I read a fascinating piece in The Guardian UK recently, with an even more fascinating headline: “Chick lit ‘harms body image’, study finds.” At first glance, this seems highly plausible. Just the name ‘chick lit’ implies something at least intellectually (if not psychologically) unsavory. We are women, not poultry!, the feminist in me wants to clamor. And certainly, I myself have written about the potential impact of young adult (YA) literature on girl’s self-image. Despite my abhorrence of anything that even sounds like book banning, I’ve also allowed myself to wonder if full-of-detail descriptions of anorexia, like Laurie Halsie Anderson’s Wintergirls could be used as a book of tips for young people already struggling with eating disorders.
And yet, there is a difference between wondering if a single well-written novel – when read without support and in isolation – could be (mis)used by a young person already struggling with body image issues, and if an entire genre of literature can actively ‘harm body image’ in an entire gender of people. Doesn’t attributing such a wide reaching condemnation of not one book but an entire type of fiction smack of 19th century condemnations of the novel itself? Ideas that suggested that the weak minds of women, in particular, were somehow more prone to ‘hysterical’ flights of fancy after reading novels? (The classic example of this kind of ‘imagination gone awry due to reading’ is found in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which young Catherine Morland, a Gothic novel aficionado, imagines all sort of horrible murders and other happenings due entirely to her ‘reading too much.’)
So, can reading chick lit make modern women have bad body image? Can Bridget Jones (who is soon to have a third sequel) be blamed for our gender’s collective bad self-esteem due to her calorie counting and cigarette-alcohol binging? Or Georgia Nicolson and her fabity-fab-fab boy crazy ways be at the root of some kind of global heteronormative downfall?
Well, let’s go back to the study itself, shall we? Mmm? The abstract of the Virginia Tech study, published in The Journal of Body Image reads:
To read the rest of this essay, please visit Adios, Barbie!