Transformational chick lit

April 20, 2011 at 12:10 am Leave a comment

Living surrounded by thin, athletic people can begin to wear on a person after ten or so months. Ketchum (my new hometown, for those of you who missed my move) is a ski town, a playground for both the obscenely rich and the ski bums, both of whom tend to be tiny. The former, of course, because if you’re rich in this country, you’re thin; the latter, because they’ve spent all of their limited funds on ski gear, lift tickets and pot and have nothing left for food.

So even though I am on the average-to-thin side, I daydream about what it would be like to wake up a totally toned and skinny ski babe. When these daydreams got pretty intense a few months ago, I began to almost instinctively turn toward “transformational chick lit.”

This sub-genre will be familiar to anyone who is a fan of the rags-to-riches tale. A fat girl (it’s never clear how fat she is, but she always feels huge) loses weight, finds herself and snags herself a man — not always in that order.

I used to hate this type of book. I used to rail against how damaging they were to girls who thought they needed to be skinny to be happy, the damaging messages they sent to women, how they seemed to espouse that not only would you get a man if you were skinny, but you needed to be skinny in order to deserve love.

But either I changed or the books changed. I tend to believe the former, as when I revisited Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner and Jemima J by Jane Green, I found myself wondering why I had thought these books were so poisonous.

In Good in Bed, a larger woman decides she needs to lose weight and ends up pregnant, emotionally scarred and wandering the streets of Philadelphia with duct-taped shoes. The first few times I read this, I had only seen that the main character, Cannie, finds love after she gets skinny.

What I had totally missed was that her weight loss was accompanied by a complete emotional breakdown, and that the loss is a symbol of the loss of herself. It’s only with the attentions of her handsome love interest — which, by the way, include a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and a full, healthy meal — that she regains her emotional stability. With that, she regains all the weight.  And yet, she’s happy.

Regular readers might remember my rant against Jane Green and Jemima J. While I still maintain that the style is strange (I am not fond of shifts in point-of-view), I have discovered several things, all of which are positive.

The love interest kisses and possibly even loves Jemima before she drops the weight. Her skinniness gets her nothing but a fake boyfriend and emotional scarring. Sure, she’s gorgeous, but she ends up binge-eating and having a nervous breakdown and realizing that being skinny didn’t make her happy.

Far from promoting a “thinness-is-happiness” mentality, these books both equate weight loss with emotional instability. Both women gain weight back by the end of the stories, as they end up regaining confidence and security.

It might be more disturbing that these women seem to need men to put them back together, but actually both Cannie and Jemima are on their respective ways to recovery with the help of the ever-present BFF by the time they finally solidify a romantic relationship.

At the end of the day, these books are incredibly optimistic and affirming, telling women that yes, they can transform themselves — but to make sure they’re transforming themselves in the right way, for the right reasons. When one views dramatic weight loss as a panacea for all of one’s problems, one has started down the road toward emotional instability.

How do you all feel about these “rags to riches” stories?  Are they optimistic and affirming, or do you think they are demeaning as I used to?


Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction, Musings and Essays, Romance and Chick Lit. Tags: .

Discussion Post: A Room of One’s Own Discussion Questions: My Name is Red

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