Peddling Visions of Beauty

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

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29 Responses to “Peddling Visions of Beauty”

  1. bungluna says:

    Well said!

    I myself favor authors who don’t describe their heroines in minute detail but leave it up to me. Jennifer Crusie is an example of this.

    And it’s not just the heroines. The heroes have become so impossibly sculpted that it’s a wonder they have time to do anything but go to the gym and eat rice cakes!

  2. LeeB. says:

    Great blog Jean! And oh yeah, have had the same experience shopping in stores. Flimsy materials on the affordable stuff. Which of course will fall apart within the year. And don’t get me started on the low cut tops! I can’t wear those to work.

  3. Erin Burns says:

    This! Both on the shopping (I have to shop in the tall section for pants and the petites section for tops and dresses–and there are no petites in my town anymore) and the homogeneity of heroines. It used to be that I was frustrated when an author didn’t really describe the physical appearance of the characters, now, in absence of a character who doesn’t look like every single character I’ve read all week, I’ll take that non-description and fill it in with whatever vision I want in my head.

  4. Blackjack1 says:

    I’m not so much interested in a detailed physical description as I am in wanting the hero and heroine to be infatuated with their prospective partner, and hopefully that infatuation extends beyond just the physical. For many authors, this means that the hero and heroine must be above average looking, but there are more unique ways for two people to be smitten with each other and it’s up to a good writer to convey that well.

  5. RosieH says:

    I’m interested in the way that throughout history, our idea of beauty has changed. Of course the fashions of the day play a part but I wonder if women considered beautiful in past ages would seem so today. I have always been disappointed in the so called beauties of late Victorian and Edwardian times as depicted in photographs.
    I get a bit annoyed when the author of a historical romance describes the hero and heroine in modern terms rather than taking into account the fashions and ideals of the era. But then again, it’s fiction and I always prefer a clean shaven man.

  6. Susan/DC says:

    For a long time I had difficulty finding pants that fit because I have both a waist and hips. If they fit in the waist they were too small in the hips, and if they fit my hips the waistband would stick out several inches in the back. Now a number of stores offer a style they call “curvy”, and as a result I’ve bought more pants in the last year than I did for years before that because the curvy pants actually fit.

    As for romance heroines, I like it when they are less than perfect but I do have to believe that the hero is physically, as well as emotionally, attracted to her. Perhaps she is average looking but has beautiful skin or a good figure (e.g. Laura Lee Guhrke’s “Guilty Pleasures”) or something else that the hero notices. Or as in Anne Gracie’s “The Perfect Rake”, he thinks she is beautiful and can’t comprehend that the rest of the world thinks she’s average when compared to her beautiful sisters. But best is when an author doesn’t go into detail. As noted above, Jennifer Crusie is good at this, and Mary Stewart didn’t have to describe her heroine in “Madam Will You Talk” — just from the hero’s reaction we knew she was beautiful and he was attracted, much against his will.

    • I love “Guilty Pleasures.” She’s such an wonderful heroine.

    • Jean Wan says:

      For a long time I had difficulty finding pants that fit because I have both a waist and hips.If they fit in the waist they were too small in the hips, and if they fit my hips the waistband would stick out several inches in the back.Now a number of stores offer a style they call “curvy”, and as a result I’ve bought more pants in the last year than I did for years before that because the curvy pants actually fit.

      As for romance heroines, I like it when they are less than perfect but I do have to believe that the hero is physically, as well as emotionally, attracted to her.Perhaps she is average looking but has beautiful skin or a good figure (e.g. Laura Lee Guhrke’s “Guilty Pleasures”) or something else that the hero notices.Or as in Anne Gracie’s “The Perfect Rake”, he thinks she is beautiful and can’t comprehend that the rest of the world thinks she’s average when compared to her beautiful sisters.But best is when an author doesn’t go into detail.As noted above, Jennifer Crusie is good at this, and Mary Stewart didn’t have to describe her heroine in “Madam Will You Talk” — just from the hero’s reaction we knew she was beautiful and he was attracted, much against his will.

