Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dating While "Fat" - On Body Image and Socially Constructed Narratives

The majority of women I have been in relationships with have had insecurity around their weight. It hasn't mattered whether they were actually larger or decidedly thin, the perception of being "fat" - and thus unattractive - was often palpable. As a man who pays attention to limiting cultural constructs around relationships, and who doesn't go with the oppressive flow, I often have found myself in a strange place when it comes to weight.

In response to "I'm fat" comments, I have offered compliments. Or flat out rejections of the statement. Or sometimes have simply said "I love you as you are."

No doubt it's good to have a partner who isn't harping on you about weight, but at the end of the day, you have to believe it internally.

Which is one of the reasons why I really liked this post from the Crunk Feminist Collective.

I have recently come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to lose a significant amount of weight in order to have a viable chance at a love life.

Let me be clear: this is not a fat-hating post. When I look in the mirror, for the most part, I like what I see. I like my curves, I like ass, I like my legs, I like my boobs (which I only have in abundance, when I’m tipping the scales), and I like my face.

So, you might be thinking - sounds like a mixed message here. And to that I'd say, yes, it is. The author, like so many larger women (and some men as well), is trying to balance self-love and confidence with cultural stories about body shape and desire. Having been a man with a life long high metabolism, and who has maintained the looks of a soccer player far into his 30s, I can only imagine how challenging it is for the author, and others like her. While I have listened to countless stories from family members, friends, former lovers, co-workers, and others related to difficulties around weight and body image, I do not have firsthand experience. And yet, when the post author says the following, I find myself nodding my head vigorously:

I know that we have huge problems with obesity in Black communities. I have thought long and hard about my relationship to food (and exercise), and I have started to make some changes in order to remain healthy. I also have both short and long term goals for doing so. I made those choices for myself, not for a man. So please save the condescending lectures (and arm-chair therapy) for someone else. This big girl (and I suspect every other big girl with access to a TV) doesn’t need it.

And a third, fundamentally more well-meaning group, will come over an give anecdotes about all the thick chicks they know who have male partners. The number will usually total up to no more than 2 or 3 mind you. Those stories ring hollow, because they ultimately amount to a futile attempt to amass enough exceptions to disprove the rule. Moreover, perhaps folks aren’t considering that the partner-less fat girls simply remain invisible to you, and the thick girls with guys are visible, precisely because they are an anomaly.

What I’m getting at is something much more fundamental. Because desire is socially constructed (no matter how much folks justify their limited dating choices based on ‘natural preference’), the fact that we live in a fat-hating culture greatly affects who we’re attracted to, and what we find attractive. The idea that we’re only attractive within a range of sizes is absurd. And narrow. And it is absolutely a function of patriarchy. And yet, I live daily with those realities.

Online, I have challenged "natural preference" comments in the past. I'm sorry, but it's absurd to assume that what is attractive to you is all about biology. We don't live in a vacuum, nor do we date in a vacuum. In other words, there are cultural reasons why black women in general tend to struggle to get dates, for example, and why women with larger, curvier bodies tend to get rejected or tossed into the friend-zone. And it's not just a heterosexual thing. These same pattern can be found, at least to some degree, amongst gay, lesbian, trans and queer relationships as well.

On the other two blogs I maintain, I have been writing a lot about the general disconnect so many of us have with the Earth. This disconnect manifests not only in how we humans treat the planet, but also in how we see and experience our bodies. Body hatred is intimately tied to both the oppression of women and rejection of Earth as the source of life, abundance, and creation. Heavy stuff for a relationship blog, but hey, I'm not terribly interested in giving the kind of disembodied, authoritative advice that's so common amongst dating and relationship bloggers.

The problem I am seeing over and over again is that people want a fast track into relationship, and are willing to do anything that sounds good to get there. Furthermore, once in the relationship, many of us want another set of fast track rules to follow for navigating the challenges that come with partnerships, never mind that any such approaches can only be guidelines. They can never replace working with the uniqueness between partners. And furthermore, if those guidelines fail to take into account and question the social and cultural baggage present for each partnership, it's that much more likely that the partnership will stumble along or outright fall apart.

In other words, a larger woman might be able to find a partner who loves her for who she is, but if she hasn't unpacked the internalized oppression around body image, she might do everything in her power - usually unconsciously - to undermine the relationship. On the flip side, if the partner has chosen her mostly for her personality, he or she might end up undermining the relationship with body shaming, or associated negative behaviors. Sometimes, it takes years for this kind of stuff to emerge. Couples can be seemingly happy together, only to wake up one day to an outburst of anger and confusion that slowly, or rapidly tears them apart.

While I fully believe that our desires shift and change over the years, and that sometimes we naturally drift away from partners, it's also true in other cases that busted up relationships become that way primarily due to unexamined assumptions and views. Because we live in our bodies, and literally store unprocessed experience in our bodies - there's no way around it. In order to have conscious, thriving relationships, you have to learn to love your body, and feel the flow of life coming through you. Learning to love includes everything from choosing to lose weight if necessary, to standing tall and proud as you are, today, regardless of what others might think. It also means learning to liberate your desires from the narrow confines of the "proper" or "expected," while also balancing that with a deep commitment to non-harming.

