The Importance of Personal Aesthetic in Literature

Posted May 11, 2016 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Discussions / 19 Comments

Personal Aesthetic

There are so many elements I love about the young adult genre, especially themes such as acceptance, self-exploration, and the valuation of personality over aesthetic. However, it’s also come to my attention that in some ways the genre has tried so hard to elevate the normal protagonist or fight for the underdog that it’s created inverse stereotypes in order to break others: pretty girls are mean girls, wealthy people are evil, privileged people don’t have problems, those who care about their appearance are vain and shallow (generalizations, but you see the point). The breaking of stereotypes in favor of implementing others doesn’t sit well with me, and I’ve become disappointed with how callously some of these tropes are used in the novels I read, particularly with respect to females who enjoy fashion and make up and putting effort into their appearance.

The following except from the short story novella Snowed Over really highlighted this phenomena of using a love of makeup and fashion as a negative character trait:

“She wasn’t about to let this spoiled, Kardashian wanna-be touch her gift from Alex. And what was with all the makeup? They were in podunk northern Wisconsin for Pete’s sake, not at an L.A. movie premiere.” (109)

Sure, in the context of the story the character in question DID end up being a total troll, but it also seemed like a really cheap shot for the main character to take to judge the character because she lived in rural Wisconsin and also happened to like makeup. So? It would be cruel and considered rude to judge someone for NOT wearing makeup, yet it often isn’t a two way street. The stereotypical “mean girls” usually tend to be interested in fashion, makeup, and their general overall appearance, which is used to symbolize vanity and a vapid personality in many forms of media. This really works against inclusivity, as it rejects certain aspects of femininity as being lesser than others, which I really think does a disservice to female and male readers alike. I, for instance, am a book blogger and academic at heart, but I love makeup. I often say if I wasn’t a book blogger, I would be a beauty blogger. I have a large makeup collection, worked in the fashion industry for several years, and do occassionally enjoy watching the Kardashians. Yet does this mean I’m doomed to being typecasted as a snotty antagonist if I were ever to be written into a modern piece of media? Unfortunately, I think that would be a real possibility.

As frequently as I see a love for makeup, fashion, hair, etc. have a negative connotation, I decided to seek out some examples in YA fiction where the above hobbies and interests were celebrated, desired, and even used for a greater purpose by the protagonists. There are several extremely strong female YA literary heroines who take pride in their personal aesthetic and/or who use their appearance as a form of creative expression or even political strategy:

“He puts up my hair first, in the braided style my mother introduced him to, the proceeds with my makeup. Last year he used little so that the audience would recognize me when I landed in the arena. But now my face is almost obscured by the dramatic highlights and dark shadows. High arching eyebrows, sharp cheekbones, smoldering eyes, deep purple lips…then he adjusts the light in the room to mimic twilight and presses a button just inside the fabric of my wrist. I look down fascinated, as the ensemble fully comes to life, first with a soft golden light but gradually transforming to the orange-red of burning coal. I look as if I have been coated in glowing embers- no that I am a glowing ember straight from our fireplace.” (Catching Fire, 206)

In Catching Fire, Cinna is more than Katniss’ stylist, he helps her cultivate and project a very specific political image based on the makeup and costumes he creates for her. Katniss, never one to seek out fashion for herself, gains advantages through Cinna’s careful planning of her aesthetic, and the presence as “The Girl on Fire” not only intimidates her competition and awes the crowd, but it allows her to rebrand the image of District 12 (coal mining) to the rest of the capitol, from dirty, defeated miners to citizens who harvest an important natural resource that creates a product both powerful and destructive- fire.

It’s harder to find characters so deeply invested in makeup and fashion in a positive position in contemporary novels, which is why Stephanie Perkin’s novel Lola and the Boy Next Door is so unique and even ground-breaking in that respect. Lola is unabashedly devoted to her personal aesthetic, and cultivates her creativity through her artistic use of makeup, sewing her own clothing, and looking everywhere for sources of inspiration for her outfits.

