Beauty and the beholder

1valchloesmall Anne here, dipping into the question box again. RevMelinda asked about the concept of beauty:  how important is it that a hero/heroine be physically attractive?  What other character traits/meanings does beauty (or lack thereof) communicate to the reader?  What were historical standards of beauty and how do they differ from our own time? And how do you mediate this for the reader?

An interesting set of questions, RevMelinda. (And for this you've won a book from me.)

A glance at various portraits through the ages of the beauties of their times will show how perceptions of beauty have changed dramatically over time. I might refer that part of the question to Wench Susan, who's rather better read in art history than I am.

For me, in my books, there's an important difference between beauty and attractiveness. I do try to make my hero and heroine very attractive — to the reader and also to each other. As a writer of romances, I'm aware that part of the appeal for readers of that they witness and to a degree participate in the progress of the central romance. So it's very important to me that readers get that sense of "coup de foudre" — that initial attraction that strikes like a thunderbolt— if there is one, that is.  It might not  be love at first sight, but it is noticing at first sight.

That said, it's an attraction as much of personality as looks. My heroes aren't always handsome, and not always physically perfect — I've had a fair share of wounded or damaged heroes. But they're always attractive, especially to the heroine, and I hope to the reader. As for heroines, my preference is for them not to be beautiful. 

Usually the first meeting of hero and heroine shows something significant about them, and is not so much about looks as attitude and maybe also situation.
I introduced one hero entering a ballroom thus: He stood out like a battle-scarred tomcat in a sea of well-fed tabbies. Separateness was a key to his personality, and a kind of theme in the book.

With my first book for Berkley, The Perfect Rake, beauty, or the lack of it, was a kind of theme. The heroine was the plain oldest daughter in a family of beauties, and her lack of beauty and her sisters' abundance of it fueled the plot.  The hero was charming more than handsome, and the heroine was beautiful only to him. In fact it was one of his most endearing characteristics that he never saw the plain girl that everyone else did.AG-PRake

Beauty is so subjective. 

I think it's important for characters to rise beyond their looks, and for looks to play a minimal part in their eventual fate. I hadn't expected to be asked to turn The Perfect Rake into the first book of a series, so it really was an accident — and not a very welcome one for me — that I ended up with 3 beautiful heroines for the next 3 books. Stunningly beautiful heroines were something very new to me as a writer. However when I thought about it, I realized that even beautiful women are often insecure and tend to focus on their faults instead of their beauty — I know; I used to teach at a girl's high school, and even the most stunning girls never thought of themselves as beautiful. Moreover these three heroines had been raised by a harsh grandfather, and each had their own vulnerabilities, and strengths that arose from that, which are far more interesting.

I remember reading in a script writing text once that "handsome" and "beautiful"  are impossible to act, and I now quote it to people who do my romance writing classes. Looks aren't generally the issue, character is. And those girls had plenty of character. And the right men saw beyond their looks to the character beneath.

Of course the pursuit of beauty is an age-old concern, and in some books I've included some home-made beauty recipes. I've had heroines apply crushed strawberries to their skin, place raw veal on it, and attempt to bleach freckles (which were regarded as a bad flaw) with lemon juice. In my first book I had the heroine making cold cream (which the hero, mistaking it for something edible, tastes before she can stop him.) 

"Are you trying to poison me?" He grimaced again and scrubbed at his mouth with his handkerchief. "What was that foul stuff anyway?"
"Spermacetti oil, white wax, almond oil," she said, between giggles. "I haven't yet added the lemon oil and lemon juice."
 He choked. "Spermacetti oil? You were planning to feed me whale oil? That's for burning in lamps!"

There are some recipes for home made cold cream here.

Beautymask  As a teenager I was fascinated by the various home-grown aids to beauty, so it was easy to incorporate them as needed into my books. Many of these are age old remedies and my guess is that most women have tried some of them at some stage.

There were lots of hair treatments, I remember. There was the egg wash, where you massaged a whole egg into your clean hair and left it for 15 minutes, rinsing out afterward with luke-warm water. I mustn't have rinsed it properly, as I remember that saturday walking to the station to catch a train and feeling the distinct waft of warm egg accompanying me. It wasn't as bad as the beer rinse. That promised thick glossy hair, and I went to some considerable trouble to sneak a glass of beer. The instructions said to let the beer dry in your hair, then rinse. After ten minutes in the sun, I smelled like a brewery so once again, I had to turn around, go home and scrub it all out.Beerrinse

I tried lemon rinses (good for blondes and oily hair) rosemary rinses, supposed to make it extra glossy, and vinegar rinses — they were all fine and smelled pleasant — even the vinegar.

As for the complexion,
lightly beaten egg white and a squeeze of lemon juice is excellent for refining and tightening the skin. Smooth honey, or yoghurt on your skin, leave it for a while and then wash it off with cool water — it leaves it feeling softer.  A face pack of oatmeal and lemon juice tightens and refines skin. I remember one time I made a little muslin bag that I filled with oatmeal and used it to wash my face every morning. There is no end to the home remedies people used, and I like to use them in my books when appropriate. In my current manuscript the the heroine keeps bees, so I'm incorporating some age-old uses of honey and beeswax. 


 I've also got lots of old recipes for home made medicines — some of which will curl your hair, I'm sure, if only metaphorically.  But I'll save them for another day.

So let's open the question to readers. How important is it to you that a hero/heroine be physically attractive?  What other character traits/meanings does beauty (or lack thereof) communicate to you?
And what home beauty remedies (if any) have you tried?