The Bodies of Chick Lit: Positive Representations of the Female Body in Contemporary Irish Women’s Fiction
[Tara had] been wearing a size fourteen for some time now, but it was only ever meant to be a temporary measure, until she’d lost weight and gone back to being a size twelve. Mind you, wearing a size twelve was only meant to have been a temporary measure also, until she slimmed down and went back to her correct weight, her true size, her spiritual home of size ten. But now, with the waistband of her skirt so tight it was crushing her internal organs, she reluctantly began to face the fact that maybe she’d better buy some size sixteens. Just so she could breathe. It wouldn’t be a long term measure, of course. Only until she’d lost a bit of weight, and then she’d be back to size fourteen. (Last Chance Saloon 118-119)
The chick lit genre of “often upbeat, always funny fiction about contemporary female characters and their everyday struggles with work, home, friendship, family, or love” is often characterized as trivial literature analogous to harlequin romances (Mlynowski 10). For chick lit to ever be considered as a positive, potentially feminist form of contemporary fiction, it must not limit its discussions of the aspects related to women’s lives to the romantic. Many claim that romantic relationships are the central focus of this genre, yet a “serious consideration of chick lit brings into focus many of the issues facing contemporary women and contemporary culture” (Ferriss 2-3). These novels include women’s issues concerning career, family, friends and, of course, self-image. In this paper, I will examine the treatment of self-image in a selection of chick lit novels by Irish authors, a topic which some theorists have claimed is actually the real focus of the chick lit genre. I will then examine the female body image in terms of its place in chick lit novel and, by using supportive material from a selection of feminist theories, demonstrate how some authors are helping to challenge the magazine industry, which is often thought to adhere to the pseudo-teachings of the beauty myth.
A selection of novels by Marian Keyes will be discussed as well as further examples from authors such as Marisa Mackle and Colette Caddle. Keyes’ novels are a natural choice since they have proven hugely popular and have gradually gained and maintained a considerable following to the extent that her work has now been “translated into more than thirty different languages and appear[ed] in the bestseller lists of countries such as the United Kingdom (The Sunday Times, The Guardian), Germany (Der Spiegel), the United States (New York Times) and Australia (Australian Publishers Association),” proving that the chick lit genre – often dismissed as merely disposable trash – does indeed have lasting appeal (Pérez-Serrano). A similar trend among other Irish chick lit novelists shows that this popularity is not unique to one author. The novels by these authors provide clear examples of how many women, for a variety of reasons, feel anxiety about their appearance; they also provide more positive depictions of women’s appearance, self-worth and self-confidence. Using Naomi Wolf’s concept of the beauty myth, this paper will examine how typical chick lit has received criticism for presenting negative role models for women by portraying characters who have an unhealthy obsession with their body weight and size. This paper will then address how the works of Irish chick lit authors are an example of ways in which the genre may present more positive, healthier role models for women by depicting an admiration and appreciation for all body types instead of adhering to the stereotypical and largely unattainable ideal, advocated for by the beauty myth. This paper will therefore suggest that such novels, consumed by women all over the world, have the potential to present a direct challenge to the negative effects of the beauty myth, which controls and represses women.
This study proves all the more interesting when we consider that chick lit has received little serious or intellectual discussion and has certainly rarely been the subject of an academic study; any critical interest in the genre has tended to be from an entirely negative perspective due to often “outright dismissal” of the genre “as trivial fiction” (Ferriss 2). Very little has been written on the connection between chick lit and women’s magazines, and most of what has been written tends to be negative. No study on the specific sub-genre of Irish chick lit has been done, which proves problematic in terms of substantiating research and attaining background knowledge. Taking this into consideration, it would of course be naive to argue that every chick lit novel should be considered as a literary masterpiece, and this is not the intent of this paper. As with most fiction genres, some chick lit novels may be recognised as relatively better than others because they tackle important and serious themes or because they bring a sense of originality (either in content or style) to a genre which has been criticised for being overly formulaic, trivial and unoriginal. In this sense, I am not attempting to disprove all criticism written about chick lit; instead, I am using a selection of novels by Irish authors to show how the framework of chick lit may be used to allow serious women’s issues – in particular, the body and the effect of women’s magazines – to be circulated among a wide audience and to bring a sense of value to the genre, thereby helping to remove or at least lessen the current status of being largely worthless.
