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Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008

The Beauty Myth

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The measure of beauty may vary over time, but our zealous search for physical perfection remains decidedly intact—aided by modern techniques that can zap our unwanted features into obscurity. A new anthology of short stories for young adults edited by Mount Mary College professorAnn Angelturns accepted notions of beauty on their head. Such a Pretty Face includes contributions by both established and emerging writers who approach beauty from various perspectives: some merging fantasy and reality, others treading the fine line between pathos and humor.

Why do you write for young adults?

I think there’s a lot more experimentation with adult literature than with any other literature. I think that’s why Persepoliswas winning awards for young adult books… Part of the reason I write for young adults is that I like to experiment with writing. My short stories and novels often have a different sort of structure, my characterization is extremely internal… A lot of my fiction is considered crossover, but that’s a really good place to be.

Why did you choose beauty as a theme for Such a Pretty Face?

I have four kids—all four are adopted. And I was thinking when we as infants see our parents’ faces we’re probably looking at someone who has our eyes or our nose or our cheekbones. We’re a mixed-race family, so when my kids are looking in the mirror they don’t see the reflection of their parents they bonded to, they see a stranger’s face… Even looking at their siblings they don’t see a reflection of themselves. And I worried when they hit high school that some of their body-image issues were about them opening up magazines and not seeing pictures of people who looked like them, and looking in the mirror and not seeing their family reflected back… I wanted to write something that went beyond the pages of magazines.

Why an anthology of stories by contributing authors and not your own?

I wanted as broad a spectrum of what the definition of beauty is as possible. I wanted to have young adults look at what the unwritten rules for the beautiful are… I wanted young adults to understand their beauty may be subtle but still glorious, and also understand they can write their own rules for beauty. And as I put it together I began to realize how much our definition of beauty plays into our attitudes toward power and toward bullying. There’s only two stories where characters are confident of their own beauty—in one that character is isolated and in the other the character chooses to disguise it because she wants to be known for more.

What makes this a good book for young adults?

Teaching women of all ages, what I’m discovering is that where a lot of their pain comes from is their teen years—years when their identity was formed and their self-esteem may have taken a battering. After the incident that occurs [in my introduction]…I stopped caring what others thought of me, but it didn’t make my teen years easier…

How do you prevent transformative moments like this from sounding too facile?

With the introduction I was hoping to leave readers with a sense that if they can start to redefine their own definition of beauty that they will at least become more individual and they will have more power—and that I do think happened to me. I think it empowered me.

There are about four male contributors and the rest are women. Do you think men are as hostage to the idea of beauty as women?

I think there’s a male version of beauty: in being the jock, in being the guy who looks like an Abercrombie model. There’s a hierarchy similar to the female hierarchy and it’s strength, agility, handsomeness, fitting in… I think beauty is one of the first things we rate first off, whether we’re male or female… And often teenagers go through a stage where they’re extremely judgmental about beauty, and men and women suffer equally.

What’s your favorite beauty myth?

Oh, I think the one where the beautiful girl gets the prince and lives happily ever after is my favorite myth to ridicule!

Ann Angel will be one of many authors taking part in the Author Mania event at Martha Merrell’s Books (231 W. Main St., Waukesha) on Nov. 23. On Feb. 3, 2009, she will be part of a free public panel discussion hosted by Mount Mary College titled “Writers Writing About Their Passions: Art, Fashion and Feminism.”

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