Posted at 10:52 on 31 May 2012 by Pandora / Blake
Curvy Girls is a new erotic anthology edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel, dedicated to stories about big, sexy women. I was very happy to be invited to join its virtual book tour: from the moment I heard of it I thought this book sounded exciting.
This is an issue I'm passionate about. People want to see themselves in porn, and erotic protagonists should represent the diversity of their audience, including all shapes, sizes, genders, ethnicities and physical abilities. Video and photos are limited by the availability of performers, but in literary fiction you can do anything. Which is why I love Jacqueline Applebee's work so much, and why I find so much written erotica frustrating. When your characters can look like anything, it's a shame that so many female erotica protagonists look like skinny lingerie models. It's a damaging and wholly unnecessary self-imposed cultural limit. Porn teaches us about what's sexy, and all of us deserve to feel sexy.
So I wanted to like Curvy Girls, and although I knew it was unlikely to include much spanking, I was prepared to find it hot. I love all flavours of sex, even if I don't blog about them all here. And it was hot, but I'll admit straight up that it took a while to grow on me.
Not all of the writing impressed me. Perhaps I'm picky, but I quickly tired of reading about women who became aroused with barely any stimulation, or who were wet before the story even started. In the early stories negotiation seemed almost totally absent, and as a woman who can take a while to become physically stimulated I didn't find much to relate to. Condoms appeared from time to time, but the only sexual activity which made anyone reach for the lube was tit-fucking (even anal penetration in Passing the Time was shown as easy using only vaginal moisture, which, er, no). The third nine inch dick made me roll my eyes.
As for diversity, 'curvy' in this book ranges from fat to big-bottomed to muscular to butch, which was pleasing. However, everyone is cis and able-bodied. Many characters are described as white, but there are exceptions: Maya in Excuses, Celia in First Come, First Served, Rhiamon in Recognition. Others, like the narrator of What Girls Are Made Of, are left ambiguous.
Thirteen out of nineteen stories feature first time encounters, which I found a little repetitive, not to mention unrealistic; I find sex between couples who know each other well much hotter, and more believable. The first seven stories were all so straight and vanilla, with no hint or question they might be anything else, that I started to despair of ever seeing any queerness or kink. Only three stories are queer in total, all girl/girl, and another two are kinky, both male dom/female sub, so not much diversity there either.
Each story in this book is affirming in its own way. But taken as a whole, some telling patterns emerge.
Despite mostly being told from a female point of view, many stories are about the male gaze. Often the first body to be described erotically is our heroine's, sometimes using such unlikely phrases as "my big juicy ass". The erotic charge in these stories comes from being looked at by a man. Wenching is about a large woman who is desperate to be seen as desirable. In First Come First Served, Excuses, First Date and See and Be Seen the protagonists' sexualities seem wholly responsive, their desire only aroused by the realisation that a man fancies them. Her pleasure comes from being his fantasy, and bringing that fantasy to life. This irks me - I want to read about women's desires, their own varied fantasies, their lust for their partner's bodies, not just the passive and culturally-approved female pleasure of being desired.
All three of the lesbian stories necessarily focus on female desire, and that's one of the reasons I felt relieved every time I reached one. One straight exception is Appetite, where the first body Eva describes as sexy is her boyfriend's, as she gazes lustfully at his muscular rugby player's bottom. I liked that. Another is Big Girls Don't Cry, in which Amy seizes the opportunity to bring her long-held submissive fantasies to life.
Gaze and being looked at is made an explicit plot element of several stories, all following the default script of men gazing lustfully at women. In Before the Autumn Queen Betsy is identified with the Rubenesque goddess in a painting, and feels empowered by being compared to the beautiful artwork. Gaze is even more overt in Excuses, a classic female model/male photographer encounter which eventually twists the heteronormative dynamic by showing her looking back at him, and him performing for her in turn. The heroine of First Date is a cam girl who makes a living being paid to be looked at, but her choice is problematised when she dates a jealous client who persuades her to violate her professional boundaries (can we have a sex worker story where this doesn't happen sometime, please?). Conversely, See and Be Seen explores an intense, wordless voyeuristic/exhibitionistic encounter with a peeping tom, and is well written, tense and exciting.
Perhaps inevitably, food and feeding is another recurring theme, particularly between men and women. In First Come, First Served she's a baker and he's a customer; in Decadence he's a chef and she's the customer, and in First Date the jealous client wins her over by giving her permission to eat what she wants (ugh). As a culture we're intolerant of women enjoying either sex or food for their own sake, and yet food is constantly eroticised in advertising aimed at women. A consensual feeder/feedee story would have made a thought-provoking addition. Still, the topic is handled in a range of ways. Messy threesome story Appetite impressed me with the way it explored and defied social expectations about food, size and sex. Decadence is unashamedly food and sex positive, and openly connects the two:
Her enjoyment of the food hinted at unbridled passion under the surface.
From the same story:
He desired confidence most in a woman, and he hadn't met many large women with much confidence - especially around food, his chosen profession and his life's passion.
When I read that I couldn't help thinking that I don't know many small women who are confident around food, either.
