In some ways, it seems as if it’s never been better to be fat. Body shaming is frowned upon–publicly at least–, Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue has plus sized models, Hollywood loves Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, and Lizzo is still ruling the world. This year, several best-selling romances featured curvy leads.
Glowing social media posts full of Rebel Wilson‘s and Adele’s weight loss are everywhere. Women on TV and in film remain, in the vast majority, very thin, even as the average woman’s weight has risen. Weight discrimination is so strong that several governments have added weight as a protected category in discrimination law. The pressure on women to be thin is so strong that it’s a problem beginning in elementary school. Eating disorders are on the rise.
And, we all wonder, will Penelope ever be treated as though she is as sexy as Daphne?
What do you think? Is society embracing curvaceous heroines? Is romance? How do you feel about how weight is handled in the novels you read?
Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day.
I read romance for the fantasy, so while I like to see plus-size main characters its not a priority. Just tell me a good story and I can usually be content with that. I don’t like the villain who is evil and that is depicted through their obesity, however. Stupid people are also often portrayed as overweight, and these are stereotypes that are well past their sell-by date.
In real life, being obese is extremely difficult. I am a very large woman with extremely large breasts. My cardiologist’s office has chairs I literally get stuck in, and the electrocardiogram machine is just plain too small. It films your heart as it beats, and sort of floats over your chest for 20 minutes or so as it films. You must lay perfectly still with your arms above your head for the duration. There is no place to rest your arms, you just hold them there. Without trembling.. And if the device touches your chest – mine is hard to avoid – you just start over again. And again. Once you compete the film you do it again after they inject you with adrenaline.
I must complete this test, but I was so upset by continually failing, my husband took me home in tears. The complete lack of empathy from the tech made the experience far worse. Fat people deserve quality health care just like everyone else, and usually need it more.
I’m still trying to decide how to approach the doctor with this issue, since I think he’s a good if somewhat oblivious doctor and just needs a few pointers and some sensitivity training for his staff.
Meanwhile, romance novels that have beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes are lovely escapes for me. I’d like more plus-size characters, and more mature characters also. But mostly I want the Cinderella fantasy.
Oh, dear, KesterGayle – the technician sounds like a jerk. You don’t say if this is a male or female tech (perhaps a size 8?) but in your place, I would find it harder to speak my mind to a man than a woman who, one would hope, could understand the situation a bit better. But, speak you must. There is no excuse for any medical professional to be dismissive of someone who has ANY kind of issue that takes them even slightly out of the “norm” – whatever THAT is! If I could, I would go with you to your next appointment and let rip on your behalf. So sorry that you have experienced this.
I don’t know if I have anything left to say that hasn’t already been said or is all that important or makes that much sense, but considering that I’ve been working on this since Friday night when there were only two comments posted, leaving this unposted would feel kind of silly. And like a lot of work for nothing. Even if I am, once again, late. So here goes.
My understanding of the romance genre is far from comprehensive, but when I think about the older books vs. newer books I’ve read there is a noticeable shift towards more diverse appearances especially when it comes to heroines’ looks. I’ve found this a refreshing and welcome change, and hope that the progress continues and the changes will be extended to heroes as well.
I think there are probably always going to be physical ideals of some kind, appearances that represent each society’s standards of beauty. There have been for thousands of years, after all, and while the ideals have changed with times, they’ve never gone away, and I can’t really see that happening now or in the future either.
I think the current ideal of physical beauty is in the process of broadening, which I find wonderful. But I doubt there’ll ever be a time when all shapes, sizes, and appearances are considered equally ideal. However, I’ve always believed in the concept of human dignity, according to which all people hold a special value that is tied solely to their humanity. It has nothing to do with their class, race, gender, religion, abilities, age, appearances or any other factor other than them being human. This, I believe, is something that’s not unrealistic for humans to embrace as a universal principle according to which treat each other, even if we still have a way to go yet, so that people of all shapes, sizes, and appearances are considered equally valuable and worthy of the same dignity, love, and respect.
I reckon there’ll probably always be romances with people who represent the ideal beauty falling in love with people who represent the ideal beauty. There might even be lots of them. This type of framework seems to resonate with a big group of readers, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it. It is a fantasy, and I think people are aware of it. It’s just important that the fantasy is not maintained by denigrating others such as making the only unpleasant character in the story someone who doesn’t represent the ideal beauty.
