit odd). Paulina’s DAD, on the other hand, has SERIOUS difficulties realizing his girl is all grown up, and that men might be attracted to her. He says that surely no one can think her a beautiful woman; she’s just a funny little pixie. At one point he says he can’t believe she’s more than twelve years old, and an exaspirated Lucy goes “She’s not twelve, she’s grown up, even though she won’t get any taller!”

      I really liked the Paulina character, she was so interesting.

  6. Petar

    Any advice on describing female love interests?

    While they don’t have to be physically attractive, it often helps if they are and the (usually male) protagonist/narrator will be aware of that.
    On the other hand, it’s extremely easy to overdo. Especially if we are reminded of their sexy looks over and over again. Even disregarding sexist baggage, female readers shouldn’t suffer from the cringe I felt when reading Twilight’s repetitive and purple descriptions of Edward.

    Still, having a male narrator get floored by an attractive female love interest without resorting to the male gaze isn’t easy.

    • Cay Reet

      Don’t make the attraction about the love interest’s looks. Make it her character or skills instead. Yes, she can be physically attractive, but if the male lead is in love with her because she’s so good with a sword or a great diplomat, the looks can be mentioned and then put aside, they won’t be pulled up over and over again. Assuming that the only reason to love someone is their looks is per se bad. Looks can get you interested, but if there’s nothing more to a person, there’s not going to be a long relationship in it.

      • Petar

        I’m aware of this which is why I generally think that looks should only be described in the introduction scene.

        I was just wondering if there are any traps to watch out for.

        • sevenstars

          Honestly, I think that “having a male narrator get floored by an attractive female love interest” is the one time where the male gaze can actually be appropriate. If the woman is wearing sexy clothing and it’s a scenario where it seems natural to take in peoples’ appearances (a party, for example), then it doesn’t seem at all disrespectful to mention her beautiful figure and how great her clothes look on her. As long as you steer clear of sexist language, don’t focus on it for too long, and don’t mention it again outside of the first impression, then you’ll be fine.

          • Cay Reet

            They can notice her and notice she’s attractive and looks good in those clothes, but if their whole interest in her is based around how ‘hot’ she is, you’re not doing it right.

            And, yes, stay away from sexist language, that’s always a good idea.

  7. guest

    agreed with 99% of this. but one caveat here:
    “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.”
    …that sounds somewhat extreme unless the character is either prone to frizzy hair, ruddy skin, etc. or REALLY not caring AT ALL.
    characters who spend ~5-10mins in front of the mirror won’t have the ELABORATE styles of those who spend a hour, but implying that any ‘style’ at all is “all or nothing” isn’t helpful either.

    (particularly since jeans+t-shirt don’t show wrinkles even if they’ve been tossed on the floor overnight; many issues of frizzy hair are the result of uninformed choices in shampoo/condition or de-snarling methods not time invested per se; it takes maybe a few seconds to apply chapstick and chapped lips are uncomfortable to start with… etc.)

    • Chris Winkle

      I just think it’s really important for us to get away from the idea of women looking perfect with no effort. If your protagonist only spends five minutes in front of the mirror but readers still see her skin looks good because she spends those five minutes putting on a bit of concealer, that’s all good, you’re still showing that putting in effort pays off.

      And if she deliberately makes choices about her appearance so she doesn’t have to put in much effort, that’s good too, but that of course comes with compromises of its own. Women’s clothes generally have higher requirements for care because people expect women to put more effort in. So if she’s mostly limiting herself to t-shirts and jeans because she can throw them on the floor without consequence, that’s something in itself to note.

      And I have to ask, if she’s not prone to frizzy hair, chapped lips, ruddy skin… then what natural imperfections does she have? It’s not that women who naturally look gorgeous don’t exist, but right now we have too many of them in our stories and that’s imposing unfair expectations on women.

