At the Back Fence Issue #238

September 18, 2006

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

The Weight Question

Back when I was a kid, black was considered a very sophisticated, New York/Jackie Kennedy/Audrey Hepburn type thing to wear. In spite of this few women in my mother’s circle wore it. Most would tell you it “washed them out,” ie made them look too pale, despite its slimming effect.

Nowadays I don’t know anyone who says she can’t wear black, including quite a few women who look absolutely miserable in it. Stacey London and Clinton Kelly, the two style mavens of TLC’s What Not to Wear seem to be deluged with makeover candidates who wear nothing but black, And not only that. Many of the women wear huge clothes, four or five times sizes too large, hoping that observers will assume their actual bodies, are thin underneath these cloths. Think about this. These women dress to look huge so people will think they are thin. Actual appearance, and presumably sex appeal, have become secondary to something more important – being perceived as thin.

Is this scary or what?

I doubt that there is a woman in America who hasn’t used up an excess of brain power thinking about weight. Bridget Jones, the hapless Londoner who wrote her weight on every page of her diary, taught us that British women aren’t doing much better. And it’s not that we’re also fat. Despite the hysteria over the “obesity epidemic,” the average American woman is not overweight. Take a look at those state-by-state obesity charts put out by life insurance companies and you will discover something interesting. While American men are tipping the scales something terrible, American women are a whole lot thinner. In fact there is not one state where the majority of women are overweight, though there are a significant number where the majority of men are overweight.

But as we all know there is overweight, and then there is wishing that size X dress would fit…not to mention believing that virtually everything in life would improve with a change in weight. For many women being thin is a fantasy almost as powerful as being in love, or being loved by a handsome, sexy romance hero because of the belief that with a slender body comes respect, love, friendship, a great job, and a host of other good things.

In the 1960s and 70s gothic romance novels had an interesting way of handling this. Heroines, for the most part, were very thin, even waif-like. Like Jane Eyre, their looks went unappreciated. A heroine would typically be described like this, “She was too thin, her hair too blonde and straight and her eyes too wide apart.”

Oh yeah. She was a real dog.

Often the story would begin with a description of this poor unappreciated beauty. She would sometimes have a “plump” pretty rival with fashionable curly hair, a bow mouth and a pout. We could hate her knowing how much smarter we were than the idiots who thought she was better looking than the heroine. We knew she was fat – the ultimate sin. This pretty, fat rival, of course, was an idiot. You could tell she was an idiot before she opened her mouth because she was fat. Couldn’t anyone else see this? We readers would congratulate ourselves on our superior taste in looks, knowing that the heroine would eventually meet a hero who agreed with us. Much of this was based on a myth of 19th century beauty that persists – that heavy women were considered more attractive than slim ones. The truth is that in the 19th century, curves were appreciated. The boy-like models of today’s fashion runways were not considered the ideal. But neither was fat appreciated. Scarlett O’Hara, you will recall, had a seventeen inch waist, not the kind of thing the average size ten or twelve woman could aspire to, even with the help of the tightest corset.

No matter what appearance problems a heroine had to overcome, whether she was the “too small” and “too plain” Jane Eyre, the “not beautiful” Scarlett O’Hara, or the small, weak, and unhealthy Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, heroines were not fat. This perplexed me even as a child. Did only thin girls deserve sympathy?

In the late 70s, with the rise of the bodice ripper, heroines got sexy and beautiful. The first time I read one of these stories I could not believe it. Where was the challenge? Even Scarlett O’Hara “was not beautiful.” It seemed very odd. Out-of-fashion beauty was one of the main problems our thin, wide-eyed heroines had to overcome. What these girls had to worry about was being too beautiful, so beautiful the randy heroes could not keep their hands to themselves.

More recently, though, something completely new has happened in the world of romance. A small number of romance writers have been writing women who look more like most of us, not just by being plain, but by feeling overweight. Books like Ruth Wind’s Beautiful Stranger, Justine Davis’ A Whole Lot of Love, and Suzanne Brockmann’s Get Lucky started popping up. The heroines of these books were not obese. Sydney Jameson, the heroine of Get Lucky, has a flat chest and wide hips and is perfectly aware that her appearance has a less than compelling effect on most men, My favorite scene in that book comes when Lucky, the hero of the book, hits on Sydney as a way to manipulate her. There’s nothing personal in his actions. He manipulates women as a matter of course, including pretty ones. But to Sydney, a woman who knows the kind of woman a man like Lucky usually ends up with, calls him on it immediately. She’s far more upset by his actions than a woman without this history would be. When Lucky asks how she knew, she tells him bitterly that, men who look like him do make passes at girls like her. The scene is biting because we know it is true. And it rings true for a reason women know but seldom mention. As bad as it is to beat yourself up about weight, it is ten times as bad to know someone else is thinking about it.

