Is there a picture of the hero on the cover of the romance book you’re currently reading? Does he wear an unbuttoned shirt or is he bare-chested? Can you see his face or is the image focused on his hard, lean and muscular body?
And if the hero was overweight, would he be shown on the book cover?
Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Let’s dig a little deeper: If the hero was overweight, would he be the romance hero?
A plus-size heroine is not unusual in romance fiction, but it’s only been accepted recently. According to the Romance Writers of America, Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, first published in 2004, was an early example of fat representation. In the contemporary romance, Minerva dealt with negative messages from secondary characters because she wasn’t in the ideal weight range. It’s important to note that she does not go through a weight-loss journey or major transformation. Her physical appearance at the moment of the happily-ever-after is the same as at the start of the book.
Today, curvy romance heroines might be at different points of their journey toward body positivity. It could be the focus of the story or it could just explain her background. The heroine’s moments of low confidence might make her more sympathetic to the reader or her struggle for body acceptance could impact her romantic relationship. But these voluputuous women are always dealing with society’s idea of what is beautiful and desirable.
At Romance Novels for Feminists, Jackie C. Horne argues that these romance novels can “convey the feminist message that while fat oppression is real, people who understand its methods can challenge the negative biases it demands far too many of us embrace.”
But does the romance genre have negative biases about men who are not the ideal body type?
In the All About Romance blog post “Male fatphobia in romance novels: why does romance hate overweight men?”, Caroline Russomanno points out that romance authors use a man’s weight to identify if he’s the hero in the story. If a romantic interest does not have the perfect body, the reader immediately knows that the man is not going to be the romance hero.
Why does the romance hero’s appearance matter? If romance novels are written for women, isn’t it more important to show curvy romance heroines?
Russomanno argues, “Whether a romance reader is overweight or not, or male or not, “a fat man can never be a hero” is a toxic message for them to receive and internalize. Authors, using weight as shorthand characterization is cruel as well as lazy.”
And in Stylecaster’s “The Life-Changing Importance of Plus-Size Stars in Rom-Coms”, Gianluca Russo explains that romantic storylines found in media will form the way we view love. What message are we accepting as truth if all romance heroes have washboard abs? Must he be physically fit to be deemed worthy of love?
In a romance novel, the main characters find the courage not only to decide what they want, but they also find the daring to go after it. As Russo says, we need more media that “show plus-size characters falling in love without their weight preventing them from chasing happiness.”
Shouldn’t that include romance heroes?