I read a fascinating piece in The Guardian UK recently, with an even more fascinating headline: “Chick lit ‘harms body image’, study finds.” At first glance, this seems highly plausible. Just the name ‘chick lit’ implies something at least intellectually (if not psychologically) unsavory. We are women, not poultry!, the feminist in me wants to clamor. And certainly, I myself have written about the potential impact of young adult (YA) literature on girl’s self-image. Despite my abhorrence of anything that even sounds like book banning, I’ve also allowed myself to wonder if full-of-detail descriptions of anorexia, like Laurie Halsie Anderson’s Wintergirls could be used as a book of tips for young people already struggling with eating disorders.
And yet, there is a difference between wondering if a single well-written novel – when read without support and in isolation – could be (mis)used by a young person already struggling with body image issues, and if an entire genre of literature can actively ‘harm body image’ in an entire gender of people. Doesn’t attributing such a wide reaching condemnation of not one book but an entire type of fiction smack of 19th century condemnations of the novel itself? Ideas that suggested that the weak minds of women, in particular, were somehow more prone to ‘hysterical’ flights of fancy after reading novels? (The classic example of this kind of ‘imagination gone awry due to reading’ is found in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which young Catherine Morland, a Gothic novel aficionado, imagines all sort of horrible murders and other happenings due entirely to her ‘reading too much.’)
So, can reading chick lit make modern women have bad body image? Can Bridget Jones (who is soon to have a third sequel) be blamed for our gender’s collective bad self-esteem due to her calorie counting and cigarette-alcohol binging? Or Georgia Nicolson and her fabity-fab-fab boy crazy ways be at the root of some kind of global heteronormative downfall?
Well, let’s go back to the study itself, shall we? Mmm? The abstract of the Virginia Tech study, published in The Journal of Body Image reads:
Excerpts from two chick lit novels were used to examine the effect of a protagonist’s body weight and body esteem on college women’s (N=159) perceptions of their sexual attractiveness and weight concern. Two narratives were used to minimize the possibility that idiosyncratic characteristics of one excerpt might influence the study’s results. Underweight (vs. healthy weight) protagonists predicted readers’ lower perceived sexual attractiveness. Protagonists with low body esteem (vs. control) predicted readers’ increased weight concern. Scholars and health officials should be concerned about the effect chick lit novels might have on women’s body image.
At first this seems very convincing, right? But then, the storyteller in me realized something. Excerpts from two novels were used. And while this might seem trivial, it is not. Reading an excerpt of a chick-lit novel (whatever that particular category might mean anyway) is quite different than reading a complete novel with a beginning, middle, and end – a story with a plot and character arc in which the main protagonist learns something or changes or progresses. Because – and I think I’m not overstating it here – most so-called chick lit (of the adult or YA variety) may reflect a women’s insecurities or obsessions over body image, but rarely will the novel’s plot suggest that her internal growth is somehow less important than her external appearance.
Chick lit doesn’t exist in a narrative vacuum. Overall, authors like Helen Fielding or Sophie Kinsella or Meg Cabot reflect the very real concerns of very real women living in the very real world. And that is a world full of terrible images of women’s bodies, images and ideas that undermine our body image and self-worth. But these authors write about women who are complex, if fun-loving, real, if occasionally self-doubting. These authors write about women who find strength in their personalities and their relationships, not solely their appearance.
Novels are not handbooks, and we chick-lit readers (i.e. women) are not all weak-minded, naive characters like Catherine Morland. To me, this finding is both a result of the problematic study design and short-sighted assumptions about ‘women’s literature,’ and therefore, women and girls in general.