You Don’t Have To Be Pretty – On YA Fiction And Beauty As A Priority

23 Mar

“I’m not trying to be self-deprecating,” I say, “I just don’t get it. I’m younger. I’m not pretty. I –”

He laughs, a deep laugh that sounds like it came from deep inside him, and touches his lips to my temple.

“Don’t pretend,” I say breathily. “You know I’m not. I’m not ugly, but I am certainly not pretty.”

“Fine. You’re not pretty. So?” He kisses my cheek. “I like how you look. You’re deadly smart. You’re brave. And even though you found out about Marcus …” His voice softens. “You aren’t giving me that look. Like I’m a kicked puppy or something.”

“Well,” I say. “You’re not.”

Veronica Roth, Divergent

This handful of sentences, spoken by Divergent‘s protagonists Tris and Four, might be some of the most revolutionary words ever written in a young adult novel. In fact, they’re pretty incredible no matter what the genre. These words may not look like much, but trust me, they’re actually pretty mind-blowing when you really think about them.

Let’s just take a moment to digest what’s being said here, shall we?

Tris, Divergent‘s heroine and current YA dystopia It Girl, has just kissed the boy she likes. He’s a few years older than her – in fact, he’s her instructor – and, although it’s been clear throughout the book that she has a total lady-boner for him, she didn’t think she stood a chance. Throughout the book she and others consistently describe her as homely, skinny and flat-chested; she herself says, “I am not pretty – my eyes are too big and my nose is too long,” and one of her antagonists, catching a glimpse of her naked, crows “She’s practically a child!” Among her peers, she either fades into the background or else becomes a target because of her apparent helplessness and vulnerability. In short, she’s a real Plain Jane.

Having the female protagonist of a young adult novel believe that she’s ordinary-looking, uninteresting and unnoticeable is nothing new. In fact, it’s a trope that’s been pretty widely covered throughout the genre — from Katniss Everdeen to Bella Swan to Hermione Granger to Mia Thermopolis, it seems like just about every heroine needs some convincing to realize how beautiful they are. Because, of course, they are beautiful — though often the character requires a makeover before she herself and the world around her (except, of course, for that One Special Boy Who Always Knew) realize her true beauty. Think of the scene when Katniss first arrives in the Capitol, when they shave off her body hair, tame her eyebrows and slather her with makeup. Or the part in The Princess Diaries when Mia takes off her glasses, straightens her hair and poof, she’s a babe! Or else Hermione’s appearance at the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when she puts on a fancy dress, bewitches her frizzy hair into submission and suddenly gets everyone’s attention. The message that we get over and over is that beauty, even hidden beauty, is somehow part and parcel of being an exceptional, successful young woman. And of course every girl longs to be pretty, right?

But not Tris.

Tris is pretty matter-of-fact about not being beautiful; she mentions it once or twice, but it’s not pivotal to her character. She doesn’t seem to give her appearance all that much though, probably because she has other, more pressing concerns like her own survival. She does get a makeover of a sort, but not one that especially improves or feminizes her appearance. Being pretty is not a priority for Tris and, amazingly, her prettiness is not a priority for her love interest either. Look at the words he uses to explain why he likes her – smart and brave. These attributes are the reasons that he wants to be with her, not her appearance. Of course he finds her physically attractive – he does say that he likes how she looks, after all – but that’s not her main appeal for him. He’s more drawn to her because of what she does rather than how she looks. And that is pretty amazing. Having a plain, ordinary-looking female protagonist whose looks don’t, at some point over the course the book or movie, wind up being “fixed” is something I have actually never seen before.

When we talk about women’s appearance, we often get hung up on the idea that all women deserve to feel beautiful. Many initiatives meant to empower women hinge on the concept that all women are beautiful in their own way. The message is that though we might not all be super model material, each of us has our own special brand of prettiness. This is thought to be helpful in deconstructing the beauty ideals that our society for women – the idea that “pretty” only comes in a package that’s tall, white, skinny and blond – and is often embraced as part of feminist ideology. But while I know that the intentions behind this message are good, I can’t help but feel that it’s not a very healthy thing for young girls to be hearing.