Although the phrase chick lit is now used to describe the easily-recognised genre of women’s fiction, it has been correctly noted that this description could also be accurately applied to the vast majority of novels such as in the following analysis of women’s reading habits:
If “chick lit” were defined as what women read, the term would have to include most novels, including those considered macho territory. A 2000 survey found that women comprised a greater percentage of readers than men across all genres: Espionage/Thriller (69 percent); General (88 percent); Mystery/Detective (86 percent); and even Science Fiction (52 percent). (Chaudhry)
For our purpose, this definition will be limited to fiction whose target audience and primary characters are women. Attempts to define exactly what chick lit is become decidedly more difficult when faced with “the daunting prospect of determining what recent fiction by women featuring a female protagonist or a cast of women characters is not chick lit” (Harzewski 31). The definition of chick lit is further problematized by its similarities to the traditional romance genre from which it undoubtedly evolved and because both genres are among the most commercially successful fiction genres; although, chick lit may be seen as perhaps a more updated, somewhat cooler version of the romance. Nevertheless, in considering the two genres’ apparent preoccupation with romance and relationships, how can we differentiate between the two? One of the most common ways of distinguishing between the contemporary genre of chick lit and the more traditional genre of romance (such as those of the Mills and Boon variety, for instance) is the varying degree to which each emphasizes the heroine’s desire to wed. In the case of traditional romances, the heroine’s ultimate goal is, more often than not, to marry; indeed, a wedding or engagement is usually considered to be the satisfactory conclusion of such novels. Romance novels have been criticised for portraying marriage as the ultimate goal for a woman, and it has been suggested that they should instead depict women who have aspirations for achievements other than marriage such as, for instance, a career. In their defence, romance novels were merely following the tradition of “love-novels” which had gone before them (Greer 239). This tradition has been increasingly prevalent since the late sixteenth century: themes of love and marriage have been found in a notable number of similar novels during that time. These love-novels started the tradition of “marriage as the end of the story, and the assumption of ‘living happily ever after’” (Greer 232). Conversely, typical chick lit novels tend to end with “mutual declarations of love after a long and tumultuous period of misunderstandings, with future marriage likely but not guaranteed” (Wells 50). Novels in the chick lit genre routinely diverge from the ending-in-marriage trope.
As the name suggests, traditional romance novels focus primarily on the romance plot often at the expense of any other storyline; whereas, chick lit often presents a more well-rounded perspective of contemporary women’s lives, discussing everything from relationships among friends and family to careers and body issues. Chicklitbooks.com, a website dedicated to writers and readers of chick lit, describes the genre as follows:
Chick lit is a genre comprised of books that are mainly written by women for women ... There is usually a personal, light, and humorous tone to the books ... The plots usually consist of women experiencing usual life issues, such as love, marriage, dating, relationships, friendships, roommates, corporate environments, weight issues, addiction, and much more. (“What is Chick Lit?”)
Additionally, in Sarah Mlynowski’s See Jane Write: A Girl’s Guide To Writing Chick Lit, arguably a manual for budding chick lit writers, the genre is described as being “about observing life ... It’s honest, it reflects women’s lives today – their hopes and dreams as well as their trials and tribulations – and, well, it’s hugely popular” (10). When we consider chick lit in light of this definition, it becomes evident that the genre has perhaps moved further away from the traditional romance genre than previously assumed. The romance genre sees women only in relation to men, while chick lit is perhaps more closely aligned with women’s magazines which also market themselves as representing contemporary women’s lives in a variety of areas congruent with those depicted in chick lit. This idea will be discussed later when I examine how the connection between chick lit novels and women’s magazines may be seen as negative, and how some chick lit authors are attempting to present more positive alternatives for both the magazine industry and the chick lit genre.
