Bella never wore make-up, nor should she. The cosmetics industry made billions of dollars every year from women who were trying to attain skin like hers.
-Meyer, S. “Midnight Sun”, 2008, page 132
I love those paragraphs. Even with the Twilight saga being a veritable deconstruction goldmine, there is so much in these two alone I could spend ages picking them apart.
So let’s talk about beauty… again. More specifically, natural beauty vs the more artificial kind.
There is an underlying assumption in popular culture that true beauty comes from the heart, but also that beauty equals goodness. You see that early in fairy tales - the princesses are always said to be beautiful, the villains are always ugly - and then you see even more of that in books and movies. YA, especially the paranormal kind, has a variation of that - that true beauty comes from the heart, and that this true beauty manifests itself through actual physical beauty.
What does actual physical beauty translate to? Well, according to Twilight and all the stories that went on that bandwagon, it’s: slim, white, clear-skinned and possibly with amazing hair. Later trends like the dystopian craze following “The Hunger Games” focused less on the physical looks of the protagonists, but still, our girls Katniss, Tris, Cassia and June are at the very least conventionally attractive, if not downright beautiful. Some of those ladies are owning their beauty, while others are oblivious to it, but very few are those that have actual reasons for having low self-esteem. I personally can’t remember anyone other than Hester Shaw from the “Mortal Engines”… which was published ten years ago.
Here’s an interesting thing about the beauties in YA - they’re all achieved without artificial means. Their skin is naturally clean (so much so that Laurel Seawell’s first pimple was the inciting incident to “Wings”), they’re skinny without seemingly putting much effort into it (obvious exceptions: Bella, whose eating is implicitly distorted, Laurel, whose eating is explicitly distorted, and Katniss who just doesn’t have much to eat) and they don’t need make-up to be attractive.
Here’s the thing about make-up: If you don’t want to use it, that’s okay. Though the beauty industry has began to give out more positive messages to women and girls, it still makes a profit off women’s low self-esteem, and it’s pretty vicious about selling the One Perfect Vision of a skinny lady with clear skin and shiny hair. In this context, one way to defend oneself from the clusterfuck is to outright refuse to play the game.
So far, so good. YA novels have done a good job at renouncing the beauty industry and its complicated messages. However, the problem comes when the books go the extra mile and outright trash the women who don’t go the same route.
Let’s look at the above passage. Yes, Edward is paying Bella a compliment. However, the description can easily be read in another way - Bella is already different from any other human Edward has met, her beauty is just another nail on her speshul snowflake coffin. Is it possible that Bella is beautiful because she’s so good? More importantly, what’s the implication? That all other human girls are ugly because they’re so shallow? Or maybe that the other human girls are shallow because they are too concerned with their looks (as evidenced by their copious use of make-up?)
Does spending time on your looks mean you don’t have your priorities straight?
Let’s think about all the times a naturally beautiful protagonist is pitted against a villainous girl with a painted face. In “Hush, Hush”, our first description of antagonist Marcie Miller references the fact that you could no longer see her freckles from all the foundation she slathers on. Later in the book, love interest and Crown Creep of the YA court Patch will discourage protagonist Nora from wearing lip gloss, because it doesn’t suit her. Or how about “Halo”, where naturally gorgeous angel Bethany criticises her friend Molly for spending too much time on make-up? “Siren” by Tricia Rayburn is basically about an Oblivious Pretty fighting all the Evil Sluts to save the men in the community from certain death.
(Interesting facet of the story, too, but I’ll talk about it next time.)
That’s not to say all YA decries make-up. In “Supernaturally”, the heroine is a girl who enjoys teen flics, the colour pink and make-up and is still an awesome badass. “The Ghost and the Goth” features a cheerleader who is incredibly vain, but also intelligent and insightful. “Nevermore” had goth girls with lots of eyeliner, but its protagonist (another cheerleader) also wore it, so there’s that.
Here’s another interesting thing about the “Midnight Sun” passage - it acknowledges that beauty (at least, beauty by the Western standard) is not easy to come by. Skin like Bella’s is something most women attain through a lot of time, effort and money. In addition to buying all kinds of cleansers, toners, scrubs, bases, foundations, powders, and concealers, there are plenty of considerations connected to lifestyle, diet, stress levels and genetics that come into play. Not all women can be effortlessly and objectively pretty.
However, women are still expected to be beautiful, and they can’t escape that standard.
Think really hard about the last ten YA books you read. How many of them feature a protagonist that is not conventionally attractive, and whose character arc doesn’t somehow revolve around them achieving beauty and/or inner peace? How many Paranormal/Dystopian/Fantasy/Sci-fi YAs feature a fat protagonist, or one with a disability? When’s the last time you saw someone objectively ugly get a happy ending without first becoming beautiful or making some kind of sacrifice? Not too many, I imagine. Hell, even Hester Shaw, who is a badass among badasses, still has a big inferiority complex that motivates her throughout the Hungry City Chronicles.
For all our talk that beauty comes from the heart, a lot of importance is placed on a woman’s appearance. So why do books, directly or indirectly, condemn those girls and women who don’t have the natural/financial advantage in that game?
I think I’ll leave that one to you.