Lately I have noticed that whenever a book comes out with an overweight heroine, some readers complain that the heroine was not heavy enough. Meg Cabot’s Size Twelve is Not Fat, for example elicited comments that “Hey, size twelve is not fat,” with the implication that size twelves should keep their obsessing to themselves, considering how many women have more to worry about, and also that the writer should have pressed the envelope harder and written a heavier heroine. And more recently readers – including AAR’s Blythe Barnhill – took exception to the title of Kelley St. John’s new release, Real Women Don’t Wear Size 2.

My initial reaction to this was that we readers should stop assuming that there is any size at which a woman can be happy. Not only is a 5’ woman a different kind of size 12 than a 5’7” woman, size itself is tough to judge.

I am a bit over 5’5” inches tall. Over the past 25 years, my size has ranged, from size 8 to size 16 – with most of my time spent at size 10 or 12. For the past ten years it’s been more of a size 14, although in 1980, for about ten minutes, I wore a size 6.

And I can tell you categorically that I have never felt thin. Some people thought I was thin. Was I thin? Truth is I have no idea. When it comes to weight I was never able to be objective about myself. When I was young I obsessed about it a lot, sure that an extra few pounds would ruin my chances for a good life. I am not sure that I was completely wrong. As a thirty-something working for banks in New York, it was pretty obvious that size twelve was the upper end of what managers in my field were hiring. Oh there was the occasional exception – and overweight men were around. But women in my office were always relatively slim, and I do not think that was a coincidence.

And that is why someone obsessing over a size twelve is not really different from someone obsessing over a size sixteen, When we are talking about the middle ranges of weight, we are mostly talking about the torture American women inflict on themselves. Nowadays I look better in a well cut size 14, wearing flattering colors and good makeup than I look in a black size 6 pantsuit that’s cut like a box. I feel fine about myself, at least I do today.

Honest, I have been giving a lot of thought to the size of women in romance novels because I just finished reading a Chick Lit book about a woman who is larger than any of the romance heroines that I have read. It is called Conversations with the Fat Girl, by Liza Palmer.

One thing I noticed about books like Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie or Brockmann’s Get Lucky, is that weight is something that is mentioned, as a source of insecurity but not as the real cause of loneliness. The heroines of these books would like to be thinner. They believe men would be more interested if they were. They beat themselves up. But nobody, outside of themselves, insults them. Nobody makes their lives difficult with insults (the exception is Davis’ book, but it too is not exactly realistic, although both Ellen and Laurie liked it a great deal). They can buy their clothing off the rack. They have had love lives and sex lives and, even when things have been difficult in that area, their weight was not the first thing to which they attributed the problem. The heroes of these books are largely ignorant that any weight problem even exists.

Not so with Maggie, the overweight, witty, charming heroine of this book. The author doesn’t tell us what size Maggie is, which is probably good because women differ so much on the subject of what size is really a problem. Maggie’s actual size is not really the point anyway. Unlike romance heroines in the “need to lose some weight,” category, Maggie’s problem is not that she tortures herself. Other people do that job for her. For Maggie, going shopping is a form of torture because so few things fit. Going shopping with her slim mother is twice the torture since it requires revealing her dress size. Maggie has never had a boyfriend nor a real date. Strangers occasionally snicker at her for no reason other than some odd feeling of superiority and others seem determined to trade on her good nature.

Maggie has all the problems that most twenty-something women have, but they are magnified by the fact that a lot of people are just plain mean to her.

While growing up, Maggie endured the taunts and vicious behavior of high school kids. Her one friend was Olivia, a morbidly obese girl far heavier than she was. Together Maggie and Olivia endured not being asked to the prom, not being invited to parties or on dates, and being the target of various “mean girls” and obnoxious boys. As the book opens, Maggie has a new problem, and it’s a surprise. Olivia, who was always the heavier of the two, has undergone gastric bypass surgery and become thin. In becoming thin Olivia has taken on a very handsome, but shallow, fiancé, and a group of thin obnoxious friends, none of whom have an ounce of Maggie’s intelligence or wit.

AAR’s Lea Hensley also read Conversations with the Fat Girl. She felt that Maggie was a refreshing and well-rounded character, and like me, thoroughly enjoyed her. In Lea’s analysis, Maggie is basically a happy person who learned how to appreciate her life despite the discrimination she may experience because of her weight. She adds, though, that the enjoyment of her life is basically a control issue; Maggie will not allow any situation to develop to the point where she would actually experience rejection and she is also sure to never reach too high and have the hopes and expectations of most “normal” size women.

