Diversity is shaping up to be the word of the decade. From the White House to the Oscars to literature, it’s a hot topic. As it should be.
As both an author and reader, I’m taking steps to curb the gross bias against non-white, non-hetero, and disabled people in our literature. I’m reading more diverse (especially diverse authors) and being far more conscious of the diversity in my own writing than I ever have before, because I have come to see how much REPRESENTATION MATTERS.
Then, that got me thinking… do I (a white, hetero woman) feel represented in the literature I read? The answer is–shockingly–no! I don’t. And it’s for a very simple reason. None of the heroines in the books I read look like me, either. Because they are ALL*–I’m serious, I can think of zero exceptions–thin and exceptionally beautiful.
Literature heroines can be scrawny nerds or tall, athletic Amazons. Most of them range from the dainty waif to svelte dancer’s body to voluptuous temptress. Even the book heroines who are not conventionally beautiful are, at the very least, thin. I don’t know about you, but seven out of ten of my girlfriends do not fit anywhere on that narrow spectrum. And, as a writing friend pointed out, they also almost always transition at some point in the story to become more beautiful via a makeover or some magical transformation, and this is usually when they also get more agency in the story, equating beauty to validity and power.
For most of my life I’ve been what most people would call fat, and I do not see myself in these characters at all. Never are the heroines in my favorite genres chubby. Never are they MORE than chubby. Even in the romance genre–which has been historically ahead of the rest of the publishing industry on diversity–heroines who are girthier than a twig are relegated to a fetishized subgenre (BBW romance).
I’ve been outspoken on the body positivity movement from the get-go, because I’ve struggled with my weight and self-esteem my entire life. Now that I’m a woman of 30-odd years and have been around the block a few times, you know what I’ve figured out? Fashion. Beauty. Fitspo. It’s all bullshit. It’s bullshit that the media feeds us to sell stuff. They make us feel inadequate by bombarding us with images of an unattainable ideal, so that we will buy their “fixes” for problems that aren’t even real. And, just as I’ve woken to the systemic misogyny and racism in our society, the insidiousness of this “beauty standard” disease has grown more and more apparent to me. It is so ingrained I hadn’t even realized it was there in ALL of my books too, until recently. When I did, it PISSED. ME. OFF.
On an aside, check out this amazing poetry slam by the talented Melissa May that captures the need for this diversity SO WELL (have a tissue handy, it is POWERFUL):
Why, why, why?
Why can’t a heroine be the non-standard body type AND ALSO be attractive to the hero AND ALSO be a smart inventor, or a badass pilot, or a skilled martial artist? I know women in real life who are all of those things…and also fat.
I know that at least half of my favorite authors are “non-ideal” body types like me, and yet we ALL still write our characters to that bullshit ideal. We are so messed up in our own heads, even we believe the lies and fall right into line with the status quo.
Well, not me. Not anymore. And to my fellow authors–it is up to us to change this, and WE CAN DO BETTER.
It starts with a conversation. It starts by asking why? And why not? It starts with recognizing that representation matters, and that includes representing all body types too.
Because the longer we go along with the status quo, the more girls will grow up thinking that only thin, pretty girls have interesting stories.