“I don’t believe in fashion. I believe in costume. Life is too short to be same person every day.”(Lola and the Boy Next Door, 7)

The novel really celebrates a love for clothing and makeup, and shows that it doesn’t have to be juxtaposed with other traits, as Lola is just as committed to her friendships, family, and being a decent human being as she is to experimenting with her image. We may not all be ready to rock the sort of outfits Lola does on a daily basis, but I think she’s a wonderful example of how we can invert the stereotypes of fashion and makeup being vapid or vain into something that’s just as viable a hobby and interest as anything else.

“Having an eye for beauty isn’t the same thing as weakness…” (Catching Fire, 211)

Let’s Discuss!

As someone who personally is very invested in makeup and fashion, it’s personally difficult to see an interest in these elements paired with unsavory characters in novels. It creates girl on girl hate, and limits the idea of what can be considered a positive female role model. Do you think that there’s a negative connotation across the YA genre with fashion and makeup? Is it something that you think can be empowering? Do you think by elevating and celebrating certain interests and personality traits in characters that we’ve stereotypes and belittled others? Do you have examples/recommendations of other books where the character is empowered or embraces a love for their personal appearance in a positive way? Let me know in the comments!

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19 responses to “The Importance of Personal Aesthetic in Literature

  1. HALLELUJAH AMEN I LOVE THIS POST!!! I am with you 100%. As a fellow makeup and fashion lover, I always strive to incorporate those aspects in my writing in a positive light. Busting stereotypes and all that. Because this attitude that a person who cares how they look is vain and shallow seeps into real life, and it’s frustrating. People are surprised to find out I’m actually intelligent even though I wear dresses in a casual setting and sparkly eyeshadow. That doesn’t say anything about my personality or my IQ. It just says that I spend a little extra time in the morning to look the way I want to look, to look the way that gives me confidence. In a world where we’re constantly trying to loft everyone up and support everyone’s differences, you’d think this wouldn’t still be such a common problem in YA lit.

    • So glad you enjoyed this post! I totally agree, the only thing that can rival my overflowing bookshelves is my overflowing closet 😉 One of my favorite parts of my day is getting to do my makeup- it’s a creative, artistic outlet for me, and I love building outfits as well. Luckily I work in an industry where my coworkers are pretty dressy too, but I have had people (back when I was in school) make comments regarding that I wore to much makeup, or got too dressed up for things. I hate this attitude because there’s nothing wrong or shameful with taking pride in your appearance, and I think in trying to shift society’s view to make it acceptable for females NOT to be into those things, we ended up with a culture that shames those who are, and breeds jealousy. Some of the smartest, most confident women I know are some of the dressiest and most made up too!

  2. I agree with you that makeup does seem to have a negative connotation in books. It seems like a lot of books that have a main character who wears some makeup is seen as ‘fake’ by other characters (and a lot of times, the romantic interest!). There was just an explosion about this topic when Colbie Caillat released Try’s music video. It showed women taking off their makeup so they could be happy with themselves. While I do think it’s important to accept yourself and not be afraid to show your skin/face the way it is, I also think that makeup is a hobby, just like a lot of other things and shouldn’t be looked down upon. What’s wrong with a girl who loves makeup and doing hers and others’ makeup? I really loved it when Suzanne Collins portrayed makeup in her books the way she did. It showed that makeup can have such a powerful impact! Great topic, Cristina!

    • Thank you, Laura! I agree, I think it’s important to not obscure the message that accepting yourself and they way you look without makeup is very important, but I don’t think it has to be a one or the other situation, that you either wear makeup and are shallow or you don’t and are confident. I also think you’re right in pointing out that this attitude of seeing a female in a novel who’s into makeup usually evokes a negative reaction from the love interest, when ideally the love interest wouldn’t really judge a female on her makeup for better or for worse (to be honest, a lot of my guy friends and boyfriend really don’t notice much of a difference when girls wear makeup for the most part- they see them for who they are in a more holistic way, and I wear makeup much more for myself than I do for male attention).

