I am going to muse a little bit here on something I’ve been thinking about for awhile as a possible book project, so please forgive me if my thoughts stray a bit.
I have written about Lindy West and her book Shrill on this blog before, and how she helped me to accept my being fat without feeling shame about it. But I want to begin this blog by discussing the This American Life episode (listen below) that inspired me to read her book. The show mostly focused on Lindy, and Roxanne Gay (who I also adore) but I had the most visceral reaction to Act II “It’s a Small World After All,” where Elna Baker, one of the show’s producers had a really intense moment of her own with her husband. You see, she had been fat for most of her life, too. She had lost a lot of weight and is now thin and happily married. But as part of this segment, she talks with her husband about their relationship and whether or not he would have been interested in her if he’d met her when she was fat. He admitted that he would not have been. This upset her profoundly (of course) and he didn’t seem to understand why. She tried to explain that she is still that same fat girl, despite being thin, and that she was feeling rejection from him, but as someone who’s never been there, he just couldn’t see it. Believe you me – I got it completely.
You see, I have been fat all of my life, and morbidly obese for most of it. I am not attractive to most men. Yes, there are men who are attracted to fat women. I always said I didn’t want to date men like that for various reasons: I don’t want to be some guy’s fetish (I realize now how judgmental that was); I don’t want to date someone who likes fat girls because I’m going to lose the weight and then he won’t want me anymore; I don’t want to date anyone who only wants me for my looks (still true); and I want to be with someone who loves me in spite of my weight. Ugh! Feel the self-hatred in that one! This is the desire – to be loved for who I am, entirely, that made Elna Baker so upset at her husband’s admission. Lindy West was lucky. She met a man who only looked at who she is and didn’t care about her looks at all. But this is, to say the least, rare.
I’ve never believed in losing weight so that I could get a guy, but there’s also always been a part of me that assumed that losing weight would make me happier, in part, because it would open up all of these great options. And yet – I still don’t want to be with someone who sees me in a bar or across a crowded room and thinks I’m hot. If I ever get hot – I think I’ll be even pickier than I already am – completely suspect of every man who looks my way – especially any man who knew me when I was fat but didn’t want to date me until I lost the weight. Let me make it clear, however, I have no intention of being hot!
I was in love with a man a long time ago. It would be perhaps ungenerous to say that he loved me in secret. But it was something akin to this. He was my best friend. He knew me better than anyone had ever or has ever known me. I thought he was the love of my life. But my weight was always a problem and, in the end, he decided he just couldn’t be with me (though he did thank me for teaching him that it was possible to love someone who wasn’t hot when he told me he’d met the love of his life. You really can’t make this shit up.) So I have, for a long time now, felt unloveable. After all, if he didn’t want me, of all people, how could I be? This was really hard for a long time, but eventually, I just settled into being happy being alone. And then Lindy entered my life. And there were other major upheavals. And I decided to put myself our there again.
So a few things have happened lately that I really want to flush out more and I can’t promise I’ll be able to make all the connections yet, but bear with me. A male friend of mine and I were at a bar with wallpaper of Playboy covers plastering the walls. We were both appalled, and he kept telling me to please forgive him if he seemed distracted, while looking at the images. I laughed. It was funny. And perfectly natural. I do not judge him in the least and he is one of the most feminist men I have ever known. It’s that last part that makes it so interesting, though. He was/is fully aware of the issues with objectifying women, but he has been socialized not to look away from it anyway. This led to a deep discussion later about the nature of lust and objectification. He thought, naturally, that such urges are, well, natural. I don’t want to misrepresent him here, so I’ll stick to the main point I was trying to make – that these things are not natural, that they are a product of our social construction. I know this because I do not have this same problem and don’t know many women that do.
Let me make it clear that I am in no way saying that women don’t lust or have physical attraction, and I am totally willing to concede that, in fact, this has become a problem for women today, but just bear with me.
My friend’s point was just that – men are objectified all the time in the media. He’s not wrong. But how many of you remember the “Diet Coke Break” campaign from the early 1990s?
This was a big deal. Women gathered at the windows of their offices at the moment they knew that the hot construction worker outside was going to take off his shirt and ogled him. It was a fun commercial! I loved it! In retrospect, though, it’s easy to see that this wasn’t so much “feminist” as it was “if we’re going to be objectified, we should be allowed to objectify men too.” Not a healthy attitude. And, though I’ve yet to fully research this, my contention is that, in fact, those commercials are largely responsible for the turn to objectifying men’s bodies that our culture has taken. Now, as Susan Bordo and others have written, we have major epidemics of eating disorders among teenage boys, more men are getting plastic surgery such as calf implants to “fix” their physical insecurities. In short, everyone gets objectified now! Yay equality!
On another aside, one of the things that has also made me focus on this topic lately was a conversation with a girlfriend who told me that she’s noticed that, as we get older, more of her female friends are ending up with dorks, than hot guys. Her conclusion: the older you are, the more you care about things like jobs and stability. She specifically mentioned the “mismatched” nature of these relationships. How do two people of completely different levels of attraction end up with each other?
