Defenders of lost causes, prepare to fortify the frontlines: Anyone who has previously had cause to deride ‘chick lit’ – whether out of genuine frustration with the genre’s shortcomings or simply out of the same kind of dismissive, unthinking misogyny implied by the term itself – will now be able to dress up their antipathy as sanctimonious concern for female readers, because science.
A study carried out by Melissa J. Kaminski and Robert G. Magee of Virginia Tech university entitled “Does this book make me look fat? The effect of protagonist body weight and body esteem on female readers’ body esteem” suggests that novels featuring characters who obsess over their weight lead to similar concerns in the women who read them. And if a fairly lightweight piece of fluff can do that, just imagine what might happen to those unfortunates looking for an easy read for the beach who end up suckered in by that new Bell Jar cover.
The study saw 159 test subjects each given one of nine variations on passages from Laura Jensen Walker’s Dreaming in Black and White and Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed, with each variation seeing the protagonist describe herself as being a different weight (two books were used in each case to account for the possibility that ‘idiosyncratic characteristics of one excerpt might influence the study’s results’).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given, say, any aspect you’d care to pick of how the culture we live in treats women, reading about a skinny heroine made readers worry about their own relative levels of attractiveness. More alarmingly, reading about women who themselves regularly express concern with their weight – a character type that genre dictates is there to give the average reader someone to relate to and identify with, who might make them feel better about their own lives by example – saw the test subjects come to share those anxieties about their own bodies. Accordingly, the report concludes that ‘Scholars and health officials should be concerned about the effect chick lit novels might have on women’s body image.’ The results of a similar report on how books full of blustering machismo affect the self-esteem levels of men are presumably forthcoming.