Women’s literature, beginning before the 18th century, has always been famous for its recurring theme of finding one’s soul mate and falling in love. Today, however, this theme is not so prevalent in the novels that women are reading; instead, the emphasis that was once on romance is now on physical appearance and presentation of the main heroine. The obsession with outer appearances has grown significantly within our culture, and the creation of unattainable standards for females in particular has resulted in the constant criticism of our own “flaws.” This unhealthy longing for physical perfection never ceases to exist, as women are taking extreme measures in an effort to change about themselves what is natural, if not typically beautiful. Examples of this emerging desire to look a certain way is most apparent in the pages of popular chick-lit; however, earlier novels that focus on the affairs of women do not express the all-too-familiar self-loathing that we now see so often. According to Susan Wise Bauer, author of “The Secret Life of Chick Lit,” the modern-day protagonists “have an unnerving tendency to lose 20 pounds and then declare their independence from society’s obsession with weight” while their literary ancestors were gaining independence in other aspects of life (Bauer). In the myriad of contemporary women’s novels that are crowding bookstore shelves, it is evident that women no longer achieve happiness in the opportunities presented to them or even in finding love, but rather in being categorized as “beautiful” by the world around us.
It might be common knowledge among chick-lit fans that Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary parallels Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the seemingly impossible search for a suitable husband, but the two popular stories differ completely in regards to beauty and self-worth. Bridget, for instance, tends to measure hers by the numbers on the scale and the reflection in the mirror, while Elizabeth’s “quickness” of mind and “playful disposition” are what feed her confidence, even if “she is not half so handsome as Jane” (Austen 3, 10). As a matter of fact, Austen’s novel never goes into much depth on the main character’s looks, but not a page of Fielding’s book is without at least several descriptive words of the damsel’s skin, hair, curves, or clothes, very few of which reflect a positive self-image. At one point, Bridget “can actually feel the fat splurging out” from her body, even though her weight of 130 pounds is considered average for a female of thirty years (Fielding 16). She is constantly trying to alter her appearance, whereas Elizabeth wishes to alter the rules of society, especially concerning the topic of marriage: after being proposed to by Mr. Collins, a man that she quickly realizes “could not make [her] happy,” Miss Bennet goes against her mother’s wishes and risks losing her family home by “refusing [his] hand” in matrimony (Austen 109). The contrasting thoughts of Elizabeth and Bridget symbolize the change in priorities among women throughout the last two hundred years.
The increasing pressure to look like a supermodel has led to the need of women to “fix” whatever imperfection has been noticed. With new diet fads, technology, and procedures popping up every month, any girl in this day and age is a target, and will most likely fall victim to the numerous methods of magically molding a normal body into a “beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer figure” (Fielding 16). Even though Bridget Jones’s Diary is fiction, the sad reality is that more and more girls are enthusiastically transforming themselves into icons of “processed beauty for processed beauty’s sake” (Umminger 251). The word “natural” is rarely spoken with its true meaning in mind, as it tends to bring about images of “a graveyard of dead skin cells, spots erupting,” and a “flabby body flobbering around” (Fielding 27). Needless to say, when it comes to women, the complaints concerning body image are at times exaggerated and unreasonable, and only noticed by their own critical eye. Regardless, not very many girls of today’s culture are willing to accept their bodies, no matter the size or shape. Nor do they believe that their talents and abilities are more admirable than a gorgeous figure. Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s best friend in Pride and Prejudice, is described as having a rather plain appearance, but such a trivial matter as physicality does not deter Elizabeth from voicing her distaste for the engagement of her beloved Charlotte – she sees her “sensible, intelligent” friend as being too good for Mr. Collins, though her looks have nothing to do with it (Austen 15). Even when it comes to her own self-worth, Elizabeth, who “is not handsome enough to tempt” Darcy during their first encounter, does not allow her physical looks to define who she is or influence her pride (Austen 10). She projects an air of confidence and is not afraid to speak her mind to whoever will listen. It is her unique personality that attracts the attention of the stubborn Darcy, forcing him to rethink his aforementioned indifference towards her appearance: “Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness” (Austen 21). It is not long before his slight interest in Elizabeth becomes an utter admiration, but this progression of feelings is clearly not based on the roundness of her face or the curl of her hair. To the 19th century characters, beauty is not an accomplishment, but rather a luxury – one that you either possess or you don’t, and should therefore not determine a person’s worth. While trying to look your best is not a bad thing, Bridget Jones takes it to an extreme when she relates womanhood to “being a farmer” and goes on to describe in detail the “harvesting and crop spraying” that must be done before leaving the house. Bridget considers all of the tedious tasks and adds, “Is it any wonder girls have no confidence?” inferring that exhausting beauty rituals are necessary evils in every girl’s life (Fielding 27).