One thing that makes Palmer’s book such a joy to read are Maggie’s insights into the dynamics of friendships between women. Maggie understands Olivia far better than Olivia understands herself. She knows that years of torture by other people have damaged her friend so that she is willing to overlook her fiancé’s rude lecture on overweight. Olivia’s disloyalty and shallowness hurt Maggie, but Maggie tries to be understanding. She, more than anyone else, remembers the insults and loneliness that Olivia endured. It is only when Maggie discovers that Olivia has hidden her gastric bypass from her fiancé and her new friends and invented a fictional past for herself that Maggie becomes alarmed, wondering what kind of person her friend has become.

Lea points out that Maggie and Olivia go way back and were each other’s support system for many years, but people mature and change; she saw Maggie maturing beyond the need for Olivia. In Lea’s view, Maggie wants the old support system to be there, but lost respect for her long-time friend and really no longer needs her. Lea adds: “Maggie yearns for an accepting friendship that is based not only on years of shared memories but present day memories as well and refuses to give up on the friendship until Olivia makes it glaringly obvious where her true priorities lie. To me, it was another control issue for Maggie – if she can continue this supposed ‘best friend’ relationship, she won’t be forced out of her comfort zone and won’t have to face the vulnerability that comes when forming another close friendship.”

Palmer’s book is not a romance, though it does contain a secondary love story. It’s a very good book and, with the exception of the resolution of the story, which disappointed me, I thought it was terrific. I would recommend the book to anyone, especially women who have struggled with weight. Although I have never been as heavy as Maggie, I did have a weight problem in junior high school and I had a dear friend with a serious problem. The heartache, pain and exclusion caused by being thirteen and unattractive were simply unforgettable. Even though I am not, nor have ever been, obese, it doesn’t take much for me to imagine it. Once a boy has taunted you or laughed at you for being heavy, you never lose the memory. It sears through your heart and takes up a permanent place in your brain. I am not sure I can even begin to understand what a lifetime of that does to a person.

Which brings me back to my original thoughts about the size of women in romance novels. Conversations with the Fat Girl is a Chick Lit book, not a romance novel. One thing that divides Chick Lit from romance is that while Chick Lit examines the life of young women in today’s world, romance provides us with a fantasy, a world we can wish we inhabited. My question is this: Can a romance, a good romance for general audience, be written about a very overweight heroine?

Up until a few days ago I would have said yes without a thought. Both Oprah and Queen Latifah have certainly shown us that beauty comes in many sizes. Oprah has slimmed down but even at her heaviest she was attractive. Queen Latifah is the same, as is Kirstie Ally, who now stars in Jenny Craig commercials. And I certainly would agree that a romance starring a Queen Latifah type beauty would work well.

But Queen Latifah is gorgeous. She’s gorgeous not only because she has a beautiful face but because she has curves. Overweight women in romance novels are often described as “having curves.” But Maggie is not a gorgeous woman whose generous curves put her outside of fashion trends. Maggie is fat, really fat. Her curves don’t make her look more womanly. She certainly isn’t ugly. In considering the book, Lea pointed out that the romance was minor and served only to show Maggie that she was attractive even at her present size. But Lea would not change the book to make the romance more important because “a larger romance may have been appeared as some sort of shortcut to happiness.”

I think Lea is right about this. Romance is a fantasy. Many romance novels feature serious problems but most of them either solve the problem or make it seem less important because of the romance. While I think female readers often enjoy the fantasy of a woman who tortures herself over weight, I am not sure women of any size are looking for a book about a heroine whose life is extremely difficult because of her weight…and that her problem is resolved with a romance, A heroine who has difficulty with an airline seat, who has teenage boys making fun of her at the mall, who has a tough time landing a senior level job – is this a book most readers would read?

I don’t know, yet another part of me desperately feels that women of all sizes deserve a romance. All you have to do is walk down the street to know that romance happens in the lives of all kinds of people. Don’t very large women deserve a book about them? Part of me says yes, but then, in talking about this book with some women who are large, I heard that dealing with these problems is the last thing they want to read in a romance. I can certainly understand that.

I think such a book could be written if the writer created a character as funny and interesting as Maggie, but I’m not sure there are many writers capable of that. Makeover books, with heroines who lose a lot of weight, are no longer fashionable. Many women find them annoying. Women nowadays worry so much about weight – even a small amount of weight – that I have to wonder if they would find a book about a realistically obese heroine capable of an HEA. While the hero’s love would solve the loneliness of such a woman, other problems presented in the book might be too much to deal with.

I wonder what you all think. Please let us know on the message board.

Robin Uncapher

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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