Monday, December 9, 2013

Badass Women and Body Image Issues

There's been a lot of talk about this on the internet recently, and I'm not usually one to jump on a bandwagon, but as someone who writes fiction driven almost entirely by strong women it's a relevant and important topic of discussion. Of course, I think that would be true even if I didn't write fiction driven by strong women.

None of my characters have issues with body image. That's not really intentional, it's just how it is. It could change in the future, and perhaps it should, but for the moment not a single main character of mine suffers from body image issues. This is, perhaps, unrealistic. However there are a number of factors at play here:

  1. My characters don't live in the real world: the majority of the novels I write take place in fantasy worlds of my own making. So far, none of those worlds have anything like our current media to spread the images of an idealized body shape and consequently none of my main characters are able to compare themselves to said shape and find themselves wanting.
  2. It's not a phenomenon that I identify strongly with, and consequently it doesn't usually occur to me to add it as a character trait. That's not to say that I don't have any body image issues, I probably do. I'm sure at some point I've thought that I don't like how some part of me looks and that thought has probably been driven more by exterior influences than by my own sound judgement. Still, for whatever reason, it hasn't happened often. I don't watch television. I watch very few movies, I don't buy magazines, I don't live in a big city, and consequently I am not as exposed to the images of other women's bodies that so many women are exposed to on a day to day basis. 
  3. I happen to like my body. When I'm frustrated with it, it's usually because it refuses to do something I want it to do, like keep rock climbing when I'm tired, run faster during the 13th mile, not have asthma when faced with something silly like cat dander, etc. I generally like how it looks. I usually only get mad at it for failing me when I'm doing something fun, and so I don't think of my body as something I need to change except to train it to climb longer, run faster, do more pull ups etc. Consequently, that's how most of my characters perceive their bodies as well.
  4. My characters don't care what other people think about them, because in general I don't either. I think this is a factor because a number of body image issues stem from what we perceive other people's ideals to be, and strive to meet those ideals. Since other people's ideals (with a few hand selected exceptions) matter not a jot to me, my main characters tend to be the same way. 
I should clarify here, that I don't try to make my main characters like me. Indeed, if they were all like me, that would be incredibly boring. That's a whole lot of sameness strewn over six full manuscripts (to date). So, that's not something I strive for. Variety in main characters adds flavor to my writing, requires more creative thinking, and pushes me outside of my comfort zone, which is always a good thing. However, there are certain things that I don't think of when I'm writing a character because it's outside of my experience, and if it's not directly related to the plot, I'm unlikely to come up with it. 

Hence, I don't usually include body image issues in the list of things my characters have to deal with. But, what I'm wondering here is if I'm doing a disservice to my readers or characters by leaving it out. It's an important issue. Some of my fiction is YA (young adult for those who don't spend a lot of time familiarizing themselves with fiction categories) and am I leaving out a pertinent issue by not addressing this in those novels? In some of them it would be totally forced. I can't see any of my fantasy characters (unless they're urban fantasy, and currently they aren't) feeling pressured by the imagery of the media. Yet, that doesn't mean there can't be some version of it that they deal with. 

In addition, my characters wouldn't have to have serious body image issues in order to address the problem. They could simply reflect on how they were tired of "all those princesses in the bardic tales, needing rescue and wearing gowns, getting captured by the most inept of bad guys." You get the idea...

But, is that kind of dismissal of body image an insult to today's young women? It seems like it's a serious fight to stay proud of what you've got when you're constantly bombarded with images of women that quite literally do not exist anywhere on the planet (thank you photoshop). Does not having a character who deals with that very real struggle dismiss an issue that effects thousands (or hundreds of thousands, or possibly millions) of young women across the globe?

As a woman who wants to fight the kind of sexism and media exploitation that creates these kinds of issues culturally, can I afford not to address this issue in my writing at some point? 

There are so many important themes that are worth pursuing with any given novel. It's difficult to decide which ones to focus on, as a novel that tries to address them all is bound to fail. 

Is it enough to write characters who are strong, female, and don't give a shit about what the rest of the world thinks of their choices? Or is it important to go further, to write the character that does care, or thinks she does, and winds up miserable, and then learns the hard way that it doesn't matter?

The long and short of it is that women's perceptions of themselves are hurt by the media and popular culture as it stands, and that needs to change. In one way or another I would like to effect that change. 

If you're interested in reading about two strong young women who are struggling with their own challenges (thus far unrelated to body image), check out Blade's Edge over on JukePop Serials. Chapter 7 is now up. :-)


  1. I think you're doing the right thing by not even mentioning it. It models by example the ideal situation, in which girls are concerned only with getting stronger by perseverance. I, personally, find it very annoying when writers of strong female characters allude to it and establish that their character doesn't care, but then also mention how said character just happens to be "too skinny", a la Katniss Everdeen or Bella Swan (yes, I know the latter is hardly an exemplar of a strong female character, but the author's approach to body image is the same in both cases). IF you want to mention it, I think you could stick to a character being excited about how strong her legs are getting, or about having to go up a size because of her muscles. Or other characters could admire her new muscles, or some such. There's a Buffy episode toward the end in which Angel comes back to visit and she tells him he can't help her beat up the bad guy she's been after for a while because it's really just something she needs to do. So he sits and watches and comments about how he'd forgotten how much he loves to watch her do that. I think if a romantic interest admires the female's physical prowess, that could have a big impact. But, back to where you started, I think you definitely shouldn't mention it unless it comes out naturally as part of the story. Otherwise it will probably feel forced. OK, I'm done. Thanks for "listening"! And now I get to read Chapter 7!

  2. P.S., I meant to say, "back to where *I* started".

  3. Hey Jill, I just wrote up a nice long response to your comment and then google ate it. :-( So, forgive me if this one seems short or cut off.

    I agree about leading love interests. Any and all males who wish to have personal relationships with my leading females must appreciate, admire, and support female strength. Any males who do not get kicked to the curb.

    As for the issue all together, I agree that forced is not good. I wonder if the right character appeared if it could be addressed without being forced. In general though, as I find it more enjoyable personally to read stories in which lead females are strong and don't give a damn what others think, I believe I will continue with main characters that follow that mold and hope that they inspire other women the way that they inspired (and continue to inspire) me.