What I think romance genre offers more now and hopefully increasingly so in the future, is the much needed and appreciated alternative to the mentioned fantasy. Some of the stories might be considered wish fulfillment – nothing wrong with it either – but personally I like these stories because they often feel more realistic yet with a touch of romance fairy dust. What is considered ideal by society’s standards and what individual humans consider attractive don’t always go hand in hand, after all, and all kinds of looking people fancy all kinds of looking people all the time all around the world.
I don’t read romance expecting the characters to be attractive to me. I learned early on that my idea of attractive is not often featured in romance novels. Then again, very different looking people can be attractive to me, depending on who they are and what they do, including the tall, abs, and inverted triangle men. So as long as the author can sell me the romance – not just lust, but the romance – between the love interests then I’m alright.
What I wouldn’t mind if I never saw again is linking people’s physical appearances with the way they act. Assholes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, ages, abled and disabled bodies. And so do awesome people. If you want to emphasize how horrible someone is, you’re going to have to do better than describe their looks and expect readers to be even more appalled. What kind of ass-backwards logic is that? Everybody deserves better.
So is romance genre body positive? As a whole, as in ready and done – no. But I think the first baby steps are being taken in the right direction.
This is a topic I think could be discussed endlessly. It covers so many things. As you say, what is beauty? What one person thinks is attractive isn’t the same as the next person.
I was thinking about this as Rege-Jean Page has just exploded over the internet and everywhere else since Bridgerton, partly because he is just physically “perfect”. He’s probably one of the handsomest men in TV/film- yet I still would take Richard Armitage as JohnThornton over Simon any day. I’ve never been drawn to the truly “beautiful” stars like Brad Pitt etc. A friend of mine (who is a black man himself) told me he thought it was funny I liked Chadwick Boseman so much because he always thought he was “an odd looking guy”. I always found Chadwick Boseman to be absolutely compelling on screen and I prefer looking at him to the other actors he was often onscreen with.
I also agree 100% with your statement about how characters shouldn’t be shown to be “horrible” based on their looks. Like how the mean girl in a book will often be described with “bleached hair” or something “fake” about her. Or a creepy guy will have his “big belly” described.
And I think there are some things that it’s considered OK to joke about each gender.
I saw a meme on Facebook about Prince William (basically about him losing his hair) with two pictures-one showing him younger with a full head of hair and a recent one where he’s definitely balding and saying he went from looking like the hero of a teen book series to looking like the author of one. His face basically looks the same so it’s really “ha ha he lost his hair and now looks old”.
I’m not a big royal family or William fan, but to me it just emphasized that there are things that are “OK” to joke about regarding men and that we do judge them in many ways as well. If a woman lost her hair I don’t think it would be widely accepted to joke about it, but if she gained weight that’s certainly OK for laughs.
I totally understand your feelings about Richard Armitage/John Thornton since I share them. I always thought that one of the reasons I found Sean Bean so attractive was precisely because in some lighting or poses he was almost ugly but in others he was quite striking. Or Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I don’t find handsome but who is the most compelling figure on the stage or screen, no matter how many other people surround him. OTOH, James Norton, who is almost unnervingly handsome (is he even human?), is my current theatrical crush. I think it’s because he can play against those looks as a horrific villain (“Happy Valley”) or into them as a vicar (“Grantchester”) and be believable in both roles – he’s not just another pretty face. Pretty faces need character to be attractive to me. Even Brad Pitt, whom I found somewhat boring though beautiful when younger, is now a more interesting actor (years ago a movie critic said the tragedy of Brad Pitt was that he was a character actor born into a leading man’s body).
I feel like I understand what people appreciate about beauty that represents the current physical ideal, I can recognize it and it’s certainly not unappealing to me by any means, but I’ve found that most often it’s not what turns my crank. I remember when I was fourteen and Romeo + Juliet and then the next year Titanic came out, everyone was swooning over Leonardo DiCaprio, and I was like yeah, I get it, but he’s not my cup of tea. I feel like I’ve been saying a variation of the same my whole life. But as I said in the ”Scruffy or Suited” post, this is one of the reasons why I find humans so interesting and wonderful. We are all so different and into such different things and different people.
I share your sentiment about Richard Armitage as John Thornton. It was some serious casting wizardry, choosing him for that role. I have yet to see Bridgertons, so I can’t comment on Simon. I’ve decided to concentrate on reading now that I still have enough energy to do so, and thus don’t even have a Netflix subscription.
What kind of blasphemy – Chadwick Boseman was not an odd looking guy! (I’m just kidding, obviously this is a matter of taste too.) I think he was lovely, and like you said, had such a strong screen presence.
