Claire O’Mahony: Our chick-lit heroines ought to come with a health warning
TWO attention-grabbing diet-related news stories hit the headlines recently. One is that, contrary to widespread belief, saturated fats may not be so bad for us, in which case, pass the deep-fried stick of Kerrygold please.
The other may come as less of a surprise to regular consumers of chick-lit. A study by Virginia Tech in 'Body Image Journal' found that chick-lit novels in which the protagonist is obsessed with her weight have a negative effect on women readers' body esteem. The authors of the report, called 'Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?', conclude that "scholars and health officials should be concerned about the effect chick-lit novels might have on women's body image".
Fittingly, the study was reported on the same day it was announced that author Helen Fielding's third Bridget Jones novel will be published in November, more than a decade after the last one.
It is fitting too that we are telling this on St Valentine's Day.
Unless popular fiction brings you out in a rash, you will know that the character of Bridget Jones paved the way for thousands of calorie-counting, scales-watching, control pants-wearing fictional heroines – if heroine is the right word here. Fielding's creation was amusing and tongue-in-cheek, and she gave a voice to a lifestyle and a generation that is the singleton. But reading between the lines of this study, it is the typical diary entries Bridget penned such as "123lbs (how is it possible to put on 4 pounds in the middle of the night? Could flesh have somehow solidified becoming denser and heavier?)" that appear to have been more affecting, even if said entry was meant to indicate how ridiculously obsessed and irrational Bridget was about her weight.
The two authors of 'Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?' became interested in the subject matter because, while there is a wealth of material on how visuals, including extremely thin models, affect how women perceive their bodies, there has been little to no research conducted into how representations of weight in their reading materials affected female self-esteem.
For the study, the authors looked at two chick-lit novels, Emily Giffin's 'Something Borrowed' and Laura Jensen Walker's 'Dreaming In Black And White'. Taking text from both, they created nine different versions for each novel, from an overweight character with a high body esteem and an underweight one with a low body esteem.
Theses versions were given to 159 female college students who were then asked to rate how they felt about body parts and sexual attractiveness after reading.
The participants said they felt less sexually attractive when reading about a thin female character and worried about their own weight when a protagonist with low body esteem was featured.
IN a society where physical beauty has such currency and women are still judged on how they look, the appeal of a fictional heroine troubled by self-doubts and possibly struggling to fit into her jeans is obvious. But if the character's preoccupation with weight makes the reader feel bad about herself (even if the heroine does end up with the happy ending) instead of being relieved to read about a heroine who isn't utterly and sickeningly secure, this is not a good thing.
Does the chick-lit author, who is meant to be a purveyor of relatively harmless escapism, have a moral duty not to mention weight or body shape at all? Then again, as a genre, chick-lit is often criticised for not addressing the real 'issues' that women face, and body image is certainly one of those as evidenced by last year's Dail na nOg Council survey. It found that teenage girls are up to twice as likely as boys to struggle to take part in activities such as swimming, sports, dating and putting pictures of themselves on Facebook because of low body esteem.
And would someone adversely affected by reading a weight-obsessed chick-lit book be prone to low self-esteem in any case? It's hard to say, but one thing is certain. Once Fielding's third Bridget Jones book hits shelves, the debate about the pros and cons of chick-lit will get an airing again.