The problem is that when we promote this idea that all women are beautiful, what we are really doing is emphasizing that it is important for women to be physically attractive. We are telling girls that, as females, the way that they look is a huge part of who they are – that we expect prettiness from them, and that we expect them to want it. Even if we don’t mean to, we are still attaching a high value to physical appearance. And that’s messed up.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m all for people feeling good about themselves and being comfortable in their own skin. I want everyone to be happy with how they look. But I don’t want girls believing that feeling pretty is equal to or more important than feeling smart, competent or powerful. I also don’t want them to think that not feeling beautiful or not putting a premium on their own beauty means that there’s something flawed or unfeminine about them. Instead of living in a world where every woman struggles on a daily basis to find something attractive about herself, I would rather live in one where women are told that it’s fine not to care about how they look.

I know that this has been said before, but it bears repeating:

Girls, you don’t have to be pretty. Your sex does not place you under any obligation to feel beautiful. You are so much more than your appearance.

We never say that all men deserve to feel beautiful. We never say that each man is beautiful in his own way. We don’t have huge campaigns aimed at young boys trying to convince them that they’re attractive, probably because we very rarely correlate a man’s worth with his appearance. The problem is that a woman’s value in this world is still very much attached to her appearance, and telling her that she should or deserves to feel beautiful does more to promote that than negate it. Telling women that they “deserve” to feel pretty plays right in to the idea that prettiness should be important to them. And having books and movies aimed at young women where every female protagonist turns out to be beautiful (whereas many of the antagonists are described in much less flattering terms) reinforces the message that beauty has some kind of morality attached to it, and that all heroines are somehow pretty.

Can we please change the script here? Instead of saying that all women deserve to feel beautiful, can we instead say that all women deserve to feel smart? How about all women deserve to feel respected? Or all women deserve to feel capable? Let’s tell women that they are something, anything, other than pretty. Because seriously, we deserve to be so much more than just pretty.


74 Responses to “You Don’t Have To Be Pretty – On YA Fiction And Beauty As A Priority”

  1. Lynette Noni March 23, 2014 at 3:04 am #

    Great post!!

  2. JackieP March 23, 2014 at 3:17 am #

    I agree and would rather have people say all girls and women deserve to be respected.

  3. AmazingSusan March 23, 2014 at 3:33 am #

    Yes and I think you must more clearly define your terms which is surely the grist for multiple blog posts.

    For example, the way in which you write about your husband and your male friend (both of their names escape me right now) is beautiful. They have a beauty all their own. They are beautiful. Your writing is beautiful.

    My 85-year-old mother Alzheimers Mom singing Over the Rainbow is beautiful ( She is beautiful. The act of singing is beautiful. The relationship between the piano player and the piano and the song and the singing creates beauty.

    Beautiful and pretty, while both adjectives, are, to me anyway, not in the same class or category as descriptors. They are qualitatively different.

    Pretty has to do with this:

    Beauty is more like this:

    Pretty floats on the surface. Beauty dives deep to the core.

    Apples and oranges.

    Everyone regardless of gender deserves to feel beautiful because beauty is the essence of being. We are all beautiful simply because we are.

    Thanks for your provocative and beautiful posts, none of which I have found to be pretty.

    Playfully, Susan

    • Persephone March 23, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

      Yes, this. I agree with the post and this comment taken together, so fully.

  4. mandaray March 23, 2014 at 4:09 am #

    Reblogged this on Note To Self.

  5. Miriam March 23, 2014 at 4:35 am #

    I love this. I haven’t read Divergent, but my 12 year old son has- any messages he can get like this make me happy.
    The other problem with the emphasis on looks for girls is that it really doesn’t last. I say this as a person in my mid-40’s- at some point the aging process takes over and that’s just the way it is. Then you have to work your other strengths anyway 🙂

  6. partyofone March 23, 2014 at 6:14 am #

    Revisiting the Divergent series with more familiarity with feminism is so interesting. Veronica Roth herself said that Tris isn’t a very good role model most of the time (she’s rash and impulsive and borderline reckless), but she does inspire girls to disregard gender roles and societal norm, and that’s pretty powerful.