The Beauty Myth and Typical Chick Lit
The issue of female image is, as previously mentioned, one which some theorists would argue is really the main focus of the chick lit novel. Allison Umminger suggests in “Supersizing Bridget Jones: What’s Really Eating the Women in Chick Lit” that, although it may appear that chick lit primarily chronicles the heroine’s search for a boyfriend, “in many of the books this quest for a partner is entirely secondary to the ongoing battle chick lit’s heroines are engaging with themselves – particularly with regard to weight” (240). Contemporary feminist theorists have noted that, for women of the twenty-first century, issues regarding the perception of beauty and image can be rife with contradictions: the modern woman “knows on the one hand that looks don’t matter. On the other hand she knows that she wants to feel attractive and that she wants this to be confirmed by other people” (Levenson 131). Much traditional chick lit also adds to women’s image concerns by portraying men as
far too superficial and shallow ever to love a woman for her imperfect self. In these fictional worlds no man is strong or deep enough to love an overweight woman, not publicly at any rate. Thus all the characters remain trapped (or willingly ensnared) by a culture that values surface first, substance second. (Umminger 249)
Critics, understandably, worry that portrayals such as these present a negative perspective to women who read that, for instance, no man could possibly love a woman who does not meet the accepted standards of aesthetic perfection.
Much of women’s anxiety about appearance has been attributed to what Naomi Wolf termed the “beauty myth” (12). The beauty myth is centred on the idea that any “woman who desires to be beautiful is trapped in the confines of the structured definition of what beauty should comprise” (Weissman 24). Wolf describes how the beauty myth works in the following excerpt from her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women:
The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual, and evolutionary: Strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility, and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless. None of this is true. (12)
Wolf is critical of a society that feels “the need to defend itself by evading the fact of real women, [women’s] faces and voices and bodies, and reducing the meaning of women to these formulaic and endlessly reproduced ‘beautiful’ images” because of the influence of the beauty myth (18). The emphasis on women’s alleged beauty, she believes, is akin to saying that what “women look like is considered important because what we say is not” (106). She views the modern woman’s preoccupation with beauty as merely a new way of oppressing women.
In attempting to represent the modern woman, the typical chick lit heroine tends to be fashion-conscious and mindful of appearance, indulging in intensive skincare rituals and purchasing the latest cosmetics. She desires to look as trendy as possible, often placing fashion before comfort as the following excerpt from Keyes’ Sushi For Beginners shows:
Sitting herself in the chair, she tucked her Patrick Cox-shod feet neatly around each other. The shoes were a size too small – no matter how many times she asked the Patrick Cox press office to send a size six, they always sent a five. But free Patrick Cox stilettos were free Patrick Cox stilettos. What did an unimportant detail like excruciating agony matter? (4)
On the contrary, the discomfort mentioned by this protagonist matters a great deal when we consider feminist concerns of how many methods of obtaining beauty in women were actually a means to control, limit and repress them. In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir recalls the ways in which women were often inhibited by their pursuit of beauty. While we may consider the binding of women’s feet in China as an historical and therefore outdated concern, de Beauvoir demonstrates how similar albeit less extreme measures in acquiring beauty still impair women in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: “the polished fingernails of the Hollywood star deprive her of her hands” and “high heels, corsets, panniers, farthingales, crinolines were intended less to accentuate the curves of feminine body than to augment its incapacity” (190). In this way, fashion becomes synonymous with suffering.
Additionally, critics express concern over the frequent discussions in chick lit regarding the heroine’s obsession with her dress size. The typical chick lit heroine, according to theorist Donna Freitas, is
weight-obsessed. She relentlessly counts every calorie, measures her thighs, and attempts to sweat off alcohol units and Cadbury Milktray in desperate excursions to the gym. She is convinced she would be more lovable, successful, fashionable and sexy if she could just conform her body to a size that would allow her to fit into jeans meant for a twelve-year-old girl. (33)
Thus, in chick lit we witness a wide range of concerns regarding weight. Found on the more minor end of the spectrum are women who are mildly self-conscious of their “flabby bits” (Thompson 195). Whereas, on the more extreme end we find those who believe that the perfect figure will give them confidence and allow them to feel sexier such as the following from one of Keyes’ protagonists:
I suspected that if I had big bouncy breasts and long, slender, cellulite-free golden thighs I could have overlooked my Catholic guilt. I would probably have been a lot more likely to confidently hop into bed with total strangers. Maybe sex would have been an activity that I could just enjoy, instead of it mostly being an exercise in damage limitation, trying to act like I was enjoying myself while at the same time managing to hide a bum that was too big, a chest that was too small, thighs that were too... etc., etc. (Lucy Sullivan 259)
The concern to camouflage what she perceives to be the unsightly parts of her body are reflected in a particular issue of the women’s magazine Cosmopolitan, which Naomi Wolf criticises for publishing an “article demonstrating to women how to undress and pose and move in bed with their partners so as to disguise their fatness” (201). Excerpts such as the one cited above display how society has destroyed women’s self-confidence to the extent that they are embarrassed of their own bodies. Germaine Greer suggests that women have become so brainwashed by society’s images of the “ideal” that “they rarely undress with éclat. They are often apologetic about their bodies, considered in relation to that plastic object of desire whose image is radiated throughout the media” (292). Thus chick lit heroines often embody concerns and fears adopted by the modern day woman resulting from a culture that has convinced them that they are worthless if they do not reflect the unattainable images portrayed by the media.