That’s such a good point! I’ve read the same type of comments with regard to Prince William, and have noticed that male baldness in general seems to be considered acceptable for ridiculing. I really wish people would cut that nonsense. Going bald is not a joke regardless of gender, and making fun of it can be seriously hurtful.
Otherwise, whatever is going on with women’s hair is scrutinized and criticized so much more harshly than men, though. If a man gets a buzzcut, people usually just shrug, but if a woman does the same, suddenly everyone has an opinion and the nastiness knows no bounds. Same with anything to do with weight, as you pointed out. It’s so infuriating. Both the double standards, and the general attitude that it’s okay to pick apart other people’s appearances make me so mad. It’s not your body, it’s not your life, so desist from making disparaging comments about them.
Annik, you Said so many things in your post that bring in the broader view of “beauty” – I am glad you posted it!
and yes, I only started liking Robert Redford once he was older, too slick, blond and polished as a younger man. Same for Brad Pitt.
Many thanks for letting me know you think so, Lieselotte! It means a lot. :)
It’s nothing to do with body size, but one of the reasons I loved Anne Gracie’s “The Perfect Rake” is that Gideon, the hero, is the only one who thinks Prudence, the heroine, is beautiful. Prudence is pretty enough, but she has sisters who are acknowledged beauties and is considered plain when compared to them by everyone except Gideon. He, for his part, doesn’t understand why they don’t think she is as beautiful as he does. I found that rather endearing.
This is a good example of what I was alluding to in my post. The heroine is considered ordinary but the hero is attracted physically to her, falls in love as he gets to know more about her personality and then she becomes the most beautiful person in his eyes. A lot of romances use this trope and I like it every time because the heroine is beautiful not just due to looks but due to her personality and actions as well.
This is my favorite way beauty is used as well. Sometimes, an author can make me believe in a man loving a woman, initially, because of her great beauty–think Loretta Chase’s Dukes Prefer Blondes–but in general, I am much more moved by a man who discovers a woman’s beauty because he has come to truly know her–this is what I think happens with Colin and Penelope in their book.
You can also see this in A Rake’s Reform by Cindy Holbrook, an old traditional Regency. The hero’s perception of the heroine evolves through the story. This is one of my favorite books, with 5-star humor, which I’ve read 28 times since 1995.
A romance classic where the hero’s perception of the heroine changes is Georgette Heyer’s “Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle”.
Wasn’t Jane Austen the originator of this trope with Pride and Prejudice? Darcy would not deign to dance with Lizzie because she was not pretty enough to tempt him and Bingley was dancing with the handsomest girl. Yet, after he got to know Elizabeth a bit more he was captivated by her fine eyes and lively spirit. Interestingly, Austen never describes Lizzie in detail and leaves much to the reader’s imagination. It’s a classic for a reason and a I’m a sucker for a well-done version. I’ll have to check out “the Perfect Rake.”
The ideal woman’s body is ALWAYS whatever is the hardest to attain. When you look at scandalous (nude) pictures and sculptures of women in the past, I am struck by how rounded they are, that they are never a size zero. When the specter of starvation was common (either through bad harvests or poverty), the ideal woman was “curvy,” and sometimes even fat.
I asked the homeless shelter that I sometimes supply part of a meal to, “What kind of milk I should buy?” I was told by one homeless man who ate there, “Skim. We don’t want the extra calories.” So, in this land of food plenty, the ideal woman’s figure is that of a 12 year old with breast implants. TV and movies have all their anorexic actresses with one heavy woman thrown in to show how caring the producer is.
People who object to positive portrayal of fatter women may be right to object, fearful that such inclusion of women may lead to people’s acceptance of unhealthy eating and exercise habits. BUT I never hear these same people complain about casting of “overweight” men, especially in comedies and romances. And too often, such health concerns are just camouflage for prejudice when these speakers can’t say, “Fat women are disgusting looking.”
All species, regardless of whether they are birds, lizards, or humans, are hot wired to want the most healthy, most attractive mate possible. It’s part of evolution.
Lynda X – I was shocked by what was said to you at the homeless shelter. It’s not the idea of “beggars can’t be choosers” but that body image should be so important when a person is at what may be the nadir of their existence and need of help from others for survival needs. Totally shocked that a few calories in a meal given out of concern for someone in need is even mentioned by the recipient.
I confess I generally don’t pay too much attention to the author’s description of the characters unless it’s something important in the plot, as the hero’s size is important in Lord of Scoundrels. I prefer to imagine them as something I find attractive, and I don’t find muscles and six-pack abs appealing.
This is interesting to me because I am the opposite! I am annoyed if the author doesn’t state the main characters’ hair and eye color at some point early in the book and I want to have some sense of their body features as well. It helps me visualize the characters in my mind.
