Can We All Agree to Let These Toxic Plus-Size Romance Novel Tropes Die?
I came here for a good time.
For many years, I bought into the idea that romance novels were terrible and I should steer clear of them if I respected myself. I had Anne Rice’s books and copious amounts of fanfiction, so what else did I need? After a friend recommended I read a certain paranormal romance, my journey into the often-ridiculed genre began. Reading mainstream romances, as well as sub-genre books, gave me so much more enjoyment than I thought they would. However, no matter how many books I looked through, it was hard finding a lead with a body type I could relate to.
Romance novels featuring plus-size main characters are few and far between. When you are a bigger person, sometimes you get sick of reading about slim hips or how someone’s large hands almost encompassed a small waist. You want to read about bellies, thick thighs, and full butts getting the love they deserve. Once I finally found some, reading books with real plus-size characters felt so good. Until I realized many of them are filled with harmful tropes that feed into negative body images rather than erase them.
Even in fiction, there is a struggle
Most romance novel covers feature a thin (while usually busty), white, cisgender, heterosexual woman that all of us are supposed to relate to. The beauty standard of America focuses on exactly that type of woman, while most of us don’t fit that image. I don’t mind reading about that woman occasionally, but it gets old when she is in every book, movie, and television show out there. Everyone should be able to live out their own fantasies with romance novels—that is the reason people buy them.
In the last couple of years, there has been an explosion of diversity in the romance field. It is much easier to find books featuring women of varying sizes and skin tones. Yet picking up a book with a plus-size lead still feels like walking into a minefield. You never know if you are going to make it through happily or end up shredded to pieces. Authors often succumb to the pitfall of trying to make a character relatable by adding in a ton of unnecessary toxicity from other people and the main character.
One of the most prevalent tropes is the body-shaming parent. Many people have body-shaming parents, relatives, or friends, so I can see why writers would want to include a character like this. But do we really need to see that in a romance novel? And why is it that the plus-size character needs to forgive them or excuse their behavior? Mothers, especially, seem easily forgiven because ‘they mean well’ or that is their way of ‘showing love’. My mom body-shamed people because she struggled with her own self-image, but that doesn’t make the behavior any better. These characters spend the books hating on themselves to suddenly hug it out with mom since she sort of apologized.
Often there is also a thin best friend that the main character compares themselves to. They often think if only they were thin like their friend, so much of their life would be better. In some ways, it probably would be better. Society loves thin people and the feeling of constant judgment would be less. But thin people have their insecurities too. Women are held to impossible beauty standards even if their weight is in the socially acceptable range. I also feel this is one of those ingrained misogynistic ideas that women must always be competing to be more attractive to men.
Everyone has insecurities or has had negative thoughts about themselves. However, so many times, the insecurities in plus-size romances borders on self-hate. Some characters won’t eat food in front of other people, especially the hot guy, because others might find a person of their size eating repulsive. Other characters can’t fathom how the hot guy finds them attractive, even more so if they find out the guy’s ex-girlfriends were thin. Even when everyone is telling them the guy likes them, the plus-size woman will deny it. Or she will have a confrontation with the guy she likes about how he could never find her sexy because of her body. I don’t need every negative thought I have ever had about myself repeating over and over in the books I read.
And don’t think these tropes only apply to older novels. I read a plus-size romance published in October 2022 that somehow hit these points without ever letting up or fixing them. If you can’t go with body positivity, at least aim for body neutrality. The plot, the MC’s struggles, and every conversation shouldn’t center on the weight or size of the main character.
There’s a better way
Thankfully, some authors have found a better way to handle plus-size romantic leads. Most of the good books don’t have one plus-size woman existing in a world of thin people. Much more realistic, these leads have groups of female friends of all different sizes. There is also not one version of plus-size, curvy, fat, or whichever label you would like to use. All the women have moments where they lack confidence, yet they recover quickly and usually like moving out of their comfort zones by wearing or doing something more risque. Self-love and confidence are sexy, no matter what you look like. Then there is the food. I cannot express how much I love when plus-size romances make it a point to have the couple eat food together. The author gets extra points if the guy loves that he finally found someone to have the occasional late-night junk food treat with.
The Accidental Pinup by Danielle Jackson is one book I’ve read that nailed how to handle a plus-size romance and body image. When the main character saw pictures of herself in lingerie, she knew “that her body, extra pounds, dimpled thighs, visible tummy line, and all, looked fucking bomb.” Because when you are plus-size, you are still sexy and worthy of love—in romantic fiction and in real life.
(featured image: NBC)
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