I am glad you brought this up, Jennifer. I too used to think that it was important to include specific physical details about characters. I’m not even sure why I developed that thinking in the past. I’ve recently gotten hooked on the Scarpetta books by Patricia Cornwell. I’ve been paying close attention to how she describes and differentiates characters and their characteristics. I haven’t noticed eye color or height or dress styles or hair color/style or weight, etc. being blatantly singled out as important for understanding and being drawn to the characters. And I don’t miss these things. I find her a skilled writer and I am not having any difficulty picturing all of her characters and what makes them quite different from one another.
I remember recommending to a writer once that she could improve her characters by describing them physically. Fortunately, someone else (a great fiction editor) was involved and gently asked “Why?” It was an excellent moment for me because the writer’s characters were not evolving and coming through for other reasons that I couldn’t see at the time. Having my recommendation questioned by a very experienced fiction editor, and then having her help me understand her thinking, left a big impression on me and I was grateful. It actually led me to write a flash-fiction story in which I left so much to the imagination that you didn’t even know if the main character was male or female. It got honorable mention in a contest–which can seem a disappointment but it is really a compliment as well as a little kick to do better next time.