Seeing Yourself and Seeing Perfection: Changing Standards of Beauty in Romance

Body ShopWhile 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

toward

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.

Champagne Glass

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?

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Toby Neal says:

    Love this.
    Feel a little guilty- my MC is size six. But, she’s Asian/Hawaiian/Protuguese, has no breasts to speak of, and politically incorrect hair. Do I pass?
    oh yeah. My book’s a suspense with a romantic streak, not full romance. I hate to perpetuate stereotypes…I did what I thought I could get away with in the genre.

  2. 2

    One of the main reasons I started and then continued to write erotic romance stories was that I got sick of the same old same old romance heroine. Thin but with a surprising amount of cleavage. The kind who put there hair up in a bun and put glasses on and look ‘frumpy’ but the minute they unclip their hair -BAM! Instant sex kitten.

    I wanted to write romances where women with an abundance of curves, like me, got the guy and that is what I wrote and what I still write today because big girls are sexy too and we deserve some good lovin’ in fiction too! :)

  3. 3
    Katrina says:

    I’ve been reading romances since I was 11 (the grown-up stuff, I mean. I read YA stuff before that), so they must’ve affected my image of women’s bodies somehow, but if I’m perfectly honest the things that affected me much more were:

    1) being an overweight girl growing up in a beach town in southern California, and

    2) having my skinny grandma tell her sister I was too fat when I was 8 or 9.

    Those real-life experiences left far more of a mark on me precisely because they were real. I could separate the fantasy of boyish heroines from the reality of my own body, but when I was younger a lot of guys seemed to go for those boyish-looking girls.

    As an adult woman, though, I’ve learned what Christie Ridgway says is true – men are individuals with individual preferences. If I were boy-shaped, my husband wouldn’t have been very attracted to me. Nor would we fit together very well since he’s a big 6’3 man who feels nervous around delicate people.

    I think people do far more damage to each other’s self-esteem than novels do.

    @KatrinaLatham

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    @TobyNeal: it’s not the size six that is so bothersome – it’s the ‘PERFECT’ size six, that everything else is imperfect. And if you read any SVH, that line was repeated in Every. Goddam. Book.

    If you’re heroine is Asian, Hawaiian, and Portuguese, I think you’re busting some stereotypes like whoa, and can forget about her clothing size altogether!!

    @Victoria Blisse: one thing I love about good erotic romance is the preponderance of heroines who are curvy, and how much that’s an element which turns on the hero. Curves = good: not something you hear elsewhere in depictions of women!

    Bella Andre writes curvy erotic heroines that I enjoy reading about, come to think of it (no pun intended).

  5. 5
    Lori says:

    Fuck you and your six.

    Word.

    Interestingly, one of the publishers that shows women’s diversity now most often now is the same one that perpetuated that image back in the day. Harlequin has done a great job with heroines with mastectomies or yes, even cancer, heroines with amputations, heroines with endometriosis, heroines who are more normal in size, and more.

    We all deserve love, no matter our size, shape, health, etc. and thank goodness that is finally being represented.

  6. 6
    ev says:

    Once upon a time I was a size 2. Then I got pregnant. Occasionally, I still have a 2 in my size, and not just my bra size. And I don’t give a good goddarn anymore either.

    And if there was any one book that changed my frame of mind about the Heroine being a perfectly twiggy bitch being the norm, it was Jennifer Weiner’s “Good in Bed”. Seriously,once I got done laughing my ass off (I wish that really worked), I stopped an thought about the message it sent and changed my own thought process. Now I can read about the “perfect” woman and not want to bitch slap the author or choke them to death.

  7. 7
    Hezabelle says:

    I don’t think I was ever a size 6 either…. Actually, that’s not true. The first item of “women’s” clothing I ever bought was a size 6 and ever since then I’ve been a 9-12. But I remember in high school (obviously also influenced by Sweet Valley High) I was so determined to be a size 6 that I drew a large “6” on my mirror in window marker to remind me every day that’s what I wanted. Since then I’ve realized that no one with an ass and a D cup will ever fit in a size 6, and it’s okay because there are lots of people who envy or enjoy my curves!

    I think it’s really important for romance novels to portray female characters as beautiful no matter their size. I get especially annoyed when they specifically mention the character’s size as something that should be pointed out or an issue… something that the hero loves her “despite.” Or, in time travel novels where the heroine points out that she was too fat for the 21st century, but the hero loves her curves because that was what was beautiful back then. Well, great, but the rest of us can’t travel back to when we were the ideal, so how’s that supposed to make us feel? haha.

  8. 8
    Black Velvet says:

    I have noticed over the years how Romance heroines have changed…and remained the same.  One of the bigger issues I used to notice in black romance titles was hair.  Every black female character from 10 years ago had “chemically processed” or “relaxed” hair.  If there was a natural head or a dreadlock to be found they were from Jamaica which somehow seemed to explain why they didn’t have their hair straightened within an inch of its life. 

