Accessible Beauty

Brace yourselves–I have an actual topic today!

As we might have mentioned, Amanda and I are presenting a workshop at this summer’s Beau Monde Conference entitled, Keeping It Real: Making Your Historical Characters Come Alive. Here’s the brief description:

Just because you’re writing in a distant time period doesn’t mean your characters should be distant to your readers. Join award-winning historical authors Amanda McCabe and Megan Frampton as they discuss how to make your characters come alive through dialogue, attitudes, description and actions, while still remaining true to the period.

Amanda and I will be working on the outline/presentation in upcoming months, and when I saw this article, I realized there were some aspects of ‘keeping it real’ I hadn’t thought of:

Hollywood’s Changing Face of Beauty
From Greta Garbo to Kate Hudson, How Beauty Has Changed in America

The article says that while classic beauties were popular before, quirkier, more “accessible” beauty is what Americans find attractive.

Which, of course, led me to consider what readers find attractive in heroines. If you’re Of A Certain Reading Age, you likely read a lot of those ’80s romances where the heroine was beyond gorgeous: Perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect teeth (!–we are reading about English people, remember). The thing that usually wasn’t perfect about them was how they didn’t know they were perfect. Or something lame and punting like that.

Now our heroines have flaws, flaws that make them more real: Their hair is too curly, their hips are too big, their mouths are too wide, their eyes are just plain brown, they are too short or too tall, or whatever. We, as readers, want to read about women who are like us, not perfect goddesses on pedestals.

What do you think our changing attitudes about beauty reveal about us? Do you find Angelina, the Jessicas, Jennifer, Megan F(ox)–not me!, Halle, et al stunning? What do you like about those old romances in terms of their heroines’ descriptions? What do you like about current heroines’ looks?

Thanks for your comments!


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14 years ago

A few months ago I went to the (American) Portrait Gallery which had an exhibit of paintings from the (British) Portrait Gallery. One of the more striking is of Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine and mistress of Charles II. She was considered a great beauty in her day but in 2008 we’d say her chin was too weak (not to mention the hint of a double one) and her features too small. Yet the portrait of Emma Hamilton showed a woman who’d be considered beautiful both then and now (which is probably why so many of her portraits grace book covers today). Beauty is so clearly in the eye of the beholder and that beholder can’t help but be affected by contemporary tastes, whatever time period is contemporary for him/her, even if one is not in complete agreement with them.

As for me, I don’t find Megan Fox attractive because there’s something very hard about her looks, at least in the photos I’ve seen. I do find Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Halle Berry, and Angelina Jolie beautiful. But I also love those faces that are beautiful in some lights and not beautiful in others, for example Sean Bean and Gina McKee (she played Irene in the recent remake of Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga”). Or Ciaran Hinds in “Ivanhoe”, where whenever he was on screen I had to fan myself but in “Munich” he had zip in terms of sex appeal. Because their faces are changeable they strike me as more alive and interesting than faces that may be more classically beautiful but, in the end, boring. However, I can’t explain this any more than I can explain why I like chocolate more than butterscotch; it’s just a fact of life.

Megan Frampton
14 years ago


I agree about Megan Fox, she does look hard. Angelina Jolie is almost too beautiful, she can be hard to look at.

I think Ava Gardner is the most beautiful woman ever, but I am biased towards women with dark hair (ahem!). Although Grace Kelly was STUNNING.

I like my heroines with some flaws, though. Not perfect.

I agree about the changeable faces, too. You know I am with you on Sean and Ciaran.

Tracy MacNish
14 years ago

Okay, I am like the ONLY person in the world who doesn’t get the Angelina Jolie thing. I think she’s got giant lips that look in perpetual need of lip balm. She truly looks to me as if she was kissing a hot curling iron, all swollen and peeling and dry.

And the rest of her? Skinny and meh. I also don’t like her veiny skull head with hair, but that seems to be a Hollywood problem not limited to just A.J.

And then again, I’d take Conan O’Brien over Brad Pitt, so it MIGHT just be me. Or not. I’m just saying.

But as to what we think is pretty now as opposed to then, I do think that so often we mix up allure with beauty – two things that are not mutually exclusive. Sexy and beautiful are not the same thing. We may look at a photo (or painting) and not understand why a certain woman was considered devastatingly beautiful, but we fail to remember that she was not the sum of her parts, but was a woman, with all the mystery that word implies.

For what it’s worth, I personally like beautiful heroines. I like reading about people who have things I don’t have, want things I may not want, and who look better than I look.

But then again, I see real beauty as a sort of flaw, and a compelling one, in the ways that a woman needs to overcome others’ reaction to and perception of her, and also the real trouble of figuring out who one is behind the facade of such physical perfection.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

A few months ago I went to the (American) Portrait Gallery which had an exhibit of paintings from the (British) Portrait Gallery.

Acck. I missed this, Susan!
I agree that Emma Hamilton would be considered a beauty today.

Tracy, I could have written your comment. ALL of it. From Angelina Jolie to Brad-girly-boy-Pitt to your take on beautiful heroines.

