The Physical Traits That Define Men and Women in Literature

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From The Pudding:

My book club was reading The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. In the middle of an otherwise unremarkable plot, we found a 35-page interlude about a highly attractive fairy, describing her body in minute, eye-rolling detail.

After slogging through that book, I began paying attention to similarly stereotyped descriptions of bodies in other books. Women are all soft thighs and red lips. Men, strong muscles and rough hands.

I was frustrated by this lazy writing. I want to read books that explore the full humanity of their characters, not stories that reduce both men and women to weak stereotypes of their gender.

Before getting too upset, I wanted to see if this approach to writing was as widespread as it seemed, or if I was succumbing to selective reading. Do authors really mention particular body parts more for men than for women? Are women’s bodies described using different adjectives than those attributed to men?

. . . .

Before we get into the results of the data analysis, let’s play a game to see how well you recognize gendered descriptions.

Here are several character descriptions from actual books. For each one, select whether you think it describes a man or a woman. 

(Screen Grab Only – The OP shows a series of images which you can associate with gender and gives you a score.)

We all have a mental model of how men’s and women’s bodies are described. People who answer the above quiz, on average, guess the correct gender 88% of the time.

Men and women do tend to be described in different ways. Let’s explore those trends more deeply through the data we collected.

. . . .

In other cases, that gaze is more lascivious. Consider this litany of woman-skewed body parts: hip, belly, waist, and thigh.

You don’t need a Bible verse to imagine why these might come to mind more easily for a woman than a man.

. . . .

Some of my absolute favorite books growing up were the Harry Potter series. I particularly identified with Hermione Granger, a bushy-haired know-it-all, just like me.

Hermione’s friends didn’t consider her beautiful until the fourth installment in the series, when she tamed her hair with magical products.

When I read this as a preteen, I felt embarrassed by my own curly head of hair. I’d absorbed the idea that “bushy” was not an attractive way to be described, especially for a woman.

Link to the rest, including many other hand-drawn illustrations, at The Pudding

12 thoughts on “The Physical Traits That Define Men and Women in Literature”

    • This reminds me of those Homeric epithets, where a goddess or some woman is described as “cow-eyed.”

      I never thought of cows as having eyes remarkable enough to warrant using them as a compliment or an insult. Not like “pig-eyed” or “eagle-eyed.” The description just makes me say “huh.”

        • I’ve used “doe-eyed!” Mostly thinking of Bambi, I admit. But in real life, I’ve never managed to get close enough to any deer to assess if their eyes look as sweet and innocent as the expression is defined.

          For cows, I only saw them up close on school trips when I was a child. “Cow-eyed” is a reminder that people used to be much, much closer to nature than now.

  1. Oh my. What’s a writer who’s describing a living Neanderthal to do? The women have large brows and broad noses. And strong backs. And muscular thighs! 

    Back to the chisel and rock wall.

    • Lol! That might be a model of pulchritude.

      More seriously, who’s doing the description? Another neanderthal? A denisovan? A Sapiens sapiens? Might give you a chance to mess with the reader’s expectations.

      • Lol! That might be a model of pulchritude.

        Exactly. And from different perspectives. Lots of ‘messing with’ going on. Am having a lot of fun with it. Neanderthals are hot these days. And I’m the King of the Niche! ;-)))

    • There are still plenty of cultures on Earth where the women aren’t the sylphs of the fashion world (the camera puts on pounds; they can be skeletal in person).

      Broad = strong is a different standard of beauty – but it is not an inferior one.

      • Except broad does not equal strong. My daughter has always done demanding sports – trapeze for nine years as a child, then jitsu at university, and now bouldering twice a week. She is very strong, with a 26″ waist.

        Fat is bad for your power to weight ratio.

        • Your daughter doesn’t sound as if she comes from one of those cultures I was commenting about. I hope she is healthy, strong, and happy for her body type and choice of lifestyle – not someone else’s ideals.

          I wish I could do any sports at all, but I’m not allowed aerobic, and can’t walk or stand without pain, so I’m kind of doing the best I can with what I have.

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