      • guest

        …the only point I’m trying to make is that female characters shouldn’t always be harped on over their appearance, full stop.
        That was clearly the intent of the article, but that one section seemed a bit less clear on that point to me because of the emphasis on appearance-related detail, hence the comment.

        in other words, the author doesn’t HAVE to make some huge deal out of the characters’ ‘imperfections’ just to avoid her being supernaturally gorgeous without effort. write that the character doesn’t put much emphasis on her appearance, and simply don’t have the narration/other characters fawning over how gorgeous she is for her supposed ‘natural beauty’ or whatever. she’s just average – legitimately average (like the majority of people) and it’s not worth commenting on beyond basic descriptions like “she had red/brown/blonde wavy/straight long/short hair worn loose/in a ponytail/a messy bun/a braid” etc. problem solved.
        No need to single out that her nose is ‘too big’ or she’s ‘too short’ or ‘not skinny enough’ or ‘looks too masculine’ or she has severely crooked teeth that some people react badly to, etc. – or even to state that she just isn’t seen as attractive WITHOUT having some obvious, specific ‘flaw’ or ‘imperfection’ (…perhaps a more common issue anyway?).
        Make ‘(un)attractiveness’ a non-issue, with no particular comment on it, because for such a character it IS a non-issue. that’s all.

        (obviously, this doesn’t apply to a story where the intent is to explore the specific issue of appearance standards, but that’s by no means a necessary element for every plot. likewise if the character is attending a fancy-dress event.)

        • guest

          to be clear: if the character IS supposed to put a lot of effort into looking attractive to others, then yes: describing how that pays off in terms of people noting how attractive they are, is all fine and good.
          but if they don’t care, the narrative generally shouldn’t either and certainly shouldn’t penalize them for that by dwelling on each and every ‘imperfection’.

  8. Innes

    This should be the sequel article to another more important article that is just the words “DO NOT DESCRIBE THE BREASTS” because male authors… sure can be something…

  9. Bliss

    Thought exercise, as a proof you don’t need to be a sexist.

    “As she put on her favorite shirt, the fit was just too tight. Amber looked in the mirror. She was saddened that it would never again fit her as it once did. She was excited about getting some new clothes today, but knew this would be her last time wearing the only thing she had from the times her parents were healthy.”

    I don’t need to describe anything beyond her thoughts, and why she’s sad about this shirt. The concept is that she’s “developing”, but I want the reader to focus on her mind.

  10. Jeppsson

    In the very first draft of my first book, I did well already by the standards of this article with regards to the female MC and her female platonic friends and acquaintances. But BOY was the female love interest described in a horribly male-gazey way! Fortunately, I realized this myself and rewrote all of that before showing ANYONE ELSE the draft. That first draft is now deleted and gone forever, haha.

    I remember a conversation I had many years back with other WLW, about “Inner Terrible Dudes”. Like, you’re with another woman, and suddenly you find yourself slipping into a really stupid male gender role with stupid macho behaviour, etc. (“Terrible” in a sense you could still laugh about in hindsight, I should add, so no one get the wrong picture… but, like, embarrassingly doing stuff just to prove how strong you are, stupid shit like that.) I definitely think only a minority of WLW suffer from Inner Terrible Dude, but alas, I’m one of them.
    Now I’ve been in a monogamous marriage with a man for ages, so it was a long time since Inner Terrible Dude raised his head in a dating scenario, but I think he came up again when I was writing a female love interest in my first ever novel…

    I think it’s all good now, since a number of women have read later drafts or the final version and think the love interest is a good character… but I still cringe thinking about the first version!

  11. Dernhelm

    Great article!
    Another thing I find ridiculous is just how many bad descriptions there are of women going “OMG, I’m so pretty/gorgeous/sexy” followed by describing how hot their bodies are, it’s basically a parody of Narcissus falling in love with his own mirror image, except it’s not portrayed as a sad curse but something totally normal for women to do.

