Beauty and Book Covers

Last week at work, I posted a nice little behind-the-scenes look at what goes into the making of some of our book covers, along with our lineup of fall books.

Photoshoot

One woman on Facebook shared it with her friends, which you’d think would be great.

Except this was the caption she put on it: ““If only I were as beautiful as the women on covers of Christian novels. Perfect skin. Perfect eye brows. Perfect shape. Beautiful clothes. What is the perfect outside of the women on the covers saying to the women who buy these books?”

Now, when something like this happens you can either A. ignore it or B. launch an ethical investigation.

(If you didn’t instantly know which option I chose, we need to be better friends. Because it matters, guys. What you believe about stuff—the whys and what ifs and rights and wrongs of daily life—they are significant.)

Is Bethany House doing a terrible thing by portraying attractive people on our covers? My instinct was “no,” but I wasn’t sure why. After all, the issue didn’t seem that different from Barbie dolls and fashion magazines that have chipped away at women’s sense of self-worth and beauty.

Recently, I was reading a book where, after citing an unofficial survey that found that only 10% of women on Christian book covers came close to being average, the author said, “Glaringly obvious is that Christian culture…has chosen to present some of the same values as secular culture with just a little alteration. For sure, youth and looks matter, at least by implication. And they seem at times to matter more than what is in the heart and soul.”

So, are Christian novel covers undoing all the hard work we do to teach young girls about inward beauty and such?

 

If you have not heard this verse a few thousand times, you are not a female who grew up in the church.

If you have not heard this verse a few thousand times, you are not a female who grew up in the church.

No, I don’t think so. And here are a few reasons why.

Reason One: It’s not about the image alone.

If you were to actually read the books, you would find that there’s a lot more to these people than a pretty face. Several, such as the heroines of A Beauty So Rare and A Bride in Store, are actually described as plain. Even with the natural beauties, the reason we like them is not because they have flawless skin and good hair, it’s because they are generous or brave or loyal or selfless. Book covers are about getting your attention enough to get you into the books themselves—something I think can be valuable and life changing.

We joke at cover meetings: a "plain" woman on one of our covers means her hair isn't as fancy and her facial expression is more serious. But really.

We joke at cover meetings: a “plain” woman on one of our covers means her hair isn’t as fancy and her facial expression is more serious. But really.

Magazine covers are also about getting your attention—but what’s inside those covers is probably fairly shallow and, unlike novels, often reinforces the stereotypes that outward beauty is all that matters. (Also, celebrities are typically not good role models.)

Reason Two: The models are characters instead of props.

One thing that upsets me about photoshoots or commercials with scantily clad women is that that the models are basically sexual objects. They can be holding whatever pose the directors choose, as long as they look sexy. That’s the only goal.

Obviously, that’s not the goal with Christian book covers, where the standards for modesty are pretty high. But, more importantly, I think, the cover models are more like actors—they’re supposed to convey certain emotions, tell a story with their expression and placement. They are characters meant to attract your attention to something good—wondering about the plot of the book and who those characters are—instead of objects meant to attract your attention to, let’s be real, plain ol’ lust.

Reason Three: It’s okay to appreciate beauty.

In the Christian culture I think we’ve overreacted to the extreme that says that physical beauty is the end-all. We’ve swerved to the point where we try to minimize physical beauty, are uncomfortable accepting compliments, and sometimes have difficulty talking about issues of attraction and sexuality.

But we were made to appreciate beauty. I think that God is okay with attractive models on our book covers—and they might even bring glory to him and his creative power.

And that's my ethical/theological justification for why book covers are different from fashion magazines.

And that’s my ethical/theological justification for why book covers are different from fashion magazines.

Now, notice one of the reasons I didn’t give: “It’s all about how you react to the images. If you dwell on feelings of inadequacy and compare yourselves to the cover models, it’s not healthy. But that’s your choice. The covers themselves are entirely neutral.”

I don’t actually think that’s true.

The fact that book covers portray only attractive people does have a bias. It’s not neutral. It shows that we value physical attractiveness as a way to gain attention from book buyers.

And for some people, especially those who worry about young girls comparing themselves to an above-average standard of beauty, this is a problem. I understand the struggle. I really do.

But I don’t think the answer is to stop putting attractive models on the covers. Because saying that it’s wrong for covers to portray only beautiful people is like saying that a ballet shouldn’t have only graceful dancers, or that Harvard is sinning by admitting only intelligent students. They are choosing the people who work best for that specific purpose (not the people who are the most valuable—that’s an important distinction).

The advice I’d give our Facebook poster? Instead of slamming Christian book covers, read the books themselves and love the characters for more than what they are on the outside. Let those attractive cover models be attractive without comparing yourself to them.

And remember: your value is not in whether you’d be chosen for a book cover (or the varsity volleyball team or the school musical or the Employee of the Month). Your value is in Christ.

If we miss that, it doesn’t matter what our book covers look like—we’ll always feel like we’re somehow inadequate. We will never be enough if God isn’t enough for us.

Am I going to post this on the Bethany House blog? No, probably not. There’s only so much controversy you can incite on company social media. But it’s something to think about.

Agree? Disagree? (It’s really okay if you do…I’d love to hear some other opinions on this. Especially since, as I admitted earlier, I do have a significant bias here.)

5 comments

  1. Well written, Amy. You have made excellent points. Unfortunately, no one, or very few, would buy books if I, for instance, were pictured on the cover. That’s just how it is. But it doesn’t hurt my feelings or make me feel inadequate. I know better.

  2. First off, I just finished a very intense workout, so my thoughts might not be entirely… well, thought out (for instance I just misspelled both entirely and instance 😛 ) .

    I very much liked this post. I can’t think what else to say in compliment of it… it was very thought provoking.
    I’m tired and my brain is dead. 😛

    I personally was never bothered by book covers with pretty people on them, as long as they at least have the same hair color as the main character.
    I can see why some people might be though, but I think they just have to look at it in perspective. I am to tired to describe a certain perspective they should look at it in right now, however, so I simply refer them to this blog post.

    1. Nope, you completely made sense to me! Sometimes the people who are bothered by book cover models are really reacting to something different: the lie that outward beauty is all that matters. And of course that’s not good. So sometimes these conversations are hard to have without anyone getting mad.

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