Flip through the pages of any fashion magazine, and you’ll see an endless display of stunning girls sporting luxurious designer products in the most enchanting environments that actual girls only dream of. Take the October 2010 issue of Glamour, for example: on page 77, right before the article on “Beauty Updates for Fall,” is an advertisement for the new Express perfume. At the center of focus stands a twenty-something year-old Barbie look-alike who is surrounded by three “tall, dark, and handsome” men without shirts to cover their rather muscular upper body. The young woman is wearing a sassy pink number with bright lipstick to match, and her long, blonde hair is blowing in the wind — she exudes confidence on every level. Two of her admirers have their eyes closed, captivated by her scent, while the third is kneeling down in front of her and looking up in awe. Right away, the picture brings another image to mind: the famous Greek goddess, Aphrodite, who represents none other than love and beauty, two concepts that seem to have an everlasting effect on women. This advertisement says quite simply to the reader that all of this – the beauty of a goddess and the devotion of gorgeous men – can be hers if she buys the magic perfume. Of course, very few women are naïve enough to believe that wearing a certain product will cause all of their deepest desires to come true, but one glance at the ad encourages escapism in the form of self-assurance. It is within this brief break from reality that the glamorous image tugs at the woman’s subconscious, inevitably distracting her from the worries of everyday life while offering instant gratification. Although this advertisement could be considered ridiculous and even offensive to some, it manages to accomplish the one thing for which it was meant – selling the product – by pinpointing the target’s weakness.
The media is a constant reminder that presentation means everything in today’s world. While a gorgeous body is the most essential necessity in finding true happiness, the close second seems to be the glamorous apparel that enhances it. Society would argue that there is no point in having a tiny waist and long legs if one does not bother to wear the proper garments needed to complement those lovely features. Various items such as clothes, bags, shoes, and scents all promise the same satisfaction that is associated with a beautiful physique. With so many female-targeted advertisements plaguing our society, it’s no wonder that women feel the need to appear a certain way in order to obtain the life for which they’ve been searching. Just as advertisements skew reality to entice the shopper, women tend to alter their appearances with fancy clothes and accessories to gain the attention of others, resulting in a boosted self-esteem. But fashion magazines, as superficial as they tend to be, are not solely to blame for the rising obsession with outer appearances. In the same way, “chick lit immerses the reader in a world in which the pursuit of beauty is never ending,” resulting in a heroine who concentrates on little else (Wells 61). Confessions of a Shopaholic’s Becky Bloomwood, for one, knows all about obsession and personal weakness, especially when it comes to the wonderful world of shopping. She is addicted to the intense satisfaction that comes from snatching up the most fashionable items, even if the costs outweigh the benefits. One such example is the Denny and George gray-blue scarf that just happens to be 50% off. The moment she sees her reflection with the “coveted” cloth accessory around her neck, Becky begins to mentally list the reasons why she can’t live without it: “It makes my eyes look bigger, it makes my haircut look more expensive, it makes me look like a different person… People will refer to me as the Girl in the Denny and George Scarf” (Kinsella 15). Common sense indicates to most people that a long, rectangular piece of fabric does not have the ability to change a person’s whole appearance, but Becky is convinced that it will so drastically enhance her features that even random strangers won’t be able to ignore her glamorous new look. This, she believes, will come in handy when trying to acquire the approval of others, both in the workplace and her social life. Later in the novel, when Miss Bloomwood is on her way to the museum, she gains confidence from the thought that all she needs is “a long wooly scarf and some sunglasses” to succeed in looking “like Diane Keaton” (Kinsella 99). Just by adding a few things to