Even more than just apologetic about their bodies, some chick lit novels portray characters who hate their bodies so much that they would risk their own health to achieve perfection:
After work Tara did a step class, and was delighted when she almost fainted. She had to sit on the bench for fifteen minutes before she could stand up without her knees buckling. When she got home, Thomas smacked her on the bum and said, affectionately, “You’re not bad, for a fat lass!”
That night, she went to bed trembling with hunger and overexertion. All in all, it had been a very good day. (Keyes, Last Chance Saloon 198)
In some situations, this obsession with weight is even shown to lead to eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia:
“That’s ‘cos I work hard at keeping myself slim. It’s a full-time job, y’know? It’s not fun but I’ve got used to the sound of my stomach rumbling,” she laughs.
I’m not sure I agree with all of this. I mean, surely starving can’t be good for you. There’s something pretty sick about listening to your stomach crying out in pain and going around feeling weak and not being able to think straight. (Mackle 182-183)
Chick lit has been criticised for depicting serious and potentially fatal eating disorders in an often humorous and light-hearted manner such as when one of Keyes’ characters feels the “warm glow of being mistaken for an anorexic” (Rachel’s Holiday 81). In another example, a character provides an indifferent description of starvation as notfun:
As I put down the phone, I thank the Lord she didn’t ask me how my diet was going. I’d need to do something about my spare tyre once and for all, I think, pinching more than an inch around my mid riff. I wish I could be as skinny as A-J but then again all that starving must be a pain in the butt. I mean, where’s the fun in that? (Mackle 172)
It is important to note that chick lit’s discussion of women’s weight and image problems does not mean that these novels are encouraging or even condoning such behaviour. Rather, these novels are merely providing a portrayal of “a culture that disdains and suppresses female hunger, makes women ashamed of their appetites and needs, and demands that women constantly work on the transformation of their body” (Bordo 2370). Chick lit’s portrayal of the self-deprecating methods that the heroines use to achieve a desired thinness exposes a larger, more culturally resonant, irrational and unnecessary obsession with appearance.
Resisting Magazine-Woman: Irish Chick Lit as the Antidote to Fashion Magazines
But why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we want to lose weight, look great, be intelligent and funny at all times (without obviously being intellectually superior or poking fun at our partners)? (Mackle 224)
The above quote asks a question that many women consider regularly: why do so many women have such a love-hate relationship with their bodies? Why do they go to such extremes in an attempt to meet an unattainable ideal? The answer to these questions could arguable be the magazine industry. Despite knowing that the magazine industry preys on women’s faults by telling them exactly what they need to change about themselves in order to adhere to the standards of (patriarchal) society, thousands if not millions of women around the world devotedly read these magazines and follow the supposed advice. Yet, the promises made by magazines to boost confidence and fashion sense can actually be more damaging than helpful. As Ellie Levenson states, magazines “create want where there was no want, worry where there was no worry, and insecurity and feelings of inadequacy where before there were none” (100). Imelda Whelehan explains in Overloaded that this false creation may be primarily due to the fact that magazines, “dependent as they are on advertising revenue, need to trade on a sense of lack” (53). And yet, if women are aware of these advertising ploys, why then do they care so much about what the magazines tell and show them? As Naomi Wolf suggests in The Beauty Myth:
They care because, though the magazines are trivialised, they represent something very important: women’s mass culture ... Women are deeply affected by what their magazines tell them (or what they believe they tell them) because they are all most women have as a window on their own mass sensibility. (70)
Feminist theory should be in favour of anything which represents female culture; however, the opposite appears to be the case since much feminist theory has been severely critical of the unrealistic and negative role models portrayed in fashion magazines.
