Love Is Better Than Hate

I’m trying not to hate my body.

It is very, very hard.

I have spent as much of my life as I can remember hating my body, or liking my body but only conditionally.

I will like you, body, if you weigh the right number of pounds.

I will like you, body, if you run the correct number of miles this week.

If you run the right number of miles today without stopping to walk.

If you do one hundred and eight consecutive days of yoga and give me no trouble, body, I will love you.

If you eat only good food and no bad food.

But if you don’t, I hate you.

My body can’t win. It grew a human being — a perfect, amazing, beloved human being — and I still hated it. It propelled me up and down mountains. It’s taken me to glorious places, let me feel amazing, taught me so much. And yet I can’t remember a day of my life when I didn’t at least mildly dislike my body.

My body doesn’t care. This was pointed out to me yesterday — my body has zero fucks for whether I love it or not. It is ridiculously healthy and strong whether I love it or not. My heart beats and beats and beats and beats whether I feel tenderly toward it or not. My hair grows in gray regardless of how I feel about gray hair. My chin doubles when I smile regardless of whether I approve of doubled chins.

My body is my body, and it is doing a great job of being alive and being my body, and it doesn’t give a flying fuck whether I hate it.

I do, though. I want to stop hating my body, because hating my body hurts, and it makes it hard to receive love, and it makes it hard to be happy, and it makes it hard.

Self-hate makes daily life hard. Hate always makes things hard.

This is what hate does.

So I was running this morning — my first run this season because even though the weather has been good I haven’t been running, I’ve been walking instead. And the sun was positioned in a way that my shadow was in front of me for most of the run, and my shadow looked like this.

IMG_0132I looked at my shadow, and I thought about a conversation I’ve been having about hatred with someone who loves me. I thought about everything she’s told me about my body, and I tried to love my shadow. This exact shadow. This body, which doesn’t have any fucks to give about whether some fat it has conveniently stored around its waistline makes a smooth or bumpy line with the running pants I put on it.

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life trying to read the right things and speak the right ways and think about bodies in the best, healthiest possible way. I read the entire contents of Kate Harding’s old website, Shapely Prose — which is wonderful, actually. I read them and internalized as much as I could. I’ve bought books and looked at blogs and tried to think radically and reframe and ultimately, I guess, I have been waiting for all this reading and research to effect a change in my head that would make it possible for me to love my body, but it hasn’t happened, because the only way to love my body is to love it. Just — love it. Love it because it’s me. Love it because I’m alive. Love it because it’s amazing, actually, and because I choose to.

This is hard. It’s so hard.

I wrote a novel last year about a heroine who doesn’t love her body. Her name is May. She’s six feet tall, and she’s not rail thin, and she doesn’t like herself very much. The novel, Truly, is going to be released in August, and ARCs are available right now, but a lot of people read the novel on Wattpad as a serial last fall.

People kept asking me on Wattpad — asking in the comments, asking in private messages —

How fat is May?

I don’t understand, is she fat? Is she skinny but just thinks she’s fat?

She makes herself sound like a cow, but I can’t tell. Is she? It’s really bothering me.

It really bothered me, too. It bothered me because these questions meant that readers couldn’t decide how to feel about May until they knew just exactly how fat she was or wasn’t.

What did it mean, how she felt about herself? They couldn’t know until they knew how fat she was. Only knowing how fat she was would tell them if she deserved or didn’t deserve to feel bad about herself, and only knowing if she deserved it would tell them if they, the readers, should like her or not like her.

Of course, romance novel heroines are almost always thin. They are thin, they are beautiful, and we make sure the reader knows that they are thin and beautiful. We make sure the reader admires the fall of their hair and the perfection of their features, their high and round breasts, their flat stomachs, their perky asses.

We do this because it is easy. If the heroine is thin and beautiful, we don’t have to worry about whether she deserves love. She does. Obviously she does, because she is thin, and she is beautiful.

It is easy, and it is sexist. This message, repeated in 99.9% of romance novels, is hateful toward women who aren’t thin and beautiful — and to women who have complicated feelings about their bodies even if they are thin and beautiful. Which is to say, it is hateful toward most of us.

We do this because if the heroine is thin and beautiful, she has no reason to hate herself.

We do this because if the heroine is thin and beautiful, it is easy to understand why the hero would be attracted to her.

We do this because we hate our bodies, and we don’t know how to stop.

