Beauty in Books

We all know that magazines distort teen girls’ perception of beauty, but lately I’ve been asking myself, do books do the same thing? After all, you can only read so many books about a blond bombshell before you start to wonder if blondes, in reality, have more fun.

It was time for an experiment.*

I tallied the physical characteristics of female protagonists in 50 bestselling YA books that came out in 2012**. (I was going to do 100, but wow did I underestimate how long this project would take! Just imagine the amount of research required to find out the eye color, hair color, hair length and ethnicity of girls in 50 different books… Yeah …)

Just for giggles, I made an image of what your typical YA heroine would look like if you combined all the percentages.

Here’s how it all broke down:

Hair length: ALL of the female protagonists had long hair except for 2. That’s it folks. (Kudos to John Green who’s Fault in Our Stars had a girl with short, black hair. Way to show diversity John!)

What surprised me? Only one, (ONE!) book had a female protagonist who was not white. I mean, wowzers people. (Not surprisingly? The author of that book was not white – see Prodigy by Marie Lu).

But here’s where things got interesting.

Usually in books where the heroine was described as “ordinary looking“, she was a brunette. In books where she was described as “beautiful” or “pretty” she was twice as likely to be blonde or a redhead – interesting, no? The exact same trend reared its ugly head when eye color was concerned. Brown eyes were reserved for ordinary characters, and pretty people had blue or green eyes. (One heroine even had violet eyes, ooh la la! Oh yeah, one character also had violet hair, and I couldn’t figure out her natural color. Go figure.)

So, do authors contribute to the trend of stereotyping beauty? Short answer. Yes. Long answer. Ummm, still yes.

Blond, blue eyed beauties were quite common in YA bestsellers, while brunette girls with brown eyes were often regulated to “almost pretty”. Ouch.

Why is this interesting to me? Teen girls come in all shapes, sizes and colors. To box our characters into neat stereotypical boxes does an injustice to the many wonderful people and nationalities that God has placed on this earth. I’m not saying you’re a bad person if your story happens to be about a white girl with brown hair (Umm, yeah, the book I’m working on now is just this. I’m just as guilty as everyone else). I’m just saying that as writers, we should be celebrating differences and bringing attention to the issues faced by everyday teens everywhere. It’s a little biased for authors to claim that amazing stories and adventures only happen to pretty people. What kind of a world would that be? Not one I’d want to live in. As a result of my study, I’m planning to add more diversity into my work and not contribute to such stereotypes of “brunette is average” and “blonde is beautiful”.

Am I alone in thinking this or have you noticed this in your reading? I’m not sure if authors can take all the blame (several factors are determined when publishing a book) but what can we do about it?

*My methods weren’t 100% scientific, I’m sure. I may have even made mistakes Feel free to hate on me for that.
** I took all books from a Goodreads list of 2012 bestsellers. To see which books I included in my survey, click here.

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  1. I haven't really noticed it because usually I imagine the character outside their description, or even due to the description. I know some show did a test run of blondes and brunettes and which one got helped more when in need of help. And more men helped the blonde. So there is some truth to that saying.

  2. I'm often like Laura and imagine the characters outside of their descriptions. I guess I have a rebellious brain. In my WIP, the exotic beauty is a brunette (though her eyes are blue) and the more plain girl is the blonde (with gray eyes). Of course, this has nothing to do with the fact that I dyed my hair darker recently. Nothing at all…

  3. Interesting … and sadly, not surprising. That is one of the reasons why my WIP involves a character that breaks all of these stereotypes.

  4. This is fascinating, thank you for sharing. As a brunette myself, I wonder what it says about us that brunettes have been sketched as the "more ordinary" girls. 😉 While these things aren't necessarily character-defining, depending on the book, I have noticed these types of trends. Often, I find the best character descriptions are those which never spell out whether the character is ravishingly beautiful or startlingly pretty; if there's a love interest, it hopefully seems as though they fall in love with the girl owing to her beauty of mind and character (as it should be!). Thank you for this!
    ps. I just noticed: you mention only one non-white protagonist, but is CINDER not populated with non-white characters? Just wondering. 🙂

    • I wasn't really too sure how to classify that one, you know, because of the whole cyborg thing … I actually haven't read it myself and was just going off of what I could find for the female protagonists description. Do I have it wrong? (Totally possible, like I said, it was hard to research this all).

    • Cinder was described as having pale skin and fine, light-brown hair. Even her stepsister Peony's hair was described as "chestnut," I think.