Feminist theory implies that, despite being a reflection of female culture, fashion magazines in fact reinforce the beauty myth as they “open up further vistas of anxiety about one’s body, one’s boyfriend, one’s lifestyle, one’s attitude” (Whelehan, Overloaded 53). Whelehan continues:
What glossies [magazines] are good at, after all, is the stimulation of desire for what we haven’t got and the creation of anxiety about our own attributes; they wish us to believe that our aspirations are attainable with a little judicious remodelling and investment in the kinds of commodities advertised within their pages. (Overloaded 138)
Wolf further bemoans that society, including media and magazines, “never gives girls the message that their bodies are valuable simply because they are inside them” (205). Two popular Irish women’s magazines, U Magazine and Stellar, often feature seemingly helpful beauty, hair and diet tips that include ways for readers to disguise their flaws or otherwise hide or change themselves in some way, even though these supposed flaws are actually features of our individuality. Women’s magazines pretend to reassure readers that there is no beauty ideal, yet they essentially rely on making women feel that they have to change in some way; after all, a woman who is completely happy with herself is thought to no longer need the advice found within these publications.
Such negative advice in magazines, advice that results in feelings of want and lack, have also been noted and criticised in many chick lit novels. As Whelehan states in Overloaded, chick lit heroines such as Bridget Jones are “the epitome of body dysmorphia,” a term which signifies “hatred of one’s body to the point of revulsion, often at one’s weight or the shape of one’s nose or breasts” (149). Yet, considering that magazines are often thought to encourage or even introduce women to the concept of body dysmorphia, perhaps the body-hating protagonists of chick lit novels are merely a response to the dysmorphic messages found in fashion magazines. In The Beauty Myth, Wolf defines women’s magazines as “the only products of popular culture that (unlike romances) change with women’s reality, are mostly written by women for women about women’s issues, and take women’s concerns seriously” (71). This same definition could also be applied to the chick lit genre, which not only discusses current women’s issues but is also written by women, for women and about women. Perhaps this shared definition and the shared emphasis on contemporary women’s issues and interests – including fashion, beauty, shopping, diet, relationships and careers – is among the reasons why the chick lit genre has often been described as “the daughter of the romance novel and the stepsister to the fashion magazine” (Merrick vii). Although these comparisons are often used to dismiss the literary worth of the genre, chick lit defenders have stated that, while chick lit does show some comparison to the women’s magazine, it also paints a more realistic picture of women’s lives:
Like women’s magazines, chick lit immerses the reader in a world in which the pursuit of beauty is never ending; what distinguishes chick lit from magazines is that its heroines frankly admit to the drain of energy and resources demanded by this pursuit, even as they persist in it. (Wells 61)
Through this realistic portrayal, Irish chick lit serves to highlight the manipulative efforts made by the fashion magazine industry, thereby increasing women’s feelings of self-worth by helping them to realise the extent that the beauty myth attempts to control women.
Irish Chick Lit and the Body
As previously discussed, typical chick lit has been criticised for inadvertently increasing women’s body worries among its readership; whereas, Irish chick lit is amid those helping to change the conventions of traditional beauty. Contrary to the teachings of the beauty myth, these conventions are often unrealistic, unattainable, and misrepresentative of how many people truly want themselves or others to look. For instance, in Between the Sheets by Colette Caddle, the protagonist notes how her friend Sylvie, who was intelligent and pretty, “was intent on finding a rich husband and seemed to think being incredibly skinny was the only way to reach her goal” (29). Such attitudes demonstrate that the beauty myth has informed women that they need to be extremely skinny in order to attract a man and that such beliefs have become embedded in many women’s minds. In an attempt to combat such damaging attitudes, feminist theory asserts that, while the “emaciated body of the anorectic, of course, immediately presents itself as a caricature of the contemporary ideal of hyperslenderness for women,” often “the male preference for cuddlesome women persists” (Bordo 2367; Greer 38). However, it may be argued that “this preference does bring the argument back to what men want – cuddly women – rather than what it is women want for themselves” (Levenson 114). Thus, the attempts made by chick lit to expose the problematic and complex nature of women’s body issues, in fact, demonstrate how male desires have been internalized by women as a result of the pervasive and insidious beauty myth.