If body positivity in romance means depicting people with a variety of physical features and body shapes as all deserving of love and relationships then I would argue that the genre has been doing this for a long time already. I do agree that romance novels have a large proportion of beautiful people. However, there have always been romances where one of the main characters was not conventionally good-looking. Who hasn’t read a romance where one character notices a specific physical trait that they like about the other (such as eyes or lips) then as they get to know each other over time, the other character becomes more and more beautiful in the eyes of the first character? Of course this is due to the combination of the physical and personality but we romance readers are not all about the looks! When Medievals were more popular decades ago, there was often a scarred warrior who was considered ugly but there was a fair maiden who found him attractive. Then there were Regency romances where the hero had been scarred or maimed in wars. In recent years, I think we are seeing a broader array of body types, especially in contemporary romances. Olivia Dade’s Spoiler Alert has a plus-size heroine and I believe many of her recent books also do. Avery Flynn’s Butterface is about a woman whose face is considered ugly and her book Muffin Top has a plus-sized heroine. Chloe Liese’s Always Only You has a heroine with rheumatoid arthritis who has to use a cane. In many of the M/M books I have read, one of the two main characters is often conventionally attractive but the other is not, although I admit it seems most common for the other character to just be unathletic and thin but sometimes they are described as having a “Dad bod”. I have read a lot of books, both M/F and M/M where one character considers themselves ordinary – brown hair, brown eyes, “regular’ body – yet the other character notices them. It may be that the majority of romances still have beautiful people but I think romance does do its part by portraying characters of multiple physical types finding partners who find them attractive and worthy of love.
Body positive! Even the label is ludicrous. We should advocate for a healthy body not try and normalize and now romanticize obesity.
Can’t we just dream that every one is perfect in romancelandia. It is called escapism for a reason. All this political correctness and now we have to have fat heroines because that is the sign of the time.
It is ok to be fat and by golly we will bully everyone into agreeing!!
What a fascinating question for this week’s ASK. I’ve enjoyed reading all the responses so far and agree with a lot of the points made. Allow me to itemize my thoughts on the subject of body positivity in romance.
1) I agree with everyone here who has said that heroines get a bit more leeway with their weight and appearance than heroes, at least in general. True, most of the protagonists in romance novels I have read fall into the thin to average to athletic weight/size range. Now and then, a heroine might be considered “homely” (but she actually isn’t because it’s romance land) or have some extra padding (but not too much!) or be “curvy.” But as for explicitly plus sized heroines? In my own reading, I can’t recall any. I did appreciate, however, that the two heroines in the f/f The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows had what I would consider realistic middle aged bodies. Maybe the fact it was an f/f rather than m/f made a difference in the presentation.
2) Getting back to heroes, there are far fewer body types presented, at least in the m/f I have read. Or, if the hero is physically disabled, it is usually because he was injured doing a badass alpha male job (cop, fireman, soldier, etc.) So that makes his injury/disfigurement “okay” or even attractive. Outside of that, there are an inordinate number of heroes over six feet tall with washboard abs- particularly in HR where such dimensions would have been unlikely. Or, if HR writers want to avoid that particular fantasy, lo and behold, the hero is the tallest man in the room! Thanks heavens because we couldn’t expect a heroine to like the average-sized or shortest man in the room. It simply isn’t done! /sarcasm
I’m sure comes a lot of this sameness comes down to the “typical” female romance reader fantasy. I.e. It is fun for the “average” romance reader to imagine the “average” heroine getting her hunk of a man. Of course, the rather narrow body types presented are certainly not every reader’s fantasy. But they represent enough of a middle ground that romance publishers don’t go broke sticking to that particular look. Unfortunately, for the rest of us tired of reading about Mr. Six-and-a-half-feet-tall-Viking-body, there aren’t a whole lot of alternatives.
As Caz mentioned, there is a little more variation among heroes in m/m.
3) Maybe I’ve just gotten lucky, but I don’t recall any fat shaming in romances I’ve read so far. (Lucky me?) More than likely, the subject simply wasn’t mentioned. Sometimes, I’ll see happily married side characters who are old and fat, but the more I think about it, the more they tend to come across as comic relief. Make of that what you will…
Interestingly enough, I remember reading the submission guidelines for a particular speculative magazine, and they had a note about how they were tired of seeing fat villains. They said they didn’t mean this to be a prohibition on villains who happened to be fat, but were sick and tired of seeing fatness as a shorthand for evil. All I could think of at the time was, “That’s a thing?” Well, apparently it was if they had to bring it up.
