I just came back from a party I went to, mostly to keep my extroverted boyfriend happy, but I ended up having a good time. There was a guest there who I hopefully didn’t stare at too much. I’m bad about staring at people. I blame it on being a writer; often I notice things about people that trigger some writerly thoughts. There’s something about the way they are dressed or carrying themselves that gives me an idea, and I want to stare to imprint the idea into my head, to fully process it, sometimes even to consciously understand what is unconsciously appealing about them. Of course, at the same time I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I keep finding my eyes drawn to them when I’m bored, catching myself and looking away in a way that I’m sure people notice. In this case I felt particularly awkward, because she had vitiligo.
Vitiligo is a condition where certain patches of the body lose pigment over time. The extremities and face tend to change first, so it’s very visible. It’s occasionally associated with more severe diseases, and can cause some stigma and insecurity, but in and of itself, it isn’t dangerous, nor is it contagious. What made drew my writer’s eye wasn’t the vitiligo itself, but the fact that she was very pretty. And I don’t mean pretty despite her vitiligo, or would be pretty if not for the vitiligo. She had vitiligo, and she was pretty, and I was trying to figure out how to describe that.
See, I’ve realized that prose has done a seriously terrible job of handling body positivity, and I don’t think it’s gotten enough finger wagging for that. Most of the criticism ends up directed at visual media, but I think in a way prose can be more destructive, and often is. The typical approach to describing characters is to declare them lovely, plain or hideous, and then offer up a list of traits that support the author’s claim. As a result, thin and blonde becomes officially beautiful, fat and freckled become officially plain, and highly unusual traits, like vitiligo, don’t get to exist at all unless the author wants an ugly character. It encourages people look at themselves like they are unassembled puzzles, and the bits writers have declared unattractive automatically outweigh the officially attractive ones.
That’s not how people actually look. Real people are composites, not only of their physical features, but also of their personalities and attitudes. Often, a larger than average nose or a scar or a rotund waistline occur in a person who, as a whole, is very good-looking. Furthermore, that’s not always the case that removing that trait would necessarily make them look better. So it was with this woman. She had light brown skin, with the area around her eyes and nose white like a raccoon’s mask in reverse, and she had a pleasant smile and soft dark eyes, a light pinkish-purple top that went well with her black hair, and she was pretty.
Visual media at least has the ability to show us people as a whole, and let us make up our own minds. Where a book would just state that Lupita Nyong’o is unattractive because her skin is too dark and Adele is unattractive because she is fat, a picture can’t hide the truth that both of these women are utterly gorgeous. I first realized this when reading a rant on how Emma Watson was too pretty to play Hermione, who was supposed to start out very ugly, and of course this was a sign of cinema giving us unrealistic standards of beauty. Hermione is described as having frizzy hair and buck teeth. Emma’s hair looked frizzy to me, and her teeth… I couldn’t really tell. Teeth have to be pretty dramatically deformed to be noteworthy, and Hermione’s parents were dentists. They would have taken care of anything worse than a slight overbite, which is often cute. Honestly most ten year olds are cute. It’s how they survive to puberty; they have faces that make adults go “awww, let me feed you.” The critic got it backwards. The movie was honest, and the book was giving us unrealistic standards of ugliness.
As I tried to avoid staring at the woman at the party, I realized I wanted to talk to her about this. I wanted to ask her if she had ever read a book with a character who had vitiligo, and how she would want to be described. I wondered whether it would make her happy to hear that I thought she was pretty, or uncomfortable; as a trans person I know many people are are uncomfortable hearing certain parts of themselves described in a positive light, and I wonder if that’s a gender dysphoria specific thing, or if it applies to other stigmatized traits. Every way of framing this sounded awkward to me, so I never asked. Instead I’ll address the question to the internet.
To anyone who is reading this, think of some part of yourself that you think a book would blindly deride. How would you feel, if you read a book with an attractive character who had that trait? Are there ways that could be described that would make you feel uncomfortable? Are there ways that would make you feel good? Do you think books have affected how you think about your appearance?