Date of Award

Spring 2007

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Hoeveler, Diane L.

Second Advisor

Ratcliffe, Krista

Third Advisor

Blair, Amy


Both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, I was always fascinated by the manner in which fictional texts tied the identity of female characters to representations of their physical bodies. Whatever the genre-whether I studied Chaucerian verse, the 18th century novel, postmodern drama, or popular romance, for example-fictional works of all types brought to light the cultural objectification and commodification of the beautiful female body in Western culture. Furthermore, countless texts made a connection between a female character's appearance and the way her life took shape. These literary works suggested that the possibilities open to a woman and what happened to her within the text at hand always depended, in some way, on her appearance. From my early study of female literary characters, there emerged a clear understanding of the cultural significance of "feminine" beauty and its ties to a narrowly defined fictional heroine, a very specific archetype of womanhood laid out in imaginative texts. Yet, as time went on, the prevalence of this one type of heroine also drew my attention to what was missing in fictional literature: alternative models of womanhood. The dissertation that follows interrogates how women in society are affected by our cultural obsession with a very narrow ideal of womanhood, and how the small number of literary texts that do feature physically imperfect female characters challenge our stigmatization of physical difference. While an exhaustive study of alternative heroines is beyond the scope of this dissertation, my analysis includes women in three, often overlapping, categories: fat women, mid-life women, and disabled women. Through my exploration of literature focused on body size, age, and disability I aim to draw attention to the social problems created by our cultural overvaluation of physical beauty and expose the negative effects of the stigmatization of bodily difference. It is my hope that this work will pave the way for new ways of thinking about the myths that shape the lives of women, and aid in the development of diversity among the archetypal women that shape these influential myths.



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