      I buy curvy jeans too, but I still have problems in the waist (what you describe) and thigh. Bah.

      I think everyone has some physical characteristics that make them stand out, or makes them culturally beautiful to someone. What I question is this monolithic, homogeneous standard of beauty that heroines have in all areas.

      • Yuri says:

        I think everyone has some physical characteristics that make them stand out, or makes them culturally beautiful to someone. What I question is this monolithic, homogeneous standard of beauty that heroines have in all areas.

        I agree everyone has something about them that makes them beautiful, especially if they’re appropriately dressed, and something that makes them ugly. It’s one of the reason I’ve always liked makeover stories. I guess in a romance I want to believe that at least the hero appreciates the heroine, physically as well as emotionally. I’ll admit that I prefer authors to focus on the positive, but I’m happy enough if a heroine isn’t perfect: for instance Molly in Brockmann’s ‘Out of Control’ seemed like a normal forty plus figure but Jones really appreciated it and Molly was very comfortable with herself, which made her attractive. Maybe I don’t pay that much attention, but I really don’t think that romances are that uniform when it comes to physical type, but I’d really make more variation on age and more than token ethnicity.

        • Jean Wan says:

          Age and ethnicity – that too. I think the beauty variance is better in contemporaries. It’s a lot more homogeneous in historicals.

    • Blythe says:

      My daughter has a similar issue and has started altering things to fit. She actually laughed with glee when she figured out that it was relatively easy for her to take in the waist of a dress so it fit her waist and boobs.

      Don’t hate me, but I can’t relate to this one. I tried to think of a time in my life when I couldn’t find clothes easily, and I was completely stumped. I’m taller than average (but not too tall) and literally wear the same size as most mannequins (right down to their size nine feet).

      Blythe

  7. ML says:

    I have seen, particularly in ebooks, a number of heroines who are larger, or not perfect in their features, etc. Honestly, I do find variety in how women are shown in romance.

    What’s hard to find are *heroes* who cover the gamut. Most of them are physically attractive, extremely fit, and/or broodingly attractive. I can’t remember the last book I read where the hero had mousy brown hair, or was a bit overweight, or didn’t have piercing eyes. But I have read romances recently where the heroines were portrayed that way.

    So if the romance hero is usually physically perfect, is it that surprising to find a number of books where the heroine is his physical match?

    • Jean Wan says:

      I think this is generally consistent with romances in the past and present, although with more m/m romances (and with more “out” male readership) this may change in the future. If we assume that romances are written primarily for women, then women readers like to know that their heroines have flaws just like them. However, we would dream of attractive, fit men loving us for who we are. It’s undoubtedly a double standard, and one that I think has been addressed before, but I truly don’t see this one likely to change. In fiction it’s acceptable (Cormoran Strike, J K Rowling’s PI hero comes to mind), but in romance? Not a chance.

      • ML says:

        I agree; I don’t expect it to change. But it is a double standard, and I know my husband has said to me that no guy could live up to this! :-)

        • Elizabeth Rolls says:

          But are we asking them to live up to this? Really? A fantasy is just that; a fantasy. I don’t expect my dog to live up to one of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern either.

    • And, if I may be indelicate, they are all packing whoppers.

  8. Paola says:

    There’s an ugly heroine in Karen Ranney’s novella A Dance in the Dark and an ugly hero in Lisa Marie Rice’s Midnight Angel.

    • Blackjack1 says:

      _Midnight Angel_ has long been in my TBR pile. Thanks for that reminder!

      • Paola says:

        I’ m looking forward to her August release of Midnight Vengeance. The hero Jacko is a minor character of Midnight Angel and he’s described as even scarier than Douglas in MA.

  9. Paola says:

    The heroine in Maisey Yates’s Pretender to the Throne has half her face scarred by an acid attack.

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