From 2011. This poem is making the rounds in the blogosphere today and it inspired me to repost this old piece.
The title is godawful, but this Village Voice article is both interesting and important: Guys Who Like Fat Chicks.
Men who are sexually attracted to heavy women are more numerous than we’re led to believe, Camile Dodero writes, and that has important implications both for our understanding of male sexuality and for our ongoing conversation about weight and desire. The title of the piece, however, frames the attraction to fat women as an unusual fetish, an odd quirk that only a few men share. That’s unfortunate, because the article is more nuanced than that, exploring the ways in which fat has been stigmatized and heavier women have been both exploited and desexualized. The familiar myths (such as fat women’s much-hyped desperation for a relationship) are debunked. And though the article still centers men’s attraction to heavier women rather than women themselves, it’s a useful conversation starter.
In 2006, I wrote a post called Men, Women, Homosociality and Weight. So much of men’s focus on thin women, I pointed out, is wrapped up in the desire to gain status in the eyes of other men. One of the most basic tasks for heterosexual men is a simple one: learning to separate what it is that they personally find desirable from their desire to impress others. Our ruthlessly fat-phobic culture doesn’t give fat people “trophy” status, even if (as the article suggests) many men are sexually drawn to heavier women. I wrote five years ago:
Men are taught to find “hot” what other men find “hot.” The whole notion of a “trophy girlfriend” is based on the reality that a great many men use female desireability to establish status with other men. And in our current cultural climate where thinness is idealized, a slender partner is almost always going to be worth more than a heavy one. For men who have not yet extricated themselves from homosocial competition, their own self-esteem and sense of intra-male status may decline in direct proportion to their girlfriend’s weight gain.
Let me stress that this is absolutely not women’s problem to solve! My goal is not to make women who gain weight feel bad; protecting a fragile male ego is not a woman’s responsibility. The key thing men need to do is get honest about their own desire to use female desireability to establish status in the eyes of other men. And here’s where pro-feminist men can do a terrific service by challenging one another and holding each other accountable for the ways in which we are tempted to use our wives and girlfriends as trophies.
When I linked to the Village Voice piece on my Facebook yesterday, a friend asked if I had ever dated a “fat chick.” It reminded me that when my 2006 post appeared, one of my colleagues, a very heavy woman with whom I am very close, remarked “I could never see you with a fat girlfriend.”
I wasn’t surprised by the comment. When it comes to relationships, we expect a disconnect between what people say and what they do. Many heavy women do have painful stories of men who were quite happy to fuck them in private but refuse to date them in public.
And as someone who has worked as a male feminist ally for a long time, I’ve been keenly aware of how some folks saw the kind of women I dated as a reflection on the depth of my commitment to the feminist cause. A small minority have made those sorts of comments over the years; one small-time feminist blogger wrote years ago that my wife (who worked as a model in her teen years and was a soccer star turned kickboxer) was something to the effect of a “disappointingly attractive choice” for me to have made.
I’ve never had a “type.” Though I’ve been drawn to an unusual number of short-hair brunettes, I’ve dated, lived with, and married women from across the ethnic, class, and body-size spectrum. I’ve had girlfriends (not just lovers) who were dangerously emaciated by anorexia and girlfriends who outweighed me by seventy pounds or more. The tallest was 6’2″, the shortest 4’11″. My first wife was half-Chinese, half-Filipina; my second and third wives were WASPs, my fourth wife is African-Colombian-Croatian. With a very few exceptions, the one consistency I’ve had is in dating/marrying women who were very close to my own age.
I learned early on that I could be sexually attracted to a great many different body types. (People who could only fall for one sort of person or could only be turned on by a particular physique have always struck me as odd.) But as fluid as my libido turned out to be, I also learned early on that I didn’t make my sexual and romantic choices in a vacuum. Having dated and wed women who were at widely divergent points on the rigid and cruel “beauty spectrum”, I’ve always been keenly aware that others measured my status based on the perceived desirability of the woman I was with at any given time. To be honest, few things fueled my feminism as much.
The heaviest woman I ever dated was someone I met online back in the early days of cyber-romance at the end of the last century. “Dana” and I connected on matchmaker.com, and we saw each other for about three months. We broke up when her job took her to D.C. Dana was, in her own words, at least 100 pounds overweight. She was also incredibly sexy and charming, gifted with the verbal dexterity I always found irresistible. It was a passionate relationship, one that might have endured had she not moved away permanently.
I’ll never forget, however, how Dana’s confidence wavered the first time she met my father, who had come down to Pasadena for a visit. “What will your Dad say to you when he sees me”, she asked. I could hear the quiver in her voice. I reassured her that my father wouldn’t care a wit about her size. Dana looked at me, fighting back tears and said, “I guess I’ll have to believe you.” I was heartsick — not because she didn’t trust me or my Papa, but because of the legacy of pain that led her to be so mistrustful.
Dana knew she was charming, funny, and whip-smart. We had amazing sexual chemistry. But she didn’t know — and hadn’t been given reason to know — that a partner could be proud of her, eager to have her meet his friends and family. I hope in our brief time together I was able to show her how happy I was to be with her in both public and private.
The politics of fat are complex. (For people looking for some great writing on the subject, I always recommend starting with the incomparable Kate Harding.) Our censoriousness about “health” so often covers up our own anxieties about status and public desirability; too often, the “fat American” becomes a symbol of a kind of grotesque, unthinking colonialist consumer. No one is denying that for some, there can be health consequences to being significantly overweight. But there are countless other risk factors that are much less stigmatized, and much less likely to be used to rob people of their dignity and their sexuality.
And when it comes to our sexual and romantic choices, we need to separate our craven status-seeking from our authentic desires. Fat-shaming is too often about the former.