her wardrobe, the shopaholic seems to think that her entire image will rise to that of a celebrity’s, enabling her to impress everyone in her midst. Similarly, in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which was written “in an era when wearing makeup was still not considered strictly respectable,” the main heroine relies on fashion to win her fame and fortune (Wells 60). However, unlike Becky, Lily has “no other means of support” after her “father suddenly loses his wealth;” therefore, the stakes are much higher for Miss Bart, who only uses her beauty so that she will acquire financial security in the long run (Wells 60). While one heroine is searching for the next big sale, another is hoping for a decent future. But, as seen in both novels, it is not the actual Prada handbags, Chanel makeup, or Denny and George scarves (in Becky’s case) that women form addictions to; instead, the true appeal lies within the realm of possibilities that is advertised by the product. Girls typically gravitate towards glamour and beauty; naturally, if a product promotes both of these things, girls will gravitate towards it. Without these material things, however, women like Becky Bloomwood are never “able to relax,” a sign that they feel inferior in their own skin (Kinsella 27).
Even though “an extreme focus on externals – whether beauty or clothing – [betrayed] superficiality of character” in Austen’s time, a “self-accepting” female protagonist in 21st century chick lit who does not care about her looks “is nowhere to be found” (Wells 59, 63). As long as women are trapped in “the self-imposed and culturally sanctioned tyranny of hating their own bodies,” they are unable to appreciate the relatively new female freedoms that heroines like Elizabeth Bennet and Lily Bart would have killed for (Umminger 240). As shown in earlier novels, beauty takes a back seat when it comes to ultimate fulfillment – a concept that modern-day females are not so familiar with. The struggle with this culturally constructed idea of beauty has chick lit authors pulling their hair out, trying to create an authentic heroine who rejects society’s “cover-model ideal,” but still conveys desirable traits that readers will find attractive. Unfortunately, these attempts to rid their stories of the familiar “beauty battle” are usually in vain, as the main character’s looks seem to be a permanent factor, if not the central focus, within most novels of this genre (Bauer). Once again, the meaningful topics that should be addressed by women in power are being suffocated by discussions of trivial matters such as these. In her essay about chick lit and beauty, Alison Umminger points out that “women who [have] the right to vote, to build careers and identities of their own, [are] frittering away these advances in pursuit of eternal youth and thin bodies” (239). As evidence from popular literature has shown, women’s definition of happiness has changed drastically over time, resulting in an intense lack of self-esteem for those who have bought into the lie that only skinny girls with designer coats deserve happy endings.
Austen, Jane. Pride & Prejudice. Mumbai: Wilco, 2009. Print.
Bauer, Susan Wise. “The Secret Life of Chick Lit.” Books and Culture 10.2 (Mar.-Apr. 2004):
10-11. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 210. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. <http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CH1100067200&v=2.1&u=txshracd2598&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w>.
Fielding, Helen. Bridget Jones’s Diary: A Novel. New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.
Glamour Magazine Oct. 2010: 77. Print.
Kinsella, Sophie. Confessions of a Shopaholic. New York, NY: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2001.
Umminger, Alison. “Supersizing Bridget Jones: What’s Really Eating the Women in Chick
Lit.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. By Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 239-52. Print.
Van Slooten, Jessica L. “Fashionably Indebted: Conspicuous Consumption, Fashion, and
Romance in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic Trilogy.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. By Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 219-38. Print.
Wells, Juliette. “Mothers of Chick Lit?” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. By Suzanne
Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 47-70. Print.
[Written for a Women’s Popular Genres course in December 2010.]