Lookism and Physiognomy in Children’s Fiction

Physiognomy is the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his outer appearance, especially the face.


There are plenty of books about this subject, which encourages readers to judge people based on how they look. (Here’s a list on Goodreads.)

If you read classic children’s literature you’ll encounter descriptions of character which exist not only to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, but to encourage the reader to make inferences about their personality.

I’m not talking about the really old stuff, though. Looks haven’t always been important. You don’t find many physical descriptions in ancient dramas. It’s found rarely in the epics. Authors started going on about looks around the time of the classic novel. This coincided with the pseudoscience of physiognomy and phrenology (the shape of the cranium).

For instance, Anne Shirley has red hair. (Actually orange?)

A robin’s red breast is actually orange. But English didn’t have a separate word for the colour orange until the fruits became familiar to English speakers in the 16th century—and because the name REDBREAST dates back to the mid 1400s, it is older than the word ORANGE itself.


This also explains why we say ‘red hair’.

To modern readers (even in an age of red-head discrimination), Anne’s hatred of her hair seems extreme. But when the book was written, red hair in women was still somewhat connected to witchcraft. Anne Shirley’s fictional counterparts would indeed have been judging Anne based on the colour of her hair.

Anne Shirley played by Megan Follows

“You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair,” said Anne reproachfully. “People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is.”

Anne of Green Gables

People with red hair are still judged today: I’ve heard it said that red-headed people have ‘hot tempers’, as if pigmentation could somehow influence brain chemistry.

Contemporary writers of fiction are less likely to rely on the tenets of physiognomy when describing the appearance of their characters. (But we do have our own set of contemporary biases, which will become more and more apparent as time goes by.)

Contemporary fiction is less likely to include a ‘block description’ of a character at the beginning of a story, as if describing a photo. Modern authors tend to focus on a single trait (such as Harry Potter’s scar) and then build on it, embedding further description into the story.

Some questions to consider

  1. In modern children’s fiction, does beauty correlate with goodness, or vice versa?
  2. Are people of colour more likely to be depicted doing certain things?
  3. Are there ways creators of picturebooks can avoid teaching children to judge others based on physical appearance? (One common way is to depict animals, not people. Are there others?)
  4. In children’s fiction, which physical characteristics are associated with ‘evil’? And with ‘goodness’?
  5. Think of some modern children’s books you have read. What were the distinguishing physical characteristics of the main characters?
  6. Is there a general difference between the way girls and boys are described in children’s fiction?
  7. Where a character is not described, what sorts of things do we assume about them? What colour is their skin, for example?



There are various ways of trying to work people out from various different things that people do. Handwriting is another faux-psychological way of working a person out.