    On the same scheme I’ve noticed that there are more mixed race novels.  And a wider variation of the races, more asian, hispanic, and mixes of the rainbow have been written about without including the stereotypes that can often trip up the writer.  That in an of itself provides a huge bonus to the standards of beauty that existed 10 or more years ago.  Its no longer the pale skinned beauty that can catch the hero’s eye.

  9. 9
    Inez Kelley says:

    One day far far in my checkered past, my BFF and I were baking ourselves to a golden glow beneath the sun, aided my baby oiled skin. We were reading romances and were consuming several a day, passing them back and forth like a crackpipe. She asked me “Why are we trying to get a tan if these women all have milky white skin?”

    That comment stuck with me. None of the heroines were anything other than cookie cutter women. I got disgusted as only a 16 year old can. Then I read FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE by Candace Schuler about a redhead heroine named Mike who was covered in freckles. As a true redhead, she had to wear mascara to avoid looking like a scared rabbit although she never wore any other make up. She had little boobs. The hero loved all these things. 

    The mere fact that I remember that book, the title and its cover should tell you how much it stood out to me. Different is still beautiful and I have tried to bring that into my own writing.

    Now I must buy that book again to see if still holds the magic for it it once did.
    http://www.amazon.com/Love-Mike-Harlequin-Temptation/dp/0373252293

  10. 10
    Gemma says:

    I have some issues with my body image (a very tall and very fat female) although I do try not to obsess over it. However much I try to re-educate my brain to love myself as I am, I still find myself absolutely rejecting the idea that anyone other than myself could see me as attractive. (Grrr.)

    For this reason, I have a particular affinity for novels with physically imperfect or physically “different” heroes and heroines. (I read mostly historical romances, and can be quite grumpy with authors who have their characters magically fit modern personal grooming standards.) I have often bought books based on the All About Romance lists (e.g. Beauty is in the eye…).

    By the way Sarah, I assume you have since been introduced to the kind of champagne glass they presumably meant?

  11. 11
    ghn says:

    Interestingly enough, one of the most popular Romance writers here in Norway (Margit Sandemo) mostly tends to reserve those perfect, stunningly lovely looks for her villainesses! Her heroines tend to be “imperfect” in looks, while those of her characters who are beautiful will often turn out to be psychotic monsters.

  12. 12
    Deb Mullins says:

    Being a woman of size myself, I have been trying in recent years to write heroines who are more realistic. I began writing older heroines a few years back (just cannot identify with the 17 year old historical virgin anymore). Usually these ladies are widows or women with a past, which allows me to write an older historical heroine with sexual experience. I have also been writing heroines that are physically imperfect: plump or short, for example. That doesn’t stop the publisher from putting the Victoria’s Secret model on the cover, though. (Case in point: Two Weeks With A Stranger, which has a plump, countrified heroine.) Great conversation!

  13. 13

    I chuckle at your early recollections. The “typical” small-breasted heroine you reacted against was already a feminist modification of the Vargas girl heroine that was popular before and that I reacted against.

    Do you remember Lori Foster’s Too Much Temptation, the top selling romance on Amazon in 2002?  She dared to write a plump heroine, and its success really opened up the genre for publisher to speak to different body types.

    However, I do think it’s easier to write a younger heroine (and hero) just because you’re more likely to have the real life-altering relationship epiphanies when you’re younger. But by younger, I mean late 20s, not 18. The big changes later have to do with having kids and economic adjustments more than romance, though divorce can be a good catalyst.

  14. 14
    Jessica says:

    What standards of beauty have you noticed, back then or right now?

    What a great post and topic. I am in the middle of reading all of Jennie Crusie’s books, staring with her mid 1990s Harlequin Temptations, and I think in those books she offered a specific kind of heroine who more closely resembled average (white, able bodied) women. All of her heroines are described as “warm and soft and round”, and several as “well-upholstered”. The hero actually likes it that his fingers sink in when he puts his arms around her.

  15. 15

    I especially get sick of the too perfect heroine. The former model always annoys the hell out of me. *blech* One of my favorite romance novels is “Wishes” by Jude Devereaux. It was the first one I ever read where the heroine was plus sized dealing with plus sized issues. Wasn’t thrilled with the ending but at the same time, I loved how the book showed this woman hidden from the world because her body size pointing out how cruel the world could be.

  16. 16
    Jody W. says:

    The romance-standard “mouth too wide for beauty” seems to be quite intact yesterday and today as well.

  17. 17
    Marguerite Kaye says:

    It’s a difficult one, trying to balance a heroine who is fits the ‘aspirational’ tag which most people expect when reading a romance, with one who has real flaws (character or physical) and yet can still believably appeal to the (almost universal) Alpha hero.

