Friday, May 14, 2010

physical stereotypes

by Barbara D'Amato

Patricia Cohen in an article in The New York Times books section [May 10, 2010] posed the question, For Crime, Is Anatomy Destiny?

Records from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries found that shorter men are twenty to thirty percent more likely to go to prison than taller men.

Not that physical shape causes criminality. I found it very interesting that while today being heavy is associated with a higher risk of prison, when Gregory N. Price and Howard Bodenhorn studied 19th century prison records they found higher body weight associated with a lower risk of crime. Back then, Cohen says, “brawn was an advantage.”

Cohen mentions that economists have shown each additional inch in height is associated with a 2 percent increase in earning. Employees rated as beautiful earn 5 percent an hour more than average and those rated plain 9 percent less.

Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw jokingly suggested taxing taller people more, saying that, controlling for gender, weight, and age, a six-foot-tall man earns $5,525 more per year than one five feet five inches.

Unattractive high school children receive lower grades and have more suspensions and more problems with teachers. It’s all chicken and egg, of course. Do less attractive students have lower self-esteem and therefore fail to make an effort, participate less, and therefore fail to develop social skills? Or are they penalized from the beginning for their appearance?

Physical appearance – and of course there are many more elements of stereotyping than height, weight, and beauty -- is a problem fiction writers constantly wrestle with. We are probably all aware of falling into too-obvious stereotyping traps or intentionally casting our characters “against type.” In descriptions, I tend to go very lean on physical characteristics because I like the reader to form his or her own picture of the characters from their actions and talk. But sometimes you just can’t avoid the physical description. My impression of fellow writers is that physical description is an area where we struggle a lot, rewrite, and question our decisions. I know I do.

1 comment:

Michael Dymmoch said...

Frequently, I get a mental picture of a character--usually inspired by someone I know or have seen somewhere--and that dictates the plot, level of violence, how the character speaks and reacts, etc. Occasionally, I'll manipulate the plot to include a particularly colorful character (e.g. Poke Salad Annie in The Death of Blue Mountain Cat, who was inspired by a woman on a bus).