  7. aqilaqamar March 23, 2014 at 8:28 am #

    Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    In a culture that expects men and women to be exceedingly beautiful or sexy its refreshing to see a writer write on how beautiful the character is internally as in ‘“Fine. You’re not pretty. So?” He kisses my cheek. “I like how you look. You’re deadly smart. You’re brave…’ that is important. I am saying that beauty is more or less subjective so making a standard is pretty silly many a times

  8. Robin March 23, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    Really love your post. I haven’t read Divergent either but have been reading a lot of series w/my 9 year old and so this resonates as I think about all we have read so far (not sure they are YA but…) HP, Secret Series, Benedict Society, right now we are on Heroes of Olympus and yes, all the gals are amazingly smart but I think pretty down under too. As I think about some of them, the books actually do a decent job of showcasing the non-beauty strengths of the heroine but unfortunately once made into a movie, they end up looking like beauty queens and focusing on that aspect of their personality in the end. And with kids who tend to skip the book in lieu of the movie version? The points are often missed. Completely agree this message that we all need to be beautiful messes with girls, and then women in the long run. My son is too young to think about beauty and girls yet but I might have some explaining to do soon, thanks for the heads up.

    • turapolis March 23, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

      In the Benedict Society books Kate (Cate?) is never given a makeover. She is fast, strong, and generally, the most physically skilled character in the stories. It has been awhile, but I don’t think there is ever any talk about beauty or prettiness. I was thrilled to discover the characters when I read those books with my daughter (who asked for a bucket and a rope, filled it with everything she imagined she’d need, and then tied it to her waist and carried it around with her for months). I wouldn’t really consider these books YA normally, but they are on par with HP, and that was mentioned. After Terry Pratchett’s gnome trilogy, this is my favorite book series for older kids.

  9. lauratfrey March 23, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    This is my whole problem with the Dove”real beauty” campaign.

  10. syrens March 23, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    Reblogged this on syrens and commented:
    There’s a big part of me that grocks the cultural connection between “pretty” and “feminine” and, even knowing the messed up ways that my culture defines “feminine” in very narrow ways that include things like whiteness, I still read things like this post – which I quite like, to be clear – and feel… ambivalent. Because while, no, “pretty” shouldn’t be a mandatory priority for us. But that little part of me sees it and makes a connection with the way we – as a culture, and as various feminist sub-cultures – tend to treat feminity as something that shouldn’t be valued, that valuing it puts you on the wrong team, makes you shallow, makes you unfeminIST, makes you a “typical girl”, or whatever. And, yeah, a lot of that is probably my Jerk Brain talking and rehashing all the femme-phobic crap dished out by my culture and various sub-cultures. None the less it comes up. And, none the less, I still think this is worth reblogging. Go have a read. 🙂

  11. barefootmedstudent March 23, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

    I love this. Books have been my refuge all my life, but at one point they became as damaging as movies and magazines and general teenage perception. Because there is always the “ugly” girl who suddenly becomes pretty. The shy girl who suddenly becomes popular. The geeky girl who suddenly “flourishes”, “blooms”.

    And then one day, my friends told me that I had flourished. And I looked in the mirror and I looked the same. And I couldn’t understand – had books, my refuge, lied? Why wasn’t my hair tamed and my skin clear and why wasn’t I a SIREN?

    Turned out I was loved. And respected. And adored. And desired. But not because I suddenly morphed into someone else’s view of “pretty”.

  12. essbee14 March 23, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    Great post! I had similar feelings about that Dove campaign that came out a while ago – women described themselves to a sketch artist, then others described these same women to the artist, and the women were amazed at how much more beautiful other people thought they were versus their self-perception. Which isn’t a bad message, per se, but problematic in that the underlying message is that it’s important to be beautiful. I haven’t read the Divergent series, but now I want to give it a look!

  13. saraspunza March 23, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    This is terrific! Thanks for writing this piece. For my three daughters I find this inspiring. I was raised in the world of beautiful people, where your attractiveness was your only measure of worth. I still rail against it and when I say it, I mean my own habits and reactions. Thanks for reminding us all that there is more to this…

  14. Charlie Farrow (@charliefarrow1) March 23, 2014 at 9:05 pm #

    The epithetic ‘smart’ can mean the opposite of what is being put forward here. The ‘smart set’ have always been about appearance and fashion, looking good – all about surface. But I daresay the author didn’t think about that.

