This will be a short one because part of me can’t believe I feel compelled to write this. I recently started a book and came across some really gross body-shaming that kind of had me stare at the page for a while. I read it again, blinked, and of course blamed myself at first – as fat chicks are taught to do. And really, everybody can do whatever they want, can feature characters who are callous and mean – but especially when it’s the protagonist who does this – I really don’t have to keep reading, when the author or their character basically just told me I’m hideous and not deserving of love. It’s interesting that I find so much of this in erotic fiction, which is arguably the one where it is most important to make the readers feel wanted, like this could happen to them, too.
So I thought here is a tiny, handy guide to check if you use body shaming language.
“She turns around, her panties barely covering her perfect ass. It seems like all the girls my age are doomed with cellulite, it’s disgusting, but she has none.”
This is the actual quote that stirred me to write this, and it’s kind extreme in that the disgust and shame is not just implied, but told us straight-out. Here, the female protagonist is described basically on the back of women who are less pretty than she is. She is beautiful in comparison, not really by herself. Even in real life, we have to check ourselves all the time not to think like that, stuff like “oh, wow at least I don’t have acne scars like that,” or whatever are really a toxic way to boost our self esteem, because it just makes us all the more consscious of all the little flaws where the best we can do is: “at least my thighs aren’t as big as that!”
And do we really want to live like that? More importantly, do we want to sleep with guys who see us like that – the prettier piece of meat on the endless conveyor belt?
There are other ways to body shame in fiction, usually more centred on either the heroines own thoughts about other women or a a certain way do describe her own body issues, or just in callous descriptions of the supporting characters.
Apart from hurting your reader’s feelings, though, it’s also really not the best description – it’s basically a non-description, a description of what she doesn’t look like. Let’s try one of what she does:
“She turns around, her panties hugging her ass, sculpted, sanded and polished to a perfectly smooth sheen.”
Now, that still leaves us with a pretty generic description of photo-shopped, underwear catalogue or men’s magazine kind of beauty – but nobody is forced to actually try and promote a healthier, kinder body image. I just don’t think it’s too much to ask to stop actively telling women they are disgusting.
Personally, I still think the above description is lacking a little, though. It makes the hero sound so shallow. We all are, and we all like to look at pretty pictures, but I think in fiction we can easily make men more likeable by either adoring something that isn’t the bland socially acceptable standard for beauty, or if that is the heroines body type, to focus on other things, like how her body feels, what reactions it evokes in him etc. Maybe something like this:
“She wriggles out of her jeans, and I want to be polite but I can’t look away, it’s mesmerizing. Her ass has the cutest little jiggle I have ever seen, a roundness that makes my fingers itch to explore, to capture and bite all of her little soft places.”
Still far from perfect – it also creates a somewhat different atmosphere from the original so to maintain that it would need more editing, but at least for me, I like the guy who has that description in his narrative and I don’t actively start rooting against him :).
I’d love to hear from some of you though, does fiction hurt your feelings sometimes? Does it hinder your reading experience?