That might seem like a pretty out of the blue statement, but I just wanted to let you know. If you've ever read romance novels, you'd probably never know it.
I do read romance novels — I read the big historicals and paranormals and all that stuff, but what I really love? Are the Harlequin Blaze 4-titles-a-month novels. I don't judge you for what you read, so bear with me here. *grin*
After you've read a chunk of these a month for several years, certain patterns make themselves kind of obvious. And one of those patterns is that, perhaps in pursuit of realism, romance novels are touching a lot more explicitly on body hatred. Sometimes this is okay. Most of the time, this is a disaster.
If you're not familiar, let me describe the heroine to you. She is white. On super rare occasions in the Harlequin variety, she is half Asian. In some historicals, she is half Native American. She is either incredibly slender and self-conscious about her lack of breasts or she is super curvy and self-conscious about her "ultra feminine" body. She is not comfortable being naked. She is not fat, though she often thinks she is. If she were fat, as some heroines have been in their dark and secret pasts, she'd never have sex.
Harlequin Blaze is the series most occupied with being hot and sexy. So authors have started talking about this stuff — using the heroine's body fears as a way to create intimacy with her male (also white, unless he's half Native American, and generally ripped) partner. In other words, she is uncomfortable but his desire and devotion make her feel beautiful.
And, you know, that's all well and good if maybe a little codependent. But then you get the books where the heroine is constantly involved in bashing her body in more obvious ways or participating in bashing the bodies of other women. My favorite (and by favorite, I mean the one that makes me most angry) example of this sort of thing is a series of books by a writer named Jill Shalvis.
The most notable are Flashpoint and Flashback. Both of these books are part of the American Heroes: The Firefighters series. These books are set in Santa Rey, a charming California town where the firefighters are the hotness and an arson investigation is consuming lives.
In the first novel, Zach is the stereotypical fightfighting hottie and Brooke is the feisty EMT who is supposed to be our strong female character. I might argue with that portrayal (especially since the characterization of both Brooke and Zach is pretty weak in this one), but what really burns me is a passage toward the end of the tale. Zach has just been injured in a fire when we get to page 158.
Brooke and Dustin [the other EMT] were still unloading their patients at the E.R. when word came from the fire scene that they had the flames eighty percent contained, and the injured firefighters had been evacuated safely.
And on the way to the hospital.
Brooke took her first deep breath since she'd heard the words firefighter and down in the same sentence. She and Dustin tried to wait but an emergency call came in for them — a woman with chest pains needed assistance.
While Dustin drove, Brooke called Aidan [another firefighter].
"Blake's in surgery," Aidan said, sounding tense and stressed. "Badly broken leg."
"A concussion, broken wrist and a few second—degree burns. I know that sounds bad, but he's going to be okay, Brooke."
Relief hit her like a tidal wave, but she couldn't lose it because they'd arrived at their call, where she and Dustin found a three—hundred—and—fifty—pound woman stuck in her bed, needing assistance to the bathroom.
"You said you had chest pains," Dustin said.
"Right. I do. But I think it's heartburn."
"Are the pains gone now?" Brooke asked.
"Ma'am, we still need to bring you in to be checked—"
"Okay, so I never had chest pains. I called because you people won't come out unless it's serious."
They were speechless.
"Would you hand me my TV remote?" she asked them. "Oh, and that box of doughtnuts?"
Brooke stared at her. She'd missed being at Zach's side for this, for a woman who couldn't reach her damn remote so she'd called 911? She handed over the remote but not the doughnuts. "Ma'am, the 911 system is for real emergencies—"
"It was a real emergency."
Dustin still couldn't speak.
"Hey, I'm sorry, but Grey's Anatomy is repeating and I missed it the first time around."
"Medical emergencies," Brooke said tightly.
The woman finally had the grace to look a little abashed. "I know, but who else am I going to call?"
"You could do it yourself." No longer speechless, Dustin was clearly furious. "Consider it your daily exercise."
They left there in silence, and it was several long moments before either could speak.
"That didn't just happen," Dustin finally said.
But unfortunately it had, and they had another call, and then another, and it was several hours before Brooke could get another status check on Zach. By that time he'd been released from the hostpital and was at his house, supposedly resting.
1. The fat woman serves absolutely no purpose in this story other than as intended comic relief. She is solely intended to be an object of ridicule.
2. You aren't supposed to empathize with her to any degree — no, she is set up as a hindrance to Brooke being at her lover's side while he is in the hospital after being injured at a fire. You can go ahead and hate this fat person, getting in the way of things that are, you know, actually important.
3. Her remote? Seriously? AND DOUGHNUTS? Are you fucking kidding me? Can you play on any more fat stereotypes?
4. She's immobile enough, at 350 pounds, that she can't get her own damn remote/doughnuts? Now, Kate was talking about yesterday.I weigh 300+ pounds and, I have to tell you, I am limber enough to kick some serious ass (and to have some pretty awesome sex). This is the sort of thing that
5. Her daily exercise? Yeah, because EMTs should absolutely be portrayed as being snarky to the fat people who call them for help. That's really quality medical service right there.
There is so much wrong with this passage that it completely overwhelms the way the rest of the book is entirely mediocre. And yeah, that's a cheap shot, I admit. But it's also true. This is the only way an actually fat character generally makes it into these books — as an object for ridicule.