  5. Oh yeah, I came across this because I want to write a high fantasy book – and in ALL high fantasy books, the beautiful women are ALWAYS RED-HAIRED. I don't know why. I guess because red and blond hair are rarer than dark hair, which is why people value them more highly? Same with blue eyes. Great post!

    • Ha, that is EXACTLY what made me start looking into this. It seemed like every heroine had "fiery red hair and emerald green eyes". If you compare the percentages, red-headed heroines are 3x more likely to occur in books than gingers in real life.

  6. Interesting post! I usually picture characters differently than they're described by the author. Guess I'm not the only one.

    My main character does have long blonde hair and brown eyes, but I don't go into much detail about her looks.

    I like the way you think, Tiana! Thanks for sharing this experiment with us. 🙂

  7. Wow – interesting study. I personally make all my characters have dark hair because I think of blond people as pale and sickly and darked haired people as vibrant and multifaceted. I just read The Girl of Fire and Thorns – great book – the heroine was so refreshing. She was latina so of course she had dark hair, and she was overweight. Loved her character. I'm currently writing a modern latina character and she has dark hair and is pretty, but I have a secondary character who is blond and gorgeous, but a little overweight. I don't know if I'm falling into a stereotype or not. It's weird but I hardly notice if characters are blond because if I like them, I imagine them to be like me – brown hair with blue eyes.

  8. I know you weren't doing this study about race, but this is reality: Most people who read young adult books are white. It's easier for them to identify with the main character if that character looks like them or their circle of friends. There is nothing wrong with this.

    Minorities who read young adult novels are used to seeing white people around them, and have no problem reading about white main characters.

    I have written a number of novel manuscripts. The main characters are mostly white. One of them has a Japanese main character. It's science fiction, and that's more accepted in that genre, but I'm thinking of changing him into a white guy with partial Japanese heritage. This is reality, if I want it to sell. Please don't bother to give me kind replies about how I need to stick with my choices. I choose to sell.

    So why not write a fantasy with a red-haired main character, her cheery blonde sidekick, and an evil female protagonist with dark hair and a widow's peak? Make it easy for your audience to understand. And buy.

    • Hi Mark – I won't give you placid replies about sticking with your choices, but I will say that I think differently than you do. Here's why: I don't think that minorities are any less likely to sell. As a white girl, I actually love reading about characters who are different from me. Yes, sometimes we like to read about someone with whom we can identify, BUT we also read to explore new worlds, experience new things and escape our reality. I've been reading a series about with a Chinese main character (The Mary Quinn Mysteries) and I love it precisely BECAUSE the character is different from me.

    • "It's easier for them to identify with the main character if that character looks like them or their circle of friends." I hear this all the time like it's truth, but I've never seen the research to back it up.

      And there's plenty out there that says its bull. I think it's more difficult to argue the books side of things because, as even this comments section shows, people's brains often alter what they think a character looks like. But movies and TV, there it's a little harder for the audience to erase race there. Just think a moment: Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. These weren't shows popular only with black viewers; they were watched by *everyone* in such a culturally pervasive way that you would get characters on other shows insisting they could miss The Cosby Show on Thursday night.

      Of course, these are older shows. And I don't think it's hard to argue that television and movies have gotten whiter, especially in terms of protagonists. But it's not because viewers couldn't relate and so didn't watch. That's the excuse executives like to put forward, but it's more like a self-fulfilled prophecy.

      People can relate to cartoon *penguins*. I really don't think race is that much of a stretch for them.

    • "People can relate to cartoon *penguins*" <– LOL. When you put it that way, I think you're right. People relate to experiences, not skin color.

      Also, it's interesting that you think T.V. shows and movies have gotten whiter – I think a lot of people would argue with you there, but since I actually don't even watch T.V. (I know, I know, I'm old-fashioned) and I hardly ever watch movies now that the baby has come along, I'm not sure of recent data on this subject.

    • I suppose I should have said "at least in terms of protagonists" rather than "especially." Because that was the main thing I had noticed; that the majority of shows have a white lead/s, and that the number of shows with a POC lead has gone down. Someday I should actually crunch numbers on it.

  9. Interesting post. That seemed like a lot of research! But it doesn't surprise me. I think people write about people who look like themselves or the society that they live in. I'm black and so my characters usually reflect that. I don't think I will be writing a protagonist with blonde hair and blue eyes anytime soon — but my supporting characters could fit that description.

    I have to disagree with Mark's post though. As a teen, I would have LOVED to have read characters who looked like me and would like to see more diversity in YA. This is why a lot of my friends in high school stopped reading books because they couldn't connect with the main characters so they did have a problem with it.

