While I was gazing at my own navel the other day (and the stretch marks along side of it) I started thinking about where my own standard of beauty originated, and how the romances I read may have influenced my concept of the female ideal. What, you don’t think about that while getting dressed? OK, it was more along the lines of, “My chest wouldn’t fit in a single one of those bodices without ripping,” but that spun out into standards and ideals.
I think there’s good and bad parts to the female standard in romance novels. Among the good parts: sexual agency, self-actualization and discovery, physical and emotional achievement, and generally winning at the end, plus orgasms and being appreciated for who one is, without requirements that one change to fit another’s world view. Also, orgasms.
And most goodest among the good: a somewhat slowly but still changing tendency
away from youth, virginity, thinness, and the ideal pictured on the cover. The old standard, alas, was very troublesome to me.
My first encounters with female beauty in books was, as @joyabella noted when I asked this question on Twitter, the Wakefield twins. So many women found their gateway to romance in Sweet Valley High, and that gateway came with the constantly repeated and thus unfortunately inculcated reference to the “perfect size six figure.”
First, let me say on behalf of every woman with breasts and a backside: Fuck you and your six.
Anything other than a six, obviously, was imperfect. And I have never in my life been a size six. Well, maybe when I WAS six, but since then? Not hardly.
In romances, there was slightly more variety, as I recall. The standard of beauty present in romances is changing, but back when I started reading romances in the 90s, there was a very set standard of thin, tall, lithe, hairless perfection with small breasts, long hair, and, judging by the covers, technicolor eyeshadow.
Among the things I most remember about romance heroines back in the day was on the fact that they all had perfect breasts and “gently rounded stomachs.” First, what does that mean? And second, what are perfect breasts? I read once that the perfect breast should fit in a champagne glass.
I immediately pictured this and thought, OW.
But that was all part of the romance standard of female beauty at the time: small perky breasts, long thin legs, that ever-so-clever ability to fit into boy’s clothing (hips not too big, breasts either, and no booty to speak of, either) and hairless legs, too.
Since then, since reading a lot more romances in varied sub-genres, and since growing up and developing what author Keri Ford called “my own ideas of beauty,” I’ve learned that not only is the old-skool female ideal of beauty utter hogwash, but that there’s a new and varied concept of beauty in romances, a shift I really like.
The heroines I used to read about when I first found the genre are quite different from the heroines published today, and I thank all available sweet bippys for that. Now, the heroines can be older, which I love. Plus, I have seen curvy heroines, heroines with grey hair, stretch marks, physical differences and various changes to their physical characters that back in the day I would not have seen. Flawless and perfect have given way to realistic variety.
I love it when I find the differences, those things that break from perfection. For me it underscores the happy ending that the hero and heroine are perfect for each other, and aren’t reflections of external perfection. From heroines post-mastectomy to heroines who had babies as teenagers and face physical changes from long-ago childbirth, I really love the differences, and the breaks from that irritating, offensive defined ideal. I love reading about real women, not unrealistic paragons of physical perfection. As Tara Quicksaid, “all types of bodies are loved.”
I love that romance’s definition of female beauty is becoming less strict – and I wish I could give good examples without them being somewhat spoilerific. I like reading about heroines with physical traits that they see as flaws which trip them up and cause them no end of angst and worry, until they are loved exactly as they are. The change in romance’s subtext seems wrapped up in that change in point of view: the heroines doesn’t have to adopt the hero’s entire worldview. But she often accepts and celebrates his view of her, which may be different from her view of herself. His perception changes her view that she is awesome as she is, and she sees the awesomesauce in herself that he recognized.
Or, as Christie Ridgway said, “Romances have reinforced the wisdom I’ve gained over years of interaction with men: their idea of beauty is not strict.”
What standards of beauty have you noticed, back then or right now? (NOTE: please mark as a spoiler if revealing the character points you mention are part of the plot.) Do you notice the changing heroines? Has romance reading affected your concept of yourself?