Columns > Published on January 28th, 2016

Screw Your Resolution: 10 Dystopian Beauty Narratives

The winter months following the holiday season are a time for stoic contemplation and self-improvement for many. Eat more salad, develop a regular workout routine, drop five pounds; these are common resolutions made by thousands every January first. But why do we make these same resolutions, year after year? Whether fully dystopian or just disillusioned, these books will give you the perfect excuse to cancel that gym membership you'll only use for a month anyway.  

1. 'The Uglies Trilogy' by Scott Westerfeld

Westerfeld's early aughts YA trilogy depicts a society where everyone can be beautiful—it just takes a lot of surgery. When children come of age, they're expected to alter their appearance to their liking, as long as it's within a certain narrow set of approved parameters. It might not be the most intellectual discussion on body image, but the disturbing use of plastic surgery as capital punishment is fairly memorable. 

[amazon 978-1416936404]


2. 'You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine' by Alexandra Kleeman

Kleeman's debut novel follows two women, known only as 'A' and 'B.' A, who might actually be the same person as B, is dumped by her boyfriend after refusing to appear on a reality show and finds herself drawn into a bizarre junk food cult. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine explores the emotional and social impulses behind binging and purging. [LitReactor Review]

[amazon 978-0062388674]


3. 'The Age of Innocence' by Edith Wharton

This might seem like an odd inclusion, but Wharton's Pulitzer-winning novel of Old New York holds traces of many of the elements in a contemporary dystopian novel. There's the gradual awakening of protagonist Archer Newland to his flawed surroundings and society's iron grip on his destiny. An overwhelming concern for outward appearances permeates the characters' thoughts at all times and directs their every action. It's absolutely exhausting.

[amazon 9780375753206]


4. 'The Beauty' by Jeremy Haun and Jason A. Hurley

The Beauty is an ongoing comic series written by Jeremy Haun and published by Image Comics. A sexually transmitted disease with unusual side effects is spreading through the population. Catch it, and you'll become better-looking. Much better looking. Unsurprisingly, a good chunk of the population heard this news and promptly threw their condoms in the trash. Not a wonderful idea, as it turns out, since these diseased “Beauties” suddenly start dying all over the place in strange and complicated ways.

[amazon 978-1632155504]


5. 'Only Ever Yours' by Louise O'Neill

A bit like a YA version of The Handmaid's Tale, Only Ever Yours fiercely devotes itself to the ways in which beauty ideals limit the lives of women. Girls are raised to be the perfect companions to men, provided that they're chosen to be wives at the end of their training. If they're not, their only choice is to become either a concubine or a teacher. Why not just give this spot to The Handmaid's Tale? Well, I'm mentioning it now, aren't I? Go read both of them, if you have a mind.

[amazon 978-1623654542]


6. 'Belle Epoque' by Elizabeth Ross

Maude Pichon is a professional beauty foil. In other words, a plain girl hired to make the wealthy “companions” she is paired with seem more attractive by comparison. Humiliated and treated as somewhat less than human, it's not a job that she wants, but it is one that she needs to stay off the streets. Belle Epoque offers readers a unique and not often explored historical perspective.

[amazon 978-0385741477]


7. 'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison

Morrison navigates the difficult waters where beauty, conformity, and race intersect with characteristic grace. A short sample says as much as a summary:

"The master had said, 'You are ugly people.' They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. 'Yes,' they had said. 'You are right.' And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it."

[amazon 978-0307278449]


8. 'The Chrysalids' by John Wyndham

In his 1955 post-apocalyptic novel, Wyndham creates a society obsessed with weeding out “defectives.” Nobody knows what the exact definition of a defective is. You could even be a defective—you reading this, right now. All humans with significant physical variations are regarded as mutants, or “blasphemies” and are either destroyed or sterilized and banished.

[amazon 978-0141038469]


9. 'Dietland' by Sarai Walker

Plum Kettle believes that losing weight will change her current life, which she thinks of as a “before” picture. But instead of getting the weight-loss surgery she's been waiting for, Plum is pulled into a group of women who may be the force behind a guerrilla group of feminists known enigmatically as “Jennifer.” [LitReactor Review]

[amazon 978-0544373433]


10. 'Beauty' by Hubert and Keroscoet

There's apparently a bit of a theme going on with the titles here. I've recommended Hubert and Kerascoet's graphic novels in past reading lists, but Beauty is so perfectly executed that I couldn't leave it out. After rescuing a fairy, Coddie is gifted with a beauty so magnetic and poisonous that kingdoms fall around her feet. Beauty is a smart and dynamic treatment of the mythologized woman whose face launched a thousand ships.

[amazon 978-1561638949]

Do you have a resolution for 2016, or have you already tossed those aspirations to the wind? Let us know in the comments. 

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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