There, I said it. I’m not taking it back, either. I get so sick of romance covers with men like this on the cover, as if bulging muscles are somehow a signifier of all the qualities that matter, like loyalty and honesty and humor and self-awareness and intelligence.
I get that romance is often considered the lazy woman’s fantasy, i.e., letting someone else do the work of creating a scenario and story for you. I get that cover artists (and publishers, and marketers) seem to think this means books need the visual cues of she-porn. I also get tired of a constant parade of images that are either (or both) inappropriate to the content within or shorthand for a fantasy I don’t happen to share.
I’m not saying I don’t like attractive men. I like men with nice faces who are in decent physical condition–not emaciated, not obese. But there is just such a range in between, that is entirely ignored in favor of the “perfect” hero with broad shoulders, a six-pack, veiny forearms, and narrow hips. I dare you to name me five romances off the top of your head where the hero did not have three of the four. I can’t do it.
And I know I can’t do it, because so many writers spend so much time describing the hero in all his physical glory. It’s always the same, and it’s always unexciting because the descriptions of perfect manliness do not allow the heroine to be appreciative of what is special about her man. And all I can think when I read those descriptions, especially if the hero is not like 22 and is any kind of dissolute, is how? How is he so perfectly muscled and has no hint of a beer belly and has these huge muscles even though he’s a fencer (if he is shown exercising at all)? It’s not realistic, and I am supposed to believe he just magically has that body while doing everything he can to wreck his health via his lifestyle? I guess it’s the same magic that allows the heroine to never put on a pound or be starving in a garrett but still voluptuous.
And I don’t buy it as a reader, and I never have.
I also dislike the expectation that that is the man I am supposed to be attracted to, as a woman. I have always preferred runners, swimmers, soccer players–men with sleek, athletic bodies but not a lot of muscle. And I like nerdy guys who are naturally thin because they forget to eat while they’re gaming/reading/playing their instrument…I like guys who are natural teddy bears, a bit overweight but also strong, capable dudes, and I like guys who are naturally big-muscled because they are big-boned burly dudes. Honestly, about the only guys I’ve not found myself attracted to in real life over the years are the ones described in romance novels! I have just always looked at guys with the big bulging muscles and no fat and the slim hips and six-packs and just been…kind of grossed out. It doesn’t look natural. It looks like something a man works for, and to me it’s a big red flag that a guy is stuck on himself or stuck on appearances if he puts that much effort into his own appearance. What’s he going to demand of me, or what are his priorities going to be, or is he going to be as much fun to be with as a guy with 20 more pounds but a hobby I like more than working out?
I think what especially bothers me about the way men are described in romance is that women are supposed to be turned on by things like humor and not so much by appearances…I know I am much more attracted to mental qualities. There’s a certain level of attractiveness I need, but it can take many shapes and sizes, and beyond that it’s about the person. I know romance is part fantasy, but must the fantasy always be the same?
Beyond that, even, these men are all…the same. They are interchangeable. It’s kind of demeaning, really. And, again, unrealistic, especially if you have a group of friends all getting their turn at being a hero. Take any group of friends, and there’s going to be some natural variance. If there’s not…it’s like Stepford Wives, except in this case Stepford Heroes.
I’m sorry, I’d prefer a real man.
I’m going to let Longmire be my last word on over-developed masculine physiques in romance: