Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's all about appearances...

Tonight we went out to a restaurant for dinner. Carmine's, in Chicago - highly recommended for Italian food, and boy, do my kids like seafood!

While I was there, I happened to watch a party of ten young women arrive at their table. The first thing they did after they sat was arrange their clothing, and the second thing they did was arrange their hair.

It was the hair I noticed most. Every girl at that table did a little touch-check before considering herself settled. The ones with long hair generally made sure all of it was behind their shoulders, and then some of them left it there, while others selected portions of it on either side to bring forward in front of their shoulders. With ten of them all doing this at once, it was quite striking.

I know I have a habit of pushing my hair back from my forehead, but if I ever did the shoulder front-or-back check I wasn't aware of it. Maybe these girls weren't either; or perhaps they were. But appearances are very, very important in human social groups.

At the Field Museum they have a little display, which consists of two statues of African women and a TV screen. One of the statues has her hair up in a big tall arrangement at the crest of her head, while the other has elaborate metal neck-rings that elongate her neck. The TV screen shows people - I'd say at least eight or ten from different Earth cultures - preparing their appearance as though getting ready to go out. Plucking eyebrows, shaving chins - or shaving heads, putting on makeup or skin decorations, brushing and arranging hair, adjusting clothing, etc., etc. It shows just a few seconds at a time from each person, scrolls through the group and then returns to them a little later in their toilette until they're all ready to go.

Much like the girls at the table, it's when you put it all together and juxtapose one against the other that it becomes striking.

Boy do we go to a lot of trouble.

I've seen a lot of appearance-related stuff in science fiction and fantasy. Often it's just a description of someone's appearance, or of how they prepare themselves in some way. Sometimes it's a description of how odd humans look.

I've done this myself.

But what I've noticed is that for me it's not entirely satisfying just to say "humans look funny with all those clothes." When you're working on appearance details for an unfamiliar group, first, remember to include key details - to say "she pulled her hair back with bone combs" rather than "she pulled her hair back." Second, try to remember why we put so much effort into our appearance. Yes, it's about attractiveness in general, but each part of what we do has a special meaning, and attractive to one group isn't the same as attractive for the other.

Try to get past the general value assignment, and closer to the principles behind those values. The goth goes for his or her look for a reason. Tattoos mean more to people than you might think. When my daughter wears her hair up I don't just think she looks pretty, but I also find somehow she looks a little older when I can see her whole face clearly - less like a toddler and more like a young girl.

Get into your character's head as he or she prepares for a day - or as he or she evaluates another character's appearance. There are rich opportunities there. Take advantage of them.


  1. Juliette, your description of the girls at the table is wonderfully funny, all the more, of course, because one can recognize oneself in it. Even I, blase about appearances as I usually am, have been known to do the hair patting thing, especially when I'm wearing it short, patting and tugging jacket and/or skirt, etc. Oddly, I never really thought about this behavior before, though it does tend to strike me as amusing or annoying in others. Yet again, I applaud your acute observation of the human condition.

    Have a good time at WesterCon.

  2. Thanks, Catreona.
    I'm excited about this weekend, but I'm going to have a busy week before it gets here!