I have a confession to make. I love reading trash. There! I said it and I’m not sorry. Give me some glorious book cover with a shirtless man smoldering at me with a knowing smirk and a rippling six pack and I’ll give you three to four hours of my life and more of my hard-earned money than I’m willing to admit.
I started reading my trashy romance novels when I was actually way too young for heaving bosoms and thrusting swords. Yes, that is a euphemism. Romance novels have always been looked down upon by the literary world. They’re garbage. Trash. Junk food for the mind.
But not everything has to be highbrow. I don’t care if you’re impressed with my Goodreads list or if my TBR pile looks like the book buyback at the local campus. I'm happy reading crap. I like it.
I am far older than I admit and much older than I (hopefully) look. So the books I first read were written in the days of true bodice-ripper glory. Heroines were always virginal. Their initiation into sensual pleasures was always made through force or coercion because it was only acceptable for the heroine to enjoy sex if she’d been reluctant to have it. The other common theme with these heroines was that they were, in a word, perfect.
Perfect, in this instance as in many others, means thin. They all had tiny waists that the hero could span with his hands. This tiny waist only served to enhance lushly curved hips and perfect breasts. All of these disgustingly perfect parts set atop a pair of long, lithe legs that defied logic and reality as this heroine was only supposed to be about five feet tall. The description of these women brings to mind some twisted love child of Barbie and Stretch Armstrong.
I am now, and always have been, plus sized. As a chubby thirteen-year-old, I was already three inches taller than my mother. I was the same height as my oldest brother. So there I was, reading these books about women who I didn’t and never would look like, all the while feeling like a lumbering Amazon. Even at the time, it was frustrating. Why did they all have to be tiny and cute? Why did they have to be feisty and perky and about fifteen other adjectives that could be used to describe adorable but none-too-bright puppies?
With no practical knowledge of anything that was going on those books, I struggled to write them myself. I filled notebook after notebook with the desperate scribblings of someone who wanted so badly to be an author but didn’t yet have anything worthwhile to say.
My love affair with love affairs continued into college and beyond. I amassed stacks and stacks of books that became boxes of books buried under the bed. I’d trade them with my friends the same way we’d traded Garbage Pail Kid cards in elementary school.
At the same time, I was amassing stacks of notebooks, story idea after story idea that ‘one day’ I would write. There were very few people in my life who were allowed to read what I wrote, though everyone knew I was writing. In spite of the encouraging words of friends in my high school yearbooks about remembering them when I was a famous author, I don’t think anyone believed I would ever actually follow through on it, including me.
Over the years, my frustration with romance novels continued to grow as I read book after book about perfectly formed women who managed to have no ego. These fictional women were always so shocked when the hero found them, with their Commodores-commemorated measurements, to be irresistible.
Most experts will tell you that the danger of romance novels is that the lonely and pathetic women reading those books become unable to differentiate fiction from fact. These novels lead to disillusionment and dissatisfaction in marriages and relationships. For me, the real danger of romance novels has never been that they give women an unrealistic vision of love and relationships. It's that they underscore already unrealistic ideals of beauty and the belief that physical perfection and worthiness of love are linked.
Fast forward a bit (or a lot) to the new and exciting world of self-publishing. No longer were the editors and agents and publishing houses determining what did and did not make it into readers’ hands. Authors could write what they wanted to and circumvent ‘the man.’ And they did, and it was wonderful… sort of. Because yes, there were women in books who looked like me, who had curves and cellulite, maybe even stretch marks and a not-flat tummy, but that’s the only way those women were like me.
These women had no confidence. Zero. Nada. Zilch. But lo and behold, some jackass with a six pack found them attractive. Now all of a sudden they've turned into porn queens, stripping off their clothes in broad daylight and forgetting that a little thing like inhibitions ever existed. The message was clear in these books. "A man finds me attractive. Therefore, I am worthy." To be fair, that wasn’t every book I read. Some of them were even worse.
An example? The hero (I use the term loosely) just has a thing for big ol’ fluffy girls. Yes. Fluffy. I wish I were making that up. He doesn’t care how pretty her face is. He doesn't care what she does for a living or even what her damn name is. He just wants a fat girl.
In reading these sad excuses for romance, I suddenly realized that maybe those publishing gatekeepers weren’t entirely useless. Just because you can self-publish, doesn’t always mean you should!
There was also a third theme in books about plus size women. I call it the ugly duckling into duck-jerky theme. In these stories, the heroine is a lonely, miserable, plus-sized woman with no friends, no sex life, and no self-esteem. Somehow, through magic, starvation or the motivation of a hot guy, she suddenly loses the weight, and all her troubles go away. She gets the guy, a new wardrobe and a happily-ever-after.
And there I sat, still scribbling away in notebooks or tapping away at the keyboard, writing bits and pieces of stories that I was afraid to ever let see the light of day.
I won’t bore you with the details of how I went from being a scribbler to being an actual writer except to say that it involved me being quarantined for a significant length of time. Eventually, I ran out of things to read. It might have also been a news story on a local radio channel about a fourteen-year-old publishing her first book. Humiliation at the hands of an infant can be a great motivator.
My first book got picked up by a small press. It did nothing. It was a spectacular failure. The reviews were good, but the sales were dismal outside of family and friends. Why? Because it was overpriced and undermarketed, and since the publishing house essentially owned it, I had no way to change that.
So I switched gears and chose an unfortunately long pen name, Seraphina Donavan. I started writing steamy contemporaries instead of the Historical Romances I’d cut my teeth on. I’ve since gotten the rights back to my first historical novel, published as Chasity Bowlin. I’ve completed the sequel, and the third book is in the works. All of these titles, contemporary and historical alike, are self-published, because I’ve figured out that I like being in charge and making decisions about my books by myself.
I made the choice to write about plus sized women but to do it in a positive way, as real people and not just a shape or size. I didn’t want the characters to simply be the object of someone’s fetish or the punchline of a joke. These books feature women that have lives, friends, confidence, hot sex, and they take no crap. I don’t know if that’s really about size acceptance as much as it’s about size education. You can be anything you want to be at any size… you just have to own it!
Not everyone is ready for this revolutionary idea of size acceptance. One reviewer blasted one of my books because the character didn’t act like a size 18? How does a size act? The real issue was that this character was strong, sure of herself and able to believe that a man wanted her, just as she was—no weight loss required.
What truly amazes me is that by writing the books I wanted to read, I’ve found an audience. There are thousands of women out there, if not more, who are just like me. They want books about women who aren’t just well-rounded physically, but emotionally as well. The idea that plus size characters must be filled with self-loathing or can only view themselves as attractive when the hero does is just wrong and tired. It’s been done to death, so let it go and move on. You don’t have to be a certain size or weight to be loved—not in real life and not in fiction. At least not anymore.