Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Historical Body Image

by | August 2, 2013 | 27 comments

C.W. Eckersberg - 1841

C.W. Eckersberg – 1841

So a while back I read this great post by Nancy Goodman entitled “How ‘Real’ Do We Really Want Our Romance?”.  In it she hits briefly on the topics of PTSD, rape, abuse, and the like popping up in more and more romance novels these days.  She goes on to wonder how much authenticity we actually want in our accuracy.  In the process she mentions that for some readers, the worst problem they feel comfortable with is that the heroine is a little plump.

Of course, that one tiny sentence in the post spun me off into a world of thinking about the realism of plump heroines.  It dawned on me that our 21st century standard of body image and relative plumpness is not anywhere near what the standard definition has been for the past couple of millennia.

I wish I had the time to do master’s thesis level research on this one, but since I don’t, I’ll share with you what I know … and a bunch of pictures gleaned from Wikicommons.

(forgot to write down the artist) - 1514

(forgot to write down the artist) – 1514

Skinny is a late 20th century standard.  We all know this.  We all know about how Marilyn Monroe was purported to be anything from a size 10 to a 14 (debate over the change in clothing sizes continues to rage).  We’ve seen that awesome meme floating around the net showing ads from the 1950s that tell women how to add pounds to shed that skinny-girl image.  We know that “healthy” buxom women have been the subject of artistic fantasy for centuries.  We know all of these things.

So how many of us actually envision our heroines as a size 12 as we write?

Yeah, I’m guilty of modern imagery as I write too.  The fact of the matter is that up until the 20th century, being a little plump was a good thing.  It meant that you had enough to eat, for one thing.  It meant that you had a steady supply of food, very likely supplied by the lean and wiry peasants or tenants who worked your land.  Pudge was a sign of class.  If you could afford to be squashy, then good for you!

Portrait of Anne of Danemark - 1617

Portrait of Anne of Danemark – 1617

Starving peasants, plague-riddled tradesmen, and skinny nobles under siege are not models of safety and prosperity.  Historically, lack of fat meant that something was wrong, situations were dire.  Sure, maybe it was a glandular thing, but even that is an indication that all is not perfectly normal.

Weight from a biological standpoint is also a sign that you’ve survived.  I know this, because when I hit 35, not only did my hormones shift, my metabolism changed and I gained 25 pounds.  Go me!  I survived past the most dangerous time in life!  I earned this weight!  Those who have had babies and lived to tell the tale earned it too—now or in 1274 or 1866 or 647BC.  Weight is a sign of accomplishment.

Manet, La Parisienne - 1876

Manet, La Parisienne – 1876

Or at least it was.  Nowadays it’s a sign that you’ve had too much McDonald’s.  Our perception of what sexy looks like is very different now than in the times that most of us are writing.  And yet, we all have to deal with that “reader expectation” thing.  If we casually fill out the details of our heroines’ physical appearance by mentioning voluptuous thighs or soft bellies or round faces, is that going to be too much for a reader to accept in their reality?

I don’t know.  I say we give it a try.  The 21st century ideal of skinny is certainly not the healthiest image that we’ve ever had as a species (although neither is the epidemic of obesity that we’re faced with).  I’m all for trying for a healthy middle ground.  Size 10, here I come!


Even the Virgin Mary had a little more weight in 1325

Even the Virgin Mary had a little more weight in 1325


Rembrandt's luscious heroine in 1654?  Not super skinny

Rembrandt’s luscious heroine in 1654? Not super skinny


I just had to throw this 1857 comic in because it makes me giggle and think of my Regency-writing friends.

I just had to throw this 1857 comic in because it makes me giggle and think of my Regency-writing friends.




  1. Marin

    Wonderful post, Merry! It really is fascinating to look at the notion of body image in history. I am also on the-ahem-voluptuous side, and my stomach hasn’t been flat since I was 13. I hadn’t really given it conscious thought, but after I read your post I realized that I tend to visualize my heroines on the curvy side as well, although I always make them taller than I am. 🙂

    • Merry Farmer

      Thanks, Marin! It’s funny how we visualize characters in books based on our own experiences, isn’t it. Well, that or I tend to visualize whichever actor or actress I’m into at the time. 😉

  2. Callie Hutton

    Great post, Merry. I really enjoyed it. I remember reading doctor’s notes when I worked for an attorney years ago (back in the ’80s), and the reports always started out “The patient is a well-nourished female. . .”. So even then we still thought not being skinny was a good thing. How the tide is changed. Emaciated body is the ideal, and obesity is the norm. Strange, that.

    • Merry Farmer

      Thanks, Callie! Yep, that’s it exactly: “Well-nourished”. And we should be proud of that too. It’s the healthy way to be, after all.

  3. Beppie Harrison

    All it takes is the most casual look at art of the period compared to our book covers to see exactly what you’re talking about. For me (even as I grit my teeth and count the calories myself) I try to bypass the whole issue by using the fudge word “slender,” which sort of is whatever people thought it was then. Or now. I figure chick lit or New Adult or whatever it is now is the place to make a big deal of weight. We’re not contemporary!