I love the fantasy of beautiful heroines, although I don’t mind a few imperfections to make them real.

And I just have to comment on the Gainsborough portrait of The Duchess of Devonshire, because I think she looks so beautiful in it. She can totally pull off that hat. What style! And what a figure. I’m sorry but Keira Knightley (whom I love) is just not going to be able to wear such a hat with her stick figure. Now Kate Winslet has the right Duchess of Devonshire body type.

Our ideal of beauty today is too hard for the average woman to reach, that model-thin, Keira Knightley figure. I’m glad that people like Jennifer Lopez are making curves fashionable again.

The Rubenesque figures don’t seem beautiful to me. Nor had Joan Crawford ever seemed beautiful to me. But Bette Davis, with the force of her personality, was beautiful to me.

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

Count me as yet another who doesn’t find Angelina Jolie beautiful or Brad Pitt attractive. I also don’t see what’s pretty about Gwyneth Paltrow or Uma Thurman–they just look funny to me.

Current/recent actresses I do find beautiful: Salma Hayek, Natalie Portman, Keri Russell. Nicole Kidman was absolutely luminous when she first became famous, but IMHO she’s had too much work done and looks kinda strange and brittle now. And Jenna Fischer from The Office isn’t quite beautiful, but she’s extremely pretty. I’d say the same of Tina Fey.

Going back in time, I love Katharine Hepburn’s face. She’s not the most beautiful actress ever, but she has such a strong, distinctive face.

One thing I noticed as I thought about which women I think are beautiful is that there’s not as much room for flaws as in my idea of a sexy man. I actually *want* a man to have a feature or two that’s too prominent or kinda quirky. E.g. looking at presidential candidates, I think Obama is much more attractive than Edwards precisely because he’s lanky and has sticky-out ears and isn’t quite so conventionally handsome. And going back in time, I don’t think I’d find the Duke of Wellington quite so handsome if he didn’t have pretty much the most prominent nose ever. But none of the women on my list have anything like Obama ears or a Wellington nose.

14 years ago

Sorry to hear that you missed the exhibit from the National Portrait Gallery in London, but that just means you have to plan a trip to the UK in the near future. Count it as a business expense — you need to research period-appropriate concepts of beauty for your next book.

14 years ago

My idea of a beautiful heroine is not shaped by the actresses of today but of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Myrna Loy and Greer Garson all hold me in thrall and not one of them looks like the other.

And there’s just something about Judy Garland that makes you stop and turn back again.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

LOL! I’ve actually been reading a book that is (somewhat) relevant to this post, Simon Doonan’s “Eccentric Glamour.” He talks about how eccentricity (a la women like Tilda Swinton and Lucy Liu, among many others) is the antidote to all the plastic-y sameyness of people like Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson. I confess I do love a great eccentric. 🙂

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Most beautiful woman ever? Vivian Leigh

I also think Charlize Theron is very beautiful.

14 years ago

Well, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow both work for me. 🙂 Probably for me the most beautiful actress of comparatively recent years is Michelle Pfeiffer–I remember being really struck by it when I watched Ladyhawke, and thought “Wow, she is almost supernaturally beautiful!”

Diane wrote:

Our ideal of beauty today is too hard for the average woman to reach, that model-thin, Keira Knightley figure. I’m glad that people like Jennifer Lopez are making curves fashionable again.

Ahem. Not to bash the vagaries of fashion, or for that matter to bash Keira Knightley, who is a truly beautiful woman–but I somehow think that for most men, curves will never go out of style. 🙂


Mallory Pickerloy
14 years ago

I find beauty IS in the eye of the beholder. But I perfer the Classic Actresses any day over the modern women today. Though I do really like Nicole Kidman (who to me is classic) and some others. And even though Audrey Hepburn and the likes of Vivian Leigh, Katherine Hepburn and Grace Kelley are thin-(Like I)-they DO have alluring slender curves, and look great in their clothes. That I find ‘really’ apealing. I think the reason why is because it’s a personal thing. But, I think I can relate to thin or not, being made fun of on the weight issue. Because it’s hurtful to be downsized on any weight. But I love beautifully flawless women on the outside and flawless in the inside for a Heroine. I also find it’s myth on teeth things of us blasted English, cause none in my family have bad teeth, 😉 And to me, women come in all shapes and sizes and are still a woman no matter what and beautiful. 🙂

14 years ago

Great topic!

To me, the most beautiful woman ever was Marilyn Monroe. That’s just my taste – I get grossed out when a romance hero talks about the heroine being “boyishly slim”. Marilyn was a size 12 and she could knock your socks off.

I like the fantasy of the beautiful heroine, but I detest the heroine who has gone through life clueless about her beauty. Beautiful people know it full well – it’s how they deal with it that’s interesting.

Jolie and Pitt are gorgeous, as are all those great old Hollywood actresses (love the braless Jean Harlow pic.) The one I don’t get is Lindsay Lohan – apparently, according to the male sex, she has sex appeal. I can’t see it. There are some women who appeal strictly to men.

14 years ago

Catherine Deneuve

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