Although, also, we aren’t supposed to talk about it. Or we’re only supposed to talk about it in particular, socially sanctioned ways. We’re supposed to talk about how we’ve recently figured out that iced tea is a fantastic appetite suppressant. Or how we’ve started doing Zumba class, and it’s so much fun, it hardly feels like exercise at all! Or we talk about how we run five times a week because it feels good and settles our heads, and that’s true, it does, it does, but we don’t talk about how if we don’t run five times a week, we hate ourselves.

Every year before the RT and RWA conventions, the romance community on Twitter spends weeks and weeks talking about clothes and shoes and bodies and alcohol. Usually, this conversation isn’t overtly hateful, but the subtext of this conversation is always hard for me to take.

I don’t know if I am thin enough to be liked.

I’m afraid I don’t have the right clothes or the correct shoes to make a good impression on people I care deeply about making a good impression on.

I don’t think I’m right.

I wish I were right.

I’m going to try so, so hard to make myself right for you guys before this conference.

Hardly anyone is saying what I wish everyone were saying.

You are already right.

Whatever you wear is fine.

We just want to see YOU.

We already like you.

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t fucking matter, not even a little bit, not at all.

Wear the dress you like. Wear the shirt you like. Wear whatever you like, but feel good. Feel love. Feed yourself. JESUS, feed yourself.

That’s what I want to say, all the time, every year, every time I see these conversations about conferences and clothes and weight, every time someone is worrying about how many calories are in their yogurt, every time, and sometimes I do, and I get praised for having a great self-image, but really it’s just easier for me to love everyone else than it is for me to love myself.

It’s hard for me to love myself.

It’s hard for all the women I’ve ever known and some of the men, too, and I think it must actually be hard for everyone no matter how they look, how fat they are or how thin, how healthy they are or how sick, how dark their skin is or how light, how curly or straight their hair is, how good or bad their eyesight, how broad or narrow their hips, how round or flat their ass. No matter what, it’s hard.

Also, love doesn’t make it easy. Love feels good, and love is good, and love helps, but being loved by someone else doesn’t solve this problem, not all on its own. Love solves very little on its own. We have to work to solve our own problems. We have to love ourselves.

It’s hard

But it’s hard NOT to love myself, too. I have thirty-six years’ experience hating my body, and it is actually hard — it’s painful. It creates pain. It creates anxiety. It creates judgment. Hate is poisonous.

And so I’m trying this other hard thing, today. I’m trying to look at my shadow when I’m run and to be happy that I’m alive, and I’m running, I’m fucking running, and my body is healthy and happy to be moving, and the sun feels good on my skin, and the sky is blue, and my mind is sound.

I’m trying to feel all of that and let it be love.

I’m trying to love my body the way I love everyone else’s bodies, the way I love humanity, the way I love life and the world.

IMG_0116I’m trying to look at this picture of my face and not think it’s the wrong smile, the wrong angle, the wrong version of my face, the one I don’t like. I’m trying to remember, instead, that this is the face people see when I smile. People who love me. People who love to see me smile. This is my face. There’s nothing wrong with my face.

I’m trying to look at my face and love it back.

It’s hard. It’s so hard.

But it’s not harder than hate.

I’m hoping, over time, if I keep trying, it will become easy.

Posted in Life & Wonk, Writing Wonkomance | 32 Comments

Our Bodies, Our Shelves: A Guest Post by Sarina Bowen

Or: Is it Possible to Write Realistic Sexytimes When We’re all so Freaking Different?

Hello, everyone! Amy Jo here, welcoming Sarina Bowen to Wonkomance today. Sarina and I were in a box set together earlier this year and her book, Coming in from the Cold, was so good that when I spotted a new release by her, I downloaded it immediately. The Year We Fell Down is one of the best books I’ve read in 2014. There is a scene in it that, despite being less explicit than the last dozen books I read, was so open and honest and frank in its exploration that it was beyond sexy to read. After that, I knew Sarina would have something interesting to say when I invited her to post with us. Enjoy!

by Sarina Bowen

On the front page of the New York Times last summer, I read about an exciting new cancer drug. Thirty-eight percent of patients’ tumors shrank. In the annals of medical research, that’s a wildly exciting result.

Unless you’re one of the sixty-two percent who received no benefit.

It sounds obvious to say that human bodies (and their cancers) are not the same. But it’s often pretty hard to grasp, since we’re all trapped inside our own.

When I had my first child, I couldn’t figure out how to breastfeed without extreme pain. My friends tried to help, but they’d all experienced different troubles. Ultimately, the (very expensive) lactation consultant demonstrated that in my particular case, the trick would be to swing piranha-baby’s mouth very far up onto my boob, with the same force one uses to chip a golf ball out of the rough.