    • Tony

      Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears and a lot of people tell me I look like Amy Lee (AN: if u don’t know who she is get da hell out of here!). I’m not related to Gerard Way but I wish I was because he’s a major fucking hottie. I’m a vampire but my teeth are straight and white. I have pale white skin. I’m also a witch, and I go to a magic school called Hogwarts in England where I’m in the seventh year (I’m seventeen). I’m a goth (in case you couldn’t tell) and I wear mostly black. I love Hot Topic and I buy all my clothes from there. For example today I was wearing a black corset with matching lace around it and a black leather miniskirt, pink fishnets and black combat boots. I was wearing black lipstick, white foundation, black eyeliner and red eye shadow. I was walking outside Hogwarts. It was snowing and raining so there was no sun, which I was very happy about. A lot of preps stared at me. I put up my middle finger at them.

      • Cay Reet

        That description isn’t so much of a problem for describing a woman … it would be just as bad, if it described a man. Yet, yeah, avoid that at all costs.

        • Jeppsson

          I read “My Immortal” and now I’m 99 % certain that it’s intentionally bad and written to be funny.

          • Dernhelm

            I became convinced that My Immortal had to be an intentional parody when the author called Sirius Black Harry’s Dogfather!

    • Kitty

      You’ve brought to mind two other types of description that annoy me.

      The first isn’t strictly gendered, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it’s used more for female characters: the ‘evaluating herself in the mirror’ introductory description. Nobody looks at their own reflection like they’re seeing themselves for the first time and grading each feature based on its attractiveness. (It does, however, make more sense if the character really is seeing their own appearance for the first time).

      The second type of description that annoys me is when a character’s conventionally attractive traits are described as if they aren’t. ‘My eyes are too large and my lips are too full to be considered pretty. A light dusting of freckles across my nose ruins my otherwise perfect complexion. I wish my hair was blonde but, alas, it’s only a rich chestnut red.’

  12. Bryony

    A question about always being in control of what they wear – a character of mine marries into a wealthy family to control their army and has to blend in. She never really cared about appearance, only fabric from being a weaver, and I was using it like a homesick thing. No one forces her or anything, she’s kind of chill about it and has way bigger concerns. Is it OK so long as it is never sexy? Is there a way to make sure it’s OK?

    • Dernhelm

      Personally I think there’s a huge difference between a scene where a woman has to dress in a disguise (not a sexy disguise, just a regular uniform or the same clothes as the locals) in order to blend in, and a female character being forced against her will (or just randomly lose all her previous modesty) to strip down or dress up in a fetish costume.

      To use a bad and a good example, in X-men: first class there’s an awful scene where a female CIA agent completely out of the blue takes off her dress (and just so happens to wear perfectly matching black silk lingerie) in order to follow the villains into a strip club, and the scene has no purpose outside of creepy voyeurism, whereas in the movie Inferno, based on a Dan Brown novel, a female assassin wears a police uniform in order to trick her target into thinking she’s there to protect them, and make local law enforcement think she’s one of them, which I think is a good example of a female character who couldn’t choose how her clothes would look, it’s a uniform, but it’s not portrayed as degrading or any different than the same situation with a male assassin would be.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yeah, that is just fine.

  13. Em

    As far as “wish-fulfillment clothing” goes, for me personally, a gorgeous evening gown is about the same level of wish-fulfillment as a badass cloak or fancy cape.
    …something to keep in mind for writers who want to attract a few more readers, maybe? Also, we should bring cloaks and capes back into fashion.

    • Cay Reet

      I always second any wish for cloaks and capes to make it back into fashion.

      Yes, wish-fulfilment clothing for women can very well include a gorgeous ball gown (cape optional, but always a nice touch) or a bikini or a tight dress. The point is that the woman should wear those clothes because she wants to (and in a fitting setting), not because someone said ‘put that on.’

      • Dernhelm

        I also think it’s important not just to make sure it fits the character and the situation, but also looking at stuff like fashion magazines, doll crafting and what female illustrators draw their characters wearing, because from my experience, while revealing, most such things designed by and for women tend to be more intricate and elaborate to reflect one’s style compared to most boring and unoriginal or downright tacky stuff male comic artists and video game designers draw women wearing.

        Just compare Bayonetta (designed by a female fashion designer) to Quiet (designed by a man who just wanted to make her sexy) and you’ll see the difference.

