At Jezebel today, I look at men’s hunger to impress other men — and how that drives their sexual choices. Excerpt:
Eating disorders — and the broader problem of poor body image — aren’t unique to women, nor can they be attributed to one single cause. But it’s undeniable that whatever the truth about men’s desires, young women’s perception of “what guys want” plays a huge part in the pursuit of thinness. While the fashion industry deserves some blame for perpetuating an unattainable ideal, men’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of their own desires is a key aspect of the problem. In other words, it’s not that all men — or even most straight white men — genuinely prefer skinny women. It’s that for a great many men, having a thin, conventionally pretty girlfriend is a way to win status in the eyes of other men. It’s not actually about what they themselves want. Put simply, men and women alike confuse what it is that men are attracted to with what it is that men imagine will win them approval.
Writing in the Times last weekend, Alice Randall reminded us that what we lust after is at least partly socially conditioned. In “Why Black Women Are Fat,” Randall argues that many black women are unhealthily overweight because of their perceptions of black male desire: “How many middle-aged white women fear their husbands will find them less attractive if their weight drops to less than 200 pounds? I have yet to meet one. But I know many black women whose sane, handsome, successful husbands worry when their women start losing weight. My lawyer husband is one.” Randall cites the 1967 Joe Tex hit Skinny Legs and All (a forerunner to the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot anthem Baby Got Back) and its dismissiveness of thin women as a reason why she grew up “praying for fat thighs.”
Though Randall acknowledges that obesity among black women has many causes, she leads off by fingering black women’s expectations of what black men want. Her article raises two obvious points. First, if black women are fearful of losing weight because of how their black male partners will react, surely the same thing is true in reverse for many American white women who fear gaining weight. Second, Randall’s claim about black men’s preference for fat makes it clear just how much male desire for specific body types is driven by culture rather than by evolution. (No one has yet discovered an “I prefer fat women” gene that’s dominant in black men and recessive in white dudes.) And if it’s cultural, then — as Randall suggests in her article — it can be changed, can’t it?