I can’t imagine writing for teens and not paying attention to my characters’ appearance. Body image is such an important concern for them that it's not realistic that a teen character wouldn’t feel the same. However, the amount of detail given to a character’s physical traits varies widely according to genre. The participants in a wilderness survival story, for example, are probably more concerned with staying alive than the condition of their hair.
Fashion reporting is not one of my strengths, as I discovered with Fairest of Them All. My main character Oribella is all about hair, clothes, and make-up, but my descriptions in the draft MTV bought weren’t detailed enough to pass my editor's inspection. Here’s my original description of Oribella’s dress for the Crowning Glory Beauty Pageant:
I gasp at my reflection in the watery mirror. The opalescent fabric molds to my figure making each of my curves shimmer. As I turn from side to side, the color changes from pale rose to mauve to the blue of an evening sky. The gown’s straps are so tiny they’re almost invisible. Mom says no strapless gowns until I’m sixteen, but this is almost as good.
I thought it was good enough, but my editor wasn’t satisfied. I couldn’t picture the gown until I sketched it and transcribed what I saw. This is the version in the book:
I gasp at my reflection in the wavy mirror. The full-length gown flows like a silken waterfall from my bust to just above my toes. Tiny tucks cinch in my waist so that it looks impossibly small. Below the waist, the tucks unfurl into a rippling skirt that’s slim-fitting but loose enough to allow me to walk without ruining the lines of the gown. The opalescent fabric molds to my figure making each of my curves shimmer. As I turn from side to side, the color changes from pale rose to mauve to the blue of an evening sky. The bodice is cut to show a hint of cleavage, and the silver chains sliding over my shoulders are so tiny they’re almost invisible. Mom says no strapless gowns until I turn sixteen next year, but this is almost as good.
Characters Aspen and Laurel in A & L Do Summer are about as different as best friends can be. Flirtatious, curvy Chicago native Laurel likes to show off her shape in low cut tops and up-to-there shorts as we see in the outfit she wears to a graduation party for Aspen’s brother:
Laurel pulls a lip gloss from the pocket of her white denim shorts and adjusts her red V-neck tank top. Her earrings are vertical chains of three gold hearts, and a tiny diamond sparkles from the heart-shaped gold locket dangling in her cleavage. If I had cleavage like hers, my locket would be in the shape of an arrow pointing at it.
When the girls attend a barn party later in the story, their outfits not only reflect their personalities but the way other teens treat them. Here Aspen comments on the reactions of Wynter and Tessa, two party girls who give them a ride to the country:
They’re all smiles at Laurel, complementing her low-rise denim shorts, yellow halter top, and the brown henna swan above her shoulder blade. The cloak of invisibility hides my navy tee, khaki shorts, and me.
Appearance, of course, goes much deeper than hairstyle and clothing. The main character in my work-in-progress is seventeen, overweight, and unhappy with her appearance. Not an unusual situation among teen girls. So I was stunned by the reactions of my female writing friends who read an early draft. They made comments like, “Exactly how big is she--size 12, 14, 16?” and “Don’t make her too fat or it’s not realistic that a boy would like her.”
There couldn’t have been a better indicator of how obsessed women are with our bodies. My agent had a different take on it. Her feeling was that teen girls who are on the chubby side would like reading about someone like them. And the idea that a boy can’t be attracted to a heavy girl is ludicrous. Just look around, and you’ll see that isn’t the case at all. So my main character is staying chubby, and my writing friends will have to deal with it.