Chick-Lit, On Women, On Writing

Beyond Beauty Mags: Chick Lit Is Bad For Your Self-Esteem

So, psychology has moved on from targeting Cosmopolitan as the place where a young woman’s self-esteem goes to die and found a new culprit: chick-lit novels.
Not only is chick-lit divisive in  the literary community — it’s also hazardous to your health, according to a new Virginia Tech study. The researchers had 159 girls in their early 20s answer questions about how they perceived their own weight and attractiveness after reading doctored-up passages from a chick-lit novel (we don’t know which novels. Well, OK, we might if I wanted to purchase a PDF of the actual study. Which I don’t. Sorry!)
Some of the study’s participants read a narrative with a skinny protagonist (this article calls it “underweight” but let’s call a spade a spade, m’kay?). Some read a narrative featuring an “average-weight or overweight” central female character, and others read a passage where the female protagonist had some body image issues. Surprise, surprise, the study participants in the latter group “were significantly more concerned about their weight than participants in the control condition.”

“In other words, readers had a stronger, more personal reaction to the character’s internal dialogue than to the novelist’s description of her body,” as Pacific Standard’s Tom Jacobs put it.

Well, duh. Of course a character’s inner monologue leaves a bigger imprint on the reader’s psyche than the author’s physical description. Why else does a writer even mention her character’s appearance unless she wants to let readers know that this, in some way, informs who that character is? In many cases in women’s fiction (or chick lit, whichever you prefer), a female protagonist’s appearance does inform who they are, or how they think about themselves — for better or for worse (and I’d argue that says more about where we’re at as a society than it does about women’s literature). It’s not difficult to imagine feeling more empathy for a character who tells us how she feels about her body in her own words. An inner monologue, even in a novel written largely in the third person, ups the intimacy quotient between character and reader.

I do wonder what would have happened to the study’s participants if they’d read anything by Jennifer Weiner. Weiner, patron saint of women’s fiction, tends to write confident but relatable female protagonists. In “Good in Bed,” Weiner’s debut novel, our heroine Cannie Shapiro neither starts nor ends the novel as a skinny girl. In a Q&A with Weiner printed in the back of my paperback copy of the book, Weiner says this is no accident:

“Like Cannie, I’ve suffered with the culture that never shows women who look like me unless they’re desperately trying to look some other way, or when they’re there for comic relief…It’s true that being big can give you all kinds of unhappiness, but it doesn’t mean that you’re destined for a life of misery and/or comic relief.”

Cannie struggles with body image issues, to be sure. The book opens, hilariously, with Cannie reading a first-person account about loving a plus-sized woman…written by her ex-boyfriend. But the novel isn’t defined by Cannie’s quest to become thin, nor is the narrative consumed by her body image neuroses. I’d be shocked if anyone would report finishing the book and feeling worse about her body.

I also wonder about selection bias in this study: who are these 159 women? Is it possible they could be the sorts of young women who read Cosmo, watch “The Bachelor” unironically and pin wedding gowns to Pinterest before they are even engaged?  I’m being flip here, but what I mean to say is, were the women in the study more apt to buy into the beauty myth to begin with? And are these really the only women reading chick lit?

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