Sunday, April 13, 2014

On bodies and stuff

Have I mentioned that I read a lot? I read a lot.

Some of the things I read are romance novels (boo hiss! whatever), and I've noticed a trend, both in the descriptions and cover art.

Perfect boobs. Perfect abs. Perfect hair and faces and legs and skin and teeth.

I like a certain amount of wish-fulfillment in fiction. I like reading legal thrillers where a lawyer brilliantly tears down a witness, even though I know it (most likely) would not happen that way in real life. I like political thrillers where the protagonist somehow thinks through every angle and no one catches on until it's too late. Not every book has to be lyrical and real. Some of them are exciting and funny and scary, and that's fine.

But as a lady, I have to say ... I tire of reading about ladies who are a lot hotter than me, but written by other ladies who (most likely) look exactly like me.

I've written about the weird objectification of men in contemporary romance before, and I've wanted to write this post for a long time. Part of me feels weird about writing it now, because it seems like this is something that is universally accepted in the romance-writing community.

But I know that I'm a normal looking woman. My hair is sometimes really great, but I wear glasses almost always (because I like them) and I have cellulite on my thighs (which I don't like). It's not very fun writing a romance novel about a gal with a muffin top who gets winded running up three flights of stairs (*hangs head in shame*), but I would feel much weirder writing someone who was self-deprecatingly gorgeous and athletic knowing that I am not self-deprecatingly gorgeous or athletic. Like I wasn't confident enough in myself or women or girls who look like me if all I wrote about was women or girls who are photoshopped perfection.

I think it's fair to say that I am not alone in the "looks like a real human" boat. In fact, I can be pretty sure of that--we (aspiring and actual) writers all have avatars on our twitter, links to our instagram photos. We're normal looking! And that's awesome!

And I think we'd all agree that the media portrays women and girls in an unrealistic, unnatural way, which in turn gives real-life women and girls unrealistic and unhealthy views of how they OUGHT to look. We critique magazine covers and television and movies that are designed to hide any flaw a woman could possibly have, and we feel fine about that.

But then when it comes time to write a novel that will be primarily marketed to women, it's OK to talk about impossible good looks for paragraphs on end?

Fantasy is one thing, and it's applied to more  than just how a character looks. I mean, who really has a quippy comeback for every situation? But there comes a certain point where it just feels ... distasteful. (Clutched pearls alert! Distasteful!) I don't know where that line is--I assume it's in a different place for different readers and writers.

We talk about how it's important to represent characters of different races and characters with disabilities in fiction, and I think that is important. Probably more important than what I am currently harping about.

But I think writing about chubby women (who don't get a magical makeover before the finale) is important, too. Women who are short or tall (maybe even taller than their love interests?) with gap-toothed smiles or frizz-prone hair. And you know, maybe even writing female characters WITHOUT describing their legs, their hair, their boobs, or their eyes in exquisite detail.

For the record: I don't think that writers should feel obligated to write in a particular way. I don't think romance writers are more guilty of this than, say, thriller or sci-fi authors. (It's a truth universally acknowledged that perfect boobs seem to pop up in every genre.)

But given that romance is written primarily by women, for women, I do think it's worth questioning.


  1. I love this! It's something I definitely need to work on more as a writer. Like yourself I look real, with imperfections and a mom belly. There are times I feel beautiful and other times I feel blah. I also hate it when a character focuses too much on her looks, especially when she thinks she's butt ugly but all these boys seem to worship her. There has be a balance.

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  3. Great discussion! This reminds me of what Tina Fey said about the cast of 30 Rock in Bossypants: "I’ve never understood why every character being ‘hot’ was necessary for enjoying a TV show . . . I personally like a cast with a lot of different-shaped faces and weird little bodies and a diverse array of weak chins, because it helps me tell the characters apart."

    I've only recently realized that reading exclusively about good looking people can be as problematic as watching them when it struck me that when I think about or try to describe my own body, I often use words I picked up from fiction. Over the years I've moved from "rail thin" (like BSC's Stacy!), to willowy, to athletic and lithe, but now I've got a muffin top and no muscle definition to speak of and oh, crap, I'm out of words! I guess writers have been kind enough to give us "curvy," but I'm not actually curvy in the normal sense that anyone uses that term. I wonder if the way that I think about my body now would be different if I'd read about tall girls who are not also "athletic" or "willowy" when I was younger. I wonder how many tall girls would give shorter guys a chance if every romantic interest wasn't at least 6 feet tall. I don't think fiction writers are responsible for changing the way that men and women view their bodies, but I'd at least like to read about different looking characters for the sake of keeping it interesting, which brings us right back to Fey's point.

    1. Stacey!! Haha, I loved those books.

      Thanks for the comment -- I loved Bossypants and I think that quote sums up a lot of my thoughts. I'm not going to act like popular culture can change the fundamentals of what people what (which is pretty people), but I do think we should be critical of accepting it at face value.

      And there are tons of examples of YA books that portray non-"perfect" people in a pretty positive way -- ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS features a girl with a gap in her teeth and a short boyfriend (though both of them are described as very attractive) and ELEANOR AND PARK features an overweight girl. That being said, I think YA (generally) does a better job of that than adult fiction, primarily because YA authors are always aware that their books are for kids and so there's a greater awareness of these sort of issues. (And there's still a ton of YA that is just straight-up wish-fulfillment.)

      On the adult fiction side, I can't think of any books off the top of my head other than Michael Chabon's THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION that describes characters in a less-than-flattering way. Most either feature attractive characters in the lead or leave physical description to the imagination. (Though I'd be happy to be corrected! Like I said, this is just off the top of my head.)

  4. I've been reading a lot of YA lately and have noticed that the female protagonist is often average looking (though never overweight) but with a stunningly beautiful best friend. What is that all about?

    1. That's interesting ... I haven't noticed that myself (yet) but I guess it doesn't surprise me. I do think YA authors are better at remembering their audience is primarily made up of impressionable kids, but the beautiful friend thing is interesting. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that lots of teenage girls are prone to seeing the best in their friends, but not so much themselves? I don't think Teenage Me ever would have described my best friends as stunningly beautiful, but I did tend to think they were prettier than I was, when in reality we were all probably pretty similar.

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