4) Veering from romance into erotica, I find it interesting there is an official category called BBW, meaning “big beautiful woman.” There is no equivalent BBM, “big beautiful man.” There are certainly some erotica stories with plus sized men, but they are in a distinct minority. Whereas BBW pulls up thousands of results. From what I’ve read, there appear to be two kinds of BBW stories to reach different audiences. One kind is fetishistic about the fat, so there will be much emphasis on every jiggly fat roll on the heroine’s body. But the other kind ranges from appreciation for fuller figures to sexy romance where the plus sized heroine gets her hunky man. Interesting things to think about as there’s a little bit of crossover between this latter type of BBW and some steamier romances.
5) In short, do I think romance is body positive? I would say it depends largely on the individual book. But in general, there’s more of a potential for diverse body types than a significant actuality- at least in mainstream publishing.
Plus size example: the recent Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade. I don’t know if there was much discussion about it anywhere.
Oh, that’s right! I forgot about that one. Haven’t read it yet, but it’s on the never-ending TBR list.
It’s really good – although I wouldn’t necessarily describe the heroine as fat. As I’ve said on this thread, “plus” sized still tends to be heroines who are maybe a bit overweight but still a “normal” dress size. (UK 16).
I think it would be interesting to read romances where very little is said about the size, fitness, or beauty of the characters. I think it could be done. You could still read what attracted them each other, like their eyes, lopsided smile, or kindness, without any mention of beauty standards.
Recently, I read Caitlin Crews’s HP, HIS SCANDALOUS CHRISTMAS PRINCESS, which features a heroine who has been blind since birth. It was interesting to read the chapters from the heroine’s point-of-view and realize that I was getting absolutely nothing about the physical appearance of the hero. Yes, there were references to her other sensory perceptions, but hair, eyes, abs, shoulders, etc.—no physical descriptions at all.
The book was very very good at making this subtly clear. Impressive writing.
Yes, that is exactly what I think- it could be done, and i think it could work very well, nothing lost.
I would love to see books written with little reference to appearance. I find romances which spend a lot of time mentioning the physical attributes of the main characters to feel superficial and repetitive after awhile. I am reading Act Like It by Lucy Parker right now, and she has referred to the heroine, Lainie, as looking like Jessica Rabbit multiple times, which I find bizarre and distracting. And also how Lainie does not work out and does not eat healthy. Why so much focus on this character’s effortless gorgeousness? What are we supposed to take away from that? And the hero’s looks are constantly mentioned as just about the only good thing about him, Why should I care about these people? I am more interested in the character’s personalities. Do they have chemistry, witty banter, bring out the best in each other? Can I see them being a good couple? Are they interesting people I would want to know and spend time with? To me, that is more important than whether they are described as ridiculously gorgeous people.
I, too, get really tired of books focusing on the poor eating habits of their gorgeous heroine (or hero). I also get tired of reading about upset women bingeing on sweets and then obsessing about how many extra miles they’ll have run. It feeds an unhealthy stereotype of women and food. Not to mention you burn approx 100 calories per mile on average, and that won’t even take care of two average cookies, much less an half a bag of Oreos dipped in ice cream. Perhaps if I didn’t know how much exercise is required to “burn off” the extra calories it wouldn’t drive me as crazy. Contemporary rom-coms seem to be the worst about this, playing it for humor.
as a blog somewhere once said, ‘you can’t outrun your fork.’ :-)
I’ve written main characters with a broad range of body types, from naturally-skinny to naturally-round. Pretty sure I’ve never used the ‘real woman’ language but am going to be alert to that on the next round of updates. That, I agree, is more negative than portraying a given shape.
Whether or not a body shape is ‘ideal’ is very subjective, for the characters as well as for the readers. What people are attracted to in real life (as others have said) is possibly unrelated to what they are attracted to in a fictional character. Or maybe people simply like *looking* at a certain type but when it comes down to getting jiggy, they like something quite different. :-)
Ultimately it comes down to diversity again. I write about a broad range of characters because those are the stories I want to read (Jenny Crusie’s advice). I tend to not question other writers’ motivations for writing the sort of characters they do – sometimes they talk about it, so I don’t have to wonder, but there is only so much time so I don’t often go looking for ‘why I wrote X.’
Also (a tangent) I’m here to testify that it is not easy to find stock photos – especially open-source – of people who truly embody the diverse range of characters in romance. So if we judge by cover models, we are generally going to think ‘wow supermodel’ not ‘wow what an appealingly ordinary guy/girl.’ And it’s possible that some authors are influenced by that. Because there are readers who will start a fight over why the cover model doesn’t look like the character as described. I have actually rewritten characters to fit the best cover image I can find for the story. For the record, I’ve never made someone skinnier or blonder.
