Certain tropes tend to come up again and again in young adult fiction, and there’s one in particular that makes me positively aflame with irritation: the heroine who must become beautiful as part of her journey and transformation into a fully realised character. Beauty, in this setting and framing, becomes an essential part of what it means to be a whole person. Without it, you are always lacking, and you still need ‘work’ to become an adult, but once you are beautiful, the world is your oyster and it’s laid open at your fingertips, quivering, waiting for you.
There is, of course, a tendency for heroines to be beautiful in the first place. They have alabaster skin (because of course white is right, yes?) and flowing tresses or pertly-cropped hair in the perfect shade that’s smooth and beautiful. Their lips are full, their eyes bright, their bodies trim and smooth, although some may be muscled because they are also warriors or athletes. Heroines who look ordinary are hard to find, and when you do, their looks are talked about as though they are a problem, rather than a fact of who they are; they are something to be fixed and grown out of.
They have ‘frizzy’ hair (like Hermione, with the out-of-control hair that is constantly referenced until the Yule Ball, when it’s miraculously fixed into a beautiful, smooth concoction that reveals her ‘true beauty’). They have acne or pockmarked skin, their eyes are dull, their nails bitten ragged. Their looks are harped upon both by themselves and the other characters to underscore the fact that they haven’t completed their journey and cannot until their bodies conform with an outside standard of beauty. They are chubby, perhaps, but their fat rolls or uncomfortable feeling in jeans is gross, disfiguring, unpleasant, not simply the arrangement of their bodies at this point in time.
There is not much here for a lot of readers to relate to. Either heroines are abstract, beautiful, and remote, reminding readers that they still aren’t perfect and aren’t valued because they don’t have the right looks. Or they’re ordinary young men and women, with bodies and faces like the readers, but the readers are reminded that these are things that are wrong and need to be fixed. By extension, the readers know that their own existence is undesirable, that until they are pretty, they will never be fully realized, and that beauty, within a very narrow and specific set of definitions, should be their ultimate goal.
I see it coming up a lot in fantasy, probably most starkly there because authors can use magic as a quickie shortcut. The girl-turned-vampire who becomes supernaturally beautiful in the process, shedding all that excess poundage and frazzled hair and other mortal sins to turn into an unearthly creature with the kind of beauty that turns heads, startling and amazing everyone who mocked her looks before. Or the girl who uses witchcraft to beautify herself, taking philtres and using powders and spells to get rid of her undesirable ugliness, sometimes as part of an initiation into a group of other witches and magic users; finally, their unusual beauty is explained, and she too is one of them, embraced into their circle with the eyelash lengthening treatment that will last a lifetime.
But it’s not just in YA fantasy. It’s also of course in science fiction, where genetic engineering and futuristic medical treatments allow people to shape their bodies however they want, and, of course, they choose beauty. In this world, it would be absurd to choose to be ugly, or to remain flawed, because the technology is available to reverse that. Scott Westerfeld challenged and explored that narrative in the Uglies series, but he’s one of the few to take it head-on and ask why it is that beauty is so prized in society in general and in YA fiction in particular. His characters live in a world where passing from Ugly to Beauty via medical treatments is part of the transition into adulthood, where rebels refuse the treatment and choose to remain who they are, and it makes for a compelling read not just because it challenges normative beauty standards, but also because it flies in the face of a very familiar trope.
And, naturally, contemporary YA is not exempt from the beautiful/ugly problem. When heroines aren’t just naturally pretty because that’s how they’ve been written, they’re finding ways to pretty themselves up, albeit without the shortcuts of magic and imaginative technology. They push themselves to be pretty by any means possible, and unless we’re talking about an issue book, this is rarely challenged. Of course the gawky, awkward girl would want to learn to use makeup, would pluck her eyebrows, would straighten her hair. Of course she’d want to get new clothes that fit her better and try to lose some weight with exercise.
This is not about self-esteem and developing her own life, though, but very specifically about getting pretty. And it troubles me to see readers told over and over again that they must be beautiful and that they can’t transition to the next stage of their lives without being attractive; that they must be the made-over belle of the ball in order to be whole. Because beauty shouldn’t be a priority for everyone, not for its own sake. And readers shouldn’t be told that people won’t like them without being beautiful, that they cannot command respect and fair treatment and kindness unless they look ‘pretty’ by whatever standards their society sets.
A character doesn’t have to be beautiful to be interesting and compelling, and her ordinary or even ugly looks don’t have to be a cause of trauma or even a major plot point. And she doesn’t need to be turned into someone she’s not in order to become fully realized. How nice it would be if people who didn’t walk about looking like demigods enjoyed equal footing with their pretty counterparts, instead of being smushed down very small by their creators for daring to look ordinary.