Literary Pet Peeves: Describing People with Food

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

[This may or may not be successful post series, but I had an idea, let’s give this a try.]

In researching how to respectfully describe characters of color, I’ve encountered many voices saying “Don’t use food-related words for anything about them, especially hair, skin, or eye color.” (I’m paraphrasing from several sources, but as this concept is not at all my idea, here are a few to check out.)

That got me thinking about how common food is as a descriptor for people in general, and in more ways that the color of any given body part. Heck, I grew up with the term “pear-shaped” as an acceptable way to denote my body type, and the older I get and the more I read, the more irritated I am at the constant likening of people to food, even outside of racist connotations.

I don’t want to be “pear-shaped” anymore, not in reality, but in the way another writer might describe me or a character resembling me.

One of the worst offenders I’ve seen is the old, tired “her breasts were like apples.” I’ve seen it in older fiction, I’ve seen it in modern romance novels; I’ve seen it from male and female authors alike. This one in particular irritates me to no end because I’m immediately pulled out of the story every time I encounter it, by the image of an otherwise flat-chested woman with two red apples stuck to the front of her. I’ve never seen a breast that looks even remotely like an apple.

This vague idea I had for writing a “no food words” post was sharpened by a recent Tumblr thread about the “just-pressed olive oil” description of a character in Song of Achilles, which I have not read. The author mounts a compelling defense of her intentions in using it, and how it relates to ancient perception of color: totally worth the read. But I can’t help but think, much like apple boobies, that it’s such a jarring image that it’s not helpful in the story and doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to do. (Its “silliness” is a complaint I found in several reviews of the book that turned up when I was trying to find the post I remembered seeing and hadn’t saved.)

Where am I going with this? Well, mostly spouting off about how I’ve grown to think that nobody should be described with food terminology. What food color would my own skin be, anyway? Under-done bread? The lightest part of a tortilla? Nah, neither of those are pink enough–I’m really pale, which means I generally look pink or even red, thanks, sunburn/rosacea. I can’t think of a single flattering way to liken my skin to food, though I’m less insulted by “wheat-colored” hair for my blonde-ness.

You don’t have to take my advice to heart, of course. (I do suggest you listen to the people of color telling you not to compare them to food, still.) But the other aspect of this is that it’s so common, and it’s so easy, that even when it’s not done in a racist way, it’s still lazy! Why describe your characters the same way everyone else does? Why not stretch yourself to do something different by not relying on simple food comparisons?

Rant over, at least until next time I have a new literary pet peeve, with sources, to gripe about.