I have a terrible confession to make, one that I hope you won’t hold against me. I understand this may make you think of me in a different light but remember that we are all entitled to our guilty pleasures.
I really like the One Direction song “What Makes You Beautiful”.
Now, once you’ve stopped throwing rotten fruit at me, hear me out.
It’s an abysmal song lyrically. I’m fully aware of that. I just think it’s fun to dance around the house to in my pants (apologies for that mental image). However, when it comes to the content of the song, I want to scream.
“You don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful.”
Ignoring the total lack of effort put into the rhyming scheme of those lines, let’s look at the message here. Kudos to the genius team behind One Direction’s image and PR because their biggest hit really is a manifestation of the teenage girl id, or at least that one assumed by big men in suits who take baths in their money. You may think that you’re plain and totally ordinary but you’re actually gorgeous and it takes the platitudes of five relatively attractive young men with lots of hair to make you see the light.
I’m all for instilling confidence in young women when it comes to self-image. We could use more of that. Wouldn’t it be nice if that message didn’t come from men? Wouldn’t it do wonders for us all if the standard of beauty wasn’t dictated by a patriarchal system? It makes me cringe that One Direction’s basic message is “Your total lack of self-confidence in yourself and your body is what makes you so hot to me because I like to prey on the vulnerable, na na na na na na na.”
There seems to be a weird aversion to self confidence in literature, and it’s a common trope in YA. The heroine seldom sees herself as beautiful, even when it’s evident to the reader that she’s a total knockout. I say “heroine” because I’ve yet to read a YA with a male protagonist who continually insists he’s plain while all the other characters fawn over his appearance and fall at his feet.
The first example that comes to mind is, surprise, “Twilight”. While Bella Swan’s appearance is only sketchily described in order to allow for a smoother self-insert experience for the reader, her supposedly unremarkable looks are mentioned many times by Bella herself. Of course, they’re described in the most flattering manner possible. Bella is plain and dull because of her pale skin, a trait that is obsessed over by the fashion industry. Indeed, when Stephenie Meyer provided a more detailed description of Bella on her website, it was hard to see her as anything else other than beautiful (or an idealised teenage version of the author herself, but that’s a clichés post for another day).
There are many things about this trope that bug me. The biggest issue for me is the way it renders heroines to be utterly passive wrecks with no self-belief. I understand lacking in self-confidence. I’ve been there many times myself. However, it becomes incredibly tiring once you see the trope repeated over and over again and almost entirely coming from young women. It sets in place a deep-seated assumption about young women and the importance placed on looks.
Why is it so uncommon to see a YA heroine, or heroine of any category or genre, happily own her attractiveness? I would love to see a YA where the female protagonist knows she’s sexy and just gets on with her life without needing validation from a stock romantic hero. Of course, then there are the issues of how we perceive women who talk of their own attractiveness. There’s still a pretty unfair and gross generalisation of such women as “smug” or “bitches”, and the appearances of such women are then sneered at by both men and women. “She’s not that pretty” is all too often said, as if the standards of beauty placed upon girls and women weren’t ridiculous and unattainable. Indeed, the attractive female characters who exhibit some sort of body confidence are often smeared as “sluts” or “whores” because it’s seen as a sign of sexual promiscuity, something that the “good” girls don’t do. The reader is supposed to empathise with the shy but gorgeous protagonist who the boys love but has no self-belief, not the “slut” who dares to show some skin.
Such confidence is often written off as unrealistic for the intended age group, a justification I find insulting as well as perplexing. So a 17 year old girl won’t be able to, or want to, relate to a protagonist with self-confidence? The only possible option is one of meek passivity and zero sureness in oneself? Discomfort and confusion are relatable to all but they’re not the default mode, nor are they the legal precedent for characterisations of teenage girls. Once again, I specify girls because I’ve yet to find a YA novel with a male protagonist who spends most of the book putting his appearance down. Actually, given the unrealistic standards put on men in our society with regards to acceptable masculinity and what it means to be a “real man”, that could be an interesting story.
The trope of the ugly duckling who’s not so secretly a swan carries with it a certain fantasy element as well. You were always beautiful, my love, you just didn’t know it. You needed this equally good looking individual of the opposite sex (because such stories are usually heteronormative) to inform you of this. The kind of beauty presented is, as expected, pretty narrow; usually fair skinned or pale, skinny, big eyes of varying colours, bouncy hair, etc. It gets tiring very quickly to see the same kinds of beauty elevated to the ideal over and over again in YA. Fortunately, there are some great authors busting these expectations with their heroines, but we need more (and we also need publishers to portray these characters properly in the cover art. Come on, after all the fuss we’ve made about this for the past couple of years, you’d think people would get with the programme).
Given the many discussions we’ve had about YA and its part in asserting gender roles of teenagers, it’s hard to miss the obvious implications of the plain girls gone beautiful trope. It’s one that strips young women of their confidence and leaves them constantly depicted as trembling little creatures desperately in need of a man to make them feel better. There’s a realistic portrayal of teenage awkwardness and then there’s just lazy writing. Our literature often reflects reality, or what is continually asserted as the norm, but it can also subvert it. Why not give the world more female characters who are happy with their appearance, an appearance that doesn’t fit the singular version of “beauty” shoved in our faces at every moment? Because, as that pillar of greatness RuPaul once said, if you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else? Let’s face it, RuPaul is far superior to One Direction.