      Thanks for the lovely comment!

  3. The first book I thought of when reading this post was SILENCE by Michelle Sagara, which refuses to shove people into a one-dimensional stereotype. One of the main group is a young woman who is popular & fashion-conscious AND a bit of a mean girl BUT also loyal and well-meaning. The second was THE GHOST & THE GOTH, whose heroine was a popular mean girl who is shown to have an unexpected backstory and non-cruel reasons for many of her actions. (Plus she gets great character growth throughout the trilogy that doesn’t require her to give up her interest in her appearance.)

  4. Super interesting. I’m in the non makeup camp myself, and I’m a little embarrassed to think about how quickly I can judge other women for having a big interest in makeup and fashion, or in spending time and money on something that I think is frivolous. After all, plenty of people wouldn’t understand why I spend my time and money on coffee and books. I read an interesting blog post recently about whether or not wearing makeup could be a feminist choice. The general consensus was the until men feel like they don’t look good without makeup, and women feel like they can be valued equally with or without their “face” on, society’s pressure to wear makeup is sexist, BUT within that, women can love to wear makeup without being vapid, self-loathing, or any of the other anti-makeup stereotypes. It’s the pressure to look a certain way that is the problem, but choosing to look one way or another is everyone’s right.

    • I think it’s always easy to fall into the trap of judging others who make seemingly incomprehensible choices compared to the one that you make, but definitely something we are all guilty of from time to time! The article you mention is interesting, and while I do think wearing makeup is a feminist choice, I do see the logic behind the argument- that it’s less about the products themselves as it is behind the intent behind why makeup exists in the first place (that would be something super interesting to look into- the history of makeup and it’s introduction into mainstream culture!) I would love to see more fashion or makeup minded characters as long as it’s a part of their personalities for the right reasons (I hate the “makeover” trope when a character gets made over to impress a guy, to go to prom, etc).

  5. This is so beautifully said! This is something I have felt for a long time, but could never put in to words! As someone who is more on the tomboy side, I still occasionally like to wear cute dresses and skirts, so it upsets me to see this happening. Especially in YA because it’s basically telling the kids who enjoy makeup and fashion that they vapid and should focus on more “worthwhile” things. My sister for example is beautiful with or without makeup, but one thing she loves to do is go to the salon and get her eyelashes done. This makes her feel good and when you feel good about the way you look you hold yourself with more confidence. It’s the same with makeup and clothes. When you put on a cute outfit that makes you feel good, you carry that with you throughout the day. This is hard to put in to words, but I think that a lot of people wanted to show that not being in to fashion or makeup as a girl wasn’t a bad thing, but that we took it to far. We got so used to trying to tell women they are beautiful without makeup that we ended making women who do wear it in to the mean girls. I’m not saying there aren’t mean girls out there, because there is. But I have known some of the nicest girls who were in to fashion and makeup and wearing heels, and I’ve known some of the meanest girls who weren’t in to any kind of fashion. I think we need to take a step back from making the mean/stupid girls the ones that are in to fashion and makeup. Sorry for the long comment! It’s just something I feel passionately about and agree with you completely!

    • I love that you are so passionate about this topic! I think you make a fantastic point about people deriving confidence from their look (outfit, hairstyle, etc.) and that the validity of that shouldn’t be diminished because it’s something seen as “material” or “vain.” For instance, I just chopped over six inches of my hair off (I’ve always had super long hair and now it’s pretty short!) and I feel like the look is more suited to my current work role, age, and lifestyle. Because of that, I feel more confident and excited to get up everyday and showcase my new look. I think that caring about your appearance can mean you’re putting an effort into your day and your life, and we shouldn’t same those who have it as a high priority in their routine!

