Sunday, October 29, 2006

why looks matter

Today I took an hour to get dressed. I labored over what sweater to wear, my hair and make-up. Was it for a lovely evening out with my husband? No.It was all for a school visit, in a wooded suburb of Upstate NY with a group of third graders.

And why so much care? Because the mother who arranged my event, the one who cut through all the bureaucratic red tape and offered to pay my fee from her own pocket, told me why she wanted me to come to her school so badly.

"Every year," she told me, "My daughter gets teased about being Chinese. She's the only one here and it's hard."

With those words, I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted all those third graders to see an Asian as gorgeously different and enviable, not alien and undesirable. Suddenly attractiveness became less about vanity and more about representation.

And that is why looks matter. Fair or not fair, they do. When I was a child, I wanted my princesses pretty and my witches ugly...and I wanted to be the princess. Blame Disney, blame the media, but the reality is kids want to be with the pretty people.

I think as authors we have an opportunity to show kids that people involved with books and literature are pretty people. I'm not saying we have to need to plastic Barbies or be size zeros; but we could show kids that bookworms and smarties are not nerds relegated to the corner but are real people that are bright and attractive. Because if we do, they just might look to us as role models instead of Paris Hilton.

And that's worth an hour of prep time.


Anonymous said...


Yes, I do agree and I would love to see a snapshot of how you put yourself together...You are young and easily imaginable in a lovely combo, but don't you think that an author can capture a child's imagination through force of personality? I have seen it happen.

How does one encourage children to think outside the usual boxes? I have no experience to draw upon, but I do love what Betsy James wrote about presenting in schools:

She said "Our job, I think, is to have a conversation with them. About why writing/art is what human being do, the way quacking is what ducks do. It's our nature.

"The more you can comfort them; the more you can let them know that what your're doing is a version of what they already do, the more you enable them to express themselves, be in the human conversation, be curious about others in their world and interact with those others."

(how about a snapshot?)

Anonymous said...


A Gorgeous Photo of you on this site:


Anna Alter said...

Hmm I have mixed feelings about this. I know looks matter in some ways, and see the importance of having a role model that reflects your heritage. That little girl is very lucky that you came to visit her class!

But I can't help but think we do kids more of a service by showing them that, regardless of how we conform to modern standards of beauty, authors can be interesting, funny and compelling. That pretty is not a requirement. Of course little girls want to be pretty (for the most part), we are fed the idea that happy people look a certain way from the time we are born. But kids will also respond to ideas and stories, writing and art...

I think we have the opportunity to show kids that people involved with books are fascinating people who do things that kids like to do. We are never going to outshine Paris Hilton when it comes to pretty. And I'm not sure I want to. She has her role in pop culture and we have ours.

But maybe I am an idealist!

Anna Alter said...

PS Grace I'm sure you would have won over those kids regardless, because you are a great speaker with beautiful books!

Grace Lin said...

Yes, I agree with all of you--I think an author can be compelling and a role model to kids without being "pretty". I just think it's a little bit easier if you are.(btw, I'm not saying I'm an archetype of beauty AT ALL, I'm just saying why I think it matters, and why I try to clean myself up for school visits--don't want you guys to start thinking I'm the vain stepmother in Snow White or anything..)

I guess what I'm trying to say--the hair, the makeup--I think it's important for that initial impression. The first time kids see an author is how they picture all "real authors" look like. And if they don't like what they see, most likely it's going to be hard to compel them and "authors" will suddenly be equated with unattractive.

BUT it's the moment you open your mouth that makes the lasting impression. It's what you say that can change their minds and transforms you into "author" to "someone I want to be like."

Which is why I disagree that we can't outshine Paris Hilton. If a child sees and meets a living author whom is brilliant and beautiful to them--it's a real role model they can cling onto. And when I say beautiful, it's the beauty of a real person--not a plastic Barbie. Libby made a great point in her post about what kids think is beautiful vs. what an adult being "pretty" might be requirement not as rigid as you think!