“Wow, you really jammed him on there,” I observed.

“No one has ever been killed by a breast,” was her reply.

Let’s assume she’s right. But even if we’re willing to rule out death-by-boob, the remarkable variation in female anatomy pretty much guarantees that she’s perpetually employed. At $175 per hour.

Enter the romance novel. As with the human body itself, the anatomy of a good sex scene is highly variable. I’d argue that the emotional set-up of a sex scene is responsible for the majority of that scene’s success. But eventually, the characters are going to insert tab A into slot A (or B, or maybe C), resulting in their explosive mutual pleasure. Some readers will swoon. But a few are likely to blanch, or get bored, or be nonplussed.

Because there are really three people in that bedroom: both characters, plus the reader. (Hang on. I think I just proved that every romance novel is really a ménage. Discuss.)

So I have to imagine that it’s the difficulty of pleasing everyone which has led so many sex scenes in mainstream contemporary romance to be so similar. Much of the time, characters round the bases in the time-honored order, escalating to a main event which shall blow everyone’s proverbial doors off. Simultaneously.

In real life, sexual compatibility is a rarity. And when it succeeds, it often gels over time. Just ask the college students who contributed to two recent surveys of sexual satisfaction during casual hookups. Men achieved, er, satisfaction 80% of the time versus women’s 40%. Science tells us that even an alpha hero capable of landing a disabled spacecraft will likely not coax an orgasm from our heroine on the first try.

Perhaps better flap copy is the answer. Consider: “with a heat rating of four out of five chili peppers, this title is most suitable for a reader 18+, with an above average number of nerve endings in her anus.”

Okay, maybe not.

I love realism in romance. Struggle. Angst. Pain. Heartbreak. Bring it on. But a tight narrative arc and sexual realism are often at odds. If the hero and heroine have just spent two hundred pages overcoming a gauntlet of obstacles to their union, the Big Scene had better ring everyone’s buzzer. Likewise, stories built around a one-night stand often utilize an explosive initial encounter to fuel the rest of the plot.

But the books which break these rules are often the most exciting. Alice Clayton’s Wallbanger needed a second Big Scene to fix what the first one missed. And that book is more memorable for it. Another trope-twister is Jennifer Bernard’s Sex & the Single Fireman, which is based upon a failed one-night stand.

Sometimes, an author can blunder into her creative solution. I wrote The Year We Fell Down because New Adult romance had so many heroines that were broken on the inside. My big idea was to break one on the outside, instead. By the time I got around to writing about sexytimes, it occurred to me that I’d inadvertently designed a pretty unique sex scene, one where the typical outcome was not a given. For the heroine it was scary, and it was awkward.

But it was not boring.

Embarrassment and awkwardness can fuel drama at least as well as passionate perfection. And both score points for realism. In real life, embarrassment and awkwardness are never in short supply.

Unless that’s just me.

I’d love to hear: what are your favorite imperfect sex scenes?


Sarina Bowen is the author of steamy, angsty contemporary romance and New Adult fiction. Her bestselling book is The Year We Fell Down, book #1 of The Ivy Years series.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 11 Comments

Emma & Jane

janeMy relationship with BBC costume dramas has ebbed and flowed over the years.  When I was growing up, “exactly like the book” seemed to be the guiding principle – I can remember doggedly enduring something like fourteen episodes of The Jewel in the Crown, twelve of I Claudius, and God knows how many of Brideshead Revisited. I don’t think I’d quite cottoned onto the notion of a text as an interpretive rather than absolute space, so to my young mind the success of these adaptations hinged on how precisely they adhered to my (often imperfect) understanding of the book. I can remember being actively disdainful of Colin Firth’s maritime adventures in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, being at that point a rather prim young gentleman who felt that Colin Firth in a clinging, transparent shirt brought absolutely nothing to the original novel. (Reader, I now understand completely, I feel that he actively improves it). Sometimes, I’ll discover that these venerable artefacts are available on Lovefilm or DVD, and I’ll gleefully force my partner into a re-watch. “Well,” we inevitably say, eighteen exhausted hours later, “they don’t make them like that any more.”

Nowadays, I value costume dramas as acts of interpretation. I’m also quite busy, so while I may once have lamented that any production of less than twenty-seven episodes would require the loss of vital – yes vital – material, now four is pretty much my limit. I took a run at the 2005 Bleak House not so long ago, and while I could probably spend fifteen hours watching Gillian Anderson be magnificently bored, I bogged down in the rest of the Dickensian shit, and gave up.