  15. FerretWrangler March 23, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    Sadly I think the movie will undo this good work. Hollywood simply can’t cope with the idea of a female lead that isn’t pretty.

    • Liz March 25, 2014 at 3:53 pm #

      I think it’s fabulous and interesting that for Divergent, yes they did cast someone attractive, but she also doesn’t have the body type of Tris in the book. Shaileen is ‘Hollywood normal’; she’s got some height to her and some muscle tone. She’s not the tiny waif that Tris is in the books and I really appreciated that small change.

    • Anne Celsea April 21, 2014 at 1:26 am #

      It is actually a rather great concept to have a female lead that’s strong, but this isn’t the first I’ve seen; even in writing/entertainment aimed at young adults. I have many I am a huge fan of that aren’t defined by their looks. There are even quite a few amazing women in the videogames I play with my husband; truly powerful ones.

      The concept of “pretty” people on screen, however, goes both ways in the world of movies; especially these days. The leading men are sometimes even “prettier” than their leading ladies anymore. Frodo Baggins of Lord of the Rings fame wasn’t supposed to be good looking, but he was played by a male actor well-“liked” for their attractiveness. Or what about Thor in his new marvel movies? Many will go on about male power fantasies, but that’s, I honestly believe, not the case in this instance. Most men I’ve talked too thought he was a very bad choice and his acting was junk, to be blunt. My husband actually stopped following Thor after seeing the movie. Mr. Helmsworth does a horrific job as an actor in the movie(and admittedly so does Natalie Portman), truly 2 dimensional, but none of us ladies squealing in the theater every time he takes off his shirt seem to care about the quality of his acting. I won’t lie, I sadly was one of those women oogling his rock hard abs.

      We do need to look at things as a whole when we make statements like the above; otherwise, we seem to be a bit unfair in our 100% defined standpoints when we are sometimes promoting the same problems we condemn.

  16. stephanielynn75 March 23, 2014 at 10:29 pm #

    Reblogged this on Garden Variety Neurosis Redux and commented:
    I am guilty of it, for sure. When I meet a little girl, it is so very tempting to say to her, “Your (hair, dress, shirt…whatever…) is so pretty!” before I say anything else. What if I instead asked her what books she likes to read, or what her hobbies are? What if instead of making an observation about her appearance be the first thing out of my mouth, it was one of the last things, or not said at all?
    As for the idea of being beautiful…I read somewhere that if a man says a woman is “hot,” it is strictly a comment on her physical appearance. If he says a woman is beautiful, it encompasses all of her, spirit, soul, and body. I enjoy the idea of being beautiful when it is defined like that. Appearances change. Life happens. Unforeseen tragedy happens, leaving our bodies broken, bruised, scarred, and altered. Physical beauty is, at best, fleeting. When we define “beautiful” as a matter of the soul and spirit more than the body, it maintains a resilience that is denied mere physical beauty.
    “Can we please change the script here? Instead of saying that all women deserve to feel beautiful, can we instead say that all women deserve to feel smart? How about all women deserve to feel respected? Or all women deserve to feel capable? Let’s tell women that they are something, anything, other than pretty. Because seriously, we deserve so much better than just to be pretty.”

  17. Courtney March 23, 2014 at 11:40 pm #

    “All women deserve to feel respected” – YES, please!

    I’m an American, but I’ve been living in Japan for several years, where public bathing is still very common. The baths are segregated by sex, but you’re completely naked while sharing the hot springs or baths with people of the same sex. I love going, and have been with both Japanese and non-Japanese people.

    When I mention going, however, it’s not uncommon for the conversation to go something like this:

    Her: “I’ve just been so stressed lately. My neck and shoulders are killing me.”
    Me: “Have you tried so-and-so hot springs? It’s cheap to get in and they have this waterfall bath that massages your whole back, neck, and shoulders.”
    Her: “Oh, no! I couldn’t do that. My thighs are too fat/I have a belly bulge/I’m too scrawny/etc.”
    Me: “You see all types there. You don’t have to be a supermodel. I go all the time.”
    Her: “Yeah, but you’re so thin/at least you have some curves/you have nicer skin/etc.”
    Me: “…If you say so.”

