Reading chick lit harms women’s self esteem, a new study shows. So before you snuggle up with a glass of wine and that new novel, read this and consider yourself warned.
According to academics from Virginia Tech, women feel worse about themselves after reading chick lit. The study, published inBody Image, analyzed “the effect of protagonist body weight and body esteem on female readers’ body esteem,” and concluded that “scholars and health officials should be concerned about the effect chick lit novels might have on women’s body image.”
The co-author of the study is a self-proclaimed fan of chick lit, and decided to launch the study after noticing that “body image research frequently looked at how visual images of thin women negatively affected women’s body esteem, [but] no research had examined how textual representations of body esteem and body weight affected female readers’ body esteem.”
Researchers chose two novels from the chick lit genre — Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin and Laura Jensen Walker’s Dreaming in Black and White — that feature heroines with “healthy body weight” but “low self-esteem.”
Researchers adapted a passage from each novel to come up with nine versions of the books. The heroines varied from high body esteem to an overweight one with low body esteem. Characters, for example, ranged from stating, “I’m 5’4″, 140lb, and a size six” or “I’m 5’4″, 105lb, and a size zero.”
The edited books were then distributed to 159 female university students. After reading the chick lit books, the women were asked to rate “how they felt about various body parts and sexual attractiveness.”
The study found that when the narrative was about a slim heroine, participants felt “significantly” less sexually attractive, and that when it featured a protagonist with low body esteem, readers were “significantly more concerned about their weight” than participants in the control condition.
“The negative effects produced from the current study underscore the concern of previous scholars for the potential effect of chick lit protagonists’ obsession with weight and appearance,” write co-authors Melissa Kaminski and Robert Magee in the study.
The study is titled, “Does this book make me look fat?”
“Scholars and health officials should be concerned about the effect novels have on women’s body image, especially since these issues could lead to disordered eating and other health issues.”
Academics suggest that future studies could research using chick lit as a tool to fight poor body esteem in teenage females, with the “creation of stories in which characters with low body esteem seek support from family and friends.”
“I think the findings of my research should be used to raise awareness,” said Kaminski. “Some preliminary findings from one of my unpublished studies indicate that if readers are aware that they identify with a character with poor body esteem, the readers actively work against the negative effects and report more satisfaction with their bodies. So, by possibly letting readers know that protagonists with poor body esteem may harm their own body esteem, it may help readers fight against these negative effects. I plan on pursuing this further in the future.”
Bestselling romantic novelist Katie Fforde called the research “slightly concerning.” “When I used to read an awful lot of Mills & Boon novels, I was worried that I couldn’t become these terribly beautiful people, and that I wasn’t going to have a romance like them,” she says.
She continues of her own writing:
“So when I wrote my first novel, I made my heroine have mascara under her eyes, and be slightly overweight, lying down to get her jeans on. I wanted to write it for people who don’t have perfect figures, to show that sometimes lovely things can happen to people who aren’t perfect-looking. It would worry me to think [my characters] might worry people … but I don’t think I could change a book because someone was having doubts. I’m currently writing about an older heroine attracted to a younger man, and she has all sorts of doubts and fears – I couldn’t take those away … I think authors should just write the best book they can.”
Do you think that women in chick lit novels perpetuate low self-esteem?
[Image via Shutterstock]