It probably sounds like a tall order. And the reality is that while I can write it all clearly, I'm still learning a lot of this myself. The key, though, is to not go with the oppressive flow. In other words, if you are struggling with finding a partner, or are struggling within a partnership, instead of doing the same old thing, start to ask questions. And learn to wait for the answers, instead of accepting the first thing that comes to mind.

If you are insecure about your weight, what is that about? Where does it come from?

If you don't like to date "fat women or men," how do you define "fat"? Where did that definition come from? Is there any real benefit to having such a definition?


  1. Hi Nathan, I'm completely excited that you are writing about this; I've been struggling with this question for a while. As someone who was formerly thin but now has more weight ;), I've had my share of body image issues, which have kept me very insecure and somewhat self-hating for a long time. Some of the lessons I've learned about love and "fat":

    1. Our hatred of fat has a lot to do with our hatred of women. Women biologically have more fat and are time and time again valued only for their looks (fat/lack of).

    2. I'd never want to be with someone who only wanted me thin, and I mean "want" in all possible ways. In this sense, I take take issue with the Crunk Feminist Collective article, where she likes what she sees in the mirror but feels pressure to conform to social "norms." It makes me sad. I don't care if there is only one person out there in a hundred who will love me for who I am, I'd wait (while eating right, exercising, etc.) because I'd rather be alone than feel that kind of negative pressure. I have been with people who implied I was getting too fat and they were generally assholes in other ways.

    3. This means you have to love yourself AND be ok with being alone--as you said, not rush into a relationship or even necessarily search for one. That's hard, but worthwhile.

    4. Also, have been with bigger dudes, and while the particular one I'm thinking of was not a kind person, fat was never an issue. I like teddy bear-ness.

    Anyway, I just wanted to point all that out, because I think about it a lot. In fact, if you want to talk more about body issues, you should FB message me, because I like talking about it. Jen F.

  2. I no longer date fat men. For a long time, I preferred it, but after a while I couldn't ignore the connection between obesity and psychological problems. I'm aware that various medications can cause obesity; that's not the issue. The issue is that these were all men who, one way or another, couldn't or wouldn't take care of themselves. They neglected their bodies, sometimes self-destructively; they were deeply insecure, tended to passivity, and didn't believe they had any power to make healthy changes in their lives; they tended to be depressive and depressed; and too often they were reality-avoidant and quite negative. Some had other substance-abuse issues.

    Fat and happy, this is not a combination I've actually ever seen in a man. Nor fat and genuinely self-confident.

    A little while ago I started chatting with an interesting guy on OKC; a little heavy for my liking, but I thought I'd give him a try. The stories of misery and the general I-can't theme started coming out right away, though, and in our last chat he was telling me he was off to the bar for crappy food and hockey. I thought you were prediabetic, I said; he was, but he had all these "cheats" built into his diet. Asked him if he thought his pancreas cared whether cheats were allowed or not, but I'd already decided no, forget it.

    All that said, I do believe that some people get lucky when it comes to avoiding excess fat collection. I'm one of them. I also work out daily, avoid driving whenever I can, don't generally overeat, am usually aware of what I'm eating, nutritionally, and am not one to keep bags of candy in the house. What surprises me is how friends who're fat *watch me eat*. I'm unaware of this till they tell me about it. One friend recently pointed out that when she brought out some nice chocolate, I ate a few pieces and then seemed to forget its existence. (Which is pretty much what happened. I love chocolate and eat it most days, but I feel sick if I eat too much.) She tried to get me to take it all home, and I turned her down. She, on the other hand, would happily have eaten it all right then if alone.

    I am convinced that boredom is key to happiness, though, if you're stuck with extra fat. Not acceptance, boredom. Become bored with the issue, because it's boring, and move on. There's only so much exercise you can reasonably do. There's only so far you can reasonably restrict and reshape your diet. After that? Buy bigger clothes and be happy in the fact that you're alive, understand that your body is your friend, work with the doc to keep the blood looking good, and reserve yourself for more interesting preoccupations. And to hell with any guy who doesn't like it.

  3. "If you are insecure about your weight, what is that about?"

    Men who tell me "you could stand to lose 15 pounds" if I'm in NYC or LA, men who tell me "you could stand to gain 15 pounds" if I'm in North Carolina or Virginia or Texas, and European men who shower me with compliments of the "beautiful" and "sexy" type but who can't seem to generate the momentum to actually stay in a relationship.

    "Where does it come from?"

    Please see above.

  4. For me, if someone really loves you he will never care for your weight and that someone is a true lover. I find it disgusting if someone will always criticize someone without looking at his/her own self.Anyways, thanks for this one. It's indeed a great help.

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