Disclaimer: For this post, when I say “Writing the Woman’s Body”, I am referring mostly to cisgender women’s bodies, though anyone who has lived inside a female body can relate to its complexity. I have written a number of transgender characters (more to come), and understand there is no statement good or bad which applies to “all women” or “all men”. Now, to the blog post….
What do you think of when you think of the female body in fiction? I have a number of freethinkers following my blog, so I would say some of you have a diverse array of images that come to mind. But what about the general public? What do they think of when someone mentions the female body in fiction?
Erotica? Sex? Beauty?
Often in fiction, the emphasis settles on what makes a female character beautiful. Some authors will throw in a, “She was unconventionally beautiful.” Or “She was not seen as beautiful.” Or “Beauty did not matter to her.” The consensus seems to be that in describing female characters an author must tell the reader hair and eye color, body shape, and place her on a beauty scale. Right?
I do that, too, sometimes. Allie in Winter Seedlings is incredibly beautiful in Jute’s eyes. Beauty is not such a terrible thing to bestow on a character.
My only problem with it is when a character is trapped inside their beauty, or lack thereof. A woman’s body is so much more. A woman’s body is an amazing world. It is not just something to look at and touch. It does stuff! It does INCREDIBLE stuff! Unfortunately, for some reason we shy away from discussing all its mad skills.
In my books, my characters’ bodies are relevant beyond their appearance. I have written many women characters and here are some of the things I’ve tackled in my storylines:
Breasts and Sex: These are quite amazing things. Yes, male readers might prefer that I just write about their size and density. Maybe some women readers feel the same. But, breasts actually have a purpose. They feed babies. Because of that, certain sensations will cause the production of oxytocin. This alters the way a woman feels internally. How a woman responds to touch is complex. I don’t pretend otherwise.
Breasts and Babies: If I had a nickel for every time some teenager posts to twitter, “OMG, some lady is breastfeeding her baby at the park. Gross!” Sorry, people, breasts are for babies first and foremost. They have evolved to be perfect for providing infants with nourishment. Whatever benefits anyone else gets from breasts, they have to thank babies for bringing about through evolution all that a breast is. I have breastfed four children. Many women breastfeed. So I write about it in two of my books. In the last one, Silencer, breastfeeding is a huge part of the storyline. I make no apologies for this. I expect everyone to be able to read about a woman breastfeeding a child without perverting it.
Pregnancy and Childbirth: I have written a scene where a woman gives birth. I linger on this scene longer than some authors might because I can. I’ve been there. Childbirth changes everything. At every point of the delivery from the time the woman walks into the hospital until she holds her baby up to feed for the first time, changes are occurring. I touch on the subject of body changes after pregnancy. I allow mothers to look like mothers and feel like mothers to the touch of a hand. Their partners accept the body changes as most partners do in real life, with awe, appreciation, and (yes) desire. I try to carry readers into that place, too.
Menstruation: Am I losing you here? Twenty years ago I would never have written about menstruation. I’d have died first. But I’m 42 which means nearly half of the world is my age or older and should be able to hear the word menstruation in a story without blushing and hiding in their room. I have included the topic of menstruation in varying degrees in a couple of my books. It is not there for it’s own sake. I’m not throwing it in to be shocking. It is simply part of a woman’s life, and at times it’s quite a significant one. First periods, missed periods, something-might-be-wrong periods are all potentially powerful moments in a storyline.
I create real-world women scenes in my stories with purpose in ways I know other women can relate and appreciate. I don’t know how male readers feel when reading these scenes, but I know how they should feel. They should feel like the mysterious and magical world that is the female body has revealed itself to be about more than sex. They should reach the end of the book and feel they have lived vicariously through the main character just as they would feel after reading any other book. Women typically have no trouble imagining themselves being male characters doing male things. Men should be able to read and imagine themselves as a young woman going through childbirth, and they should read it without whining.
Maybe I expect too much from my readers. But I do it anyway because I can. I control what gets published, no one else. So far my readers have all stepped up to the plate nicely and no one has complained of being scarred for life for accidentally finding themselves relating to *gasp* a woman.
I would like to add that there have been a number of men who have read my books and not blinked an eye (except to clear the tears) at the issues I bring up. So, this should be encouraging to all of us as authors.