    Although historical romances are probably still a bit more traditional than modern ones, I do think there’s a definite trend away from physically perfect (size 6 or not) heroine though. What’s important to me is not so much the way they look to other people but how they appear to themselves and the hero. I’ve had heroines who are breathtakingly beautiful and heroines who are shorter, plumper or plainer, but what I try to do with them all is show that, like every woman on this planet, they never look in the mirror and think hey, I’m gorgeous. What they think is that their bottom is too big, or their hair is the wrong colour, or that compared to their mother or sister or their best friend they are a total Plain Jane.

    But regardless of what their issue is, for me the romance is in the fact that the hero looks at them and sees perfection, or something in them that no-one else does. So although I must admit I prefer a not-so-gorgeous heroine, it doesn’t matter, provided she doesn’t go about thinking just that with the world falling at her feet. Love doesn’t cure big bottoms, but it does make you glad you’ve got one!

  18. 18
    Susan Reader says:

    Hmmm.  Insofar as I ever paid attention, I didn’t mind the heroines with the champagne-glass (coupe, not flute!) breasts and the gently-rounded stomachs, which to me translates as A-cup (maybe B-) and a pooch to the tummy; as Cassandra V. says, they were a rejection of the Playboy bunny topheavy image.  And while there may be a wider range of body types, the dominant one today seems to be skinny-with-breasts, and that seems like a step back.

    The “mouth too wide for beauty” (and what on earth is THAT supposed to mean?) as Jody W. says, does seem evergreen!

    However, I am v-e-r-y annoyed by the idea that the heroine’s looks, whatever they are, need to be validated by the hero.  A character who (for example) frets about the stretch marks from that long-ago teen pregnancy until the hero lovingly traces each lacy line and tells her they are a badge of her bounteous womanhood makes me want to throw the book at the wall and then stomp on it.

  19. 19
    Lori says:

    I have some issues with my body image (a very tall and very fat female) although I do try not to obsess over it. However much I try to re-educate my brain to love myself as I am, I still find myself absolutely rejecting the idea that anyone other than myself could see me as attractive. (Grrr.)
    For this reason, I have a particular affinity for novels with physically imperfect or physically “different” heroes and heroines.

    What Gemma said. (Also about the champagne glass. The apocryphal story I heard was that the definitive version of the short round champagne glass was modeled on one of Marie Antoinette’s perfectly perky breasts. )

    I don’t mind reading romances with conventionally beautiful heroines, as long as there’s variety available and not all heroines are the super model type of gorgeous.

    Ultimately I feel the same way about beauty in romance novels that I do about money—-I have no objection to the fantasy, but I hate the implication that you can’t have an HEA without them.

  20. 20
    Vivian Arend says:

    In the area of accepting and finding beauty in ALL body types, I had a discussion with a fellow writer a while back who feels the pressure to make her heroines curvy and bosomy. Said writer is nearly six feet tall, slim and…ahem…less endowed.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t at times.

    My favorite heroines to read and write are the ones who I can somehow identify with. Sometimes that means physically, but more often it’s a mental attitude or a personality trait that I admire. If the heroine makes me smile and I enjoy the HEA, I don’t care if she’s a 6, 16 or 26.

    The only heroine I can’t stomach is the TSTL. Stupid outweighs looks any day.

  21. 21
    SB Sarah says:

    @Gemma: I definitely figured out which champagne glass was the right one! Ha!

    @Marguerite:

    Love doesn’t cure big bottoms, but it does make you glad you’ve got one!

    Oh, holy night, I love that. Yay! Well said!

  22. 22
    Jessie says:

    I don’t know.  “Perfect size 6” heroines have never bothered me at all.  I’m much more likely to be affected by or feel inadequate because of magazine images than I am a description in a book.  Probably because I tend to make heroines look however I want in my head (I have a bad habit of changing the heroine’s hair color at will, even if their hair color is a major plot point). 

    I will say, though, that in many of one author’s novels, the heroines will describe themselves as unattractive by saying something along the lines of, “My breasts are too big, my waist too narrow, and my hips too wide.”  Um, for real?  Ridiculousness.

    Spoilers for ENCHANTING PLEASURES by Eloisa James and THE LADY MOST LIKELY… by Julia Quinn, etc.

    My favorite physically imperfect heroine is Gabby from Eloisa James’ ENCHANTING PLEASURES—her intended is absolutely horrified by her size, but her intended’s brother thinks she’s a goddess for it.  And she’s been in India all her life, so has no idea that there’s anything about her that a man might not like. 

    On the other hand, Julia Quinn writes a physically perfect heroine, Gwendolyn, in her story in THE LADY MOST LIKELY…, who was vilified by the hero’s sister because of her beauty.  I very much enjoyed this portrayal of a perfect heroine who had her own crippling doubts to deal with.

