Blaming Chick Lit For All The Things: Body Image Edition

Reading about people who hate their bodies normalizes body hate. But it's not like chick lit invented characters who don't like their bodies.
Publish date:
January 22, 2013
books, reading, body image, chick lit

I love -- and by "love" I mean "am infinitely amused by" -- the way articles about books are illustrated with images taken from film adaptations of said books. I mean, I get it. Coming up with images for articles here can be hard enough some days. But when the subject is chick lit, there's close to a money-back guarantee that the image is going to be from "Bridget Jones's Diary."

That movie came out in 2001 -- and the book came out in 1996. When I was as old as the book version of "Bridget Jones's Diary," I was a high school senior. I say this not to make the book or fans of it feel old, but to highlight just how ridiculous it is that a book nearing 20 years of age is still the face of "chick lit" in our popular media.

Even funnier to me, in an English major kind of way: "Bridget Jones's Diary" is a loose retelling of that most seminal of chick lit books, Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," first published in 1813.

Critics, back in that proverbial day, were not actually down with novels. Or novelists. But the few existing reviews of "Pride and Prejudice" are generally complimentary. They praised Austen's character development in particular.

Lo, how the tides of public opinion have changed, though. Chick lit is so 1999, right? It peaked. And even at its peak, chick lit was derided as being fluff -- as not having any real literary value.

What even IS chick lit, though? This Salon article, discussing new research linking chick lit with bad body image, doesn't even offer a definition so much as link to one. I don't blame them -- it's a slippery genre that seems mostly characterized by being aimed at a woman audience. Chick lit is the "playful" diminutive name given to "women's literature." Is it the designation cute and fun? Or is it derisive and dismissive?

I have mixed feelings about this article and the research it links to. On the one hand, well: D'UH. Reading about people who hate their bodies normalizes body hate, which helps perpetuate the critical eye that women in particular turn on themselves.

But on the other, it's not like chick lit invented characters who don't like their bodies. Nor did it invent actual factual people who don't like their bodies. It's the old "does art invent culture or does culture invent art" argument all over again.

It's both, of course. Chick lit -- which is not a homogenous genre by any means -- is often meant to be an accurate reflection of the things which concern women's lives. (This is why it is often dismissed as "frivolous." Because, you know, women don't think about "important" things. Barf.) Of course there are going to be characters in chick lit who don't like their bodies. Bridget Jones might be the most popularly known (I always paid more attention to her cigarette count for some reason), but it actually would be realistic for most female characters to be harboring some critical thoughts about their body if not actively engaged in weight loss efforts.

The conclusion the article comes to (and seemingly the conclusion reached by the article itself) is that reading chick lit is bad for your body image.

Yet another reason to ignore a genre popular with women and girls, I guess. Except I don't think that's any sort of answer. The researchers conclude that "textual representations of body esteem" have extra impact because the reader gets to engage with the mind of the main character. I think the researchers have dropped the ball by not asking WHY that glimpse is so influential.

Spoiler alert: I think it's because we're all already primed by social conditioning to engage in body criticism and body hate.

It feels like a cop out to blame chick lit as a genre for the conflicted feelings women often have about their bodies. It's an easy way to ignore all the other social messages that we get. But nothing operates in a vacuum.

Plus, it's another nail in the coffin of a genre that is dominated by women authors and everyday concerns dealt with by many women.

There's rumor that chick lit is on its way back into publishing vogue, so I'm actually not surprised that this is coming up now. I'd like to see more chick lit with characters who accept their bodies -- that'd probably serve as some kind of positive normalization. But either way, chick lit isn't going to go away; women have stories to tell. We can either blame those stories for being an accurate reflection of women's lives and thus perpetuating some of our struggles -- or we can try to address the culture that generates those struggles in the hopes that some new Jane Austen will have some new stories to tell.