I've been thinking about character descriptions lately. While I often struggle with describing my characters fully, and I often want to make them unique (not just your cookie-cutter thin, white, protagonist), the characteristics a writer gives a character not only shed light on that character, but on the writer and their audience as well. There is a lot of power in how we present heroes and heroines; writers shape the beliefs of readers, and can break down previously held ideas about what makes a person attractive, and what qualities help them succeed. At times, the tried and true forms of body shape, hair color, eye color, skin color, etc., is needed (especially if you are poking fun at a cliche), but most writers should try to break the molds presented to us from previous generations. As readers, we must also challenge what a writer has given us if it no longer rings true. Specifically, the representation of women has been historically skewed into body shapes and levels of attractiveness that do not apply to the average reader (and at times not even to the rare human).
So, recently I started reading a new series that I've had my eye on for a while. The series has been around for a while, it has lots of fans, and I really like the author (although this is the first time reading a book written by this person). I wouldn't say I had terribly high expectations, but for an urban fantasy book with a female main character, I had a few expectations about how the woman should be represented.
The character describes herself like so: "My upper body is slender, petite if you will, muscular and not bad to look at. Unfortunately, my legs are about five inches too short to ever be America's ideal legs. I will never have skinny thighs, nor anything short of muscular calves." Okay, I can picture that. She's short, fit, even muscular. I accept this description, but the page before the character says this: "I could bench press a hundred pounds, not bad, not bad at all. But when you only weigh a hundred and six, it puts you at a disadvantage." WHAT?!?!?!? 106??? Unless she is 4 feet tall, how can she possibly be muscular AND 106. The human body, if closer to 5 feet, would have to lose muscle mass, and a person's legs would be VERY skinny at 106.
Now I'm no doctor, even though I play one on TV, but that's how I see it. If you tell me your character is 106 lbs and not 4 feet tall or shorter, I assume they are wheel chair bound and their muscles have atrophied. Okay, so that's a little extreme. But I don't know any women who weigh that little, and don't have "skinny" thighs, unless this character suffers from body dysmorphia. Why even mention the weight? Why do we even describe women by these terms? None of the men in the book have described themselves by their weight, so why boil women down to a number (unrealistic or NOT) on a scale?
I will say that the book has been entertaining so far, and the series has sold millions of copies, so obviously this description is just a glitch in an otherwise interesting book. It's just something that made me think about characters, descriptions, and believability. I can accept that vampires exist in your world, that your character is awesome enough to kill them, but that she is only 106 lbs? Nope. You lost me. Maybe to some writers and readers it doesn't matter, but just as I hope to embrace characters of all backgrounds/circumstances, I also hope to bring characters to life that are believable in all aspects.