The term "Rubenesque" comes from 17th century painter Peter Paul Rubens, whose portraits reflect the ideal of female beauty of that period--women with big breasts, wide hips and lush curves. Unfortunately, over time the image of female beauty somehow morphed into an ideal many of us cannot possibly attain, which is both mirrored in and influenced by the media at large.
Sadly, my industry is not exempt. Far too many romance novels, for far too long, have perpetuated the attitude that the heroine must look like a runway model or anorexic actress to attract the hero's devotion. It was fine to have huge boobs--of course that would get a guy's attention. But the bounteous breasts had to appear above a tiny waist and narrow hips. The heroine's body was often described in a way that made it clear it was nearly anatomically impossible without hefty fees sent to a plastic surgeon.
Recently, though, society has started fighting back. Is it possible our modern society might again become more accepting and appreciative of reasonable body dimensions? Let's hope so. Many members of the media, while not perfect, seem to be trying to do their part to make this happen. Magazines are incorporating plus-size models. Ad campaigns are focusing on "real beauty." Television shows and movies are now casting Rubenesque women as the star, rather than the funny sidekick.
Books, especially those from the romance industry catering to women, should be no exception. Romance fiction sales are projected to be $1.35 billion for 2013; what impact could our industry have on female body image if we were able to challenge the unrealistic, size zero ideal? This is the question we asked ourselves last year and the reason Ellora's Cave began in September promoting "Curve Appeal", a special set of stories from all romance subgenres--contemporary, paranormal, shapeshifter, BDSM. What they all have in common is a full-figured heroine and a hero who is man enough to cuddle up to a big, beautiful woman.
We don't like to limit our writers' creativity, but in this case we were pretty clear on stories we did not want: absolutely no stories where the overweight heroine has a miserable life that becomes perfect as soon as she turns into Miss Size-Zero. No stories where her boss notices her new body and gives her a promotion, or the hunky guy who has always treated her as a sister suddenly is drooling over her, or her shyness and self-esteem issues go away because she knows she's beautiful now that she's skinny. Really, the stories didn't even need to focus on the woman's size or make it an issue for her. They just had to present a plus-size heroine in a positive way, where she was judged by what she is rather than what she looks like.
As an erotic romance publisher, I've found female readers want to identify with the heroine as she finds true love--and great sex--with an incredibly desirable guy. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the reader wants to imagine herself as the main character just as the viewer imagines herself as the star of a sitcom or movie. Why do women like stories about full-figured heroines? Gee, could it be because most of us are in reality much larger than size six, let alone size zero? That identification fantasy is ruined if the heroine is too different from the reader and especially if the reader's own characteristics are disparaged in the process.
The books in Ellora's Cave's Rubenesque category have always been popular; before focusing on this issue, we already had more than fifty books boasting full-figured heroines. But they were a niche category. This year we decided to draw more attention (and hopefully readers) to our Rubenesque writing by releasing "Curve Appeal," special stories that go out of their way to present a positive image of plus-sized heroines. Our hope is that with strides like these, a full-figured (or at least realistic) heroine will start to become the rule, rather than the exception. And that might be where we're headed--what we've found from our experiment is that readers and bloggers can't get enough.
Raelene Gorlinsky is lead publisher at Ellora's Cave, the first and foremost publisher of erotic romance. For more information, visit www.ellorascave.com