I am seriously curious whether or not Jill Shalvis was dieting while writing these books. Because Flashback, while it doesn't feature the same overt ridiculing of fat people, still sends a very clear message that the women need to lay off the doughnuts — that fatties can never be sexy and fat starts at a ridiculously low standard.
Yeah, she mentions doughnuts again. A lot. Kenzie, our female lead, is a soap star. And, to achieve her Hollywood beauty, she normally follows a pretty strict regimen. However, since her brother's death in a fire and everyone subsequently blaming him for all the arson, she's LET HERSELF GO! She's eating doughnuts! She is going to eat all the doughnuts in the world and get fat and no one will ever hire her to act again!
Kenzie, in this example, has just been blown up. She was on her brother's boat when it exploded andAidan, her long-lost love, rescued her from a fiery, yet still watery, grave. Now she's in the hospital.
God, she hated hospitals. They smelled like fear and pain and helplessness, and all of them combined reminded her of her own uncertain childhood. She wished she was back on the L.A. set of Hope's Passion, acting the part of the victim instead of really being one. Comfort food would help. Maybe a box of donuts—
[The inconsistent spelling isn't me — it's what is published in the book itself. And, I mean, that is obviously the result of two different editors, but come on! Isn't there a style guide for this sort of thing?]
Her doughnut musing is interrupted by a visitor. But, you know? A whole box of doughnuts? I read that and, based on the previous book, winced. Then I went on. We come to a scene where Kenzie has driven out to the docks, to stare at the wreckage of her brother's boat.
Then she sat in the parking lot nursing a hot chocolate and a blessed box of donuts, staring at the charred remains of Blake's boat.
She was alone, except for the occasional car. One was a light—gray sedan that slowed as it passed her, the windows so dark she couldn't see in. Probably another looky—loo like herself, except... except she'd seen a car like it before, somewhere…
She ate a donut.
Until a couple of weeks ago, before Blake's death, she hadn't had chocolate or donuts in months. Maybe years. She'd been on a strict eighteen-hundred-calorie diet, combined with a workout every single day, without fail. All to look good.
That's what TV stars did. They looked good. She was paid to.
Except she no longer had a TV show to look good for. Back in L.A., she knew the job—finding frenzy had already begun. All her co—stars were busy auditioning, and what was she doing? Eating donuts instead of facing the fact that she was unemployed.
Do I really have to explain what is wrong with our heroine sitting in a car eating doughnuts and thinking about how she USED to look good? Throughout this book she is presented as being the hottest thing Aidan has ever had the privilege of touching. But, you know, she's had a week of eating doughnuts and now that is all over.
"What did you send him?"
She lifted a shoulder. "Rough drafts of stuff."
"I've been writing. Scripts." Another lift of her shoulder. "For the day I finally ate too many donuts and didn't get asked to audition anymore."
Seriously, I'm ready to cry now. Her constant harping on doughnuts at first made me want a doughnut and then it made me never want to think about doughnuts ever again. Because, OMG, can there possibly be any more angst associated with a snack food?
"And, anyway, it no longer matters." She turned back to the screen. "It's over."
"What do you mean?"
"My soap got cancelled."
"Yeah, and there are auditions for new parts but I've been eating too many donuts, so…"
"So I'm going to get fat."
He let out a low laugh. "You look great, Kenzie. So great I haven't been able to keep my hands off you, as you might have noticed. But I'm very sorry about your job." He couldn't believe he was about to say this. "You could always stay in Santa Rey."
"I thought about it." She sighed and faced him again. "But staying seems like a comfort thing. You know, like going back to the last place where I was happy. It's a cop—out. And I was only happy here because of Blake."
He held his breath. He'd made her happy, too. Until he hadn't. "Maybe it was more than that."
"I don't know." She sighed without giving away her exact feelings on the matter, although he suspected she didn't know her exact feelings. "I wouldn't be able to get a job here."
"I know they don't film TV or movies anywhere close, but you could do something other than act."
She scoffed, then looked at him with heart—breaking hope. "Like what?"
"You know what. You could write. And eat all the damn donuts you want."
Okay, I'd like to first, and most simply, address the idea that going back to the place you were last happy is a cop-out. What the shit kind of crack rock logic is that? You can't ever go back to the places where you were happy? The hell? What makes it a cop-out, exactly? If she doesn't want to go back to L.A., then what is she supposed to do to NOT be a cop-out? Move to Wichita (which may be a very lovely place, I've never been) just because she has never lived there?
And now let's talk about the idea that her career is over because she has eaten some doughnuts. She has eaten some doughnuts and so she is going to get fat. She's going to get fat and look horrible and be miserable and wah wah wah wah wah.
Don't get me wrong, I love romance novels, as deeply and incredibly flawed as they can be. But I do not think women of any size are made sexier by self—hatred. All these fictional women who are so afraid that they are fat? I just want to tell them, "Honey, it's not that bad. And you can still get laid."
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Kate Harding founded Kate Harding's Shapely Prose, a blog about body acceptance and the treatment of fat people in the media.
Marianne Kirby is dedicated to body politics and fat acceptance. She is co-moderator of the Livejournal community Fatshionista, which has more than 2,500 members.
Books mentioned in this post
Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby is the author of Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body