Male Desire, Women’s Body Image

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?

6 thoughts on “Male Desire, Women’s Body Image

  1. It can be changed if enough people work on it. Instead of giving up and acting like it’s some kind of cosmic law.
    Any time someone hangs out not with who they really want to hang out with, but with who they think someone else will approve of, whether that’s true or not–it’s bad news. When that extends to more serious relationships, it’s worse news.
    Ironic that right when so many of us could stand to learn some manners–consideration for others’ feelings and so on, based on how we treat them, which we can control–we also need to learn a big dose of not-caring-what-other-people-think-itude, when it comes to our own esthetic tastes, which we can’t help.
    The case cited in the Jezebel article, with a 6-year-old having already internalized the prevailing anti-fat hysteria, is chilling. Let’s hope that enough good voices will start reversing that trend.

  2. I don’t buy Randall’s excuse. From what I’ve seen, black men gravitate to thin women — they’re *relieved* to see someone who’s not fat.

  3. Does everything have to be men’s fault Hugo, really?

    Strangely enough, PBS has considered the issue of obesity in minorities without having to resort to blaming men – although they say that studies are in their infancy and causes are not clear:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/eating-disorders-minorities.html

    On an NPR call-in show I heard the other day, a black woman novelist mentioned that churches and other organizations in the South are run most visibly by large black women, and she hypothesized that “large = powerful” is the message internalized by girls in those communities.

  4. It isn’t all men’s fault, I agree. And I’m saying this as someone who easily, and often, acknowledges the ways in which male ideas/conditioning (reinforced and perpetuated by men AND women) are destructive to society as a whole. I think issues with body image may have started out as attempts to appeal to the male gaze, but has now become about feeling like a worthy human being in general, to everyone. There’s this subconscious belief that the most valuable quality in a female is her looks and that, without that, she is worthless. Not because she can’t appeal to men’s tastes; not directly anyway. There is just something fundamentally wrong with her, and we internalize that belief; as simplistic as it has become.

    • P.S: I don’t think the way to solve this problem is to direct it elsewhere, and change what is considered beautiful–there will always be someone outside of that designation; someone that deserves just as much love and respect as any other human being. The solution is to recognize the social conditioning and consciously attempt to empower ourselves in spite of it.

      • Entirely. People are not ornaments. It’s problematic to expect a person to do an idea’s/ideal’s job.
        If you don’t want to (whatever) with someone because of their looks, there’ll be another one along soon, but you gotta treat everyone decently, is how I see it. And an excessive obsession with looks, whatever looks are in fashion, hinders that goal.
        Seems to me it should be possible to acknowledge one’s own biases, and follow them for oneself, without treating others as subhuman in general.

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