I don’t want to opine on whether society – and romance – will ever ’embrace curvaceous heroines.’ I will say that where a book features a non-Barbie heroine, I usually think it’s handled poorly, in the sense of making much too big a deal *in the central relationship* of the fact that the heroine is not Barbie. Such people IRL face discrimination and thus I want to see that recognized as part of the context of the story. But if MC1 is attracted to a non-Barbie MC2, ze is not going to keep making speeches about it. And if the non-Barbie MC2 is truly at peace with zirself, it should be presented as the non-issue it is *in the relationship,* just as being nonwhite or nonstraight should be.
Only if non-Barbie is unhappy with zir status should it be part of the story. But handling that is such a potential minefield. I can imagine a writer dodging shrapnel from all sides. Like ‘there’s nothing wrong with being that way, how dare you show us someone who wants to change.’ Or ‘that’s the wrong way to change.’ Or ‘ze shouldn’t have said that/eaten that/done that.’ It’s a no-win scenario.
So many awesome things to unpack in your post, Chacha1.
First, you are so right about the challenges of finding applicable stock photos. There was a post on Reddit’s eroticauthors a few months ago lamenting the dearth of black models they could use for covers- even on expensive stock photo sites. It sparked a discussion of how it comes across as hokey or possibly even racist when authors find a great photo and use editing software to make the model “look black,” which they insist they wouldn’t have to do if they could find black models approved for erotica use in the first place!
Heh heh. I’ve definitely chosen covers first and then described the character to avoid totally jarring differences. As for the “blonder” comment, I have to laugh because I found an image that worked for the character except for the hair color (the character in the book had his hair dyed blond). So I tried to turn the brown hair on the cover into blond- only for it to look green. Well, I wasn’t going to turn the guy into a punk rocker, so that was out. Eventually, I said, “Screw it,” and gave up. So the cover model has a different hair color than the character, but I haven’t had any complaints. (One of the many joys of erotica is that the readers are quite forgiving of crappy, totally inaccurate covers, unlike romance where they will rip you a new one. ;))
I think that’s true of so many issues these days. A lot of the sameness/status quo we see in mainstream publishing is partially due to all the internet firestorms these days. It’s just easier for authors to say, “Forget it,” and keep pumping out skinny, lily white protagonists because the backlash for moving outside of the box could be a hundred times worse. And that’s a real pity.
I had a fully-complete novella ready to go and then found the PERFECT cover image for it (the hero plays the trumpet; the odds of finding the ideal image were very very poor) … except the subject didn’t look as I described my character. Well, my character got a new look (in his novella and in the simultaneously-written novel in which he played a small part) because I was not going to find a better image. :-) The power of self-publishing.
“The power of self-publishing.” Indeed!
Also, there’s something fun about finding a stock photo and writing a story around it. I think of it as a fun little writing challenge that can lead to unexpected places. Other self-published writers have mentioned taking this route as well. Also, there is a poetry magazine called Rattle that posts an “ekphrastic challenge” contest every month. Basically, entrants are given a picture and have to create a poem around it. Cool idea.
I also think it would be cool if a romance anthology (or any subject for that matter), chose a stock photo cover in advance and told their submitters, “You have to write a story based on this cover and here are the word count and genre requirements.” But I digress.
I’m digressing too, but…one of my favorite cover models has several very distinctive tattoos and I can think of at least two books where he’s been on the cover and the story made specific reference to the tattoos (what they look like, where they’re located, etc.). I have to figure the writers went back after the cover image was selected/designed and added the tattoo references to the story; or, conversely, the writers knew in advance what the cover image would be and included the references as they wrote. (Yes, I’m incredibly shallow and often read books because I like the cover model/image).
One thing – for most authors “curvy” is probably a UK size 14/16 (not sure that that is in the US – I think you’re two sizes up from us?) so we’re not talking ‘fat’ women at all. In the UK, that’s the most popular clothing size, I think, so we’re talking ladies with actual boobs and arses and maybe a bit of a rounded-belly.
I’ve never been slim or super fit, and I’ve simply learned to accept that I’m never going to find a heroine like me in a romance novel, on tv or in a film. And that’s fine – I’ve never been a heroine-centric reader anyway so I don’t necessarily look to identify with them; I want to like them, so their smarts and their sense of humour is much more important to me than what they look like.