    I’m always kind of taken aback how other women feel the need to “defend” me (seemingly from myself) whenever I say something to the effect that you’d never see me on the cover of a magazine or that my appearance isn’t perfect. I don’t say those things to put myself down; it’s just a matter of fact. I don’t think any more of saying “I’m not a supermodel” than I do of saying “That car is blue.” It is what it is. Even if they’re just uncomfortable being naked with strangers, though, why make their own appearance the scapegoat?

    This post also reminded me of another post I read at Letters to Ophelia, about the trend of insecure women featured in music:

    Thanks for the great post – keep ’em coming!

  18. evelyneholingue March 24, 2014 at 12:58 am #

    I click “Like” because there is no “Love” button to express stronger feelings on our damned social media platforms.

  19. katyandtheword March 24, 2014 at 1:35 am #

    Reblogged this on katyandtheword.

  20. Joe Decent March 24, 2014 at 4:41 am #

    “We never say that all men deserve to feel beautiful. We never say that each man is beautiful in his own way. We don’t have huge campaigns aimed at young boys trying to convince them that they’re attractive, probably because we very rarely correlate a man’s worth with his appearance.”


    Have you ever spoken to the ugliest/shortest/worst player on any given footy team? Before you have don’t try and tell anybody that men aren’t as under as much pressure as women to be their own version of “attractive”. Ask him how he watches the girls he like go for the guy based on his football talent/attractiveness rather than the qualities of who he is.

    Ask the same about the bass player in a band watching the lead singer and how girls will completely ignore whatever incredibly sexist/objectifying flaws he has and will throw themselves at him because he has talent at musical instrument and a good vocal range.

    As with most over-the-top-victim-complex-poor-version-of-what-feminism-is-actually-about writers you were doing so well till you tried to drag the ZOMG MEN HAVE IT SO MUCH EASIER THAN WOMEN into and it and tried to push that completely flawed and incorrect horse shit Naomi Wolf also tries to peddle.

    Make your points but don’t for one second try and tell people that men don’t face these same problems.

    • runningnekkid March 25, 2014 at 8:14 pm #


    • May April 2, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

      In your examples, the men are being rejected in favour of a more successful football player/musician because of their talents and abilities, not their appearance. Of course men get judged on their appearance as well. But as you’ve just demonstrated, they don’t get judged on their appearance ALONE, or PRIMARILY. And nowhere in this blog post did the author deny that men are judged on their appearance – she simply, and accurately, pointed out that things like the Dove Real Beauty campaign and the Hollywood makeovers are always targeted at and involve women.

  21. Toby March 24, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Reblogged this on Speaker's Corner.

  22. Lora March 24, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    The book Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is another book with a nontraditional female lead. Excellent.

  23. CityTalk March 24, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Reblogged this on THE VILLAGE HERO.

  24. Ann March 24, 2014 at 10:06 pm #

    I fold thy gentleness within my cloak,
    Thy flying wit I braid with jewellery.
    I span thy courage with my bravest clasp,
    And sip the sweets of thy integrity.
    They think thee fair,
    They see not what I see.

  25. Classic Ruby March 25, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    I found it somewhat interesting that, on the exact same day, I put up a post titled “you will never be pretty”. Other than a few amusing anecdotes about my terribly vain and conceited family, it actually includes a very powerful spoken word piece that I think you’d be interested in checking out.

    The poet titled her poem “pretty”, and it is her personal account of how trying to measure up to “pretty” had created soooooo much pain and grief in her life, all of the efforts that were made to help her achieve “pretty”, and what her final conclusion about this whole “pretty” fiasco was.

    Although I’ve never liked or appreciated the word “pretty” when applied to me, at least, as a descriptive term, after watching that short spoken word piece, I will never think of that descriptive term the same way again. So, coming across your post if anything, only reinforced that in my mind.

