While my boyfriend was out of town for a couple days, I read quite a few books of the chic-lit genre and even succumbed to Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed. I also noticed how the majority of what I read was about girls who thought that they just weren’t pretty and drastically changed to get the attention of the perfect guy. If the guy in question really was perfect then he would take notice and quickly assure the girl he liked her the way she was before. It’s a very sweet plot sequence, but after reading three stories in short succession with that same basic story I started to feel bad and I just couldn’t figure out why. Why was I drawn to these books and movies when I felt guilty afterward?
Once I got to thinking, I realized that quite a few popular books for women center around the trials of an insecure woman seeking validation in her life via a significant other. Let me begin with the Twilight books. I’ll be honest: I read them when they came out. I had no shame at the time, because they were, dare I say it, entertaining. After the phase had passed and I’d relegated the books to a dusty corner shelf, I wondered what it was about these books that left a strange aftertaste. Then I read a particularly clever blog post from The Oatmeal (found here: http://theoatmeal.com/story/twilight) about the reason Twilight is so addictive. The main character is severely under described and laden down with an extreme number of self-image issues. Why is this non-image appealing to so many women? Why should women, particularly young women, be drawn to a heroine with absolutely no self-esteem and no self-worth unless she has a man (excuse me, vampire/werewolf) validate her existence? Sure, it’s something that any awkward preteen can relate to, but I don’t want to stay an awkward preteen and I certainly wouldn’t consider one to be my personal hero.
Now, the morals of all these stories (with the exception of Twilight) are generally good. The female discovers that she doesn’t need make-up to be pretty, or she really is pretty already without even trying, or her dream guy actually does already like her when she’s being normal. The problem is that the characters never seem to figure this out until the end when the (perfect) man tells them how it really is.Then I read a short story where the teenager in question started wearing make-up because her boyfriend asked her to–so as to amplify her beauty. In the end, of course, said boyfriend was a bad influence. I have no issues with a little make-up. I don’t even have issues with a few tips and tricks from the bf. In fact, mine is a helpful source of feedback from plucking eyebrows to the new haircut; and I appreciate it. What I don’t like is the idea of protagonists who are women with no sense of self-worth until someone tells them otherwise.
Insert: my confession. I used to be that girl, which is probably why I enjoyed Twilight so much. I didn’t grow up being confident in who I was or what I looked like. In fact, I’d say I was raised to be modest to the point of being down on myself. That said, part of my insecurities are just genetic. It’s a fact of life, there are just some things you can’t help inheriting. Having made strides to overcome insecurity and self-doubt, I find it disturbing that the books that sell are the ones featuring women with the problems I have sought to overcome. The problem that I have with these books is that even if the right man assures the protagonist that she’s beautiful, if he ever leaves any time in the future she’s going to be a complete wreck. She won’t be broken up inside because the man she loves is gone (scratch that…maybe she will) but she’ll inevitably question: was I pretty enough? What did I do wrong? So in the end, they didn’t learn the right lesson. What they learned: He said I was perfect. What they should have learned: I am beautiful and I don’t need him to tell me so, but the compliment’s nice all the same.
I can’t very well write to the publishers or editors and ask them to remove all the books about insecure women from the shelves, because that’s actually what sells. And they sell because there are insecure women in the world. I can say that as a woman in the proverbial “Insecure Women Anonymous” group. My resolution to stop the cycle? To not read books that foster the ideal of a woman who is worthless until told otherwise. Perhaps I should clarify that reading books like this doesn’t make women insecure. If you’re confident, they aren’t going to bring you down. And if you are insecure then you immediately identify with them. However, I do think that they promote a cycle. I want to be a woman who understands my own beauty and worth without needing someone else to tell me. And I want that for everyone, no matter who you are.