The thing about beauty is… (Making Faces by Amy Harmon)

I have opted out of my BBRBF book club because it was too stressful. I read a lot anyway and I don’t read well on a schedule – but I still want to talk books with you and when I read Making faces I knew I wanted to talk about that. I read the Danish translation (sent to me by Lovebooks) and the Danish title translates to Fragile Beauty.

In many ways the book broke my heart. And I’m not even sure I took the things away from the book as the author intended. This is the teaser text from Goodreads:

Ambrose Young was beautiful. He was tall and muscular, with hair that touched his shoulders and eyes that burned right through you. The kind of beautiful that graced the covers of romance novels, and Fern Taylor would know. She’d been reading them since she was thirteen. But maybe because he was so beautiful he was never someone Fern thought she could have…until he wasn’t beautiful anymore.

Making Faces is the story of a small town where five young men go off to war, and only one comes back. It is the story of loss. Collective loss, individual loss, loss of beauty, loss of life, loss of identity. It is the tale of one girl’s love for a broken boy, and a wounded warrior’s love for an unremarkable girl. This is a story of friendship that overcomes heartache, heroism that defies the common definitions, and a modern tale of Beauty and the Beast where we discover that there is little beauty and a little beast in all of us.

But what I read was a heart breaking tale of how obsessed we are with beauty and how we brainwash children from an early age to believe that without beauty they are worth less. We all know the trope from stories and songs: The girl is more beautiful and valuable when she doesn’t know she’s beautiful. It makes me sick to be honest. To be turned on by low self esteem is just gross, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t teach your kids that. And stop putting such emphasis on beauty. We are horrible to especially little girls. We keep praising them on physical appearance: pretty princess, beautiful, cute, angelic. While boys are clever and strong but also handsome, heartbreakers and good looking.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t call your kid beautiful but you’re praising them for something they have no control over, something arbitrary and basically useless. If they are not pretty by society’s cruel standards we notice that too. And that’s what happens to Fern, our heroine. She is not beautiful as a kid and she overhears her mum talking to a friend about how unattractive she is and how her life consequently will be. Her mother is not cruel. She is honest but it hurts Fern – because she has already learned that beauty is everything. But she grows up beautiful, not realizing it.

Ambrose on the other hand returns from the war broken, bruised and believing that no one will ever love him because he lost his beauty and believes Fern just takes pity on him. Honestly it made me furious. The stereotypical tropes were one thing. I didn’t read them as the what the author believes herself but as a symptom of our beauty obessed society. You know them: girls who grow up ugle have to develop a personality thus making them fun and natural and the ones boys really want to be with.

Which is problematic for quite a few reasons:

  1. Your life goal as a girl/woman is not to end up with a dude
  2. We’re the ones (grown ups, media etc) who fuck up the beautiful girls only praising them for being beautiful so if they grow up only focussed on that aspect of themselves it’s our fault!
  3. It’s bullshit although movies and a lot of books tell us otherwise – of course beautiful people can be both intelligent, fun and silly! But again we don’t look very far past the outside.

It may sound like I hated the book but I actually loved it! Because I read it the way I did – as a critique and a warning. You might read it another way but I do suggest you read it. It definitely made me think.


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