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?

On Women

On Being “Likeable”

“She Who Dies With the Most ‘Likes’ Wins”  by Jessica Valenti, The Nation.

Yes, the more successful you are—or the stronger, the more opinionated—the less you will be generally liked. All of a sudden people will think you’re too “braggy,” too loud, too something. But the trade off is undoubtedly worth it. Power and authenticity are worth it.

And in a world where women are told to be anxious about everything—that we can’t “have it all” but will forever be searching for it—saying that ambition and success are actually pretty great can be a radical message.

Besides, being liked is overrated. Wanting to be liked means tempering your thoughts as to not offend. Wanting to be liked means not arguing vociferously with a female peer—something that could improve and add to your ideas—for fear that they’ll be insulted or that they won’t want to be friends. Wanting to be liked means agonizing over every negative comment in an online thread, even if they’re coming from people you don’t care about and don’t think much of.

Wanting to be liked means being a supporting character in your own life, using the cues of the actors around you to determine your next line rather than your own script. It means that your self-worth will always be tied to what someone else thinks about you, forever out of your control.

Me, my characters, and every woman I know could stand to remind themselves of this every single day. Love it.

Chick-Lit, Experimenting, On Manny, On Women, On Writing

An experiment

I’m Manny. I’m not a male nanny, it’s short for Amanda. I’m a 26-year-old Washington, DC resident who has held various day jobs in journalism, but I’ve been told by a few pretty insightful friends that my true calling might be writing chick-lit.

At first, I was offended by this.

Sure, I’ve read my fair share of Jennifer Weiner and Emily Giffin. I adore all things Nora Ephron.  Feministing and Slate’s X Factor blog are mainstays of my Google Reader. I also have a sort of closet obsession with dating blogs that I don’t really like to talk about…

Writing about women and their experiences can sometimes involve talking about these things called “feelings.” Dissecting relationships (not just romantic ones). Exploring what it means to be human in an appealing, smart and hopefully not-too-precious sort of way. In real life, I do these things all the time. On the page, I mostly stick to facts, quotes from public officials and the inverted pyramid. And all literary hand-wringing about the term “chick-lit” aside, the truth is, I’ve been too embarrassed to admit that I might just have the “chick-lit” gene. My friends have called my bluff.

Watch me let my uncool, feeling-talking, sorta-girlie freak flag fly as I attempt what thousands before me attempt every November: 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ll post updates on my novel writing progress and include some links and thoughts on the writing, journalism, women and snark about trend stories about women. You’ll be keeping me accountable to my goal, and arming yourself with plenty of things to tease me about in the meantime. As if you needed any more.