The first big girl book I read was the ground breaker—Jennifer Weiner’s 2001, Good in Bed. Since then I’ve been very aware of the trope and the unfortunate conclusion it all too often draws: Big girls are only truly loveable when they get thin, or the equally pernicious, because let’s make it all about appearance, big girls are loveable despite being fat, as though they’re some special outrider or novelty act that deserves attention.
I didn’t mean to write a big girl trope when I created Darcy in Detained. I stumbled into it because I wanted to make a comment about how the media, particularly television, perceives women; first and foremost for their appearance, above and beyond their skills and abilities. A standard that doesn’t apply to balding, beer bellied, ageing, male broadcasters.
Newsreader, Tracy Spicer said it best in an interview first published on thehoopla.com.au.
I had no idea I was so fat, ugly and stupid. I thought being a size 12 (US 8) was perfectly acceptable.
But when you yelled across the newsroom, ”I want two inches off your hair and two inches off your arse”, suddenly, a light went on.
Of course! The size of my posterior is directly related to the content and credibility of the stories I’m reporting on for this network. Silly me. You’re right. I’ll never make it as a TV journalist.
Those wise words of yours from 1986 are still ringing in my ears: ”That’s why you don’t see blonde newsreaders,” you explained patiently. ”People don’t take them seriously.”
It reminded me of another sage piece of advice, from a radio boss during a job interview some years ago.
He put it simply yet eloquently: ”There’s a reason why you don’t hear women on commercial talkback radio,” he said. ”No one wants to hear the whiny sound of a female voice. Us blokes get enough nagging at home!”
Really, in retrospect, it was foolish to think I was worthy of such a role.
And nothing much has changed since Tracey’s appalling discovery, except perhaps the addition of the word ‘boned’ to the lexicon, to mean the sacking of a female broadcaster of a certain age.
This is the world I put Darcy in. She’s initially a print journalist, where her looks shouldn’t matter, only her ability to get the next scoop, create the next headline and pull readers. Print journalism is a whole lot more egalitarian, and a whole lot less focused on what colour hair you have. That’s not to say that as a girl she gets any free passes.
This is what happens when Darcy is given an assignment her senior editor expected. He says:
“What’s she got I haven’t, apart from legs to her hairy armpits and good tits?”
In the same scene Darcy (Campbell) and Mark the managing editor have this discussion:
“You want me to seduce him?”
“Come on, Campbell. Every interview is a seduction; you know that. You learned that as a cadet. Hell, you probably learned it at Brian’s knee. Yeah, I want you to fucking seduce Will Parker. Seduce him so he flashes his soul and all his grubby business interests at you, so you can stick ‘em on page one, and wreck any chance he has of ripping off the Australian public in his quest to make another billion.” Mark took a lungful and expelled it impatiently. “Is that clear?”
“And you get I’m not actually telling you to flash your tits, or sleep with the guy?”
“I do. Anyway he might be gay and my tits are not that good.”
Mark’s hand went to his head in a gesture of disbelief. “Fucking might be gay.” He refocused on her, and it wasn’t humour he projected. ”Darce, you always did know how to push the point. Go meet a deadline. Don’t disappoint me.”
It wasn’t till she was back in the corridor that Darcy allowed herself to feel exhilaration. Her heart was fuel-injected; her head, helium high. She was going to interview Will Parker. No—she was going to seduce Will Parker with nothing but her intellect. And when she’d broken the secrets of Parker Corporation, no one would say she skated by because she was Brian Campbell’s daughter, and any media job she wanted to name would be one step closer.
By the time she got back to her desk, her smile muscles were fatigued and her stomach was flip-flopping. If she was going to seduce Will Parker with anything other than a plunging neckline and a too short skirt, she had work to do.
As a print journalist, Darcy has limited money to spend on clothes. She’s chain store and dressed for comfort. And where she’s entirely confident in her professional skills, she’s less so about her physicality. She’s not per se a big girl; she’s simply not the thin girl standard of the regular heroine (especially the ones so lacking in self awareness they think they’re bush pigs, but are really rivalling the sun and burning the eyes of all males who behold them in their brilliance) and that’s enough to land the story inside the trope.
We learn this about her:
She knew her body wasn’t fashionable. She had hips and a backside. And despite the yoga she wasn’t toned to magazine image perfection. The family joke was tables had better legs. And his body was incredible, even with the scars that marked him. And the room was too bright. She went to turn off the light nearest her.
Hand on the switch, their eyes met. He repeated, “Leave it.”
She turned it off.
Not that our hero is the least bit worried about that. He says:
“Fine then—but the bra goes.”
“So you do know how to compromise.”
“I know how to win. Do you want me to do it for you?”
She did. She didn’t. She saw nothing in him to suggest he didn’t like what he saw. She unhooked her bra, let it slide down her arms and watched his eyes flare with satisfaction. Then she leant across and switched on the light. “You win.”
His grin stood in place for the word ‘always’. “Come here.”
And he later notes:
She sat opposite him, devouring a fruit tart after a main course of salmon. She ate like she enjoyed food. Devoured it. She ate like she fucked. And she’d fucked like she was starving for good food. She could become a problem.
He’s utterly knocked out by her:
She was standing in doorway in a simple green dress, her golden hair all tangling down round her shoulders and over her back. A lick of lipstick that wouldn’t last the greeting he wanted to give her.
“God, you’re gorgeous.”
She laughed and waved a hand to usher him in. “You’re not terribly discerning. You’d like me in a towel.”
That made him cough. He’d made it into the lounge room. He turned back to her. “I’d fucking love you in a towel. Is that your opening offer?”
Later, Darcy takes a job as a broadcast journalist and a focus on her appearance becomes inescapable. The way she dresses is no longer about affordability and comfort, but a standard of beauty dictated by the male hierarchy of the network.
Darcy studied herself in the mirror. She was thinner than she’d ever been in her life, and it hadn’t been hard to get that way.
After Shanghai, food lost its attraction and working hard helped keep her weight down. Of course the station bosses liked her this way, so it was part of the package. Part of what she did to earn her seven figure salary. Being thin was synonymous with successful. It was the perfect accessory for her sky-blue convertible, her beach view apartment and her designer wardrobe. It went well with her public profile, those invitations to opening nights, charity spokesperson roles, and social pages pictures. And it supported her newly acquired professional reputation as cool and collected under fire.
The old Darcy, curvy, slightly untidy, chain store dressed and a fan of food, wouldn’t have gotten to interview the Prime Minister, or attend exhibition openings with pop stars. That Darcy was more at home in shorts than pencil skirts, jeans than evening dresses.
She smoothed her hands down her hips. She missed old Darcy. Old Darcy had friends she went to the pub with, could get excited by hot chips with vinegar, and tortured herself about not achieving enough. This 2.0 model had no friends who weren’t part of the media scene, never ate potato, and knew her career to be a thing totally lacking in substance.
At this stage of the story I’ve managed to take a poke at broadcast media’s innate sexism, and peer down the rabbit hole of thin equals attractive, but that’s not where I want to be. It’s not where Darcy wants to be either.
So then—the twist. Suddenly thin can also equal unhappy. It’s a no win position:
And some creative wit dug up a picture of her from three years ago and juxtaposed it against a current shot. In the older photograph she was at a barbeque wearing shorts and a plain white t, hair in a tumble down ponytail, sunglasses propped on her head, tanned, a smile on her face and a cricket bat in her hand. The newer shot showed her looking pensively at her watch.
It was fat, carefree, and happy, alongside skinny, anxious, and lonely. The headline said “Love hurts: Darcy Pines for Will”.
And what does our hero think of all this:
She stood when she saw him. She was so thin, had she been ill? She was dressed immaculately, designer stuff, gear Jiao might’ve worn.
He’s not happy about it:
“What’s wrong with you?” He grabbed her arm as she swayed, his fingers biting into her skin. “You need to get out of the sun or fucking eat something.”
Will wants the old Darcy back:
She didn’t look real. And it wasn’t just because TV still made his head swim. She was so thin, and they’d done something to her hair to make it stiff, not a wisp out of place. She wore an expression somewhere between going to the dentist and ‘no, really I’m having a great time’.
And he pushes the point:
“I’d rather feed you.” He stood. “Do you like being this skinny?”
“You’d rather avoid me. And it’s virtually in my contract.”
He looked around for his jeans, handed Darcy his old flanny. “I don’t see me getting away with much avoidance. And that’s a crappy job condition.”
“Hey. I had to work hard to get that much attention from you. And I agree with you about the condition. Who’d have guessed being skinny would be a key factor in how well I can read a script?”
Darcy is flippant in the face of Will’s clear concern for her. Later he shows her he loves her however she looks by sending her a beautiful new designer suit. He has a habit of wrecking any decent clothing she owns.
So there we have it. I thought I was boxing clever, but I’ve accidentally written a big girl trope tucked inside a story about lots of other themes including an accidental billionaire trope.
With luck it’s not one of the more disappointing big girl tropes; with luck, it’s more than a story about the role of physical appearance, more than the average story where thin and made-over makes the heroine a better person and wins the hero’s heart. Because Darcy and Will are better than that. Because I don’t believe that, and Dear Reader, I’m guessing you don’t either.
If you read Detained, let me know what you decide.
PS: There is a terrific discussion about the fat girl in romance by Cara McKenna at Wonk-o-Mance, she and I trade quips about chubby-chaser fetishes.