      • Exactly! My motto is “live and let live”. I try as much as possible to not judge people based on their appearance. I just wish we could get away from the girls fighting in books. More and more authors are writing about great female friendships or characters that love being girly but still kick butt and to be honest they are some of my favorite books to read! Good for you! I’m the same. I’ve always had really long hair and I am planning on getting a pixie cut, but it’s so scary to cut off all my hair.

  6. This makes me think of waves of feminists who butt heads — first wave and second wave. As you probably know, first wave feminists were all about showing toughness and proving they were men’s equals in intellect, ambition, and resilience. Think shoulder pads and short hair! Second wave feminists embraced make-up and dresses and bras — saying that a woman could still be a feminist and dip into traditional gender roles.

    Personally, I’m probably more of a second-wave feminist. I think women can be whoever they are and be equal to men. They don’t even need to be particularly smart, ambitious, or resilient to have **tremendous** worth as a human being. So yeah, it makes me mad, too, when “girly-girls” are shamed or cast down in books. Authors maybe don’t intend to hurt people when they go there, but they can and do.

    A little off topic, but pertinent: there was one line I read in a novel once, saying how a girl couldn’t be a proper feminist if she was unemployed. As someone who suffers from anxiety so acute that it has lost me jobs before, that really frustrated me.

    • I think you make a great point by bringing up the fact that women don’t have to be super smart or ambitious to “balance out” the fact that they like makeup or to give them a sense of validity or empowerment as a human being. It’s something I didn’t address in my discussion post, so I’m glad you brought it up! In defending either side of the argument, it can still ostracize certain groups of women.

      The quote you bring up is really interesting. I think we associate being a feminist with a very certain archetype these days (self-sufficient, go-getter, financially independent, etc.) and it excludes women who may be caretakers or stay at home moms or any other number of reasons or roles that do not include employment. I think the mentality of feminism is that women fought so hard to break into the work force that it seems “wasteful” for them not to work, which is definitely an exclusionary mindset. I think feminism, like any other social justice movement, can sometimes exclude and has room to be more open minded. Great comments

  7. I agree with you all the way! I find it interesting how when we look back in time, society expected women to be feminine and lady-like, always wearing nice dresses and putting effort into their appearance. They were not shamed because they actually cared about their looks, or perceived as shallow and vain. Yet at the same time, women who were not considered as “feminine” did receive shame and were looked down upon by their peers.

    Now society’s outlook on this topic has done a complete 180. As you’ve said before, women who take interest in fashion and makeup are perceived as only having a pretty face, yet not a pretty heart, the stereotypical mean girl. On the flip side of things, women who don’t put as much effort into their appearance are often depicted as the heroines of the story. In my opinion, I find all of this absolutely ludicrous, including the time periods where it was so-called “better” to be a girly-girl. Why should the interests of a woman, or anyone for that matter, automatically assume the content of their character (that is, unless their hobby is being a part-times serial killer)? Who has the right to say that because someone works hard to always look their best, that means they must be arrogant and shallow? Who has the right to say that because a woman prefers to wear pants as opposed to dresses and skirts, then they must be an awful person? Everyone has different interests and hobbies, and many people share the same interests and hobbies, but that doesn’t mean they are all cold-hearted nor are they all kindhearted. Personally, I fail to understand humanity’s need to stereotype others and throw them all into the same box for one simple similarity, and I don’t think I ever will.

    • I completely agree with you! I think the whole notion of judging women based on how much or how little women care about their appearance (whether it’s approval or disapproval) really is rooted in a larger problem with females being so tied to their physical appearance in society’s eyes, in a way that males are not. I think that even when being into make up or fashion is seen as shallow/vain/negative there’s always a weird undercurrent of approval still, the love-to-hate attitude toward the beautiful mean girl trope that society has since we all *want* to hate her for being shallow and pretty but we’re still appreciating her aesthetic…so many mixed messages!

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