Saturday, January 4, 2020

Romance Body Positivity and Diversity in 2020: a Short Essay

Let me back up a few years and tell you where it all started, I came out as lesbian later in life. I lived with my internalized homophobia. I lived with these words in my head it’s good for everyone else but that’s just not me. While I choked on my jealousy of others being out and proud. I self-destructed on whatever drugs I could make disappear up my nose or however much alcohol I could get down until I reached the bliss of blackouts. I make no apologies for the past. I can’t change what I’ve done; all I can do is accept it and pledge to myself to do better.

For decades of my life I was too fat, too depressed, too manic or whatever the fuck the weekly stigma was to elicit self-loathing. I wrote my dreams on the lined pages of well-worn notebooks. Swearing to myself that I’d never share the stories I hid. Then one day I started posting them anonymously online. Saving myself from the inevitable trolling that the internet is famous for.

After a while I realized that these stories were my therapy. That I could be everything my characters were unashamed of and I sent out my first submission. Rejections galore with the phrase this just isn’t right for our company at this time, double speak for we can’t sell it. And yeah, I got discouraged. It didn’t help I was writing Lesbian Romance/Fiction. If you want to watch in real time your soul expiring, then write a lesbian book and check your ratings or sales. I also learned that my writing wasn’t for everyone. That mainstream romance wasn’t my niche. What I write has to reflect me and well, let’s just say sometimes I’m not exactly the romance writer of some readers dreams. And that’s fine. Everyone is different in their tastes.

Yet for me, I write the romance I want to read. Which means I love showing readers that no matter shape, size, shade, gender, physical disabilities or mental illness they can have a happily ever after without being…fixed. There’s no magic penis or pussy that’s going to make years of trauma and self-hatred disappear.

I am:
Mentally Ill
Gender Nonconforming/Non-Binary/Masc
Pronouns – They/Them
Excessively hairy (Yes, I’m proud of my body hair.)

Those are descriptors, labels, we all have them even if we don’t want them. Society demands we explain our bodies and the choices we make for it. It’s not mine or anyone else’s job to defend our choices. I am not the person to come to with opinions about my body. I will hurt your feelings without guilt. If you’re not in my bed, then it’s none of your business if I can braid my pit hair. How is my fat and body hair hurting you? It’s not.

Body positivity for me is about fat positivity, but also thin positivity. In society if you’re not curvy in all the right places (That is a line that needs to die) or whatever bullshit line someone wants to use then you need to eat less or eat a sandwich, whatever. No one’s body is the same as the next persons. Someone being fat has nothing to do with level of physical activity or how many calories you have a day. Some people can eat all day every day and not gain a pound. There’s plenty of medical conditions and chronic pain that can cause weight gain. Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome is just one of them.

But do you know what that allows you to say to someone about their weight? Absolutely nothing. Fat people are not responsible for explaining to anyone our bodies. We’re not promoting obesity. We’re not responsible for your perceptions of us.

In the internet age it takes everything in someone to keep positive especially when we’re also dealing with mental illness. An endless stream of diet ads. Articles on how to be sexy. It’s never about intelligence, the good we do, or many other factors that make us worthy to take up space.

We are allowed to take up space and the romance genre is an arena every body type deserves to be in. And that’s why I write the stories I do.

Repeat after me, every body is deserving of love and respect. Even the so-called broken among us is beautiful. These are the beliefs that we need to foster in ourselves and our communities at large. And nothing about the new year is going to change what I write. I won’t temper my message to fit. The mainstream is not the place for me. And if I have to change my style or my beliefs to fit then I don’t want to belong.

That’s where people who assume they know me get everything wrong. Their opinions of me aren’t going to change me. Tell me I should do this or write that and I know how they feel about me and I have no use for them.

Maybe you’re thinking I’m an asshole or whatever you want to call me, but I could never write another word and be happy if continuing to take up space as an author means I’d have to conform. Social media for me every day is seeing body positivity bastardized. I’ve seen the memes and the evil intent hidden between the lines of text and innocent looking images. Anyone who is different becomes caricature to make non-conforming people feel lesser than. And I refuse to be one of the problems. Everything that I am, who I am exists in every word of my books. Even if I don’t publish the words I create are a representation of who I am.

I won’t lie and say it’s easy. Being a body positive/diverse author is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It sets me apart and not always in a good way. Do I wish that I was more popular or that I saw my books getting more recommendations and love? Yes. I’m an author. And while writing for me is cathartic it is also my job. Authors deal with piracy, thousands if not more of lost income when our books are given away for free and that’s another blog post in itself. Authors fight an endless battle with imposter syndrome, piracy, bestseller lists and dozens of other issues just so we can put out words for our readers. But maybe I’ll cover all the issues creatives have in subsequent blog posts.

Now, back to the main topic.

Love is love. That means a physical representation shouldn’t hinder someone from finding it. Readers deserve to see themselves without shame on the pages of their romance novels. We need belly love. Body hair love. Self-harm scars that are badges of honor that we survived to find our way. Appreciation for what it takes for a depressed person to just take a shower or brush their teeth every day.

Love isn’t always pretty and the stuff of fairy tales. Romance isn’t for a select few and not for the rest of us. Fat-positive deserves a place at the table. Authors of color and own voices are important. We have to do better. If this latest fucked-upped-ness in the romance community shows us anything then it’s a call for us to do better—too destroy the glass ceiling that only the privileged few are allowed to transcend. (I'll leave you to research Romance Writers of America on your own)

We are the victims of the so-called gatekeepers. Us who refuse to pretend to be something we aren’t and dare to show a happily ever after that’s not made to order. I write characters of color, those characters grace the covers of my stories, and I know the calls for diversity are not shown in sales numbers. Do I think it’s hopeless? No. Do I think we’re nowhere near the level of diversity that we need to be? Yes.

It’s one of the reasons why I create what I do. It’s not popular. It’s not screamed for in recommendations, but what I write is out of love. A sense of what we all want—to belong. Acceptance is hard enough in our everyday lives. We compare and conform, attempt to be fit in the tiny spaces we’re allowed. Do I wish it was easier? Every damn day. But that’s not real life. All we can do is keep fighting for our places. The harder the battle the sweeter the victory. We have to demand better. More diversity in the cover models we use which starts with asking for more race and size options from photographers. It’s supply and demand, but if our demands aren’t heard than the product won’t be there for us.

The stories we tell or write. Life isn’t pretty. Neither should our romance be. I’m in no way saying the sweet and fluffy doesn’t have a place, people need the no-angst, life is good stories. Yet all I can do is continue writing about the fat person, the too thin person, the self-harmer, and show readers that love isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. That you can find love without perfect curves or six-pack abs.
Because in the end I have to stay true to me, to my beliefs, and my stories are me. Does that mean it’s for everyone? Not a damn chance. When I decided to do write body positivity and diversity into my books I knew that I was going to have a long hard road. I accepted it. People who’ve taken a chance on my stories make this a damn good job most days.

The messages that authors receive or the reviews we get about how a book touched the reader keeps us going. It’s the appreciation for the love stories that don’t fit the norm that make the next book easier to write. Just has I’ve done in the previous years, I’ll continue into 2020 and beyond. Will my stories be harsh? Yes. Will I fight the conformity? Yes.

I’ll take the hits because what I’m doing feels important and needed. That maybe I can show people that they’re not alone. Love doesn’t come with expectations that a person be perfect. Who’s to say what is or isn’t realistic? All I can hope is someone sees a part of themselves in my stories and that it helps them to see beyond what the world has conditioned them to believe. That they can understand that romance isn’t an exclusive club and that everyone deserves their happily ever after no matter what shape it takes.

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