So, now that I’ve established my credentials as a shallow bastard, I’d like to talk about the two most successful adaptations I’ve seen recent times. These are 2006 Jane Eyre (with Ruth ‘Murderer Chick’ Wilson and Toby ‘Maggie Smith’ Stephens) and the 2009 Emma (with Romola Garai, and maybe some other people, I’m not sure, whenever Ms Garai is on screen I am only capable of looking at her). I know some of you will want to fight me over North and South, which is also really good, but I get all freaked out that they snog in public. On a train. In 1855.

Jane Eyre 2006 works for me because it allows me to see something in the text that I’m sure is there – i.e. that it’s romantic – but am completely unable to find for myself in the original. I’m fascinated by Jane Eyre, and I have been for as long as I can remember, but part of my fascination springs from my complete bewilderment. I know, from things I have read and conversations with other people, that it is possible to find it genuinely engaging and satisfying as a love story on its own terms. The best I can come up with, however, is a romance of selfhood: a poor, plain young woman rises from obscurity to get absolutely everything she wants, including family, money, security, respect and – incomprehensibly – a grumpy, self-pitying, immoral git who isn’t worthy of her. And while I can see on a rational level that for someone as love-starved as Jane, a man who is completely obsessed with her, and dependent on her, would be a bonus … I just struggle to find it in any way, romantic.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots I admire about Jane Eyre. It’s got, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks. Enormous, shiny, in your face bollocks. The way it co-opts patriarchal religious discourse for the language of love: that is some crazy shit, especially when you have your hero literally comparing to the heroine to some kind of personal Jesus figure. I respect how completely and comprehensively Rochester is disempowered from basically the first moment he appears. This figure of dominant masculinity who gallops into the text on a big, black horse, promptly falls off it – injuring himself – and spends the rest of the novel being rescued by Jane, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And let’s not forget the amazing scene in the garden when Jane demands her to right to everything she damn well wants – including love – while Rochester is, as usual, too chickenshit to do anything for himself.

What I like about the 2006 adaptation is that it somehow contrives to present Rochester as a man you could conceivably respect and fall in love with, something I just can’t find in the text, no matter how hard I squint. Honestly, it might just be Toby Stephens’ mouth, which has these two deep brackets on either side, suggesting secret mirth. But I find him an unexpectedly likeable Rochester, a man with a sense of self-irony, who seems to be always on the verge on smiling when he’s with Jane. It also helps he has a hobby – naturalism – and knowledge of the world garnered on his travels, which must surely be attractive to someone as sheltered as Jane. And when they’re together, there’s an intense chemistry between them, leavened by understanding, sympathy and a current of merriment (something else, I’ve never been particularly been able to find in the book, which has always struck me as unremittingly serious with the possible exception of “I must keep in good health and not die.”).

My favourite scene is this one, where they bicker about Jane having to visit her dying aunt. In the book, it always came across to me like Rochester was being a complete dick for no reason, trying to control Jane’s movements, and showing off the fact he has wealth and she doesn’t. But, on screen, you can see how they look at each other, and respond: it’s nothing but a game to them, a wicked, secret little piece of flirtation. And Rochester’s weird insistence on her coming back within two weeks is a clumsy attempt to reassure her that she is wanted, she is valuable and needed, regardless of her aunt’s rejection.

Excuse me a moment, I need to melt all over the floor.

emmaEmma is my favourite Jane Austen heroine, but I’ve never yet managed to find an adaptation in which she wasn’t either smug or shrill. But then Romola Garai existed, and everything was good. Emma 2009 is a light and quite self-consciously “modern” adaptation (which I can see some people finding off-putting), but I like it because it treats all the characters with sympathy and kindness. Much of Emma (the book) is filtered through Emma’s unreliable and occasionally ungenerous perception of the people around her – people, incidentally, she has known her whole life, so there’s an extent to which she hasn’t learned to balance childish frustrations with adult understanding. And a lot of adaptations have essentially supported those readings – so you have Miss Bates being unbearably irritating, Jane so reserved as to be practically non-existent, and Frank utterly charming until he turns out not to be – which has a knock-on effect on how we react to Emma’s behaviour. If Miss Bates has spent an entire adaptation being basically a cartoon, then it’s hard to actually given a damn when Emma tells her to STFU at a picnic, and if Jane is a background figure of no interest or personality, then there’s nothing lost by Emma’s failure to recognise an opportunity for real friendship with an equal.