In its attack on the debilitating effects of the beauty myth, feminism encourages women to revel in their own uniqueness and to accept that they are all beautiful in their own ways, an idea illustrated in the following excerpt from Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise by Donna Freitas:
There is no one ideal for all women’s bodies nor one definition of what it means to be beautiful. All women are different; no woman is perfect, and, inevitably, how we envision what our bodies could be and should be will change over the course of our lifetime. We have different skin colors, body shapes, fashion senses, and relationships to our bodies. Some of us are more comfortable with a more naturalistic style of body and beauty, and some of us take joy in plucking, primping, and stylizing our looks for hours at a time. (47)
An example of this call for the appreciation and admiration of various body types is reflected quite effectively in Keyes’ This Charming Man:
Bell tinged. The arrival of Nkechi. Everyone looked. Plenty to look at. Nigerian, excellent posture, braids hanging all the way down her back, very long legs, then a really quite large bottom perched on top of them. But Nkechi never tried to hide her bottom. She was proud of it. Fascinating to me. Irish girls’ lives were a constant quest for bottom-disguising or bottom-reducing clothing tactics. We can learn much from other cultures. (32)
In an effort to subvert the influence of the beauty myth, much Irish chick lit portrays atypical heroines: female characters who do not necessarily meet the stereotypical ideas of what is beautiful yet are still shown to ooze confidence and appear highly attractive. Consider the following excerpt from Keyes’ Rachel’s Holiday:
One was a dumpy young woman called Francie who talked loudly and incessantly, running all her words into each other. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had shoulder-length blonde hair with two inches of dark roots on show, a gap in her front teeth that you could drive a truck through and cheap foundation several shades too dark, badly smeared on to her face. She was overweight, her hem was hanging and her skirt was red and way too tight.
My first thought was what a mess she was. But within seconds she knew everyone, was throwing cigarettes at them and had in-jokes and intimacy up and running. To my great anxiety, I saw that she was undeniably, if inexplicably, sexy. I got that familiar sick fear that Chris would shift his attention away from me.
She carried herself as if she was a goddess. She didn’t even seem to notice the round bulge of her stomach through her awful pencil skirt. It would have had me suicidal. (522)
This reverence for Francie completely contrasts the beauty myth, which teaches that women could never be the “heroines” of their own story without being remarkably beautiful (Wolf 61). By inverting this idea and proving that funny, interesting, intelligent women are just as attractive if not more so than thin women, chick lit is helping to portray healthier, more positive role models for contemporary women.
Yet critics continue to claim that chick lit does not portray heroines who are comfortable with and accepting of their looks, viewing this deficiency as a sign of how women’s confidence is still being suppressed by the beauty myth: “A heroine who is completely free of care about her looks and happily self-accepting is nowhere to be found in chick lit, an absence that suggests that such a character is too unrealistic to appeal to image-conscious women readers” (Wells 59). Contrary to this criticism is yet another attempt by Irish chick lit to subvert the beauty myth – its tendency to portray women who are confident with their looks and happy in their own skin. However, Irish chick lit is not so unrealistic or idealistic that it lacks credibility by assuming that this confidence is the norm. The following excerpt from Keyes’ Angels shows that total confidence is often such a rarity that it can be surprising to witness first-hand:
Of course I’d be delighted if I woke up one morning and found I’d miraculously lost half a stone during the night – who wouldn’t? But nevertheless, I was speechless. I’d never before come across a woman who claimed, by her own admission, to be in good shape – I thought it was simply Not Allowed. That you say it about everyone else, whether it’s true or not, while berating yourself for being a hippo/heifer/Jabba the Hutt, even if you’ve been on the grapefruit diet for the past month. All right, maybe it’s dishonest, but it somehow seems less offensive. (157)
By showing women who are beginning to feel confident about their appearance, Irish chick lit aims to set a more positive example for women regarding their self-image. Irish chick lit reminds women, despite what the beauty myth tells them, that in fact there is no single ideal standard of physical beauty and that many other factors, such as personality and confidence, also contribute to how attractive a person appears:
Cecily was very taken with Jojo; she’d been watching her since she’d arrived. Jojo was a big girl – bigger than Cecily could imagine being in her worst Maltesers-filled nightmares – but she was gorgeous ...
