Girl Behind the Glass: Body Image in Writing

by Ellen Simmons

She has blonde hair. Blue eyes. A pretty smile. She is usually white, which is some thing we have in common. She wears clothes that fit her because she doesn’t have that roll over her jeans like me. She is attractive but doesn’t dwell on it because she has more important things filling her day and has never had to worry about it before.

She doesn’t go to the bathroom, and she doesn’t shave her legs. Rogue whiteheads in the morning aren’t a thing, and bed head remains a myth. She is my heroine, my leading lady, and is nothing like me.

It took ten years of writing short stories and uncompleted novels to realise that my female characters were flawless. I made them beautiful because I felt I wasn’t. They were slim, pretty and always had multiple men chasing after them. The ‘love triangle’ became a staple in my stories because surely there was nothing more desirable or flattering as being the object of affection? I was so naïve. Sure, they were occasionally ditzy, but that sort of clumsiness was always endearing and somehow made her more appealing, to other characters and to me. I didn’t want to write about a broken or self-conscious character because it would hit too close to home.

Mark Twain once said, ‘write what you know’, but what I know is that I never felt good enough. My teens were hard enough, crashing through the puberty checklist while remaining painfully invisible to the opposite sex. I had a forgettable face, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to reintroduce myself to people I’ve met before. I never wanted to make my characters experience that same anonymity. Who would want to read about those whose most memorable quality was being forgettable?

The faces we remember are the beautiful ones. The models, the sportsmen and royalty.  If I am ever published, the idea of my face on the jacket cover fills me with shards of stabbing fear. The photo will remain a mystery. Maybe I’ll do what Monica did for her engagement photo and ask a friend to step in.

My male characters are quick to become fan favourites, and I’ve discovered it’s because they are well rounded. Whilst it perhaps possesses a shadow of art imitating life, the male species dripping in confidence that mirrors the sureness I have in writing them, I cannot deny they are human. They have depth, flaws and evoke strong emotions from my readers. Whether it is comedy, hatred or disgust, the fictional men I create come alive and are believable on the page. I find it endlessly infuriating that my own insecurities are holding me back from writing women who are real. I have female friends; beautiful, real and wonderful friends who are the centre of my life and who have remarkable lives of their own that offer a bounty of material for me to base my characters on, but my fingers fall still and silent on the keyboard when I try to transition them into my work.

I never saw myself in the media growing up. I understand that the majority of characters, both on screen and on paper, were white, but the similarities ended there. I’ve been on the plus-size of the scale since I was fourteen-years-old, curvy without curves but rather lumps and bumps. I was never skinny nor large enough to find representation in the fictional world. I was distinctly average. Posters that draped from shop windows made it clear I would be happy in their clothing, but only if I looked like the girls behind the glass. I never did. I wanted my writing to evoke happiness in my readers, so I made the characters the ones I’d seen growing up. The ones I had been tricked into wanting to be like.

Those girls had never had the embarrassment of realising the t-shirt they were holding didn’t go up to their size. I made an unconscious promise to myself that my characters would never suffer the same indignity.

Perhaps that timeless phrase ‘older and wiser’ holds some truth behind its cliché façade. At a certain age I reached an acceptance with myself, both my physical appearance and my writing ability, to know that I owe more to my characters. They deserve to have their flaws delved into, rummaged around in and placed on display. It is what makes us human. It is what makes us real. No one is perfect, and people are never going to be able to relate to those characters that are. Happiness and relevant are not mutually exclusive, they can go hand in hand, and I know my writing will be the better for it. Flaws can be accepted with good grace, embraced even, and should be encouraged to do so. Both in fiction and reality.