A Problem With Describing the Way a Person Looks

I’m having a problem with the modern English language. I’m working on a story. The characters in the story are seeing a Shemekia Copeland show. I gave the story out to some people for feedback and learned two things. First, no one I showed the story to knew who Shemekia Copeland was. That makes me sad. She’s really great. Everyone ought to check out her music. Second, I need more physical descriptions in the story. People told me they were having trouble picturing the scene.

I have since added some descriptions of the club where they saw the show, but I feel like I also need to add a description of Shemekia Copeland. This is where my problem comes from. I typically do not describe my characters’ physical appearance. This is so the readers can use their imaginations and fill in some details. If there’s an average guy, I want the reader to imagine whatever they think an average guy is. Same if there’s a pretty girl or a cute baby. I don’t want to impose my tastes on my readers. The exception to that is if there is a physical characteristic of one of the characters that matters for the story. As a result, I’m not really comfortable describing a person’s appearance. And that’s doubly true when I have to describe a woman. I become very aware that I’m not a woman and I’m terrified of writing something sexist.

This is where the English language fails me. Shemekia Copeland is a very attractive woman. But that’s not much of a description. It makes the point that I, or the main character, find her attractive. It says almost nothing about the way she looks. And, calling her attractive with no other description would be misleading because she doesn’t look like what is typically presented as attractive. She doesn’t look like a typical magazine cover model at all. There just aren’t really good words for an atypical beauty.

A lot of the words out there either sound like euphemisms for fat or they are focused almost entirely on a woman’s bosom. I’m thinking of words like curvy, full-figured, shapely, voluptuous, buxom, and other similar words. Voluptuous is probably the best of those, but when was the last time you heard someone say voluptuous to mean voluptuous? It’s either used as a nicer way of saying that someone is overweight or that someone has big boobs. Neither is what I’m trying to say.

With all the words that can be used to describe a woman who isn’t skinny, there’s implied judgement attached. The best I can come up with is something that says, “She’s attractive even though she’s not skinny.” I don’t like that “even though.” I want something that says that she’s attractive period. Something that doesn’t imply skinny at the same time.

There is a Yiddish word, zaftig, that kind of fits the bill. At least it doesn’t have the implied judgement built in. But I feel weird throwing in one Yiddish word. It doesn’t fit with the vocabulary throughout the rest of the story. Plus, I don’t think it’s a familiar enough word. If I send people to their dictionaries while reading my story, I feel like I’ve messed up.

I’m still undecided what I’m going to do. There are two reason Shemekia Copeland is even in the story, and neither has to do with the way she looks. One is that the real event that sparked the story was a Shemekia Copeland show that I saw with a couple friends, so it just feels natural using that as a setting. The other is that I want to get the point across that these characters are big music fans. They’re not going to see the latest pop star and they’re not going to see a legend. They’re seeing someone contemporary, who is good at what she does and isn’t a household name (Although she should be a household name.). I’m leaning towards dropping the physical description. But I’m going to struggle with it a little more and see what happens.

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