You can find romance novels that utilize the plain heroine trope, but let’s face it, beautiful heroes and heroines are the norm. It’s not hard to understand why. Humans are hard-wired to feel pleasure when we look at beautiful things, whether it’s a sparkly stone, brightly colored flower or perfectly symmetrical human face.
This natural attraction to beauty is reinforced and amplified by social conditioning that tells us the best and most important thing you can be is beautiful. Especially if you’re a women. As a result, most women go through life spending stupid amounts of time and money trying to be more beautiful, and if we don’t go through life chasing beauty we’re considered radical.
So with a starting point like that, is it any wonder we’re obsessed with beauty? Of course we want to read stories about gorgeous, powerful men falling in love with staggeringly beautiful women.
But in real life, how much does beauty really matter? I’m not talking about hygiene or basic grooming – they may be related to beauty, but they’re also related to health and confidence. I mean straight-up, what-you’re-born-with looks. Do you have to be beautiful to be attractive? To attract love?
A look around at people in the real world suggests no, you don’t. I have known more than a few men and women of below-average looks who are happily married or in loving, long-term relationships. Most of them had other qualities to recommend them – good humor, charm, kindness, a certain quirky je ne sais quoi.
In fact, scientific studies of such things seem to indicate that the better looking you are, the more likely you are to end up divorced. Some interpret that to mean that ugly people don’t have as many options when it comes to dating, so they don’t cheat or divorce. Pretty people, on the other hand, always know they can do just as good or better, so they don’t commit.
That could be the right explanation. Or it could be that when you’re beautiful, it’s more difficult for a potential partner to really see your character, your humanity. You’re like a sparkly stone – desirable for your sparkle alone. It’s only after your beauty has become mundane to someone that they can actually know you, and once the spell has worn off they may realize they don’t actually like you very much. Beauty is a distraction, a decoy, an obstacle to love rather than a precondition for it.
This is a dynamic I’ve seen up close. I’m rather average in the looks department, but I have had some extraordinarily beautiful friends, both male and female. The way they were objectified and their beauty fetishized cured me of any envy I might have felt early on in the relationship. It may seem like a wonderful fantasy to have every man fawning over you, but in fact it can be quite dehumanizing when you realize your boyfriend doesn’t see you as a person at all, but as an accessory and status symbol. A toy to show off.
At least when you’re average-looking, when someone likes you, you can be fairly sure they really like you, not just your prettiness.
I learned this lesson for myself, the hard way, in my early twenties. It’s a rather brief episode in my life, but one that left a lasting impression on my ideas about beauty and attraction.
I was traveling around India, and had just spent three days on a passenger ship to get to the Andaman Islands off the coast of Myanmar. While I was in the main town, Port Blair, I met two young men traveling together named Echo and Ono.
They were both ridiculously tall, in the 6’5-ish range (a weakness of mine), but that was where the similarity ended. Ono was skinny as a rail, with a big nose and brown eyes set too close together. He was also incredibly funny and clever, and the moment we met we clicked like a key in a lock. At dinner we couldn’t stop riffing off each other and laughing. The attraction between us was palpable.
On the other hand, Echo was quiet and soft-spoken. Where Ono crackled with intensity, Echo was gentle and dreamy. He was also unbelievably beautiful. Blonde, square-jawed and broad-chested, and with eyes the pale blue of glacial melt waters. To look at him was to be breathless and mesmerized.
Both of them were interested in getting in my pants. Not because I’m any great beauty, but probably because there was a shortage of young, available women on the island, and young men traveling are always interested in a quick fling when they can get it. The point is, I had my choice, and I chose Echo. It was the wrong choice.
Although I was attracted to Ono, when I realized Echo was also an option, it was like I couldn’t say no. I even remember thinking to myself, ‘I’ll never have the chance to sleep with anyone this beautiful again.’ And so I chose beauty over everything else: charm, humor, wit, intelligence and natural attraction.
The sex, needless to say, was totally unmemorable. I realized my mistake almost instantly.
I have, since then, fallen in love and out of love and joyfully back in love, so I can’t say I’ve spent my life pining over some skinny Dutch boy I met once on the other side of the world. But I have always regretted that choice. Always. And it has made me very leery of beauty. Beauty hijacks our senses, but ultimately that sensation of being overwhelmed by beauty is not real attraction, it’s not true love. It’s just beauty, doing to our senses what beauty does. It’s like being under the influence of a drug; the experience may feel profound, but really, it’s just chemicals in your brain.
It might also be one of the reasons that I love a romance with a plain hero or heroine. It’s hard to write a character who is alluring for reasons other than beauty, but, I think, truer to life. The people we fall in lust with, in love with, often attract us for reasons besides looks. The way they smell, the way they laugh, a certain look they get in their eyes. These things are subjective, personal; they create beauty where others see none.
I’m not saying you can’t enjoy your gorgeous characters. But I think it’s good to remember that in romance novels, beauty serves as a kind of stand-in or short-hand for the deeper, truer things that attract people to each other in real life. You don’t need to be beautiful to be sexually desirable or loveable, no matter what you may have been lead to believe. In fact, your chances for true love may be better if you aren’t quite so sparkly.