  23. 23
    Kwana says:

    I love this post. As a black woman who has been reading romance since about age 11 or so I never fit the mold of the women I longed to be in the stories with their flowing hair and creamy skin. I feel it did shape my subliminal views of being not quite right. Too tall, hair too short etc. I’m so happy for changes in romance. Now if only they can come a little faster and be even more inclusive.

  24. 24

    I love that today’s heroines seem to be designed with the reader in mind—makes it easiery to identify with her and put ourselves in her shoes—but we must at all time MAINTAIN THE SIX PACK ABS OF THE HERO.  NO. MATTER.  WHAT.

  25. 25
    Megs says:

    My original introduction to the “perfect heroine” was the new generation of Nancy Drew books.  She was 5’7”, 124 pounds, and still managed to have breasts.  My cousin, thankfully, introduced me to Jennifer Crusie after that who had the first heroines I can remember who A.  did not list their height and weight and B.  were older, or curvier, or shorter, or older and curvier, or whatever.  They were real.

    I was reading an old school the other day (I want to say Anne Stuart – who generally does like a more realistic heroine herself) who was doing pretty well with the heroine’s description.  She was short and 10 pounds overweight, which she briefly lamented but wasn’t that hung up on because she knew it wasn’t unusual for an American woman to be 10 pounds overweight.  I have an excellent picture of the woman in my mind.  And then Stuart later listed her statistics, and based on my own weight and knowledge of the height/weight chart I deduced that there was no possible way this person was both the weight listed and 10 pounds overweight.  Also, on behalf of women 5’5” -5’6” tall everywhere…we aren’t SHORT.  We are medium.  Average, if you will.  Anyway, that example felt like a perfect illustration of some of the issues.  At 28 it makes me laugh.  At 16 it would have made me feel like crap.

  26. 26
    Jrant says:

    Yes oh yes to what TeriAnne said, re: the ever-present six pack. I had high hopes for the “The Nerd Who…..” series, as I have a major weakness for nerds. But, in addition to their glasses and pocket protectors, all of the heroes also happen to have smokin’ bodies from whatever sport they were secretly in to. Note to authors and publishing industry: it is possible to have narrow shoulders, small biceps and asthma and STILL be incredibly sexy.

  27. 27

    Isn’t Nancy Drew a teenager? A teenager can be 5’7 and 124 lbs and have breasts. That’s about what I looked like in high school before I filled out.

    I believe average height for women is still 5’4.

    I love Jennifer Crusie, and I think men also need to be liberated from the same body type. There are lots of ways for men to look good too.

  28. 28
    EC Spurlock says:

    Wonderful discussion today! Once upon a time I was a size 6—and everybody told me I looked bulimic and needed to put on weight. Then I had kids and the single-digit sizes were over for good. But BITD the ideal was thin with big boobs (The Vargas look, as someone mentioned; or in my genre the Boris Vallejo look.) I had to admit I was amused by the idea that these women could dress in boy’s clothes and pass as boys, boobs notwithstanding. Nowadays I look at all the starlets in bikinis and you can count all their ribs, and I think, What’s wrong with this picture?? Why do we idolize people who could be poster children for third-world famine?

    The first imperfect heroine I remember encountering was one of Heyer’s (A Convenient Marriage, I believe?) wherein the heroine had a stutter, and became toast of the town nonetheless. Shirley Jump does some wonderful non-standard heroines, including in one novel a model who loses her job, and her whole identity, when she is deemed too old at 25 to be considered cover material.

  29. 29

    I must’ve passed through size 6 sometime in my growth process, but I swear my skeleton alone would be a size 8 now.  I’m trying to live a more healthy life and lose some weight—but my goal is to get to a size 12.  On me, that’s fairly slim.

    My pet peeve when I first started reading romance in the 80’s was historical heroines described as being Too X For Beauty, when X is something that might’ve been considered unattractive in 1300 or 1800 but is desirable now, like being skinny or having red hair.  (Books actually written in such eras get a pass—e.g. Anne Shirley is allowed to stress about her hair!)

    As a writer, the main thing I try to do is to vary my heroines’ appearances and not to let any of them look too much like me.

  30. 30
    Gwynnyd says:

    If every author jumps on the same bandwagon, ANY body size/type/breast size if overused falls into a cliche.  If every heroine is plump and curvy it is as much of a bad stereotype as 36-24-36, or size 0/4/6, or anything else.  Are skinny teens supposed to be feel inadequate and dream of implants because they don’t have curves and all the best men in the romance novels now seem to prefer bodies they can dig their hands into? 

    Inclusion is nice.  Variety is better.

    And while we’re at it, can we do the same for the hero?  They seem to be available only in a few, quite limited, sizes and types.

    Maybe we should just declare a moratorium on physical descriptions.

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