    However, I don't think the answer is for white authors to purposely write about non-white characters — you should be able to write about what you want and not just put a certain character in to "diversify" — that isn't the solution.

    The basic truth is that the author diversity isn't there and this is why you see the trends.

  10. This is a really interesting post! I tend to write characters as true to image in my head as I can. But when I'm reading, I see what I want to see, not what's written – usually. I've found that if the description of a character is buried further into the book than the first chapter or so, I've already got a picture of them in my head, and I can't change that to meet the author's description.

    I agree with Karen: "However, I don't think the answer is for white authors to purposely write about non-white characters — you should be able to write about what you want and not just put a certain character in to "diversify" — that isn't the solution. The basic truth is that the author diversity isn't there and this is why you see the trends."

    She's right on – we have to write the stories of our hearts and the characters as we see them. However, if we writers only see characters who look just like us ALL the time, maybe we should ask ourselves why that is.

    Great work on this breakdown! It must have taken forever!

    • Daisy and Karen – I think you both bring up an excellent point about how authors shouldn't add diversity just for diversity's sake. I guess the better response would be to write what we know, BUT, don't shy away from writing the reality just because it doesn't fit standard stereotypes. It seems like a lot of people responding to this post mentioned how they view the characters the way they want anyway. The way I typically handle it is to provide as little description as possible, so that my readers can picture the characters however they want.

    • Very smart technique. Just use a few bell-ringing details, and let the reader's mind fill in the rest.

  11. This is a very interesting study! I agree that diversity shouldn't be added just for the sake of it and what you added about not shying away from reality because it doesn't fit the stereotype makes a lot of sense. Diversity must fit the characters and the setting and the story. Oddly enough, I never get a really good image of how my protags look physically when I write them (so far anyway).

    Excellent post. I loved your protagonist too. 🙂

  12. Thanks for the study! I'd been seeing the same thing, which frustrated me enough to change the ethnicity of the heroine in my WIP. I think part of the problem is that most authors are white. It falls into the "right what you know" hole. I'm really struggling with writing about a Latina. I just don't have the background knowledge to write about someone from another culture.

  13. I'm always confused by people who say 'I don't have the background and/or knowledge to write about someone from another culture/race' as if someone from a different race/culture is from another freaking planet. It's…not…that…hard. And quite frankly it's a cop out to seclude yourself in a world where the characters are only white.

    If any of you have seen Merlin:UK, Queen Guinevere is of Afro-British descent, and that quite clearly is an attempt to diversify just for the sake of diversity. A good thing in my opinion. It was brilliant executed and she is just a normal person who happens to have darker skin and is the love of King Arthur's life. Diversity can make books so much more interesting which is why out of my main characters – one is of Asian descent, another is of African descent and three are of Caucasian descent.

    Re: Writing a character as a blank slate which a reader fills in is an interesting technique. Not sure how well that would work though. I tend to imagine my characters in a certain way based on their actions but I still need some kind of a description to get a sense of who they are.

  14. This really needs to be an article in Writers Digest or another of the industry magazines. Kudo's!! An interesting side question could be….would you change the description of your main character from being a Latino girl with short black hair and hazel eyes, to a caucasian girl with blonde hair and blue eyes…if it meant a potential 25% increase in book sales? Hmmmmmmm?

  15. I have to agree with Karen. I think that if a typical white author wrote a story about a modern black youth, there is potential for that character to seem unrealistic to actual black youth who read the story. I don't know that racial culture is such a big deal with historical fiction or scifi/fantasy, since none of us know what such characters would be like.

    That's not to say that someone can't write a character of a different race than themselves. Every author has different strengths. I think Karen got to a big part of the issue when she mentioned a lack of diversity among authors. Of course, this is all based on personal opinion.

  16. I haven't had the pleasure of being an author yet. However, as a minority reader and aspiring writer, I do enjoy reading novels that are multicultural. Someone previously stated that authors write what they know. A Caucasian author wouldn't "accurately depict someone of different race." This struck me. As writers, our best quality is imagination and creativity.In simply writing books for myself and friends, I've created at least five characters who are different than my darker skin, brown eyes, and shorter hair.Any writer can take a different route by embracing themselves in the targeted culture. I don't think the problem is the ability to write the unknown. I really appreciated your article. Thank you for sharing!

    • I think it's interesting how some people think that writing about a different culture would be hard, while others think it should be fairly easy. I'm not really sure where I stand on this aspect yet. On one hand, yes we can use our imaginations and write about the unknown, but also, would readers be able to tell that you have no idea what you're talking about? I'm not sure. I guess it depends on your writing style and how "deep" you go into that other culture. If all you're changing is the skin and hair color, then it wouldn't take much. But then it might seem like you're throwing in diversity for diversity's sake, and I do think that different races experience the culture around them differently, which would mean you would need to change more than just their coloring. Does that make sense?