She also pointed out, incidentally, that though my generation may have grown up without a major compulsion to objectify men, women of my generation were (and all women are) still subject to the intense bombarding of images of the female body to the point that we, too, often lust for women in unhealthy ways. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the increase in bisexual women, especially when compared to bisexual men (thought the inherent fear of homophobia is probably a greater contributor to this issue).
So all of this brings me to the question of attractiveness. I don’t believe in social Darwinism, but even if I did, the idea that we are naturally programmed to be attracted to women with big breasts and hips (the better to birth your babies with) and men with large chests and muscles (the better to protect the family with) is completely irrelevant today. In evolutionary standards, these “instincts” should be long gone. I think of this along the same lines as Esther Perel discusses in her TED Talk where she explains that our ideas of what a marital partner should be still come from a time when we only lived to be 35 years old. So much has changed that make it completely unrealistic to expect so very much from one single person for the rest of our lives. I don’t think she’s actually saying anything bad about marriage, per se, but simply the way we, as a society, treat it. And I couldn’t agree more.
There are also several articles going around these days about how and why people marry the wrong person because they take the wrong things into consideration when choosing a spouse. So that will fuel my argument a bit, here too.
So, especially after everything I’ve just written, you would think I wouldn’t need to make my argument, which is simply that we shouldn’t choose our lovers/dates/spouses by their looks. And yet, it absolutely does need to be said. While I suppose there’s definitely something to be said about the fact that people aren’t always attracted to the same physical types and therefore, I suppose, there is a lid for every pot, I don’t understand why we choose based on physical appearance at all!!! Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there shouldn’t be attraction that manifests in physical desire – and I’m not really saying we “shouldn’t” anything. I am just trying to understand why we do.
And I say “we,” but the truth is, I am not attracted to physically handsome men, for the most part, at all. It’s like the episode of 30 Rock, “The Bubble” where Liz’s boyfriend (played by Jon Hamm) finds out that he’s treated special because of his looks and therefore gets away with more – in my experience, really handsome men are often vain and entitled – two very big turnoffs.
Even when it comes to celebrities, my celebrity crushes are usually either based on the characters the actors play, or are simply more cerebral. Some of my biggest celebrity crushes include: Bill Maher, Fareed Zakaria, and Jon Oliver (real lookers, those!) But we’ve all experienced that moment when someone who we aren’t typically attracted to, or even find ugly, suddenly becomes the most beautiful person in the world because you see them through new and loving eyes. And of course, the reverse, when that sexy sexy guy turns out to be a douche and he’s suddenly hideous (looking at you, again, Brad Pitt).
And it goes without saying that love should come from more than just physical attraction. Obviously you need to share values, goals, a sense of humor, love and hate many of the same things, and want the same things out of a relationship. But most people, even Dan Savage, who I respect very much when it comes to discussing relationships and sexual desire, will say something akin to “you have to be physically attracted to someone for it to work out.” Yes, maybe. But only in the sense I mentioned above – knowing the man makes him sexy.
Where am I going with this? I don’t know. I have a lot of guy friends. Truly great guys. Not a chauvinist in the bunch. And yet only one comes to mind who has never once expressed a judgmental sexual statement about a woman, and that includes my gay friends.
The last bit of this puzzle is that I’m finally reading Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies and it’s really affecting me. She is writing about the evolution of women and relationships through the centuries and how we have come to accept, even expect, women to stay single much longer, possibly forever. As I read I feel like she’s describing my life: she is intensely evaluating important moments I experienced fully that have made me the woman I am today (Anita Hill, Hillary Rodham, Murphy Brown, etc.) and showing me how those things have made me the woman I am today: a happily single over-the-hill feminist, if we have to put a label on it.
Note: Happily single, you ask? Didn’t I begin by talking about putting myself out there? I was quite happily single for quite a few years there, with no real interest in anyone or of partnering up. Lately, I’ve been interested in dating, went on several “dating apps” and am on the verge of giving up again out of sheer disgust. But mostly, this book is making me happier to be single – of wanting to own it.
But one of the main points she’s made so far that I think really contributes to the ideas I’m espousing is how women’s decisions not to enter into marriage and the increase of gay marriages work together to dismantle and redefine the way we see marriage and relationships. There is a new way of looking at partnerships that goes beyond just leaving Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique behind. There is more equality in relationships, now. There are less gendered roles.
In the same way, I would argue, a society that doesn’t need partnerships based on the ability to provide, protect and procreate and that has all but gotten rid of heteronormative expectations can and should get beyond this obsession with the physical.
And just in the interests of full disclosure – I realize that many people will assume that because I’m fat (and I tell myself, ugly) of course I look at the world this way. And maybe that’s true. Maybe I wouldn’t even think about this if men were hitting on me, left and right. But that doesn’t make me any less right. In fact, those of us who experience the social isolation of obesity and physical ostracization may be the best people to point this stuff out.