Muffin Top by Avery Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Fat Heroines don't necessarily herald fat acceptance. This lesson was reinforced for me in spades with a spate of reading I did recently including Muffin Top by Avery Flynn. This is a story of Lucy, a fiercely smart but secretly insecure fat young woman (that's the language she uses) and Frankie, a hunky fireman, who’s tiring of being thought of as nothing more than a man whore. At the start, the two know each other through family connections, but they aren't really friends. When Frankie comes to Lucy's rescue in an ugly encounter at a bar, he offers to help her once more by accompanying her as her fake date/boyfriend for an upcoming high school reunion. Although Lucy's a high-profile crisis communication consultant and has a vibrant social life and she sort of wants to go, she's loathe to put herself back into a setting which was far from happy one as a single woman.
I had a hard time with this book even though I’m intentionally seeking stories with heroines who are characterized as plus-size or fat. The story is well told and engaging. But as in Take Me by Bella Andre and Never Sweeter by Charlotte Stein, the central conflict revolves around the fat heroine’s fragile sense of self and her inability to believe that a beautiful man could ever be attracted to let alone love her. Muffin Top is less brutal than Never Sweeter in which the hero used to be the heroine’s high school tormenter. But here, as in Misadventures of A Curvy Girl and Take Me, the outside world is loathe to accept the idea of a romantic relationship between a “curvy girl” and a handsome guy. Of course the guys are always not only handsome and attractive in an average way; they’re exceptional physical specimens, the kind of men who attract attention and resentment. Their attractiveness provides motivation for onlookers to object to the relationship and for other women to be rude to the heroine out of jealousy. A man's good looks, in other words, are the flame that lures angry moths to a fat woman who's just trying to get by in the world without too much attention. In Muffin Top for example, Lucy’s high school rival loudly and publicly proclaims there must be something wrong with Frankie for being with Lucy. This is not mere acknowledgment of lingering social stigma. There are multiple scenes like this of Lucy suffering personal insult and public humiliation.
Public humiliation and punishment are also a recurring theme in other books with larger women as heroines as well. In Sierra Simone’s Misadventures of a Curvy Girl, the heroine’s ex-boyfriend and a host of other people say terrible things about the two men the heroine is involved with. Though their relationship is passionate and fulfilling, the comments are so hateful she runs away, believing the world will never let them be together.
What I keep wondering is why so many of these books are so repetitive and what the effects might be. People are supposed to be happy about the representation of plus size women as lovable but is this really that? Negative self talk is damaging, but isn’t a diet of these types of stories a form of vicarious negative self talk that others fat people and reinforces negative associations and expectations?
This story was a little better than some others in its openness about Lucy’s size and the impact it has. I found it notable that this heroine was larger than other main characters who are categorized as fat or curvy— her specific dress size, which is 20, is mentioned — and she is unable to fit comfortably in airline seats and therefore chooses to drive across country. The text explicitly discusses the ways that society makes life difficult for larger sized people. Flynn is also particularly good at creating a credible dialog between Lucy and Frankie with regard to sex and sexuality and their physical relationship. It goes beyond enthusiastic consent. It’s character building. It helps us understand who they are, how they relate to each other, and how their chemistry evolves. As a result, Muffin Top reads as genuinely sex positive in a healthy way.
What I’m wondering is what readers prefer. How do women of similar size feel about the recurring insecure fat heroine saved by a hunk trope. Because in many ways even though it’s not the intention, as successful as she is in other ways, the heroine’s self worth is saved by the love of a conventionally attractive man, the kind society values. The underlying sense is that his status affirms and bolsters hers. That, ironically, reinforces social hierarchy and affirms damaging conventional beauty standards. Do these curvy women ever have men that aren’t stereotypical alpha men? Why not? Would that love be worth less? If what counts is social status conferred then yes, but why is romance affirming that? How are these narratives still considered progress?
There are alternative narratives that don’t reinforce traditional hierarchies, Olivia Dade’s work for one. Teach Me is wonderfully sensitive and the heroine isn’t entranced by traditional standards of masculinity or high status—the hero is not that kind of guy and she loves him for it— and it’s a wonderful reprieve.
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