STnude11382555281.tifThree weeks ago the weather turned, and I opened my closet to find some light summer skirts. No such luck –  I’d put on weight, so the old ones didn’t fit, and the others were too heavy for humid 27 degree weather. So I went shopping. I chose a mall and went with an open mind and larger than usual budget – I’m in my thirties, I want fairly good quality that’s not going to break the bank, and I have a body shape that can be difficult to shop for, vertically challenged and horizontally inconsistent. So yeah, I wasn’t expecting to find $10 skirts.

After three hours I was ready to do my head in. I’d run the gamut from Walmart to the Bay to Banana Republic, but I was a victim of Fashion, which this year seems to be either maxi dresses or skirts that just barely cover the vulva. And when skirts did fit me, in size and style, they were asking for something outrageous. $90 for a flipping polyester skirt, which I damn well know was made in an overcrowded Cambodian factory? No way. So I did what I should have done from the start: I went to a secondhand store and got 4 skirts of different styles for $30.

I went home feeling a curious mixture of fury and elation. $30 including tax, for a variety of work-casual skirts of different cuts and colours? Major back pat. But that I could literally not find anything suiting my age, body type, and budget in a mall of over 100 stores? Enraging. And I am hardly at an extreme. I live above the poverty line. I am able. I am not “plus size”. I am neither young nor old.  All of that should, theoretically, allow me run of the mall. But in fact I was screwed because Fashion allows for all of that except the most important: choice.

That’s a curious thing to realize, because until that day I hadn’t realized exactly how limited my choices were. But unfortunately ready-to-wear fashion (whose trickle-down effect was succinctly detailed in “The Devil Wears Prada”) generally only ever caters to a very specific minority that skews small and skinny, and that offers very limited selections based on completely arbitrary trend-setters. Do retailers and designers actually realize how diverse the population is, and how different our tastes and needs are? “Nude” may be nude-like for a portion of the population, but for another group (like me) nude is, like, you know, just another colour. So I love designers that are normalizing difference and diversity, like the IZ Adaptive line designed solely for seated customers (first in the world, designed by a Canadian), or Louboutin’s nude pumps ranging in colour from “fair blush to rich chestnut”. (And still with a sickeningly vertiginous heel with no grip on the sole and no padding on the insole…but I digress.)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because after a year of diminished romance reading, I come back to them with a new perspective, and new judgments. One day I read about the umpteenth heroine’s porcelain skin, and glossy chestnut hair, curves in all the right places, and lashes resting against her cheekbones and concave stomach – and I found myself throwing the book across the room. It was too much. It was just too much. I couldn’t stand reading about yet another woman who was so fantastically good-looking and fit, because that’s all I seemed to be reading.

I’m not discriminating against women who do have some of those characteristics, or even all of them at once. Beautiful women deserve happiness too, and beneath the good genes are just people. And excellent authors write about beautiful women. But just as fashion provides for a very specific minority of women, while implicitly (and explicitly) telling you they are the ideal, with few exceptions romance novels provide happy endings only for the beautiful. Credit where it’s due – some romance novels have beautiful heroines who have unconventional or “average” looks, or find difficulties in accommodating to fashion and society; I’m thinking of Eloisa James’ The Ugly Duchess, or Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me. Other books make clear that beauty is found in conjunction with attraction, or when coupled with the realization that everyone truly is beautiful in their own way. These books are out there. I’ve read them. However, by the sheer number of romance novels (spanning different genres) I’ve flattened against the wall I have a huge suspicion that the vast majority of heroines represent an idea of attractiveness and beauty that is only found in a minority. Big eyes. Long lashes. Smooth skin. Thin. And if not thin, then bountiful curves. You know what I mean.

For years now people have been railing against the fashion industry for generally restricting our choices and perpetuating a limiting and unhealthy body image standard, to both men and women, and sometimes retailers take notice. I say many romance novels do the exact same thing in limiting our choice and perpetuating unhealthy expectations of beauty and love, except with a twist – as romance readers, we (and I fully include myself in this) have said that we recognize romance as fantasy, that we can separate it from reality, and that it is an escape.

In other words, we see it for what it is. We call bullshit. And yet we still keep reading them. Let’s face it – that’s kind of weird.

However, I also realize two things that have changed my reading field. The first is that I assume, initially, that the publishers are publishing what people are consuming because they think that’s what people want, and a vicious, repetitive cycle ensues. But what if that’s not actually what readers want? What if most romance readers would love to read about average (and above-average and below-average) people? What if romance novels featured heroines with cellulite and large pores and flabby underarms and large cheeks, and sex scenes that didn’t just feature “soft, pink flower petals”? (They don’t all look like pink flower petals, we’re told – very NSFW if you go there.) Would that actually completely destroy any thought of romance in our little fantasy world that can’t cope with anyone uglier than Marion Cotillard? Well, I think not, because millions of women who have all those characteristics and who are beautiful are living happily ever afters of their own. We’re smarter than that. We root for people defined by their actions, not their looks; if you took those away, publishers, we’d still be there I think.

The second is a limitation related to the first, and one that I need to rectify. The traditional publishers are dying, and for various reasons theirs are the only books I have recourse to currently; ten years ago this would have been the end of the road for me and romances. But I will assume (and hope) that self-published and independent authors are taking advantage of digital freedom and just writing and publishing whatever the hell they want, and finding an audience for their flabby-armed, love-handled heroines. Actually, even with the help of Big Six publishers they sometimes still manage to find their way out there: I had mixed feelings after finishing Meljean Brook’s serial novel The Kraken King, but I’m still buying it because a Mongolian/Ghostly Scarecrow couple needs financial support.

So am I going to stop reading romance novels? Nope. They’re fun and adventurous and the world-building is amazing and I love to read books devoted to the relationship between two partners who make it. But I’ve definitely grown beyond a limited ideal of beauty, and I’ve stopped reading the books, and authors, who do nothing but. There is a very long list of ex-favourites published by the Big Six whom I’m not reading again, or whom I will read once in a while only if I want a very narrow, focused vision of love.

With newer, less restrictive paths we do have a choice – I have a choice. And by god, I’m sticking with it.

– Jean AAR