But in this particular adaptation the layers of perception, interpretation, and meaning stack up really nicely. Miss Bates (while still annoying) is painfully vulnerable, and there’s a real sincerity and sadness to Jane, underlying her reserve. Frank is exactly as charming and engaging as you would expect, but at the same time, shifty, restless and erratic. Mr Elton, while slimy, pushy and hypocritical, is also handsome and relatively socially competent, so the fact he would aspire to Emma, and Emma would find him a good match for Harriet, are both genuinely plausible. Harriet, incidentally, comes across as a warm and giving person, with just enough awareness to understand the precariousness of her social position.  And, even Mr Wodehouse’s fussy selfishness is underpinned by real love (which I’m not sure is in the book, but I don’t really care, because again it kind of adds emotional depth to Emma’s refusal to marry, and her care for him, making it as much choice as duty)

Which brings me to Emma herself. What I find particularly interesting about Emma, especially when set against Jane Austen’s other heroines, is her emotional vulnerability. All of Austen other heroines are socially vulnerable, but they tend to have strong personal resources: Elinor has her sense, Lizzie her wit, Fanny her morals, Catherine her kindness, Anne her resilience. But Emma … Emma is lonely. And, yes, she may think too well of herself, and be too used to getting her own way, but while that may lead her into errors of judgement, what I find really heartbreaking is the way a lot of her behaviour is motivated by both the certainty and the fear of loss. Her mother’s death, and her father’s reaction to it, Miss Taylor’s marriage to Mr Weston, and Frank Churchill being basically shipped off to be raised by his aunt. It’s a tiny, claustrophobic world, and at the same time a deeply unstable one. Poor Emma has spent her whole life with too much power, and not enough.  The 2009 adaptation centralises these themes very effectively – we get to see the young Frank Churchill being swept off in a carriage, and there’s always an air of sadness underlying the excitement whenever he’s spoken of.

I can imagine some readers/viewers might prefer a more poised Emma to Garai’s, but I really like the thread of uncertainty in her confidence. Her enthusiasm for gossip, and even the simplest changes to the routine of village life, serve to highlight just how stifled she is, and how alone. In the adaptation, at least, her interest in Frank Churchill (even before she’s met him) seems to be as much a desire to be in love with him, and to have a special friend, than real feeling. Frank’s behaviour – while perhaps understandable (there’s real joy in a small, added scene, when the engagement finally comes out, and Frank and Jane rush into each other’s arms) – is particularly cruel to both Emma and Jane because it tortures Jane and uses Emma’s loneliness against her. She isn’t in any danger of falling for him, and I think on some level they both recognise this, but she’s so desperate for any kinship and comradeship that she accepts even a facsimile of it, without fully understanding the way Frank is using her, or the hurt they’re both causing Jane. Again, the intricacies of this are beautifully depicted in the adaptation, with Frank often moody and restless, and Emma confused and quite frustrated with him.

I especially like the picnic at Boxhill because it’s deliciously socially awkward, and full of undercurrents, even before Emma puts her foot in it. It’s just a really well constructed and contextualised scene, as all the competing emotions and agendas and needs and wants flow together to accidentally create this incivility warhead that Emma – blind to everything that’s going on around her, confused at everyone’s misery and Frank’s over-done flirtation, and desperate to wring some pleasure out of an experience that meant a lot to her – fires at Miss Bates.

I know it probably sounds like I like these particular adaptations for completely different, and perhaps contradictory, reasons since the Jane Eyre 2006 goes against my interpretations, the Emma 2009 doesn’t. But I think what connects them in my appreciation is the way they engage with the base text. I’ve come a long way since my “give me moving pictures of the book please” phase and, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (the Harry Potter franchise seems to have followed this principle very successfully, although tellingly my favourite of the movies are III and VI which stray closest to being their own entities), for me, a successful adaptation of a classic text essentially all comes down to the way it formulates and presents its argument. It turns out I don’t really mind what that argument is – whether you want to show me that Jane and Rochester are really in love, or that Emma is emotionally vulnerable – or even whether I agree with it. Just that it’s there, and that someone has seen something in a text, and has found a way to show it to me.

The truth is, a good adaptation makes me feel spoken to. It’s feels like a conversation with a friend about a book you both love. And I honestly can’t imagine anything more satisfying or interesting than that.

Posted in Reading, Thinky | 24 Comments