Gaze, being seen as desirable, and food all tie into the biggest theme of the book, which is body confidence. It's not surprising that in a culture as fucked-up about size as ours, Curvy Girls acknowledges that for a fat woman being looked at can be problematic. Still, for a book presenting itself as fat positive, I was surprised by quite how many of the protagonists of this anthology disliked their bodies. Readers struggling with insecurity will find much to identify with, but if you already love your curves, you might lose patience with character after character who is anxious for male approval. Even characters who personally enjoy their curves worry that their size makes them undesirable to men.
The tone is set in the first story, Runner's Calves, whose narrator writes, "Only someone who found me irresistible would worship these curves", as if curves weren't worth worshipping in themselves. It reaches its peak in Wenching, whose heroine Ginny is outright fat-phobic in her self-deprecation, referring to "what other people call their waist" and needing a corset before she'll admit she looks "not bad for once". The story is a lovely twist on the classic genre of bodice-ripping historical erotica, but some readers will find Ginny's low self esteem triggering, or at least annoying. We're meant to disagree with her, of course, and her male lead does his best to change her mind, but I don't think it's very empowering to need a man to tell you you're sexy, and this theme is repeated throughout the book. Still, many women will identify with Ginny, and perhaps it would be ingenuous for Curvy Girls to pretend that fat women never struggle with body confidence.
Basically, if you're a white, middle class American, heterosexual, vanilla woman with curves who is insecure about her body and whose biggest fantasy is for a hot man to look at her with desire, you will feel right at home reading Curvy Girls.
Even if not, if you can get past the above frustrations, there's lots to like about this book. The characters are, for the most part, well drawn and interesting, and I found the sex scenes surprisingly hot. Although as a whole the anthology is less fat-positive than I'd hoped, it contained enough genuine affirmation and good writing to win me over, and despite my early quibbles it left a positive aftertaste.
Many of the best stories focus on change, either in size, or in attitude. Sylvia in Champagne and Cheesecake made me grin by referring to her "victory tits"; her weight gain a happy symbol of her triumph in quitting smoking. As someone who has talked about my 'belly of happiness' in the context of recovering from disordered eating, I could instantly relate. By contrast, Carolyn hates her changed post-partum body in haunting erotic romance In the Early Morning Light, which shows her first steps towards reconnecting with her body with stunning sensitivity. This is a beautifully thoughtful, emotive, finely crafted story, and I loved every word of it.
Happy Ending is about a body that stubbornly stays the same and a heroine who tells how she learned to love it, and that was one of my favourites. I identified not only with the difficulties of being two sizes larger on bottom than on top, but with Ellie's journey from shame to self-love, and I liked the way her story was framed by realistic relationship conflict, healthy forthright communication, self-determination and adventurous sex within an established partnership.
More of my favourites:
Decadence Victoria is the first unashamedly confident character in the anthology, and I loved her for it. The story opens cleverly, creating a lovely tension with the first hot guy she sees turning out not to be the sex interest. There's a nice swap between points of view, showing each character's desire for the other. This story is openly positive about female appetite, desire, consumption, and a sexy woman taking up space. Victoria is lustful, forthright, quick thinking and bold. I liked the way her attraction to the chef was shown, in exactly the right order: first she notices his eyes, then his arse, then his forearms, then his hands.
Recognition This story explodes the butch/femme binary by showing us two big women who see themselves in each other. It is refreshingly queer, perfectly constructed, really seriously hot and the most convincing public bathroom encounter I've ever read in porn.
See and Be Seen If I say that it's about a woman who gets aroused being spied on through her apartment window, I'd be telling you nothing useful about this story. The writing is quite simply electric. Finally, we have a character who doesn't get aroused at the drop of a hat. Terese has never felt overly sexual, and we see her uncover a deep-seated kink she never knew she had. The lines are blurred between exhibitionist and voyeur, and a situation which many people would find creepy is, for her, powerfully erotic. The tension builds pulsingly to the moment where she takes the plunge and makes eye contact with her watcher. Spine-tingling and deeply satisfying.
Big Girls Do Cry The first kink story in the anthology, by the editor herself. This is a plausible first time spanking story, romantic and openly consensual. It's worthy of note mostly for the following quote:
I get to be a giantess and a little girl - sassy and submissive, bold and bent over. And he gets to be all the variations of dominant he can come up with, even when he's sick in bed and I'm cooking him soup.
Curvy Girls definitely grew on me. I'd have liked to see more uncompromised body positivity, a domme or two, and a bit of boy/boy action (sadly missing from both otherwise excellent MMF threesomes). But it includes a range of women, relationships and sexual flavours, many of them delicious. Some of the writing is truly excellent, and I'd recommend it for In the Early Morning Light alone. If you only dip into this book, make sure you look up Decadence, Recognition, See and Be Seen and Happy Ending too.
Although the number of insecure characters frustrated me, all of them are more secure by the end of their story, mostly through male approval, and the limited but reliable method of orgasmic, sweaty sex. It might not be the most feminist message ever, but there's no denying that for many people, myself included, good sex is a healthy and valid route towards genuine self-love. Few of us have achieved complete freedom from the cultural conditioning that teaches us to hate our bodies, and Curvy Girls tackles the consequences (if not the causes) of that conditioning head on. If this book helps a few more women feel sexy in their curvy bodies, I'm not going to argue.