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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Body Image

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 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!

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Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

I need to write a book in response to your post! LOL!

So much of what you wrote hit home personally. I can't remember a time when I thought I looked good...ugh! And now I not growing old gracefully and that doesn't help with my body image.

But, I use all of this when developing my characters and they will face body image problems in addition to other conflicts and struggles.

Great post! Can't wait to read more of them!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Thanks for this, Jeannie. It's so informative and so good to work with when characterizing.

Jessica said...

Great post, Jeannie! So very true. I know I've had dissatisfaction with my nose, and, um other parts that lost their perk with kids. LOL!
I read a really good book once about a schizophrenic teen. Actually, I'd like to read it again. But at the beginning of the book she couldn't feel pain when she burned herself with her cigarettes. At the end of the book, she falls back on that habit but to her surprise, she feels the burn and has to stop. I thought that was such a good example of character arc and how she'd changed.
Anyways, I enjoyed reading this because like you said, most people struggle with at least the first D.

Ralene said...

Wow! I think my fav part was the little history lesson. I knew some of that stuff, but not all of it. Great stuff...and a great way to add layers to our characters. Thank you!

JStantonChandler said...

Thanks for the great post, Jeannie! You're right; we all suffer from some type of disatisfaction with our appearances. While I don't write characters with eating disorders, I usually fling in the fact that my heroine or hero (or both!) are unhappy with their outward appearance. To me, reading about a character who feels a little shy about how they look makes them more real. I understand how they feel because I tend to not like my appearance more often than I do. It helps me connect with the character and get more involved in the story.

I can also see how characters with eating disorders or who go to more drastic measures to "fix" what they see as being wrong with them can speak to others. Our culture is obsessed with looking perfect. It's hard growing up in a society that screams at you to look perfect all the time. Too many people suffer from eating disorders and feel they cannot talk to anyone. I applaud those who are able to tackle this subject with grace, humor and truth. Putting their thoughts and feeling into fictional form may give others the courage to seek help for their own challenges.


Katie said...

This is stuff I think any woman can relate to. Important to keep in mind when writing our stories. :)

Tess said...

This post brings back so many memories of junior high *shudders*

Very, very interesting stuff and something so many of us can relate to...I guess it only makes sense to work it into our writing as well.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

I just found your blog. Thanks.

Jeannie Campbell said...

thanks for stopping by, sharon! nice to put a face with the name on i see on the loop. :)

Anita said...

I'm writing about a tweenage girl right now and I can't decide whether to have her think negative thoughts about her body image or not...I'm one of those people who never thought things like that about myself as a teen (was totally conceited, thought I was hot stuff), but my character just seems nicer than me...does "nice" go along with poor self-image? Interesting thoughts to ponder.

Tabitha Bird said...

I have just recently written a book-memoir in fact, which deals with 'body image' from the inside out more in terms of my disconnection with sensations and feelings. I guess I'm not really talking about how I view myself from the outside, but how I know myself from the inside. It never really occurred to me that there was so much to know about what goes on within us. Many people who go through trauma use some sort of disconnection as a way to cope with overwhelming feelings and pain. When I write I am aware of how what is within a person seeps into their view of themselves and the outside world. Great post! I will be coming back for more.

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