I look to romance novels, as well as other types of fiction, to both entertain me and, on some occasions, inspire me. Cream of the Crop by Alice Clayton, her second in her Hudson Valley series, does both because of its bold, outspoken and very sexy size 18 heroine, Natalie Grayson. In some ways, I’m like Natalie; I used to live in New York and brie is my favorite kind of cheese.
But in one key area, I’m sadly not like her: she doesn’t apologize for her size, wish she were a smaller size, or have any hangups about her body or her attractiveness. Whereas I, despite working on “loving my body,” which perhaps doesn’t need quotes around it but feels like it does, from my teen years into my forties, simply don’t have her level of sheer belief in myself. Here’s how Natalie describes her approach to men:
I found a certain kind of power in walking into a room where I knew no one, and figuring out how everyone ticked. Narrowing in on the best-looking guy in any room, and going on the offense. Size-eighteen women were supposed to be timid. Size-eighteen women were supposed to be shy. Size-eighteen women were supposed to be grateful for any male attention, and to feel especially honored if a good-looking man paid attention to them.
Fuck all that noise. I took the best-looking guy home with me whenever and however I pleased. Confidence went a long way. You walk into a room armed with the knowledge that you can have anyone you want? You can literally have anyone you want.
Plus I had a sweet rack. Which always helped.
No matter what size you are, I’m pretty sure you could do with a boost of Natalie’s confidence, which in the novel, extends beyond the bedroom and into the advertising firm where she works. Even though the hero, sexy cheesemonger Oscar, seller of her beloved brie, gives her butterflies and leaves her tongue tied in the beginning, she is still someone who exudes a core belief in her own power, strength and hotness that I envy.
There’s a fabulous moment, the ultimate flirtation crossed with mixed signals combined with some grammar nerd hijinks, where Natalie and Oscar are talking for the first time outside of his stall at New York’s Union Square Market, where she first met him. She’s been lusting after him but didn’t know whether he was aware of her existence, and after telling her, “I know exactly who you are,” he elaborates with, “You’re the Brie girl with the great big ass.”
She takes offense at first, as probably most women would do after being told they have a “great big ass,” but Oscar isn’t sure what he did wrong. She asks him, “Are you saying great big ass? Or great comma big ass?” That’s classic Clayton rom com right there.
Befuddled, he repeats her last question back to her, so Natalie tells him. “Okay, I’m confused. So you’re not saying that I have a great big . . . ass, you’re saying that I have a great . . . big ass. Meaning—”
His answer? “Your ass is big. And it’s great…How is that confusing?”
She lets him know, “You’re not supposed to say something like that to a woman.” But because she’s so hot for him, and coming to understand exactly what he meant, she responds, “Luckily for you, I’m aware that it’s a great ass. And yes, it’s big.”
Can you imagine all the “Does this skirt/dress/jeans make my ass look big?” conversations that would be eliminated if every woman could embrace the size of her bottom, and the rest of her, the way Natalie does?
I did forget one other thing Natalie and I have in common: beyond brie, food is a centerpiece of our relationships. Clayton’s descriptions of Natalie’s love of cheese and the way she savors other meals is part and parcel of her personality. She’s not going to order a bland, boring salad just because everyone else is doing it, just as she is bold enough to go after whatever and whoever she wants. She doesn’t shrink away from the richness of food around her, and in fact, revels in it, as does her pal Roxie, the heroine of the first book in the series, Nuts.
This might not seem like that big of a deal, but the body positive and food loving message in these hilarious romances spoke to me in a major way. I have moments of confidence, about my body, my ambitions, my core self, but they are all too often softened by the fears that literally wake me up at night, the impostor syndrome lurking in wait for any time I get too lofty in my goals. The other day, I put on one of my favorite skirts, a silky black number that clings to my ass in a way that emphasizes it, rather than minimizing it. I was looking for the perfect complement to a new sweater, and stood in front of the mirror, debating whether or not to ditch that skirt for one that might not put quite the same focus on my rear. But I went with it, because despite all the things I wish I could change about my body, I want to be more like Natalie. I want to have at least a little of her confidence.
As a feminist, I’m so pleased to read about a heroine who, yes, has her stumbling blocks, because a romance novel without drama wouldn’t be compelling, but who isn’t hung up on how much she weighs or the number labeled inside her clothes. As someone who, despite knowing logically just how punishing and unfair our culture’s beauty and body image norms are, still finds myself falling down the rabbit hole of thinking my life would be “perfect” if only I dropped 10, or 20, or 30, or 40 pounds, I need these kinds of reminders. I applaud those who are taking this ongoing struggle into the real world, like Good Housekeeping Beauty Editor Sam Escobar, who shared their weight and clothing size on Twitter as a way to normalize these numbers. In solidarity, I’ll share mine: 180 pounds, size 10 or 12, large or extra large, depending on the retailer. What I took away from Natalie is that it’s not about the number, it’s about how you feel about the number. She doesn’t let it stop her from doing anything or anyone, nor does it keep her from eating fabulous foods and simply luxuriating in being herself.
I don’t weigh myself anymore (I got that figure from various doctors’ visits), but I know that in the last few years of living in suburbia, where I don’t get nearly as much daily exercise in as I did as a New Yorker, I’ve put on plenty of pounds. I’ve had to update my wardrobe because much of the old one doesn’t fit. I’m not proud of that, but I also don’t want the entire focus of my life to be on depriving myself in order to fit back into them. I want to bring a little of that Natalie magic into my mindset, especially when I start to waver and fall into a body image shame spiral. I’m not going to pretend that will be simple or easy, but I’m sharing that vow here because I want to push through those negative moments so that I can make the most of my time on earth, rather than spending it berating myself simply for existing.
Rachel Kramer Bussel (rachelkramerbussel.com) has edited over 60 anthologies, including Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 1, Come Again: Sex Toy Erotica, Begging for It, Fast Girls, The Big Book of Orgasms and more. She writes widely about sex, dating, books and pop culture and teaches erotica writing classes around the country and online. Follow her @raquelita on Twitter and find out more about her classes and consulting at eroticawriting101.com.