A lot of us have at least something about our appearance that we’d like to change. That’s part of why the fitness, beauty, and pharmacy industries are as lucrative as they are. And there’s nothing at all wrong with choosing healthy foods or getting just the right haircut. After all, when you like the way you look, that can build confidence.
But it’s really refreshing to meet people who are, as the saying goes, comfortable in their own skins. Yes, it might be nice to be taller/shorter, a little younger, or perhaps have blue instead of brown eyes. But people who are at peace with themselves are content with the way they look. They don’t desperately try to be different, and that makes them more confident, interesting characters.
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, for instance, knows full well that she’s not a young, lithe beauty. And, yet, she doesn’t dye her hair, or spend lots of money on the latest beauty remedies. She keeps her appearance neat and clean, but she doesn’t obsess about what she looks like. And her age and comfort with herself gives her a certain confidence. On the surface, she’s everyone’s well-mannered, polite grandmother. But fans know that she has a razor-sharp mind and is confident enough in herself to be assertive when she needs to be. And that adds interest to her character.
Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe isn’t exactly ‘movie star’ attractive. As his partner, Archie Goodwin says, he weighs a seventh of a ton. Wolfe isn’t overly concerned about his appearance, though. He doesn’t dress in the latest fashion or spend a fortune on his hair or clothes. As fans know, there are a few novels in which he diets and (gasp!) exercises. But in the main, he’s not worried about losing weight or being on the ‘cutting edge’ of men’s fashion. He’s comfortable with the way he is, and he is utterly confident in himself – sometimes, as Archie would say, too confident. But Wolfe lives life on his own terms, with no attempt to look the way he’s ‘supposed to’ look.
Fans of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel can tell you that it’s much the same with him. He knows he’s wrong at times. But he’s confident in himself and comfortable in his own skin. He certainly doesn’t worry too much about how men are ‘supposed to’ look. He doesn’t spend a fortune on clothes, men’s cosmetics, or gym memberships. Instead, he accepts himself exactly the way he is. If others don’t like it, he doesn’t much mind.
The same is true of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker, who will be the first to tell you that she’s heavy. Here’s what she says about it, though:
‘I can’t afford to spend all day in self-loathing, as everyone expects fat women to do. Self-loathing eats your life. Being fat isn’t my fault or even my sin, despite what all those TV ads say. I was myself and that was what I was…’
She shares some wit about it, too:
‘I could not get that thin if I starved myself for ten years, and that is a fact. We are famine survivors, we fat women and ought to be valued for it. We must have been very useful when everyone else collapsed of starvation. We would have been able to sow the crops, feed the babies and keep the tribe alive until spring came. If you breed us out, what will you do when the bad times come again? At the very least, you could always eat us. I reckon I’d feed a family of six for a month.’
Chapman certainly has those moments we all do, where she’d like to have that beautiful outfit, or that perfect hair-and-makeup look. And she’s not what you’d call egotistical or arrogant. But she is confident and comfortable in her own skin.
So is Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty. She’s in her fifties, and she’s not exactly a magazine model lookalike. She likes her Johnnie Walker Black, and wears whatever’s comfortable. Her confidence is a real asset in her line of work, too. On the surface, she owns a legitimate sewing supply store. But she also has a ‘side business.’ Women who’ve been abused know that they can go to her for help evening the score. When she gets a new client, she pays a very uncomfortable visit to the abuser. If that’s not enough to teach him a lesson, she pays a second, even more unpleasant, visit. And she keeps track of her ‘parolees’ to make sure they stay on the proverbial straight and narrow. And after a visit from her, few of her ‘parolees’ want to fall afoul of her again. Hardesty knows that she’s not perfect, and she does make mistakes. But she is very comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t spend a lot of time obsessing about her appearance.
And that can be refreshing in a character. We all have our anxieties; that’s perfectly natural. And it’s normal to wish we had perfect hair, a sculpted body, or something else. But people who are content with what they look like and who they are tend to have a real sense of confidence. And that can be very appealing.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s Big, Blonde and Beautiful.