by Kiersten Hallie Krum
While I was waiting to leave a regional comic con in Massachusetts last weekend, I chatted up two old ladies in the lobby talking TV and HBO and Outlander. Y’all know I’ll talk anyone’s ear off about Outlander with the slightest bit of encouragement. Before I left, I gave them each my card because one of them said she loves to read Sherrilyn Kenyon and you never know when self promo at the right moment might pay off. The other lady started laughing uproariously. Turns out she’d read the back of my card with the tagline “smart, sharp, & sexy romantic suspense novels” but didn’t get past the first three words. Thinking the line referred to me personally, her gut response was “my, she thinks highly of herself.” Taking it in good humor, mostly because of her age, I mockingly demanded, “are you saying I’m not smart, sharp, and sexy?” to which she replied, still laughing but totally serious, “yes!”
And now you know why I do my best to stay the hell out of Massachusetts.
Thing is, this nameless, inconsequential woman’s opinion has been haunting me ever since. Not the good times and lovely moments I had that weekend, but this one thoughtless comment from a stranger right at the end. That old adage about how it takes eight compliments to make up for one insult? For two weeks, I’ve been twisting on the negative side of that divide.
I’ll be blunt: I’m an obese woman who struggles with society’s perception of my value based on how I look as opposed not only to who I am but who I perceive myself to be. At Lady Smut, we talk about and celebrate female sexuality, though the majority of the world would tell you that women of my size don’t have any…or perhaps shouldn’t have any, which is just so much ignorant bullshit. Frankly, I’m pretty fucking amazing. That’s a hard-won if fluctuating sense of self-worth there, not narcissistic vanity. But just one scornful word from a near stranger or one fake construct of a perfect beauty can send me spiraling into a cave of self-loathing. That’s because no one can do a number on me better than I do on myself. I’m not alone in this; women are hardest on other women and often harder than all on themselves. We’re conditioned to lead with our faults and imperfections and scorned for openly praising our own considerable skills and qualities.
That I struggle with my weight–“struggle”, as if it’s some Herculean opponent that defines character instead of merely a physical attribute that describes appearance–dominates my every waking thought subconsciously or otherwise. I think about how I move, how I stand, how I sweat because I’m moving and standing. How I sit. Did I hunch over so my chin disappeared or lean in such a way that my belly was grossly emphasized? It’s exhausting, I promise you, but it’s also second nature. As a performer and writer, I’m hyper aware of presentation and perception, which means I have a near pathological need to set the scene, to craft the image being shown to the world. This becomes increasingly difficult when your physical appearance is the antithesis to what society claims you must be in order to be deemed worthy. In our world, beautiful people–beautiful, skinny people–only must apply.
Around Valentine’s Day this year, BuzzFeed® took four woman of various age and physical make up and gave them each a professional photo shoot, full hair and makeup. Each woman’s photo shoot was then photoshopped and the results shown to the subjects. On a whole, each woman was disappointed and some appalled at how their photoshopped image was stripped of their individuality. One woman objected to her freckles being washed out, another that she didn’t feel the new image adequately reflected her true character. Their biggest objection was that the stylized images removed their flaws, the imperfections they valued that made them unique. “Once you take away your imperfections,” one woman said, “there’s not much left of who you really are.” Right, because as women, it’s our imperfections that make us unique.
Give me a break.
I gotta say, given the chance, I probably would’ve preferred that perfected image however fake it may be. Because it was altered to an unachievable but accepted and valued ideal? No. Because it would’ve shown a version of myself that would let society to get the hell over itself so the inner, better me could be perceived. Not because it made me skinny and beautiful but because an ignorant, judgmental society would no longer have to get past my physical size to see the quality of the character beneath.
In Spring 2013, Dove® did a similar “experiment” with their “Dove® Real Beauty Sketches.” Without actually seeing his subjects, a forensic sketch artist took descriptions from several woman as to how they perceived themselves physically. Each one described their most negative attributes: a protruding jaw, a fat, round face, a big forehead, too many freckles. He then asked other people who knew the subjects to describe the women. The artist then crafted two images from those descriptions, one based on how the subject described herself and the other based on how the “friend” saw her. To a one, each self-portrait was much less attractive than the one drawn from the friends’ descriptions. “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty,” said one subject after the dramatic reveal. “It impacts the choices and the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children…it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”
The tagline? “You are more beautiful than you think.”
Perception is so key to our self-worth, first in our self-perception and then in what society tells us we should feel about ourselves due to how it perceives us, which is often vastly contradictory. Any woman, no matter her size, will tell you clothes shopping is the worst. There’s little more detrimental to your ego than a fitting room’s florescent lights and unforgiving mirrors. There’s no hiding anything there, not weight gain, face lines, hip spread, the works. “It’s so depressing,” says one woman in Special K® cereal’s “More Than a Number” advert where the brand asks, “Why do we let the size of our jeans measure our self-worth?”
Why do we let an old bitty’s stray comment determine our self-worth?
Last year, Special K® invited a group of women to “Rethink Your Jeans” and shop in a store stocked with size-free jeans. Instead of numbers, the labels were marked with affirming assertions. Store clerks were armed with measuring tapes whose demarcation lines were marked “radiant” and “confident.” “I’m size strong,” one woman proudly proclaimed. “Not seeing the number is so freeing!” announced another. “Let’s rethink what defines us,” advises the tagline.
We take a lot of crap in Romanceladia for what’s perceived to be idealized heroes and heroines, for creating characters real-life people can’t hope to emulate. (Never mind the vastly sexualized, deeply unrealistic portrayal of women in, say, video games, comic books, fantasy fiction, and other male-dominated genres, but that’s a soapbox for another day.) In fact, romance heroines aren’t an idealized image of what real-life women wish for but can never hope to be; they are the personification of what we already are: Empowered. Sexual. Strong. Amazing.
One label does not fit all.
Just like changing the tags on jeans in a store revolutionizes how a woman perceives herself while shopping, exploring the myriad shades of woman, particularly in romance genre where the heroine is almost always the protagonist, changes the restricting concepts of who we’re supposed to be, or expected to be, or told to be in society. It gives us not the photoshopped, flawless version, but the second forensic sketch because it’s truer than any perception we might have of ourselves. Because we are more beautiful than we think and infinitely more beautiful than we’re told.
“My, she thinks highly of herself.”
Yes. Yes, I do.
So should you.
Follow Lady Smut. We’ll show you all kinds of beautiful.