A few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend about The Kiss Quotient — basically, all the reasons I didn’t like the much-lauded novel (and the romance genre, in general). She gently suggested that even though I didn’t like the love-at-first-sight plot or the writing, it’s still a considered a “good” book because of its groundbreaking qualities — an autistic, Asian female lead. Though I disagree — I think that books should be well-written to be considered “good” — I don’t disagree with her overarching sentiment: that readers need heroines/heroes with whom they can identify. Readers want and need to read about people that look like them, characters who share the same ethnicity or culture or values or gender issues, etc.
And that brings me to the apex of this blog post: body diversity within literature.
It stands to reason that readers want to be swept up in novels about characters that represent them. So why aren’t there more novels that feature women with soft, squishy mom-bods? With stretch marks here and there? With — no, not a perfectly smooth, rounded bum, but — cheeks that have some dimples? And if those characters are out there, why are writers glossing over these goddesses with the blur-feature of authorial photoshop?
I can distinctly remember the struggles I had with body image as a teen. Most of those issues are still alive and well today — there’s constantly an undercurrent of spiteful self-talk running through my mind like a ticker-tape: You’re too fat. You’re too fat. You’re too fat. And I can also remember being an avid reader during those years, noticing — even then — that the characters in the books I read were all the same. They were pretty. They had thigh gaps. They had flat bellies. They didn’t look like me. I was subconsciously aware that with their size 2 jeans and slender ankles, these characters were unhappy with the way they looked — and what the hell kind of message is that supposed to send to a size 12 girl who is, in her teens, utterly preoccupied with looking right?
As an adult, the issue has come into focus with a much sharper lens. Having a child, having a c-section, having a hard time quashing a chocolate addiction — things have gotten increasingly plush around here. I’m hyper-aware of these changes, seemingly at every moment. And in nearly every novel I’ve read (or skimmed, or DNF’d) over the past several years, I’ve been unsurprised to find the same heroine body type over and over again: slender, lean and toned (though somehow she’s almost never athletic?), maybe a few well-placed curves, all topped off with a silky mane and contoured cheekbones. (Unless, of course, she’s an undiscovered beauty who, much like Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries, is in dire need of some Urban Decay and a wardrobe overhaul but still has the makings of a perfect body.)
Right now, the romance genre is making big leaps to change its formulaic white-people-only decades-old trend — here’s a great article about it! — but readers of all genres are still missing something key: varied body types.
Part of this responsibility falls on the shoulders of writers. I get it — authors are tasked with producing what people want to read, and it’s probably safe to say that people mostly want to read about beautiful people/things. But I think writers also have a responsibility to their audience, to go beyond the superficiality of television and magazine beauty standards, to set the precedent for new norms. Norms in which a fluffy, c-section ravaged woman can have a chiseled husband who still finds her hot — and she doesn’t have to feel compelled to change to be proclaimed beautiful. Norms in which stretch marks can cover a woman’s thighs without depleting her sex appeal. Norms in which a female lead can be remarkably unremarkable but not described as “forgettable” or “plain” or “simple” — just described in terms of her actual physical features, so that, you know, readers stop deeming themselves “forgettable” or “plain” or “simple.”
A big piece is up to publishers, too, though. I don’t regularly pick up the types of novels that feature real-life people on the cover (mostly because that kind of cover art usually falls under the romance heading), but I have seen several of these covers floating around the Bookstagram community as of late. I can’t think of a single example in which a fiction book features cover art of a real woman who doesn’t look like she’s been airbrushed and dieted and exercised into a mortal Aphrodite.
Somehow, this seems to be a topic vastly unexamined in the book community. The same people who tip their hats to Aerie for their body positivity campaign — “I’m so refreshed to see models who look like me!” they say — don’t seem to notice (or care?) about the fact that the characters they read about in books are ideal, without flaws (unless they’re dubbed cute “quirks”), coated in some sort of protective layer of surface-level beauty.
I, too, like to escape to a fantasy world in which my thighs don’t chafe as I jog gloriously down the street with boobs that aren’t so big they bobble around like soccer balls but not so small they’re invisible; but sometimes, sometimes — it’s nice to read about a heroine who isn’t “fat comic relief*,” but thick around the middle with goals and problems and seductive powers like the rest of the leading ladies of the literary world.
*Don’t even get me STARTED on the fat-women-on-television problematic tropes.