But it was the way Jojo seemed so comfortable in her own skin that most entranced Cecily. To the point where she’d wondered tentatively about cancelling her gym membership. Even – dammit! – eating whatever she wanted. If it worked for this Jojo, why couldn’t it work for her? (Keyes, Other Side of the Story 142)
Irish chick lit portrays more unconventionally beautiful female characters and women who are confident in their looks and, in doing so, is helping to portray more positive role models for women.
Irish chick lit demonstrates positive female role models in a number of other ways. For example, rather than beauty and image creating rivalry and resentment among women, much Irish chick lit shows women who openly admire and appreciate other women’s appearance, thus helping to reinforce the appeal for women to support one another: “Carrie stared openly in admiration [at Maeve]. Perhaps she had hitherto undiscovered lesbian tendencies, because she couldn’t take her eyes off this gorgeous creature” (Caddle,Forever FM 97). Additionally, Irish chick lit aims to dismantle the beauty myth by portraying women who openly refuse to mould themselves into a carbon copy of a male fantasy and yet are still in a happy relationship where they are adored by their boyfriend:
I was impatient now. I undressed to my bra and knickers and put on a robe and, unexpectedly, noticed my underwear. Black cotton pants, plain black bra. (Two different blacks.) Nothing wrong with it, but it wasn’t much ... fun. Would it have killed me to buy nice stuff? Technically, no. But I suppose I didn’t really approve. I was a real woman so why should I dress up like a male fantasy? (This Charming Man 156)
This type of portrayal reinforces the notion that women should dress for themselves and not try to meet the image of the male ideal. Irish chick lit depicts women who have previously been affected by the beauty myth, women who have hated their bodies for no reason other than that the myth’s picture of what they should look like did not match the reflection they saw in the mirror:
We wasted so much time torturing ourselves and worrying about the size of our bums. ...
The obsession with the largeness of our bums was matched in intensity only by the obsession with the smallness of our chests.
It was so sad!
Because we were beautiful.
We had such lovely figures.
And we had no idea ...
Maybe I should have started to enjoy the way I looked, bad and all as I thought it was. Because one day I’d wish I looked like that again. (Keyes, Watermelon 119-120)
Defiant of the lies of the beauty myth, the heroines of Irish chick lit demonstrate a positive move toward accepting themselves as they are rather than adhering to the male fantasy ideal by trying to mould their bodies into unattainable and potentially dangerous shapes and sizes. That Irish chick lit shows an awareness of the beauty myth’s lies is a step in the right direction towards tackling the problem.
