The thing that bothers me about the outcry about body image in the media is that the solution people offer will only cause more problems.
People complain because the Disney princesses are super skinny. They say it creates unrealistic expectations for girls because it makes them want to be skinny. It makes them feel like they aren’t beautiful because they’re not tiny-waisted. We need plus size princesses. Princesses with stomachs and flabby arms. Princesses who are like real girls.
And, while I appreciate the idea that girls need to be given more realistic expectations, the outcriers are very, very wrong.
They’re suggesting that skinny girls are not insecure about how they look. They’re suggesting a skinny girl never looks in a mirror and tells herself she’s ugly. She never sees an ad or watches a movie and says, “I’ll never be that pretty.”
Disney does not give us unrealistic expectations about body image because they make their princesses skinny. Disney gives us unrealistic expectations about body image because they make their princesses a body shape no girl can have.
Making princesses plus size or “realistic” sized won’t solve the problem. What we consider beautiful is all about what we’re told is beautiful. We want to be skinny because we’re hounded with skinny girls in this culture.
But, if we bombard society with girls who are, by our standards “realistic” all we’re doing is shifting the problem. You’ll probably scoff at the idea, but I promise you, give it some time and the skinny girls will struggle the same way plus size girls do now. They are constantly surrounded these days by people who are saying the way they look is unrealistic. How much longer before they begin to think they’re too skinny? How much longer before they invent surgeries to make girls fatter? Not any time soon, I’m sure. But, it could happen.
As many of you know, I’ve always loved Belle- from Beauty and the Beast. I wanted to be her when I was younger. And, I still do, in many ways. I’m either so incredibly cynical that I shut people out if I feel that they don’t deserve my love or attention or I’m so naïve that I let people walk all over me.
Belle, she’s so strong. She stands up to the Beast and doesn’t let him give her any nonsense. But she also doesn’t shut him out. She gives him a chance. She’s willing to try, after everything, before she shuts him out completely. If I could have half the character she possess, I would feel so much better about who I am.
Black Widow. Love her. After watching The Avengers I wanted to run around the house doing all sorts of crazy stunts. I’m so not flexible and it was a disaster when I tried it, but she makes me want to get into shape, so I can do the things she does.
Tris Prior, from Divergent, inspired me so much when I read that series. Reading about her, about her struggles, it makes me want to be brave, selfless, peaceful, smart, and honest. I want to be divergent. After reading that series I would find myself being reminded to do things differently. When I was scared to do something, I’d remind myself to be dauntless. When I’d start to get angry with someone, I’d ask myself if I was being selfless, if I was being peaceful. If I was tempted to hold something back, to hide how I felt, I’d remind myself to be candor.
I’m not like Tris. But, I want to be.
All of those examples, if you’ll notice, I never once said I wanted to look like the character. They never made me feel insecure about my body or who I was. But they challenged me to be a better person. To be stronger. To be different.
I want to be the girl who is willing to be different, the girl who refuses to be defined by one characteristic, but embodies many. I want to be in shape, healthy, able to stretch and move and do things that make me feel so full of life. I want to be someone who is strong, but willing to give people a chance, not naïve, not cynical, but a healthy balance of the two.
I offer you a simple solution to the body image problem- what if we created heroines so strong, so compelling, so amazing, that girls forget what she looked like and remember instead her character? What if we made girls more than a pretty face? What if we stopped telling people what the girl in our story was like? She’s not ugly, she’s not beautiful, she’s just herself. She can be skinny or fat, tall or short, have any color hair. But stop telling your readers if she’s pretty or not.
Beauty is relative. Some people like something, other people don’t. Most girl aren’t insecure about themselves because they don’t like the way they look. They’re insecure because they know the rest of the world doesn’t like the way they look.
So let’s stop telling them how they look is important. Let’s instead focus on who they are. Let’s stop making the villain ugly because it’s traditional or beautiful because it’s not. Let’s instead focus on character.
Ugly or beautiful, the thing that separates a hero from a villain is the choices they make. Why should it matter if the villain is beautiful, yet horrible or if the hero is ugly, yet brave? We almost portray it as, “She’s ugly but becomes a hero despite it.” Her looks don’t define her character. So why on earth are we making it important?
We try to tell girls “You can be a hero no matter how you look” but it comes across as “It’s okay that you’re ugly, you can still save the world.” And, all that causes girls to do is walk away, looking instead for someone who will tell them that they’re beautiful.
Girls struggle with their body image, yes. But that doesn’t mean you have to put it in every story you write. Remember, your heroine is realistic, but should also be a portrayal of something, a role model. So, if you’re trying to tell girls not to worry about their body, why do you make your hero care?
And, don’t pull the realistic card on me. Because if we’re being realistic, why doesn’t every girl in every book mention her period. Why doesn’t she struggle with that? Because nobody cares about it. Because girls accept it and live with it and it’s not an issue.
So, if you really want girls to stop struggling with how they look, then stop labeling your characters as beautiful or not beautiful. Sure, a guy can tell a girl in your story she’s beautiful. That’s fine. But everyone? No. Or, everyone telling her she isn’t beautiful? Same thing. Don’t do it.
Instead, focus on your heroine’s character. Make her someone your reader could be. Sure, I might not be able to do crazy stunts like the Black Widow, but I could if I put time and energy into it. I might not be able to be her now, but the changes she’s causing me to make in my life are good ones. She makes me want to eat right, to exercise, to be careful with my body.
Your hero should make your reader want to be a better person, not someone who looks different. Sure, Black Widow has awesome hair, but I’d rather be flexible like her than have her hair. Sure, she’s beautiful. But that’s not the focus of her character. Belle never gave me unrealistic expectations about myself because I was too busy trying to walk and read at the same time. Too busy trying to see the good in people. Tris many be all cute and small, but I’d rather have her character than her looks.
If you truly believe that girls are not defined by their body image, then stop defining your heroines that way.
I’ll talk more next week on what I think makes a strong, independent woman. About how to balance her character with realism.
I hope you’ll stop back for that.
How about you? Do you agree or disagree with this assessment? Who is your favorite heroine and how does she inspire you to change?