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.
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!
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.
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!