    Great post! Although, I agree with Mr. Decent above – Men do have the exact same pressures and oppressive societal constraints on what makes them attractive or desirable, standards which only the select few could ever truly achieve, and which the rest would certainly die trying to achieve…or die feeling they had just never been “good enough”.

    Anyway, check out the poem if you get a chance, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

  26. defeatingpain March 25, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    Hit me right in the feels, so much of my teenage years were spent stressing about if I was pretty and hating my own body. Happily I like myself a lot more now 🙂

  27. octochan March 26, 2014 at 5:32 am #

    I’d like to recommend Gail Carson Levine’s “Fairest” as another book with a similar protagonist. Aza is considered straight up ugly, but she’s also intelligent, courageous, resourceful, and has a magnificent singing voice. Another character who appreciates her qualities tells her that she has grandeur and dignity.

  28. Airu-chan March 26, 2014 at 11:11 pm #

    It is really importantn for writers to develop their pratagonists in internal qualities rather than focusing on how hot and alluring they are. Even contemporary fiction has become superficial. They focus on it, I think, because they want their book to “sell” in the market. And of course, beauty is what’s marketable. I haven’t read the book yet I am planning to watch first (this is the first series I will watch first before I read the books 😀 )

  29. bluestgirlblog March 27, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    This reminds me a lot of a post I keep bookmarked on my browser because I like to remind myself of it:

    I have a lot of issues about body acceptance, and for me, the times I have felt best about my body and appearance aren’t the times I thought I was the most pretty, but the times when I could *do* things with my body. Like, I can dance with it and make things and go to the gym and work past being tired, and it didn’t make me feel pretty, but it made “pretty” feel a lot less meaningful. Like, why worry about “pretty” when I’m AWESOME?

    (YMMV, I am able-bodied and reasonably young, which obviously affects my ability to go with this line of thinking.)

  30. DoingDewey April 4, 2014 at 1:37 am #

    Interesting! I honestly didn’t notice that Tris was often described as not being traditionally beautiful. I just imagined her that way anyway. So, I’m apparently part of the problem! I agree though that it’s wonderful for an author not to have her protagonist suddenly turn out to be secretly beautiful. That is a trope that really bothers me.

  31. writingtutortips April 4, 2014 at 4:01 am #

    Preach! This needs to be shouted from the rooftops. I hate how easy it is to slip into this kind of thinking; it happens before I’m even aware of it. As a culture, we definitely need to change the way we talk about beauty.

  32. Yelly May 1, 2014 at 2:06 am #

    Reblogged this on Yelly. and commented:
    Let’s tell women that they are something, anything, other than pretty. Because we are so much more. It shouldn’t be our “go to.” It shouldn’t be our number one priority.

  33. Isabel Sensier June 6, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    So happy to hear that my 12 year old brother has been ingesting this message. And I thought it was just another jumping on the bandwagon of YA dystopias book. Yay!

  34. georgefinnegan June 6, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

    I’ve got two daughters and I really like coming here for advice. You’re an excellent writer and you keep feeding me great ideas I can use.

    My own story begins typically. When my first daughter was six or seven, I was told by my wife that I was giving her messages that I didn’t think she looked good because I thought she was getting over-weight. When my wife mentioned it, I was, at first, annoyed that she would make such a suggestion. But, after awhile, I took a look at myself and was appalled – I was doing exactly what my father did to me (and no one could get along with my father)! How could I do that to her? Why would I want to be like my father? So, I let the judgements go and came to appreciate her for her (or, at least, I haven’t been reprimanded in a long time and get that warm, fuzzy feeling parents get whenever I look at her!).

    It’s amazing how vigilant we have to be in order to stop ourselves from making mistakes that we develop from habit. The first step is always to see the problem and really come to want to change. For me, it was motivation to not be like my father and to want my daughter to grow up to be confident and happy with herself. (After writing this, I can see how, if a person actually admired his father, he would be resistant to change.) From there, what we can do is recognize when the thought arises and let it go, say, by releasing it with our breath, instead of allowing our minds to following it. The difficulty is to be aware enough to see when the offending thought arises. That’s the tricky part that takes work; that’s the part that was set up through habit. Over time, with enough effort, it doesn’t control us as much. It doesn’t go away completely – that’s just the way the mind is, But it can come to the place where it won’t influence our lives to the point of causing problems. And associating aversive thoughts with the ideas we want to change is also a big help. For me, thinking that my daughter would be like a bullied child if I continued was enough to help me correct my thoughts.