    • I've read some really wonderful books by white authors that featured characters of other races. Julie of the Wolves (Jean Craighead George) and The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (Nancy Farmer) are two of my favorites. (There's also anything by Ursula LeGuin, but her stories aren't actually based in known cultures.) I don't know whether Julie or Tendai read as "real" to members of their respective ethnicities, but if so I'd suggest them as positive examples. There are also the children in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game— I think only two of the six main characters are white?

      Of course, these are all older books, so you have to wonder if there's a modern tendency toward greater whiteness in published literature. As a Whitey McWhiterson, I can't really say.

  17. Interesting demographic study! I haven't read The Fault in our Stars yet, but in POSSESSION (yeah, I wrote that book), my MC has short black hair too.

  18. My protag is blonde AND ordinary looking. Because honestly, most blondes are ordinary looking. But I have no idea what her eye-color is, and I'm not planning on mentioning it, because… it doesn't matter. It's just some genetic anomaly that gives us weird colored eyes instead of normal horse and rabbit brown. But I'm pretty sure they're not violet! (That would be freaky! Though I always think about Shizuru from Mai-Hime when I think about oddly colored eyes, crimson red, the color of blood… not getting much creepier than that.)

    One thing about the whole not being able to write other races because you don't know the culture – if you're writing fantasy, this is complete BS. Make up your own culture! (And don't exoticize exploitatively!) I have a reason for my protag to be blonde – because it's a parody. But if it wasn't I would be spitting on myself for being so boring and predictable.

    Be less boring, people. And get real. Real isn't 100% white. (I'm pasty and I'm still not 100% white. History happens, and it's a crazy, awesome thing to look at. Go look at it.)

  19. How did I miss this post???? *smacks head*

    Tiana, I love your posts because they're so thought-provoking. How fun is this??? I loooove the charts you made up. And a secret part of me loves the results because I'm a red head, LOL. But this *is* interesting… this is something I've never thought of… and in fact, I've lived my whole life wishing I had dark hair and dark eyes… they're so beautiful to me, so my opinion is opposite of the results, LOL.

    I'm not one to purposely write in diversity just for diversity—my characters have an essence and I try to portray that to the best of my ability. They are who they are from the start. Though in movies, don't you sometimes laugh because you can tell each ethnic diversity is there just for those reasons?

    Anyway, getting off topic, but I found this fascinating and very entertaining 😀

  20. This is FAB, I'm so glad someone finally did a study on this! I'd also be interested to see what would happen with protagonists' first names.

  21. I found a site about a girl trying to get thin several months back and it made me stop and think about characters I was writing. Do all the guys have six pack abs while the girls are all beautiful. I've tried writing characters that aren't white and thin and beautiful. It's something I keep in mind when I'm developing a character. Hollywood helps perpetuate the stereotype I think. But books are part of the puzzle too.

  22. I'm trying to get my characters to be more of a mix. But I confess I've got a whole family line-up of characters with violet eyes, from great-grandmother to great-grandson. Black hair figures in the family a lot too. But I'm thinking of these looks as the obvious outward sign of the rest of their family baggage. It's a fantasy and the first to combine the black hair and violet eyes is an evil witch.

    I'm of the generation who remembers the old show "Gentlemen Prefer Blonds." And when I first became interested in reading mysteries there was an unnerving tendency in a lot of books to kill off the wives in their late 30's and over, often so her husband could marry this perfectly sweet and gorgeous 20 year old. So I know this is a change we need to make. Especially in terms of finance. People are more likely to be drawn into a story that includes people like them. So the more types you can include, the more potential readers you may actually have.

  23. Wow Tiana–good thing you're a blonde haired, blue eyed beauty 🙂 I really found this interesting though. You are amazing and I hope you're doing well!

  24. interesting! break that mold, i say

  25. What were the books with red-heads in it?

    • WeaklingNo14 – It's been so long since I wrote this post, I'm not sure I remember! Of the books I *do* remember, here are a few for you to look into, but be warned, my memory might be wrong on some: City of Lost Souls, A Million Suns, Cursed, Between, Glitch, The Selection, Hidden, and Awake. Like I said though, I could be wrong, especially since my spreadsheet for this is on a different computer that I no longer use…

    • That's ok, thank you for what you can remember! I've just always wanted to be a red-head, so I try and read stories about them. Thanks!

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