Hang around on any area of social media occupied by writers and you’re sure to see criticism of the way women are described in fiction. Not only women it’s important to note, but I’m a woman who writes women so I know something about it.
The most common flaw with describing women is sexualisation. There’s a huge number of in depth and poorly constructed descriptions of breasts, a peculiar notion that women dress solely to attract men and to be sexy, reoccurring language that isn’t only demeaning but disgusting too.
A large part of the problem comes down to language. It’s language that makes women fragile, sexualised, and often infantilised. It’s language that reduces female characters from fully rounded people to two-dimensional story puppets for the titillation of the male gaze. A common way to describe women, particularly ‘older’ women is ‘She was X years old but had the body of an eighteen year old’. It’s creepy. It suggests the writer has a perverse interest in teenage girls, it puts youth on a pedestal, implies all teenage girls look one way, and sexualises two groups of women in a disgusting way. Straight away a writer who uses such a phrase is telling the reader something pretty repulsive about their thoughts on women. If that woman is meant to be the male protagonist’s love interest there’s yet another level of ew, women readers are vomiting when they read that.
If we’re going to describe a woman physically we have to ask ourselves the same question we’d ask about every other character: Why? What is the context of this description? Casual? Professional? Sexual? Any one of these have another layer of context: How well do these characters know each other? Real life women don’t exist solely to be sexual fantasies so characters shouldn’t either. Women are colleagues, friends, students, they exist in different power relations to different people and entirely different emotional contexts. Descriptions should reflect this.
When we describe a woman when the characters first meet it should be different to describing them in an intimate or sexual situation. If a character is meeting their boss who’s a woman for the first time why are they mentioning breasts in a professional situation? We could mention that their suit seems upmarket, perhaps they have a briefcase or an armful of files, they could be on their phone taking a business call. All of these things would tell us something about this woman without sexualising her or even mentioning her body.
If these two characters are in a relationship and about to have sex then mentioning breasts would be fine, probably still not in depth, just because it’s a sex scene doesn’t stop physical description getting creepy. There are also plenty of ways to portray the beginnings of sexual attraction without being creepy. They could think the person they desire is beautiful, admire the sheen of their hair in the light, look away embarrassed when they catch their eye. All things that create the impression of sexual interest without sexualising and objectifying.
It’s also important to note that we can describe a woman’s clothes without sexualising her. Do we need a discussion of a woman’s tight jeans and how they grip her arse? No, especially. The majority of women’s clothes are designed to accentuate aspects of their bodies by the fashion industry not by the women wearing them. They brought clothes they like and think they look and feel good in, they didn’t buy them for random men to think their arse looks great in them.
This brings us on to another problem of describing women. Describing women from their own perspective and sexualising them is just as creepy as having another character sexualise them.
For example, when I say a woman chose her clothes to ‘look and feel good in’ this can simply mean they’re comfortable. Perhaps they like they colour because they think it suits them, they love the slogan on the t-shirt and it doesn’t matter if it suits them, or they’re favourite pyjamas are just bloody comfortable. Alternatively they might be wearing those clothes because it was all they could get that would fit them or all they could afford. When they’re putting their clothes on they might not even think about what they’re wearing and just throw on whatever they come to first.
Do women ever dress for other people? Sometimes, but this would be for a reason and not to tantalise all men. Perhaps she picked that outfit for her job interview because she thinks it looks professional but she’d rather wear jeans. However, this is still partly for herself because she really wants that job and wants to make the best impression. Maybe she did get dressed to look sexy for her partner (and this isn’t defined by a single definition of sexy). It might be their special date night and she’s hoping date night will lead to sex but, once again, this isn’t solely for the other person because she’s getting enjoyment out of it too. Both of these reasons are consensual choices, the latter would be a choice to be sexual, not her being sexualised.
Do women buy underwear to look sexy? Sometimes. They might buy sexy lingerie for sexy times, or they might just wear their everyday bra. Sexy lingerie is personal preference (a lot of it can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods) and no-one wants to start a period while wearing their best lacy underwear, it’ll probably be ruined. Most of the underwear women buy is practical, they need underwear like they need other clothes and practicality is a major factor. A lot of women will pick comfy underwear they like over sexy underwear for the sake of it. Once again we’re arriving at context and choice. The choice to wear sexy underwear to look sexy for a partner, or for themselves, is not the same as being sexualised. Would you write men wearing nut-scrunching underwear all the time? No? Then don’t write women wearing rib-digging bras all the time.
We’ve already discussed mirror scenes where characters take a long hard look at themselves, very literally. These are often used in the context of women to sexualise, disparage, and just be strange and creepy, often in all in one go. It’s not impossible that a woman might stand in front of a mirror and assess her appearance, but it’s not as common as fiction portrays and often not healthy. Even if a woman does this she’s unlikely to use strange descriptions of herself. For example, I saw a description once that had a woman describing her breasts as being ‘nicely separated’. What does that even mean? I asked some heterosexual men and they had no idea either.
If a woman is looking in a full length it’s more likely she’s fully clothed and deciding if she’s going to buy an outfit or checking before she goes out that she’s comfortable and everything is zipped up. A woman probably isn’t going to stand naked in front of a mirror for long unless she’s trying to see something she can’t see fully clothed and without a mirror, like a rash.
The naked mirror scene brings us back to breasts. I have read so many books where women are thinking about their breasts all the time, often ‘Damn, my boobs are sexy’. No. Just no. Women rarely think about their breasts unless there’s a reason for it. Discomfort is a primary one, loose under-wiring jabbing them in the chest, bumping their chest against something, or hormone related discomfort. It makes sense for breasts to be described a bit in a sex scene but a female character enjoying have her breasts touched is more likely to describe the sensation than her breasts. The character touching her breasts is probably more sensation based too, certainly not a contemplation of whether they’re nicely separated. Perhaps when thinking of describing breasts a writer should consider: Would they write a male character standing in front of a mirror describing his penis in depth?
A helpful list:
- Is the language you’re using appropriate? Eg. not creepy and disgusting
- Why is this character doing this? What’s their motivation?
- Are they choosing to be sexual or being sexualised? Why?
- Do they exist beyond a sexual context?
- Is this character a fully rounded person?
- How many words have you used to describe breasts, arse or body in general? Too many? Try again.
- Are they standing in front of a mirror giving in depth description? Try again.
- Does this description make any sense? ‘But I’m being metaphorical’ is not answer. Try again.
- Would you describe a man like this?
- Would you like to be described like this?
If your answer to the last question was ‘well, I’m not a woman’ try again.