Friday, September 19, 2014

Foodskin descriptions

In a sample of a book on Amazon, I read that a character had “mocha skin”.

This didn’t make me close the window. I’m brown-skinned, but I don’t feel offended by these kinds of descriptions. But it did make a change in the way I was reading the book. Suddenly the enjoyment level had lowered, and instead I was alert for any further such descriptions.

Sure enough, there it was again. The second character with “mocha skin”. And at that point, I stopped reading.

I thought about this, and realized why foodskin descriptions don’t work for me.

1. They’re cliched.

Chocolate, caramel, mocha, coffee, cinnamon, hazelnut. Chances are, the description is going to involve one of these. I’m guessing if someone has Nutella skin, since this is both chocolate and hazelnut, it means this person has TWO brown parents.

The worst is from a blurb I once read:

…all he could think about was her long, slender, mocha colored legs wrapped high around his cream colored hips.

“Maybe they’ll have a frappucino colored baby,” I thought.

So if a book hits a note I’ve heard once too often, I’m going to subconsciously wonder if there are other tired, stale descriptions. This isn’t a frame of mind that lends itself to enjoying a story.

That said, if the book is amazing, I can overlook flaws. I love Gone with the Wind despite the portrayals of black people. But if an author hasn’t written the Great American Novel, it’s safer to correct mistakes.

2. They give me the impression the author is uncomfortable with the words “brown” or “black”.

This impression may be completely off. But it’s still what I come away with. These are disturbing words and therefore they need to be prettied up, or expressed in terms of synonyms.

I’m brown-skinned. I think of my skin as brown. It doesn’t offend me at all to be called brown. No need to reach for “tea” or “coconut” or “demerara sugar”. Just call me brown.


One writer said the reason she repeated “chocolate skin” was to emphasize to the readers that these characters were people of color. That was an admirable intention, but unfortunately it’s likely to turn off readers who are tired of such descriptions (or who notice that it’s never applied to white characters). Plus, if certain readers are determined to see characters as white-with-a-tan, then whatever you say doesn’t matter.

So you could find some less cliched description. Coppery or earth-dark skin sounds attractive to me, without the overuse/fetishizing factor of food.

Or just say black or brown.

Image from Creative Commons


Anonymous said...

I think a lot of it (at least why people go away from simple color descriptions and to object-based ones) is to make it more interesting and pretty for the reader, as well as being more specific as to the tone.

"Her hair was yellow" versus "Her hair was the color of honey". The latter might be a cliche, but the former is a bit boring. And the latter gives you more information, let's you know that it's a warm blonde instead of a cool ashy blonde.

There are only so many evocative items to use as references. They are cliche, I think, because they are well-known and work well. Does that mean we shouldn't use them?

Marian Perera said...

It's true that "mocha skin" (in theory) sounds prettier than "brown skin".

But in practice, if a description comes off as stale at best and offensive at worst, should the author keep using it because it's well-known?

And if it turns off readers, it's debatable as to whether the description is working well.

So just as we've moved away from describing eyes as "emerald orbs" (which must have sounded evocative and exciting - at first), I hope we'll also move away from foodskin descriptions.

Marian Perera said...

Oh, and if blond(e) people were offended by "Her hair was the color of honey", I would rethink this description.

If all the white characters had hair the color of cream, honey, brandy, lemonade, etc. but the characters of color had black or brown hair, I might also start noticing a pattern and wondering about it.

Unknown said...

Yea. I deffinitly agree with you on this one. I use things like mahogany or other earthier descriptions if I don't want to just use brown. Sometimes brown is right, sometimes more evocative descriptions sound better. But food ones are played out and really not as helpful as people seem to think.