    • Merry Farmer

      I kind of like that idea, Beppie! If, as I gain my middle age weight, anyone asks me what the deal is, I’m just going to reply to them, “Oh, it’s okay, I’m not Contemporary, that’s all.” 😉

  4. Ally

    Very interesting post, Merry.

    We went to Washington, D.C. over the Fourth of July and visited the National Gallery. I noticed the same thing about the women in the paintings and remembered my long ago art history class in college where we discussed Titian’s female models.

    I think it would be difficult to accurately represent size on paper because we all have a different perception of what overweight means. Even if you had what readers might think of as a plump heroine, what size would that be? Some might think a size 12 (I’m looking at you, Mike Jeffries)is fat, while others would picture plus sizes. It’s so subjective.

    • Merry Farmer

      Isn’t the National Gallery a wonderful place? You can walk around and get a thousand ideas for stories just from looking at the paintings. And you’re right, the people portrayed are almost universally “healthier” than we are.

  5. Nancy S Goodman

    Thanks so much for the mention Merry. Great post! I think what bothers me is when writers use a physical attribute as a negative, without ever having the woman embrace it for herself. I believe in order to have a strong heroine, she must love who she is as much as the hero comes to love her.

    • Merry Farmer

      So true, Nancy! I always enjoy a romance more when the heroine accepts herself for who she is, how she is. Shape is only a part of that, but I love it. =D

  6. Lani

    Merry, I’ve decided we have to become BFFs! So *poof* you are my new best friend!

    I have been ruminating over weight for SO long! For sixteen years I worked in the health field. I’ve seen every diet fad, every exercise fad, and everything else in between. I’ve watched how in 1998 the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute changed government BMI benchmarks, lowering the normal/overweight cutoff from 27.8 to 25. As Linda Bacon and many other professionals tell it: Overnight the majority of Americans were considered fat, whereas the day before they were average. I’ve also read countless surveys and studies that say that obesity can lead to so many diseases. Only to have the science of the studies seriously under question later. The true science of health is just not there, unfortunately. This is tragic, considering just how many people are bullied and belittled just because of their weight.

    As a historian we can take the weight issue back into a more accurate portrayal. You are exactly correct when saying that people in past centuries were plump, and that was a good thing! This isn’t just true of women, but of men too. Just take a look at military officers and aristocratic men–the little pot belly is almost always present. But would this sell in a book? I just don’t know.

    But the one thing I do know, on an emotional level, is that, like Nancy, I am so tired of writers using physical attributes to demonize their characters. The fat villain who is greedy; the crazed fem fatale who is almost as strong as a man; the chubby sidekick friend with all the funny lines, but never gets the guy–all of these characters endorse prejudice. Why can’t the greedy villain be skinny? Why is the sidekick chubby? And why can’t she get a great guy too? But my least favorite is the strong woman villain, who is crazy and mean and tough as a man. Why is being tough used for female villain fodder? I take this personally because I used to be able to pick up my brother, a 200 pound + man, and carry him for a bit in my arms. I’ve stacked tons of hay. I used to teach kickboxing classes. Yeah, I know I’m tough, so why does this mean that a person like me in a book can’t get the hero, but be more associated with a villain?

    I really went off there. Sorry! But here is my point: in nature all species show variance in sizes. There never has been One Size Fits All. And personally I want to write about the chubby sidekick, who I don’t think is really chubby but just right, and how she falls in love with a hero, and he for her. But especially I want to READ about a perfect size 12 girl who finds her happily ever after and doesn’t have to shed a pound for it.

    Merry, let me know if you want to do our own study on this, because I’m all in! Sorry again for the rant!

    • Merry Farmer

      *LOL* I love it, Lani! BFFs we are!

      And you’re so right about the physical stereotypes that always seem to pop up in novels, and movies and TV too. I think Eloisa James has done a good job of breaking away from stereotypes lately. If I remember correctly, both the heroine and her friend in The Ugly Duchess were different-looking. I think Courtney Milan does a good job of that too. And I certainly hope I can create characters that break the mold too!

  7. Paisley Kirkpatrick

    This is a great topic, Merry. It really bothers me at how thin some of the entertainers are and how advertising pushes all the teens to be skinny. I wish they would show all sizes and shapes. I was horrified when they wanted to caliper my third grade daughter’s fat. It was so damaging. I love to see all shapes and sizes and types of women in the books. I think you are right that we write our characters to match our own experiences. Size and shape can definitely define personalities. My heroines all seem to have nice “to quote my male CP” boobage and the heroes always seem to enjoy looking at it.

    • Merry Farmer

      Who on earth thinks it’s a good idea to caliper a third-grader??? Gah! It’s such a societal problem. Good thing a lot of people are starting to combat that now at a grass-roots level.

