The Politics of Perfection
I just co-read a book with my high senior. I do this a lot and have done so with all my kids. I like to know what English teachers are using to reflect society, or as examples of good literature—pretty much the only reason to assign something to a lackadaisical fifteen to eighteen year old and force them to write a thoughtful essay, after all.
I’ve read some amazing books this way, and revisited many classics. I have a college degree in English Literature so I’ve done my time at the feet of Dante, Milton, Miller, Eyre, the usual suspects. And I have de- and re-constructed scenes from Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet more times than I care to count at this point. So I really love it when a kid comes home with something NEW.
This time it was a book called Invisible Monsters, by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, made famous by that movie with Brad Pitt and “the soap.” The premise is unique, as are all of his. A beautiful woman is disfigured by a gun shot wound, befriends a boy transforming himself surgically into a beautiful woman. In typical slightly mind-bending fashion, the narrative is disjointed on purpose, forcing you to think hard about just who is being described at various points within the compelling story. I won’t reveal the final “ah ha,” as that is a journey best experienced in person. However, as my daughter wrote her essay about this book I thought a lot about its basic premise: that society only truly accepts and “likes” people who are pleasing to the eye. That we are all somehow, some way pre-wired to reject anyone who looks “ugly,” or “fat,” or “old.” And, as a result, people are made to feel that they are somehow less worthy once judged that way.
I’m guilty of this, I will admit, both as a giver and receiver. As I approach the big Five-O my face looks it, my metabolism has slowed down, and I don’t like what I see in the mirror anymore. I haul myself to the hot yoga room and (recently) the boxing club to get my sorry, expanded butt back into a smaller jeans size. And daydream about what I’d do if I had unlimited use of Botox or a plastic surgeon.
I see people on television or in real life and catch myself thinking deprecating thoughts about them should they in any way be less than what society deems as “perfect.”
I also find myself, as an author and therefore with a certain amount of power over what is “acceptable” to my readers, describing my characters as “handsome,” “striking,” “strong,” “fit,” “compellingly beautiful.” I do shy away from talking about a woman’s actual dress size on purpose. However, it is pretty much assumed these women are on the single-digit side of the equation. As a purveyor of fiction to the world, I make things worse, by encouraging readers who are average looking, average sized or whatever to wish they were these striking, fit, compellingly beautiful people. Within the hard core romance genre, it is expected the “H/h” as we say, or the Hero and his heroine truly are to be admired by the size of bank accounts and the pleasing perfection of face and body. While there is a trend to make “curvy women,” or “ruben-esque” heroines more acceptable, which is interesting and useful no doubt, and I enjoy a hero described as “rough looking,” most readers extrapolate that into “ruggedly handsome” or in the case of the “curvy heroine” into just on the size 12 end of things.
Because, at the end of the day, we want our fantasies played out by people who look the part—who are thin, rich, handsome, gorgeous, with perfect hair and skin. There is nothing wrong with this, however, after my experience with Palahniuk’s book I’m thinking hard about just how much that is a requirement, no matter what genre we read.
I do show my characters working to get and keep themselves fit—all make an effort to exercise either to relieve stress or to just look good naked. But Invisible Monsters turns in on itself by the end and proves that the ideal outwardly perfect human is sometimes a shriveled unhappy soul wishing for ugliness, while the one striving for that very physical beauty by literally turning himself INTO the ideal woman, is the one self-aware enough to be content.
I’m not demanding or even suggesting that we all read (or write) books about people with bad teeth, zits, and muffin tops falling in love and having sex or whatever. But I know I am now personally challenged to reflect the ugliness inside of perfectly formed protagonists for what it is—perhaps even by having them look in the mirror and see only that—the ugliness, while every one around them only wants to experience their physical beauty. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how I view those around me, and myself, after reading this book.
My current project, the final novel of the Stewart Realty series deals with addiction in a young man who is one of those perfect physical specimens. And I plan to dig deep into his psyche, exploring what happens to a boy who, although with every seeming advantage on the outside, is miserable on the inside. Who, when he looks in the mirror only sees ugliness, while everyone around, including masses of women who adore him, claim him as the handsomest, strongest, most perfect lover they’ve ever met. There is one woman who won’t let him think that, who has grounded him for nearly his whole life. He rejects her over and over again, until he takes her, holds her close out of desperation to validate himself, and nearly destroys her in the process. How he ultimately emerges as a content adult remains to be seen and a lot happens in between to show the “sweet life” that he slowly rejects by his own behavior. But it will be mostly about love, and how those around you sometimes are your best anchor to your best self, whether you realize it or not. The woman with the destroyed jaw in Invisible Monsters figures that out, and that is the “ah ha” moment of the book—when she figures out that the newly constructed woman that is now her friend had been “with her” so to speak, all along.
(If I get this fan page to 5000 likes I will release an exclusive chapter from GOOD FAITH, the book I refer to above before it’s mid November release)