It’s probably fair to say that the vast majority of romance novels feature physically “ideal” heroes and heroines as part of that whole wish-fulfilment thing. M/M is similar, although I’ve read more books with not-perfect-looking leads in m/m than I have in m/f.
The author I read who has the most diverse heroines of literally every size, shape and ethnicity is Ruby Dixon.
Off the top of my head her heroine list has included (along with every hair color and size of “white” heroines), black (several), Latina (including specifically a heroine of Mexican ancestry and one of Cuban) Chinese, Indian, native Hawaiian, a hero and heroine of separate books and series who have lost limbs, and another heroine who suffers from extreme anxiety. An upcoming book she is writing will have a Filipina heroine.
She’s an author who writes Sci fi/fantasy type stories with aliens and dragon shifter heroes (and heroines) so it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m always struck when I read her books at how different she manages to make her heroines and stories seem because of this, even though in one series and spin offs I have read about 34 of her novels and short stories.
It’s not and it should be.
I do not feel that romance is body positive, even in the relatively narrow margin of “average” persons. Both for men and for women.
And should there be an “other woman” in the romance, whether an ex or a mother in law/sister/colleague who is not nice, it gets worse. Or an unfriendly colleague or anyone who is not wonderful, then the body is often part of the negativity. Beware being an ambiguous side character in someone else’s story – you might end up being ugly and shamed!
There are wonderful exceptions, but mostly, this is how I see it.
Not being slim, not being sportsy, not having wonderful hair, not having wonderful abs in men, as a minimum, you need to “clean up wonderfully” when you make an effort.
When I think back, or read older books, there were more men who were described as good looking “only when he smiled”, there were heroines who were mostly “nice”, the bar has gone up a lot, it seems to me.
I agree that we all enjoy looking at beautiful people, but just like with other things, if we do not have average-looking people as heroes we will not see who we are reflected in books.
What I mean by “narrow margin” above – there are books we applaud because they are about people with limitations, disabilities etc, and I am very happy that there are more and more of those. So I am not talking about those, I am talking about the persons in romance who are just “average”, the most common type of hero / heroine – and I feel that they reflect an obsession with image and outer looks.
This ties into the insta-lust that has become very common. You see someone, you swoon from desire, loose your wits (or most of them) and only get to know them later, already on this insane attraction – this scenario works best with beautiful people, of course.
sorry, this is super generalized, but when I look at the question, my answer is “no, not body positive”, in general.
I think it’s interesting that in the “visual” pop culture (movies, tv shows, even commercials), the schlubby guy (Jack Black, Kevin James, Jim Belushi, any guy in a beer commercial, etc.) is often paired with or ultimately wins a smoking-hot (frequently younger) woman who could easily be a lingerie model; whereas in Romancelandia’s written word & audiobook pop culture, a woman who doesn’t meet society’s impossible demands for female beauty can still end up with a gorgeous man with amazing abs and a personality to match. Genderized wish fulfillment perhaps? Or two different ways of expressing badly positivity?
That’s true–and I have to confess the former irks me more than the latter. Unfair? Maybe?
It’s complicated, but I think it boils down to visual media being everywhere—we all watch movies, tv, and commercials—so all of us, male and female alike, see these skewed representations of “average” guys with supermodel-level women and it contributes to a sense of expectation/entitlement on men’s parts and dissatisfaction with how we look on the part of women. Whereas, no matter how skewed the appearance matchup in a book, reading (or listening to) a book is much more of an individual pursuit. I might read a book where the smoking-hot guy falls in love with the “curvy” woman, but that imagery doesn’t make its way into the general public’s thinking the same way a visual image does.
But Woody Allen with Diane Keaton does…. Or Seth Rogen with Charlize Theron….
It also has something to do with historically men having more money and power, and therefore able to marry the most beautiful women even if they themselves look like toads. We’re used to seeing average (or less attractive than average) men with gorgeous women, but rarely the other way around. It’s still the power dynamic.
Body positive means being positive about a range of bodies. If Adele wants to lose weight, that’s her business (and I’ve seen a lot of not so glowing posts about how she looked better before). Real women come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and when we emphasize body positivity, it’s important not to do so by saying something is bad or unrealistic. I know people who will never be thin, and I know people who will never have curves, and both are perfectly fine so long as they are healthy and happy with who they are.
I’d also add that body positivity in romance is not just about heroines. There was a column a while back about fat heroes, IIRC – are there many? Are there any? Even short heroes are few and far between. Scars are acceptable – manly scars from fighting in wars especially – but heroes generally tend to be just as conventionally attractive as heroines. Gender nonconforming characters (of which there are sadly few) as well.
