I'm guessing there isn't a one of us out there who don't know someone who has a body image problem. A friend, relative, coworker...or we might even have one ourselves. So it stands to reason that at some point, some character of ours will have this issue, right?
I've recently read two books in which the heroine was a woman with a fuller figure than "average." Kaye Dacus wrote The Stand-In Groom, which featured a size 18 wedding planner and Laura Jensen Walker wrote Miss Invisible, which centered around a "big girl" (not plus-sized) professional baker. Also, Tamara Leigh wrote Perfecting Kate, which was about a woman who undergoes some dental work, mole removal, hair highlights and gets contacts only to realize her biggest makeover needed to happen on the inside. All three are excellent examples of how this is such an issue facing people today...especially women.
These authors did such a great job of making realistic pictures of how it is for some women (okay, a lot of women). I want to explain to you the Three Ds to a Body Image Disturbance, and how these authors combated this in their books (whether they knew this, or not...there is a psychological rhyme to the reason).
First, there is DISSATISFACTION. A dislike of all or parts of our body. This is the easy D to write. We've all compared ourselves to others and found ourselves lacking in some physical way. Most of us have looked in the mirror in despair that we'll never have the smokin' hot body of the latest Hollywood starlet or even of our own self...10 years ago. So this is real to us and everyone else. Our readers will be right on the same page with us.
Second, there is DISTORTION, where there is a discrepancy between the self-perception of the body and others' perception. Every single girl with an eating disorder (either Anorexia nervosa or Bulimia nervosa) has this idea that they look way different than what other people tell them they look. They will see fat where there is no fat. They will see imperfections that simply aren't there. This quality is further along the mental health continuum than dissatisfaction.
The third D is even further along the continuum toward an unhealthy body image. DISCONNECTION is the inability to feel bodily sensations or to even be aware of your body in space (in the present). It's to separate your mind from your body almost as a way to deny that you even have a body. Not many readers will get this (and I suggest that unless you're writing a book about a person with an eating disorder, don't go here), but I still wanted to include the final D.
I liked Tamara Leigh's book in particular because it dealt with something other than weight. Physical image is huge to Americans. Yes, we've probably all obsessed over our weight at some time or another. Yes, we've probably all gone on some sort of diet. But what about how we look?
Little dissatisfactions with ourselves have a way of popping up in how we treat and take care of our bodies (or not). We can be overly sensitive of our acne, and therefore a bit obsessive about our makeup and concealer and in the long run, even cause more acne. (I've known a guy who carried concealer with him in his car. No joke...so this isn't just women.) We can cause teeth sensitivity from overusing whitening products. But on the flip side, we can schedule our teeth appointments at regular 6-month intervals for cleaning to make sure we have good dental hygiene, regardless of how white our teeth are. We can make sure to get our hair cut every 3 months without fail because we know that's our best feature and want to keep it looking nice, or we can shell out thousands in a given year getting highlights and color treatments because we don't want to admit (or reveal to the world) that we're going gray. And speaking of money, what about BOTOX, plastic surgery, cosmetic reconstruction?
This isn't something that other cultures and people in other time periods didn't face. Siri Mitchell's debut historical novel, A Constant Heart, is a wonderful example of the crazy things women did to be considered "beautiful" in the court of Queen Elizabeth. They used lead-based "paints" (makeup) to paint their faces white and they basically burned their hair off and used chemical dyes to make their hair orange, like the queen.
Romans had vomitoriums built into their houses. The 1890s was the birth of "hysterical fainting," as Freud called it. The reason? Women were wearing super-tight corsets! The 1920s brought about the look of the flapper, which was a bare-chested woman with short boy-cut hair. The reason? That was the time of suffrage. Women didn't want to draw attention to their womanly assests during that time. By the 1950s, the pendulum swung the other way to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. The 60s brought is back to Twiggy and the sexual revolution...thin was back in. My point is that this is neverending.
When writing in a hero or heroine who falls on the continuum for a body image problem, whether a full-out eating disorder or just someone who wants to lose a few pounds or moles or whatever, look for ways to incorporate their dissatisfactions and comparisons with others in the book. Laura Jensen Walker gave her heroine a super-skinny boss who gives her a hard time. Leigh gave her heroine a flawlessly beautiful roommate, which made for instant conflict for the heroine's internal journey. Dacus' heroine compares herself to Hollywood starlets on the arm of the boy who called off their engagement or to the brides she helps to make their dreams come true. Talk about internal angst! These authors had it dialed in.
Hope this gives you some things to think about for your own writing. Thanks for stopping by!