    Hope I’m not rambling! 🙂


  35. Alice October 8, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    such a great piece! my favourite YA series – the Wicca or Sweep series by Cate Tiernan – has a female protagonist who, like Tris, is not pretty and is matter of fact about it. She also never undergoes any makeovers, and the men who are attracted to her, while there is certainly physical attraction, admire other parts of her foremost – her power, courage, passion… I love those books a lot!

  36. Anonymous October 8, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    Why is attaching a high value to physical appearance messed up?

  37. Jared William Frick October 13, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

    Hooah. Fairly describes the reasons I always liked soldiers to civvies – women who stand for something and are tough and smart.

  38. Eileene October 18, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Good points made here that aren’t spoken often or insistently enough. Thank you.

    But just a note, as a fan of the Hunger Games books, I have to say that I think you greatly mischaracterize them.

    You say: “Think of the scene when Katniss first arrives in the Capitol, when they shave off her body hair, tame her eyebrows and slather her with makeup.” But you forget that the people giving her this makeover are callously oblivious to the fact that they’re basically preparing her for the slaughter (turning her into a ‘plucked bird, ready for roasting’ in the thoughts of Katniss), and the scene is written as if it’s some kind of elaborate torture. Katniss has disdain for the whole process – it’s not as if, when it’s all over, she’s happy to finally be beautiful! Her ‘prep team’ says that she’s no longer ‘horrible’ to look at, sure, but they’re portrayed as comical idiots, not as people whose perspective we’re meant to take seriously.

    I actually always read a big aspect of the Hunger Games as being about all the elaborate games that people, but especially women, are expected to play, all the images they’re meant to live up to. They make her ‘beautiful’ because they’re trying to sell her as a product. So many people are using Katniss as a pawn to their own ends, crafting her image to suit their purposes. Katniss is never an enthusiastic participant in this. Her biggest moments in the books come when she makes her own choices in defiance of what is expected of her. So it takes me by surprise to see you lump the Hunger Games books into the ‘ugly duckling turns into a swan’ trope. I strongly feel that they’re more a critique of such things than endorsement of them.

    tldr: Don’t forget that the people giving Katniss all her makeovers to make her ‘almost look like a human being’ (in the words of Flavius) are essentially the VILLAINS in the story.

  39. kattia October 19, 2014 at 6:31 am #

    This is an excellent article.

    The only thing that bugged me is that Hermione doesn’t STAY made-over, which is really important and would’ve been worth mentioning.
    She knows she is able to tame her hair, knows she looks good in a dress, and she doesn’t do these things because her focus is on exams, on friendships, on understanding and improving the magical world (seeking greater equality for house elves, for example). We don’t see her worry about how she looks, even when Rita comments on her hair, or Snape is cruel about her teeth. Hermione has a different set of priorities.
    Meanwhile Harry Potter also contains the character Fluer, who (being part-Veela) is so attractive her mere presence can literally stun people. And she is instantly dismissed as a pretty face, as vain. Is she proud of how she looks? Sure. But she is much more than what she looks like, and at the end of the 6th book she rips apart the assumption that her beauty is her only defining characteristic.

    I’m not trying to attack you for not mentioning these things!!! Just that I find these things really interesting, and if you ever felt like writing another article on this subject you could examine these examples as well, because you’ve made some really insightful comments which I ADORE. Yet the Potterhead in me couldn’t allow Hermione to be passed over quite so quickly. So I thought it was worth mentioning, because it IS interesting, isn’t it, the way in which physical beauty is tied up with morality, and how the emphasis on beauty overcomes the importance of a personality…

  40. Melinda November 11, 2014 at 12:45 am #

    Cool blog, and so much insight…thanks for sharing. I agree with so much of what you’ve said in this piece.

    But can I say something? This might make me a “bad” feminist to some people, but I don’t care. I’m one of those women who wants to be beautiful more than anything. Call me vain or shallow if you want to. I admire brilliant women who are creative, strong, smart, talented, etc…but sadly it is beauty that is often more noticed in this world.

