“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?