I’d argue we are even less tolerant of heroes. They are, from the neck down, almost always tall, buff, and fit.
Interesting comment, Dabney. Just as a sidebar to this discussion, with reference to “the neck down” I have been reading Annabelle Costa’s backlist. She “specialises”, if you like, in disabled heroes, most of whom are wheelchair users. One recent one I read (Like a Boss, formerly Harvard Hottie), the heroine was gazing at the naked body of her lover who had, IIRC, a T12 complete injury which meant he had very limited mid-body movement and strength He also had issues with hand strength due to his spinal cord injury. His stomach is described as soft and flabby and his legs as very thin as would be expected. I guess some would find that a turn off despite his other upper body strength from using a manual chair. However, his mind, his humour, his intellect, his drive, ambition and ability to love the heroine meant that none of this really mattered. My point here is that no one knows what the future holds for our bodies and looks. When the heroine first met him, the hero was a shit-hot rich kid at Harvard and a great athlete, smart student, etc. So, things change. I don’t look like the young woman my husband married 41 years ago; he doesn’t look the same either. But, even after those 41 years and nearly a year in our strictly confined lockdown company, we are still in madly love, adore each other and find each other attractive and magical. Yes, Pen or any other large woman can be as attractive to the man who loves her as a disabled or beer-bellied guy can be to the woman who loves him. At the end of the day, I’ve always believed that when considering a partner, ask yourself what you will have to talk about over the breakfast table the next morning, not if they are a size zero or or rippling with gym-made muscles. And, BTW, Annabelle Costa writes terrific books!
This is one reason I’m a little reluctant to read romances where the heroine is overweight, because I’ve picked up a couple where the hero assures the heroine that he likes real women with curves, rather than skinny anorexic little girls.
I’ve always been significantly underweight, and in the Asian countries where I used to live, this is considered a bad thing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been insulted about my appearance (which is one reason I was so happy to move to Canada). So I really don’t want to encounter any more such comments now, even if they’re meant well and said to reassure other women.
This is a tough one. The brutal fact is everyone is drawn to physical attractiveness, whatever your idea of that is.
I read a lot of romance, obviously, and there is a clear double standard. I have read tons of books where the guy is described as super fit and muscular and he just adores the woman’s “soft, round womanly body”. It’s made very clear from the woman’s point of view she is nowhere near his level of fitness or muscularity and it’s not up to society’s standard of beauty but he just loves it!
And clearly I enjoy this because I’ve sure read enough books like it. And we all know a lot of romance is wish fulfillment and fantasy and these novels are marketed towards women, so why not appeal to that fantasy? It’s like the chubby or nerdy guy getting the supermodel in every TV show or movie. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
I also think there is often a gap between what people say, what they think is OK to say publicly, and what they really think. If you tell someone they look great and they shouldn’t worry about weight or speak about a celebrity that way but you personally would never let yourself get past a certain number on the scale is that honest?
I remember an interview with Keira Knightly where she gushed over a heavy celebrity’s body and at one point said she actually consulted with a doctor to gain weight and “He told me that for someone of my body type to get to a [European] size 12, I would have to eat a lot of s–t food, stop exercising and drink loads,” she said.
“Basically, my body type is naturally thin. There is nothing I can do about it.”
Really? No healthy way a doctor can tell you to gain some weight? I doubt it. I do believe she is someone who naturally tends to be thin, but the fact she’s a big smoker (as are a shocking number of celebrities) certainly helps.
I guess what I’m saying is both men and women like looking at “perfection” (Rege-Jean Page anyone?) and while female celebrities like Melissa McCarthy at her heavier weight and guys like Jack Black can get leading roles those types are never going to be more popular than Margot Robbie and Henry Cavill.
Yes, you are right in much that you say.
I also feel better (and that is my main reason, I feel less bloated, and I move better) when I am slimmer – but I also like how I am perceived when I am slimmer.
In those books you talk about, the heroine’s non fantastic looks are then a topic of the book, basically how great the guy is that he loves her even though she is average, or what an amazing person she is that he loves her – so it is like you have to be amazingly good if you are not looking amazing. Or amazingly grateful. It gets quite wearying for me.
And I feel there are few books where looks are described just in terms of “lovely eyes” or “beautiful hands” – so we not only like gorgeousness where it is very relevant = visual arts like cinema – we also bring it into books where we could just leave out the detailed description of the wonderfulness of the bodies involved.
To me, that amounts to a certain kind of body negativity, in outcome.