Note: This was originally a freelance blog post written for Heroes & Heartbreakers. When MacMillan shut down the community in 2018, they also removed all of the content that had been on the website.
Many moons ago when I was finishing grad school, I wrote a research paper on plus size characters in romance. Well, to be fair, the paper was more about the lack of plus size characters in romance, since at that point the only authors really venturing into that territory were Jennifer Weiner and Jennifer Crusie, with a handful of YA authors thrown into the mix.
Today, if you search for “plus size romance” on Amazon you get 6,461 results, which seems pretty good considering just ten years ago it was only a fraction of that amount.
That number doesn’t tell the entire story, though. In fact, in order to see the entire story, you need to perform an Amazon search for “bbw romance.”
That’s more than you get for “interracial romance,” “stepbrother romance,” and “clean romance,” among other up-and-coming romance subgenres/keywords that have been getting a lot of attention here lately.
So why the big difference between results for “plus size romance” and “bbw romance?” I had my own theories, but decided to reach out to some of my fellow romance authors to ask them for their opinions, too. And wouldn’t you know, almost all of us had similar conclusions: keywords and connotation.
As authors, we often play the keywords game in our titles and book blurbs. With the sheer amount of new books being released every single day, most of us will take any sort of competitive advantage we can get in order to have our books appear in front of more readers’ eye balls. So we play with keywords (some of us more so than others, which is a discussion I’m not getting into here).
Romance—more than a lot of other genres—is very segmented, in that there are so many different types of romance novels out there. Shifter. Contemporary. Sports. Romantic comedy. Romantic suspense. BBW. Interracial. Sweet. Clean. Amish. Inspirational. MC. Billionaire. Erotic. African American. New adult. The list goes on and on and on. And those keywords often help signal to readers what they’re getting character, plot, and trope-wise.
It’s also safe to say that certain themes/tropes/keywords are heavily influenced by society and reader terminology (case in point: the rise of the term “clean romance,” which is entirely reader-driven rather than industry-driven), which brings us to the second conclusion I and my fellow romance authors have drawn—that society has begun to shift towards using BBW rather than plus size, and that’s being reflected in the books we’re writing and reading.
The more fascinating part of the conversations ended up being that none of us really like either label—and that applies to those of us who fit that criteria and those who don’t.
“And why label at all? We can get the story line across without the label.” – Jessa Jacobs
“Personally, I think the labels are dumb. Write about who you want to write about. Give them whatever appearance you want because it doesn’t matter.” – Deanna Dee
“I want romance novels to move away from labels and start describing heavy women as people with issues other than weight.” – Beth Fred
“Most women have some insecurities about their bodies and can relate to the BBW themes.” – Crystal Kaswell
As for why there’s been a shift towards BBW and away from plus size? The general consensus is that plus size has become somewhat of a loaded term, whereas at least in BBW there’s the word “beautiful.” The fact remains, though, that the average woman in the United States is a size 14 (which is considered plus size by most fashion labels), and a lot of readers are tired about reading about ultra-thin women with perfectly flared hips and breasts that fit perfectly in the hero’s palms because, let’s face it, women’s bodies come in all shapes and sizes.
In the meantime, though, if we have to have a label for these types of romances, I would love for us to move towards Ashley Graham’s term: sexy, curvalicious. Who’s with me?
Some Great Novels Featuring Plus Size/BBW Heroines:
Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner
Fly with Me by Chanel Cleeton
Dirty by Kylie Scott
Big Girls Need Love Too by Aubrey Gross
Grin and Beard It by Penny Reid
Readers: what are some of your favorite romance novels featuring sexy, curvalicious heroines?