“Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?” Or: Chick Lit Is Not Self-Help

A new research study concludes that chick-lit novels may have detrimental effects on women’s self-esteem.

by Josh Trapani

A new research study concludes that chick-lit novels may have detrimental effects on women’s self-esteem. The paper itself is behind a paid firewall, but you can find the master’s thesis that no doubt led to the paper. I will skip any detailed methodological description or critique and simply summarize, quoting The Guardian: “The study found that when the narrative was about a slim heroine, participants [female college students] felt `significantly’ less sexually attractive, and that when it featured a protagonist with low body esteem, readers were `significantly more concerned about their weight’ than participants in the control condition.”

I wonder whether any of us are safe from having fictional characters affect our self-image. Consider the new movie “Bullet to the Head,” in which 66 year old Sylvester Stallone, nearly 30 years my senior, displays a level of abdominal definition that I would never achieve even if I decided to quit my sedentary desk job to devote my days to crunches and sit-ups.

Or consider Dungeons & Dragons, that popular pastime of awkward teenagers, wherein young men (mostly) who look like this:

role-play in the form of characters who look more like this:

Surely most teenagers have nowhere near the hit points of the Level 12 Fighter with the battle axe and broadsword. Kind of rough on the ego.

Alright, I kid. But only to a point.

The problem is that chick lit – and yes, before you ask, I have indeed read several novels falling solidly under this label – is a wish fulfillment genre. I do not have the data, but I am willing to wager a large bottle of expensive bourbon that if one were to tally up by genre the proportion of books written in the first person, chick lit would come out on top.

This is because association between reader and protagonist is essential in this genre, and must come in the former closely identifying with and personally liking the latter (mere understanding or empathy or fascination is insufficient). This is often accomplished in developing: 1) an ill-formed protagonist on whose vagueness the reader may superimpose herself (think Bella from Twilight or, for you older readers, Francesca from The Bridges of Madison County), or 2) a protagonist formed with great precision to whom an equally precise reader demographic can closely relate. Readers of these books are either so fragile or – to give them a bit more credit – relate so closely to these protagonists that we should be concerned about esteem-transfers from one to the other.

This raises another issue: need chick lit authors be concerned that by portraying attractive protagonists (or alternatively, protagonists with body issues) they are adversely affecting their readers’ esteem? Body image issues are a genuine societal problem. Isn’t it the author’s job to portray the truth? Are chick lit authors to whitewash it to give comfort to their readers? From the perspective of authorial integrity, what’s the right thing to do?

Based on my small sample size, I’ll go out on a limb and posit that portraying the truth may not be of paramount concern in chick lit. Certainly the male characters in those books are ample enough evidence of that. Yet this skirts a serious issue that applies to all literature: are authors to write about the world as it is, or the world as they wish it to be? (And while I have framed this as an either/or nearly rhetorical inquiry, I realize it is anything but.)

In this particular genre, wish fulfillment may be central. But let’s remember there are limits. We are talking about fiction, after all. And fiction, even chick lit, is not self-help.

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