Romance’s Body Type Problem

To me, romance is the most feminist literary genre. It promotes female agency in the workplace, domestic sphere and bedroom, as well as celebrating women/women friendships and professional successes. Romance is about communication, equality and going after what you want – and because of that I hold it to a higher standard.

Don’t get me wrong – romance has a diversity problem. I’m of the mind that feminism without intersectionality doesn’t count as feminism anymore, and romance certainly falls behind when it comes to characters of color, as well as religion, physical ability and, as I’ll outline here, body type. 

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Before you get the pitchforks, let me just say – yes, there is the BBW, Big Beautiful Women, subgenre. But as Beverly Jenkins once said of the diversity problem ‘African American is not a genre’ so it applies to body type. Real, diverse bodies are not a genre, they are a reality.

Just as we see young black students struggling in a world where very few forms of media represent them at all, let alone positively, we are saying to women of all shapes and sizes, you don’t exist in the romance sphere because you don’t fit into this totally subjective standard of beauty mold.

There are different challenges facing the issue of body type representation and racial and religious representation, but to me they all fall into the diversity category. It is important to show characters outside the spectrum of traditional beauty, because the readers feel as though they are being represented, as though they could be the heroine of the story, as though their story matters and they deserve to find love and happiness.

Limiting the heroine scope to the thin, sometimes curvy, blonde is a disservice to the genre as a whole. Most women don’t look like that. I just got back from a 3.5 mile run, one of several this week, and I still do not fall into the category of thin, and I likely never will. Women come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and it is vital for an genre that touts such feminist ideals to understand that the standard of beauty they portray goes against that feminist ideology. 

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There is no perfect body type. Bodies are real: One boob is bigger than the other, our skin breaks out, we have varicose veins on our thighs and rough patches of skin on the back of our arms. We have bad hair days and dry lip days and sometimes our feet smell really, really bad.

These are real things that happen to real humans, and while romance is an escapist genre with a magic eraser for the real world, if we don’t represent a little of the reality, of the nature of diverse body types and the people who feel comfortable in them, we do not do our readers credit, and we do not do ourselves credit.

vintage-1501595_1920I don’t need to go into why the standard of beauty is dangerous, or how mass media perpetuates a nearly unattainable ideal. That is a conversation for another day. What I will say is that, in our genre, we must take responsibility.

We must move BBW from being a genre, a subgenre, to being part of the mainstream romance ideology. We must confront the idea that the ideal, westernized perfect body is thin, white and a small part of the population. We must be strong enough to move past that.

Am I perfect in this regard? Not by half. I tend to write heroines that look like I do, a little curvy around the hips and breasts, maybe a little extra in the middle, usually short. But that is still one body type of the whole wide world to choose from. In a recent story, I wrote a ballet dancer, who has a very different body type from my female mercenary, trained in martial arts. While they are both thin, as befitting our standard, it is because of their jobs and integral to the storyline that they look a certain way and are capable of certain things. Writing character shape and size with intention, as opposed to falling back to the baseline, will create fuller, more dynamic characters that represent a larger part of the population. 

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As I move forward, I must recognize in my own writing, that diversity extends beyond race, religion and country of origin, to include women who might not make it to the cover of this or that magazine, and I want that to be a good thing.

Putting heroines who look like our vast variety of readers at the forefront of the story is a way of combatting that insane standard. It’s a way of saying, you are more than good enough the way you are – and, as a reader and lover of romance, you deserve love just like everyone else.

We are a feminist genre. It’s time we start acting that way.♥

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