Friday, October 28, 2011

Does YA Give You Body Dysmorphia

I recently finished a YA contemporary novel, a well-written coming-of-age story about a girl standing up for what she believes in and finding out who she is. I enjoyed the book, but the part that bugged me was her love interest: the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, preppy, built, cute boy. The most generic 'boy' stereotype across all media. And the girl protagonists in these stories usually believe they're dull-looking, yet still manage to attract the attention of the cute boy.

Why are these characters always so good-looking?

Our culture has a serious body image problem with no cure in sight. TV, movies, and magazines inundate us with impossible standards for male and female beauty: blonde, skinny, six packs, big boobs, long legs, no body hair, chiseled chin, etc. Women have it 100X worse than guys. In Hollywood, guys like Seth Rogen, Kevin James, and Woody Allen wind up with women like Katherine Heigl, Amber Valetta, and Diane Keaton. Guys can be schlubs, but women must always be stunning. Men have it rough, too. Every female-targeted romcom has the women ending up with some lockjawed, ripped dude. This has been going on forever. I know that. But why are books, especially YA novels, embracing these stereotypes, too?

TV and movies are visual media. They use hot actors to attract paying customers. Books don't need to use that trick. Readers don't pick up a book (with the exception of romance novels) because it's about attractive people. And if they start reading the book and find the main character isn't gorgeous, they don't automatically put it down. Teenagers are particularly insecure about their looks. I spent way too much time on my hair in high school; no wonder half of it's fallen out! Teens are bombarded all day by images of supposedly ideal body types. Why do we perpetuate those body types in YA books? Not all girls are attracted to the hot/dreamy guy, and not all guys are into the Heidi Montag look. If that were the case, then only supermodels would date. People have different ideas of what they find attractive. We should strive to write characters that have physical quirks to them - like actual teens. Let's not try to recreate a CW show. I'm sure readers will love your book even if the boy of your MC's dreams has unruly hair or a bony chest. And guy readers won't throw a book across the room if the girl love interest has blemishes or love handles. Don't save all odd body features for your side characters. I worry that many female protagonists in YA novels suffer from Laney Boggs syndrome: they think they're so ugly when it's glaringly obvious to the reader/whole world that they are total knockouts.
In Tina Fey's book Bossypants, she said that most successful shows centered around normal-looking, even slightly unattractive, casts. Friends was the exception. The casts of Cheers, The Office, Seinfeld, 30 Rock, and CSI among others are not filled with models. Whereas how many series with sexy casts got canceled?  *cough*Coupling*cough*

Believe it or not, there have been successful books with protagonists who don't fit the beauty mold. Skeeter Phelan of The Help was tall, lanky, flat-chested, and had embarrassingly frizzy hair. Katniss Everdeen had few discernible female features. She was kind of described as looking like Sandra Bullock in the first half of Miss Congeniality. Even down to the hairy legs. I know that readers love pining after the same guy/girl as the MC; that's part of the fun of reading a book. But you don't have to make them generically attractive. Create your own form of sexy. Leave the generic body types to Hollywood.

What do you think, readers? Is there a body image problem in YA?


  1. There is a body image problem period. This is reflected in a cyclical fashion, the cycle of "I want to be me" but "I want to be liked" and "that really pretty girl that looks perfect is liked so I don't really want to be her but I'd like to look perfect too so everyone will like me like they like her". And that is worse during the teen years since that's the time we're all beginning the "find myself" journey.

    Yeah, a cruel circle that probably has no end in sight.

  2. Yep. I agree. My protag in my book is a hot guy too and that's just the way the world wants it. Who am I to challenge the world on these things?

  3. This is a fantastic post and one I agree with 100%. I normally don't give it a lot of thought, but if I have to read about one more perfect blonde, I might give up reading.

    I can understand that "hot" is subjective. Since my opinion of that goes against the grain most of my men fit my mold versus what everyone thinks. If we all make a better effort in communicating what's different and still makes them hot, I think us budding writers will bring a new definition.

  4. @Angela - sadly, you're right. Peer pressure and media scrutiny is intense. That's why I wish books provided more of a refuge for teens who don't look perfect.

    @Michael - True! The people have spoken, and they want hotness all the way. I can't wait to read about the sexy MC in your book...which comes out in 7 months woot woot!

    @Alicia - The power is in our hands. I wonder if writers are afraid of getting rejected (by publishers, by readers) if their characters aren't the standard versions of pretty.