      And “boobage”. *ggls*

  8. Gail Upp

    Very good post. I call myself more Venus of Willendorf than Venus de Milo (who has 42 inch hips by the way) and proud of it because I have arms. Georgette Heyer used to describe her heroines as (one of them in particular being Drusilla in “The Quiet Gentleman”) “having a plump, trim figure.” That didn’t used to be a contradiction. The book I’m currently writing has a heroine who is 53, still getting the guys (wishful thinking, anyone?) and whose best suit “fit her five years and ten pounds ago”. She’s a woman, not a clothes rack. Yes, flesh used to be considered a sign of health because food was scarce — “Yon Cassius hath a lean and hungry look.” People who were thin were objects of pity or suspicion, especially if they were well off. In this time we live in, in the first world (only), we are all too aware that the cheapest food is the unhealthiest and the most likely to put on weight, so what is considered healthy (and upper class) has shifted.

  9. Ella Quinn

    Speaking for the Regency and Victorian eras, if one’s collar bone showed it was a sign of vulgarity.

    As to modern health, even people who have a healthy diet can be what we consider to be overweight, likewise, there are skinny people who eat all sorts of junk.

    All my heroines are and “armful.”

  10. Aileen Fish

    It’s interesting you post this as I’m finishing writing a Regency novella where the young heroine feels less than beautiful because she is too thin. I have a feeling, though, that insecurities existed in every age, and women were often sure they didn’t fit the desirable norm.

  11. Barb Bettis

    Interesting post, Merry. It reminded me of a line from the song If I Were a Rich Man, from “Fiddler on the Roof,” where Tevye wishes he had money so his wife, Golde, could have “a proper double chin.” Alas, today he’d be wishing he were rich so she could afford the latest diet.

    Great topic discussion everyone.

  12. Susan Macatee

    Great post, Merry! While skinny might be the perfect body image in our time, it wasn’t in the 19th century.

    I played around with body image in my Civil War time travel romance, Erin’s Rebel. The thin 21st century heroine found herself thrust back in time into what she thinks is her ancestor’s body and she notes how her face and body are a bit plumper.

    • Merry Farmer

      I like the idea of addressing body image in time travel romance, Susan. It almost seems more relevant in that context. I remember reading one novel, I think it was called “Twopenny Bride”, or something to that effect, by Virginia Farmer. The heroine nearly had a coronary when she was transported into the body of an 18th century woman.

      Incidentally, Virginia Farmer is no relation, but that is my grandma’s name. My 85 year-old, God-fearing, church-going, doesn’t read that kind of book grandma. Of course I sent her a copy of the book to show to her friends. 😉

  13. Suzi Love

    Great topic. Love this discussion and the idea of a plump trim figure.

  14. LynHorner

    Weight has been a touchy subject forever, it seems. we’re either too thin or too fat. It’s enough to make one’s head spin. That said, plump heroines, or heroes, are not what most readers look for, in my humble opinion. Kind of sad really.

  15. Sandra Owens

    Great post, Merry. There probably hasn’t been a time in history that women haven’t thought themselves too thin, too fat, too something. It’s interesting to look at the pictures in your post and imagine how they would pity today’s models.

  16. Winona Cross

    What a great read! The title alone intrigued me but I enjoyed the way you wove history, current expectations, and pictures through the post. I do wonder if we as writers are compelled to make our heroes and heroines as mouth watering firm and thin with largesse to be found in biceps and boobs.

    As a plump (actually obese, sixty something woman I’m all for plump. But, the question remains–would readers accept it? I would if the romance, plot, and conflict is there.

    Great post.

  17. Judith Hanes

    Loved the reality check! We sometimes forget how things really were when caught up in our “make believe worlds”. Now wouldn’t be great if we were allowed to present history as it really happened and not have to worry about being politically correct all the time? Not that I would want to offend anyone deliberately but if in the name of historical accuracy can you write what actually happened in the exact words (thinking of inflammatory racial words, or scenes of very violent rape,etc) without being told it can’t be published, or having it edited to be less violent or other words substituted? I know there are somethings I will not read because I find them offensive…Hummm…Social standards do change and so does our view of history and what we want to read about history

  18. Màiri Norris

    After reading the previous posts on this subject, Merry, it appears you struck a nerve. It certainly resonates with me, since I was categorized as ‘chubby’ since I hit puberty (course I’m rather beyond now). As a result of believing myself too fat, I became borderline anorexic. I was fortunate that a good friend steered me straight.
    Now, I write my heroines-and sidekicks-however my mind thinks they look. The heroine of my first book is tall and slender, while the gal in my second book is ‘the girl next door’, average height, average looks, but in the weight department, a bit of an ‘armful’ for her husband, who loves her that way (and she has no problem with it, either.)
    It’s natural for women to have ‘flesh on their bones’, to have a little rounded tummy and plenty of curves. Denying what is natural to our heroines is doing them no favors, IMO.
    Thanks for the opportunity to throw in my two cents.

  19. Angelyn

    Two royal women struggled with their weight in the Victorian period. The empress of Austria (Sissi) was obsessed with her weight and you can still see her exercise rings in the royal palace in Vienna. Victoria’s daughter Vicky, the Princess Royal constantly bemoaned how short and dumpy she looked.

    I liked looking at the pictures in this post–good work!



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