Irish chick lit attempts to enlighten the reader of the damage that some women’s magazines can do to a woman’s self-confidence by exposing the tactics used by such magazines. I would suggest that Irish chick lit edges towards being viewed as an antidote to the negative influence of women’s magazine. In contrast to the magazines’ one-tip-suits-all approach to fashion and image with its pictures of heavily airbrushed models of a shared body type, Irish chick lit tends to highlight and emphasize individuality and low-maintenance beauty regimes in its heroines – again portraying healthier role models for contemporary women. Whelehan suggests that the chick lit heroine:
still falls for the seductions of magazines such as Cosmopolitan, while acting as testimony to the fact that the flawless Cosmo girl simply does not exist; and in this way Bridget [Jones] and other chick lit heroines represent a resistance to magazine woman. Chick lit, while representing the anxieties women suffer because they don’t match up to the ideal femininity on display in popular culture, champions the ordinary and everyday. (Feminist Bestseller 182)
Some Irish chick lit novels depict characters who work in the magazine industry, and excerpts such as the following from Keyes’ Sushi For Beginners reveal how women’s magazines often manipulate dedicated readers with fabricated advice meant to solve concocted problems and how advertising ploys play a key role in determining the nature of such advice:
Looking for a theme for her page, Ashling surveyed the products piled on her desk. There was a volumizing mousse, a hairspray that promised to ‘lift’ the roots, and a ‘bodifying’ shampoo – all paraphernalia for women wanting big hair. But then there was also anti-frizz masque, smoothing complex, and leave-in conditioner. All for those women who liked their hair flattened against their heads. How could she reconcile the two? How could her piece have any consistency? Back and forth she agonized. Was it possible to have big hair and flat hair? Or could she try to pretend that your hair needed to be flat before it could be big, thereby inventing a whole new set of worries for big-haired women? (227)
Excerpts such as this effectively demonstrate that magazines tend to contain nothing more than advertisements and promotions of certain products or brands. From the long-running international magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue to the newer Irish women’s magazines such as Stellar and U Magazine, readers are frequently bombarded with product advertisements in fashion and beauty features, which – as demonstrated in the above excerpt from Sushi For Beginners – are writtennot because the products have been carefully tried, tested and approved but because the magazine is paid to promote such products. Similarly, A. O’Connor’s Exclusive mentions how women’s magazines are thought to advocate skinniness even in supposed “health columns,” which describe dangerous diet regimes “of nuts and grains and other starvation food policies” (423). However, Exclusive ends on a more hopeful note when the Lana character promises to stop publishing these fad diets. Instead, she intends to promote the pleasures of indulging in favourite foods and to highlight that there is no one ideal weight or body shape, thus encouraging a more positive, self-confident attitude: “‘Well, I think everyone deserves a break,’ said Lana, ‘and I think Hi Life’s readers deserve a break from being made to feel inferior because of their weight or fitness level’” (O’Connor 502). In a similar sense, the Ashling character in Keyes’ Sushi for Beginners finally decides that her article should cater to the fact that “different women want different things” (227). Both of these examples suggest that Irish chick lit carries the potential to create a kind of utopian magazine that could be updated to finally benefit women by portraying realistic and positive role models and thereby helping to improve women’s own feelings of self-worth and confidence.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the genre’s undeniable commercial success, chick lit remains an area of literature often denigrated for its apparently trivial and formulaic nature, seen as a collection of novels that vary from one another in only very insignificant ways. In terms of treatment of the female body, typical chick lit has been criticised for portraying an unhealthy obsession with weight and appearance, resulting in debilitating negative role models congruent with those depicted in many women’s magazines. That many authors still follow the usual formula found in traditional chick lit may explain why positive depictions of body image are still quite rare and only beginning to make appearances in chick lit. However, the point is that some authors (such as the Irish authors discussed in this paper) are breaking away from chick lit’s formulaic and often damaging representations of body image, which results in diversification within the genre as some writers tackle the traditional formula in unique and more serious ways. In terms of body image, this paper has shown that chick lit has the potential to undertake a serious analysis of the negative impact of the beauty myth and to reveal the inside secrets of the magazine industry, thereby hopefully opening women’s eyes to their manipulative influence. Irish chick lit authors present more positive female role models and remove the emphasis on one-dimensional, unrealistic media-created stereotypes for women. In the process, this paper has demonstrated that Irish chick lit is an example of how this popular women’s genre may have the potential to challenge the suppressive effects of the beauty myth. In evaluating the genre’s ability to speak to women’s real issues and to present more realistic role models, a serious analysis of the genre, one that extends beyond my analysis, would finally highlight the value found within the pages of these novels. Clearly, chick lit offers more than is first imagined upon seeing their pink pastel covers.
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Mary Ryan is a PhD Candidate at Mary Immaculate College, Ireland. Her thesis focuses on the connection between feminist theory and contemporary Irish women’s writing, including Irish chick lit novels. She has published and presented papers on feminist theory, Irish chick lit, contemporary Irish women’s fiction and popular culture. In September 2009, she won an award for her submission to the Postgraduate Contemporary Women’s Writing Network (PG-CWWN) “Reading Bodies/Writing Bodies” conference at Oxford University.