Exploring her new domain, a calico kitten jumped on the bathroom scales. The needle moved. Kitten reared back, raised her front paw and gave that needle a good smack.
I applauded. I’ve often wanted to smack the scales. Being a writer, I started to wonder if I could use the incident in a book. Since I write historicals and bathroom scales are a modern invention, the answer is probably not, but I’ll store the idea away for future reference.
Then I got to thinking about body shape in romance novels. Harlequin novels of a certain era used to spend a lot of words describing the heroine in minute detail from tiny waist to slim hips to curvy bosom. She had fine eyes and a cupid’s bow mouth, porcelain (or sun-touched) skin. Always slight enough for the hero to carry her in his arms.
Corsetry through the ages pinched and prodded women’s forms into many shapes to suit the taste of the day. Small waist, no waist, round hips, flat hips. It seems the female form always had to be constrained and manipulated.
Clothing too played a role in our view of the ideal feminine shape. From Jane Austen’s heroine with the waist right below the bust and slim body, to Victorian panniers and enormous sleeves, women’s forms have been hidden by clothing. However, a look at nude paintings of various eras will show that in the 16th century, the ideal woman was full figured with rounded hips and thighs and an obvious belly.
By the eighteenth century she was shown with small breasts and a flatter stomach. Raphael’s “Three Graces” is an example.
By the mid-nineteenth century, tiny waists were de rigueur. Scarlett O’Hara boasted of a seventeen inch waist. Later in the century, Edward VII’s mistress Lillie Langtry’, measured 18 inches about the waist.
Moving into the 20th Century we see women of the flapper era going for a boyish silhouette, even binding their breasts to appear flat-chested. After the privations of the Great Depression and WWII, Christian Dior brought out his “New Look.” Once again, women were curvy. Liz Taylor’s 36-21-36 figure was the ideal. Skirts swirled wide at the hem, tight bodices showed off full breasts.
But fashion is fickle. By the 1960’s we had Twiggy and ulta-skinny was the shape du jour. By the 1980’s women were on the fitness bandwagon. Remember Jane Fonda’s workout video? Remember when Jane Fonda was a sex kitten?
Today’s woman is any shape she wants to be, although, in general, today’s twenty-something is larger than her grandmother at the same age. Better diet, in childhood is the most likely cause.
All of which brings us to the question of how historical romance writers should treat the depiction of women’s figures. Do we go with the style of the day and describe them as wasp-waisted. Do we dwell on their high, round bosom? Do we denigrate those who don’t fit the mores of the day?
In my own books, I don’t spend too many words of physical descriptions of the heroine. I’m more likely to pick one feature and use that as a touchstone throughout the novel. i.e. red hair is symbolic of temper and impulsiveness, so those character traits will be emphasized in the action of the story and be referenced to the hair colour.
In my latest book, Her One True Love, the heroine is a photographer. Portrait photos are usually meant to flatter the subject, often wearing her best clothes and posed before a pretty backdrop. My heroine, Louisa, says “Maybe I can make my career photographing women as they really are, strong, stubborn and hard-working.”
I think the modern romance reader has outgrown those dainty Harlequin heroines of a bygone era and would rather see their female protagonists as “strong, stubborn and hard-working.”
What about you, dear reader? Do you want a lot of detail about physical appearance? Do you want your heroines to come in many shapes and sizes? Can too much “reality” spoil the romance?
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