Don't Feed the Negative Body Image

I am currently teaching an adjunct course at St. Gregory's University in Shawnee, Oklahoma.  It is a literature course, and last week one of the readings was a poem by Marge Piercy entitled "Barbie Doll".  Here is the poem, and the discussion about it comes after:

Barbie Doll

This girlchild was born as usual and presented dolls that did pee-pee and miniature GE stoves and irons and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy. Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said: You have a great big nose and fat legs.

She was healthy, tested intelligent, possessed strong arms and back, abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity. She went to and fro apologizing. Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.

She was advised to play coy, exhorted to come on hearty, exercise, diet, smile and wheedle. Her good nature wore out like a fan belt. So she cut off her nose and her legs and offered them up.

In the casket displayed on satin she lay with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on, a turned-up putty nose, dressed in a pink and white nightie. Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said. Consummation at last. To every woman a happy ending.

One of the worst problems plaguing our culture today is the discussion that women often have about body image.  I have three daughters and have been married to an awesome wife for a over 15 years, and I hear it all the time: "Fat", "thick", "plain", and many other adjectives that describe strictly what is on the observable surface.

However, this culture of "looking good" has permeated the culture so much that the idea of "looking good" or "looking like" the fictitious "her" at the checkout line in the grocery store has become something of a religion.  After all, the women on the covers of those magazines at the checkout line could just as well be a slice of pizza as a woman, as the following video illustrates:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hnvoz91k8hc

So what does this have to do with writing, you ask?  I'm getting to that.

I think that this kind of propaganda about what women "should" look like, about how they "should" be shaped, needs to stay out of our novels.  If one reads the popular novel The Hunger Games, for example, one finds that there is little to no description of Katniss Everdeen, namely because it is written in first person, but even when she sees herself on the big screen when she is the "Girl on Fire", she describes herself in terms of her face and not her body.  The description is not in terms of what her face looks like, nothing about her cheek bones or her nose or the set of her eyes, only the one word "breathtaking".  Others in the novel, namely Hamich who only alludes to her physically, saying "Now I can say you're a heartbreaker. Oh, oh, oh, how the boys back home fall longingly at your feet."  The novel dances on the edge of it, but does a good job of staying away from the objectification of women.

I have three rules about writing about women:

  1. Write about who they are and not how they look.
  2. They are never the damsel in distress.
  3. Base them on real women in my life.

I have written scenes from the perspective of males who see women objectively, but these men are always vilified, and I have done (I would hope) a good job of treating the women of my novels (for they are based on real women) with respect and decency.

Sound off.  What thoughts do you have about writing about women and writing about body image?  What are some ways that you have attacked this problem?  How are you being a positive influence on our culture in this regard?