        • Cay Reet

          Good point. There’s a lot of female designs online by now on oodles of sites (I personally love to watch doll crafting) to get inspired by.

          Bayonetta is definitely designed much less male-gazey than Quiet and I like the idea behind her clothing (the design still has some weird parts, but we’re talking about a Japanese action game, so weird design parts are essential – and they’re handled better with Bayonetta). Not to mention that Bayonetta is only mostly naked when calling on her powers, while Quiet is mostly naked the whole time because she ‘breathes through her skin.’ Sigh.

          • Dernhelm

            Indeed, and I also think a huge difference between them is that Bayonetta’s design tells something about her character, her color scheme, jewelry and hairstyle are all themed around the classic witchy imagery with black, cats and moons but with a modern twist, whereas Quiet’s outfit is just a bikini and ripped panty hose, and I saw no one actually being able to tell why she she was wearing it before the game came out and explained it.

            And Bayonetta does sexy poses because she’s a bold and sassy person who likes to provoke people and lives in an exaggerated magical world, while Quiet is supposed to be a tragic character and her story even involves dark real-life traumas like torture and POW sexual assault, and she’s literally called Quiet because she can’t speak and has to rely on hand gestures and body language, yet 90% of said body language are just random sexy poses, just to show what a can of worms the character is.

  14. Erynus

    I try to don’t keep apart males from females in my writings, so i spend the same amount of detail to describe the main female character’s elegant dress as the MC’s parade uniform.
    Also, women in my book wear from business attire to dresses to body armour just as every other character.
    There is one specific character that wears a somewhat skimpy dress under a cape and uses it to entice and manipulate her targets (be it males or females), she is a complex character and i’ll probably save her for another story, limiting her to show up once or twice as a mysterious puppeteer figure.

    • Cay Reet

      By the sound of it, you’re doing a pretty good job with your writing.

      A lot of authors seem to struggle with treating all characters alike, no matter the gender. If you pay attention to the details of the clothes of all of your characters, it’s fine to describe them. It’s also always great if characters have an actual wardrobe somewhere and wear different clothes throughout the story (unless they’re unable to change them for some reason).

      I have no problem with a complex character who works with seduction. Seduction can be a valid option and is sometimes used by male characters as well (cough Bond cough). What I resent is the ‘femme fatale’ type who is only defined by her seductive sexiness and often doesn’t even act because of her own agency, only following another (often male) character’s orders.

      • Erynus

        I just switch the gender in the description and check if it’s too verbose or seems unfit for either sex. I’m getting good results so far.

        The problem i have with her is that i can’t cut the main plot line to tell her story, as is so tangential to the plot that i will need to tell it on another book. she just point the MC in the right direction and set the pieces up for future events.
        As a mysterious figure i think it will awake the reader’s interest to know more about her, but if it’s not the case, what is known is enough.

        Have you ever had a minor character that you like so much you want to tell everyone everything about her, but being nor the time nor the place to do it?

        • Cay Reet

          You can certainly use the story to continue with the universe you have created later. Then it makes sense to put a character in as a side character and make them the main character in the other story. Let her be a mystery in this one, but suggest there’s more to her, then it should work out.

  15. Amaryllis

    Hello! Thank you for the article. However, I have a few questions:
    1. What do you think about female characters whose appearance isn’t described at all? What is the “default” in this case, and what should I be careful about?
    2. What advice could you give about shapeshifters? How to avoid misogyny in describing a shapeshifter?
    3. What do you think as “always beautiful” races (elves, faeries, angels, goddesses)? What pitfalls are there for characters, who, for example, don’t age after certain age?
    4. If a characters belongs to a completely sexless and genderless race, is it possible for their description to be objectifying and/or sexist?

  16. Kathy Ferguson

    Thanks for this article. This is a useful article for writers of non-fiction as well as fiction. While those of us writing essays probably have less reason to describe the physical appearance of people, there are other ways that a similar set of gender assumptions make their way into the text. For example, historical analyses that identify people as “so-and-so and his wife” are still common. Political discussions in which men are acting but women are supporting men are also dismally familiar.

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