When you think of classic books, are you transported back to your English literature classroom; staring out the window whilst your teacher bored you with Shakespeare?
I can admit too, when I first started reading classic literature, I could not get my head around them. With the difficult words, and elaborate descriptions, I nearly gave up trying.
But before I threw all my toys out the pram, I tried one last time, and found classic characters that I connected too.
These characters helped me through a time of insecurity in my early teen years, and I could not believe how similar their struggles with beauty standards were to my own.
It made me wonder how come no one ever mentioned how relatable classic books were on insecurities?
So put your Florence Given books away and let me prove to you how relevant beauty standards in classic literature are to us.
The first character I am going to introduce you to is (drumroll please): The narrator from Rebecca!
The nameless narrator comes from the classic novel Rebecca, which was published in 1938 and written by Daphne Du Maurier.
The novel was fuelled by the author’s own insecurities; when Du Maurier found love letters shared between her husband and his dead ex- fiancé, it sparked the creation of the narrator.
The narrator is a timid, working-class girl who finds herself marrying a rich man called Maxim De Winter, and gains control over his magnificent estate: Manderley.
However, shortly after she finds herself stuck in another woman’s shadows, as everyone in Manderley seems to be obsessed with the previous dead wife- Rebecca.
Rebecca is everything the narrator thinks she lacks: beautiful, elegant and fierce.
Whether it is in her own head or the staff, she finds herself constantly stuck in a spider’s web of comparison.
‘But how is this relatable to me?’, I hear you ask, ‘I have never been haunted by my husband’s dead ex-wife?’
Well, while most of us have never had this experience, many women today struggle with the same insecurities that come from comparison.
Whilst the 1930s presented its own set of ideals, ours come from social media.
In recent years social media has turned into a playground for ‘influencers’ and ‘Instagram models’.
They gain thousands, sometimes even millions of followers from posting pics of themselves or their lifestyle.
While this sounds harmless, it has a knock-on effect, as people try to copy or keep up with the ‘perfect aesthetic’ faces they see all over Instagram.
A study conducted by the University of London found that 90% of women reported using a filter or editing their photos before posting to even out their skin tone, reshape their nose, or whiten their teeth.
Other women were quoted saying they felt, ‘overwhelmed by images online that are too perfect’.
Ruth Loten, 57, member of the Daphne Du Maurier website said: “When I read Rebecca as a teenager, I found it so relatable.
“I had serious body image issues as a teenager and became anorexic as a result. I see this happening more and more to younger girls, as there is more pressure on young girls today to conform to a particular body type.
“Consequently, I think the narrator’s insecurities about her physical appearance, compared to Rebecca’s, is a universal constant and therefore is just as relevant and relatable today as it was when the book was written.”
And these pressures are forcing some people to go under the knife in order to alter their appearance. Earlier this year, The Telegraph reported that more than 1.2 million people visited Turkey in 2022 for cheap cosmetic procedures.
Of this number, The Mirror found 324 people needed corrective surgery on the NHS following their return to the UK.
So, from these horrifying cases we hear of botched surgeries, why do people risk their lives for beauty?
Well, what better character to ask than Mr Dorian Gray.
This character is from the 1981 classic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, written by Oscar Wilde.
Whilst Gray does not fly to Turkey for a rhinoplasty, he does something a tad bit riskier, and sells his own soul so that his portrait will age instead of him.
But every time Gray committed a sinful deed to conceal his secret, it would show up grotesquely on the painting.
Gray hid the painting to ease his guilty conscience, but when his friend, the painter, found out about his secret, Gray murdered him and fell down a rabbit hole of lunacy.
All for the sake of beauty, eh?
Brian O Murchu, 54, moderator of The Oscar Wilde Appreciation Society, said: “This new obsession with cosmetic surgeries is very much relatable to the theme of Dorian Gray. It shows people’s willingness to experience pain of every description in order to hold back the ravages of time.
“Dorian sacrifices everything for beauty, and really becomes ‘the Devil incarnate’. Eventually Dorian cannot let go of the character in the painting, and it takes him over to the extent he is prepared to kill to keep his secret safe. This is the final corruption which happens to all ‘beautiful things’ which initially Dorian tried to avoid but failed.”
But we shouldn’t be quick to judge – sometimes adhering to society’s beauty standards is the only way people feel like they can ‘fit in’.
Take Eurocentric beauty standards, for example: they are a Western ideal that favours Caucasian features and undervalues other ethnicities.
And this is when inspirational characters such as Celie, come in handy.
Celie is from the 1983 novel The Colour Purple, written by Alice Walker, and she lives in Southern America as a young, black woman.
Living in South America as a young, black woman, Celie is sexually and physically abused by her stepfather. When she then marries Albert, the abuse continues, and she is constantly picked on about her looks.
At one point, her step father says: “She ain’t fresh, she’s spoiled, twice…she ugly, but she ain’t no stranger to hard work.”
However, Celie gains her confidence, and learns to use her voice and stands up, from her female friendships.
We see her transformation when she says to her abusive husband: “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly. But I’m here” – A stark contrast to the years of abuse she suffered without once saying a word.
Therefore, characters like Celie are so significant in classic literature history, as through her journey from insecurity to self-love, she teaches people never to let western ideals put you down.
And although classics might be labelled as ‘boring’, they have birthed some of the best characters of all time, who each have different stories to help readers understand more about themselves.
They teach us that we are not alone in struggling with insecurities, and that you only have to open a book, to see characters who feel the same way as we do.
If you liked this post then read Why our books need more black female leads, and five novels that do it well or Teen Sick-Lit: A genre of the greates loves turned greatest tragedies next.