    I’ve been considered “plain” and “ugly” nearly all of my life, even by those who claim to love me. I have endured cruel comments and racism because of my outward appearance. So I believe that rejecting all notions of beauty is fine for people with a very thick skin or those that are surrounded by others who uplift them, but for people like me, improving our looks is one of the few ways we can be treated with basic human respect.

    In my case as a woman of color, I am often told that my hair is “ugly” because it isn’t straight (even with a relaxer) and it tends to frizz.
    I am told that my boobs are too small, my ass is too big, my legs are too fat. I am told that my skin is too light (by Black people) and that I’m not white enough (by white people). I’ve even been told by a blonde, blue-eyed white woman that I am inferior to her…because I don’t possess blonde hair and blue eyes.

    I won’t apologize for wearing makeup to enhance my features or for wanting to be pretty, because the outside is what people first see when they look at a person. I believe that women can be both beautiful AND smart. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I’m tired of being treated poorly because I’m considered unattractive. So I’m sorry, but looks do matter in this world and if people think you’re ugly, especially as a woman, they will let you know it.

    • Cee January 13, 2015 at 7:19 am #

      “I’m one of those women who wants to be beautiful more than anything.”

      More than anything, really? More than intelligent, kind, talented? Anything? This really does seem like a gendered phenomenon, and while I sympathize, it’s disturbing as hell. Human nature, the way we judge so much based on appearance, is absolute shit.

  41. theunicornowl November 20, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    Love this!! Such a great post.

  42. theunicornowl November 20, 2014 at 11:45 am #

    Love this so much. I am so glad you wrote about women not having to look OR feel beautiful to be just as worthy as men.


  1. You Don’t Have To Be Pretty – On YA Fiction And Beauty As A Priority | Mixing Chicory - March 23, 2014

    […] You Don’t Have To Be Pretty – On YA Fiction And Beauty As A Priority. […]

  2. You Don’t Have To Be Pretty – On YA Fiction And Beauty As A Priority | I Didn't Just Wake Up This Morning with a Craving - March 23, 2014

    […] You Don’t Have To Be Pretty – On YA Fiction And Beauty As A Priority. […]

  3. Am Abgrund Links – 24.03.2014 - March 24, 2014

    […] Ausnahme darstellt, wenn es um Young Adult Novels geht, beschreibt dieser Text. Denn im Gegensatz zu anderen großen Reihen, wie den viel gelobten Hunger Games, ist die Heldin […]

  4. Weekly Recap| Mar 23-29, 2014 | Oh, the Books! - March 30, 2014

    […] The Belle Jar weighs in on YA fiction and beauty as a priority, saying you don’t have to be pretty. […]

  5. What I’m Into – March | coffeesnob318 - March 31, 2014

    […] You Don’t Have to Be Pretty – on YA Fiction and Beauty as a Priority on the Belle Jar […]

  6. Friday Bits & Bobs: May Days | A Legacy of Sugar and Tentacles - May 2, 2014

    […] On YA and Rape. Trigger Warning. […]

  7. Worst Turned Best: The Media Portrayal of Women | purspektiv - June 11, 2014

    […] Divergent seems like your run-of-the-mill, Young Adult, dystopian novel, but it does something that not a lot of Y.A. does: it shows young girls that you don’t have to be pretty to be strong. In the media, girls are taught that all their problems are solved with the help of a makeover, but that won’t fix what actually matters. A lot of novels with females as leads go through a makeover that turns her from okay into a beautiful swan, and it’s not realistic. This book comes into terms with the fact that outer beauty really isn’t everything; traits like intelligence and bravery are more important to your character than how you look with your eyebrows tweezed, and that’s why I think it’s better than your typical #1 Best Selling, Dystopian, Young Adult Novel. More details about why this is an amazing book for teaching that lesson. […]

  8. Prettiness as an Ideal | Tiffany's Non-Blog - October 26, 2014

    […]    You Don’t Have To Be Pretty – On YA Fiction And Beauty As A Priority | The Belle Jar (via […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: