This column has come to an end! I hope what we discussed helped you learn to love yourself a bit more. And, of course, I hope it made you think a bit and challenge assumptions about fat sexuality and societal beauty standards. My goal is to enlighten and deconstruct, to help fat women empower themselves and take their body image and sexuality into their own hands. So if anyone started on the road to self-acceptance because of this column, I’m happy.
I feel like talking loudly about fat sexuality is important, and I hope you’re interested in keeping this dialogue going, whether with other fat women or just with yourself. I want to work towards changing societal beauty standards and then eliminate them. I want society, or at the very least the FA community, to recognize that choosing to be fat is as valid as the claims of innocence. I want fat women everywhere to enjoy their bodies and learn what pleasure they can bring. I want to untangle fat from health. And I want you to do it with me.
It’s doubtful that this column alone will be revolutionary, of course. It’s just one voice. But if all fat people, not just women, start singing the same song, I think we can move mountains. And not just mountains of flesh. With time and persistence, eventually the revolution will come, whether or not it’s in my lifetime. But I hope I get to see the day when being fat is just as valid as being thin, when fat sex is not met with “eww, keep it indoors,” and when our paragons of beauty come in all shapes and sizes.
If you’re interested in reading more, you can check out my blog, also called Sex and the Fat Girl. You can find me on Twitter as @misstashafierce and on Facebook.
Keep in touch, and thank you for supporting this column. Much love.
I had the pleasure of attending the April 30 performance of Erica Watson’s “Fat Bitch!” The show incisively cut through the societal baggage attached to being a fat woman using humor (hilariously!) and personal anecdotes. The finale video is something I hope everyone eventually gets to see because it is a work of comedy art. I got the chance to meet Ms. Watson after the show and she graciously agreed to answer some questions for me about her performance via e-mail.
Tasha Fierce: Your show uses humor (very deftly) in addressing issues like the media’s constant attack on fat women’s self-esteem. Have you found that dealing with the pain of society’s treatment of you as a fat woman in a humorous way has been effective in your personal journey towards body acceptance?
Erica Watson: Life is funny! I can’t control the things that people do to me, but I can surely control my reaction! I have chosen to take it all in stride. By pointing out the absurdity of society’s obsession with weight it helps me cope because I can show that I am not the one with the problem! If you do not like a person because of their size then YOU have the issues…..not me!
[read the rest at Bitch Magazine
On Facebook today, Marilyn Wann shared an article on CNN.com about the health benefits of touch. She added “If being fat makes a person ‘untouchable,’ then that’s a powerful confounding variable for claims about weight and health.” I definitely agree, and of course media don’t present fat people as worthy of physical contact particularly of a sexual nature. However, I think we do need to recognize that sometimes we shield ourselves from anticipated rejection by shunning the desire for touch, which is in and of itself unhealthy. It’s not always that no one wants to feel the tactile pleasures of your body. We have to open ourselves up to receiving the sensory experience of intimate touch, which requires us to feel safe not only with a partner but with ourselves. Unfortunately, society doesn’t make this an easy job.
Reading the article, you can see that it’s not just sexual touch that’s beneficial, which to me offers hope that you can begin to appreciate how it feels to let that touching in without having to immediately immerse yourself in a situation that you find uncomfortable. When you’ve used the defense mechanism of bottling up the desire to be touched for so long, it takes time to reintroduce yourself to it. It doesn’t matter if you’re partnered or not, things like getting a neck rub from a friend, hugging family members or petting a dog can clearly be done without the need of a romantic relationship. Since this column focuses on sex, I want to point out that in the article, the author mentions that solo sex is beneficial as well, which is my number one way of connecting with my body.
I suggest that any fat girl get down with masturbation. Not only do you connect in a tactile way with the pleasure centers of your body, but the endorphins and other chemicals released make you feel so damn good, it’s impossible not to eventually come to find pleasure in your body automatically. It teaches you what you like and what you don’t, which is enormously beneficial when you have sex with a partner. You know exactly which spots do what, what fantasies enhance the experience, and you learn how to exist as a sexual being. Honestly, I was a lights-out only girl before I started regularly masturbating, and now I’m totally comfortable with the lights on because, basically, I’ve seen that shit before. And when you find pleasure in your own body you care less about what negative things the person you’re about to have sex with is thinking about your body.
Masturbation is not a cure-all for your body image issues. It’s part of a healthy self-esteem diet that includes other more cerebral aspects of fat acceptance. It’s important to note that the defense mechanism of avoiding touch isn’t an invalid coping method, but it’s one that ultimately harms us. It’s an insidious consequence of our fat-negative society, and when we recognize that, we can work toward changing our attitudes towards touch.
Many of the ways we’ve talked about to combat dominant societal beauty standards and, in the process, boost your self-esteem/self-image, are subjective in nature. They involve presenting in a certain way to elicit the desired results: a new way of looking at fat sexuality. There’s nothing particularly wrong with subjectivity in this sense, but when you take subjectivity to the personal level, the one-on-one level, it presents a problem. One commenter pointed this out in a roundabout way by complaining about women who say things like “Well, my boyfriend finds me attractive so that’s good enough for me.” Whether or not that attitude is annoying, it is certainly dangerous. Using perceived attractiveness (to a partner or potential partner) as a means to maintain your positive self-image is cheating on doing the work necessary to promote self-love.
I’m sure we all know a fat girl who feels like crap about her size until she receives some positive sexual attention from someone. Unfortunately, healthy self-esteem is not built on the slippery slope that is random affection from potential partners. If you only feel good about yourself when you’re with a partner to validate your attractiveness, once that partner has moved on (and they most certainly will when they figure out your feelings about yourself are inextricably tied to them), you’re back in the same, leaky, no-self-esteem boat. And by making statements like “I know I’m attractive because my partner finds me attractive,” you’re basically inferring that if you’re not partnered up, you need to take a seat and think about what’s wrong with you that YOU don’t have a partner to tell you you’re attractive. That’s not going to earn you many brownie points with people, honestly.
There’s nothing wrong with reveling in the desire of your partner for you. But I hear so many fat girls lament that they’re not sure if this person finds them attractive, that they worry about getting naked because a new sex partner may or may not be disgusted by them, that they are starting to feel good about themselves because they got a boyfriend, etc. The desire of a partner for you should be the icing on your self-image cake. (Mmm, cake.) Feeling good about yourself starts with feeling good about yourself, it doesn’t start when someone else starts feeling good about you. As I’ve said, self-love is a journey–and a solitary one at that. If you haven’t done any internal work (and I’m not saying that you have to be completely free of negative thoughts about yourself), starting a relationship may only serve as a distraction if you don’t recognize that your self-image is slowly being wound up in their feelings for you. Of course, this kind of thing happens to smaller girls as well, but for fat girls who are already so marginalized sexually, it’s especially important not to fall into that trap.
So in formulating your master plan for the journey towards self-love, just as you would ignore what society thinks about your attractiveness, you also have to ignore what individuals think about your attractiveness. Let a partner be a complement to your positive self-image, and not the key.
I recently noticed that two commenters on my “Too Fat to F*ck” post expressed dismay at the idea of seeing ANYONE displaying sexual affection in public, not just fat people. I want to address this because that was not the point of the post. When I talk about bringing fat sexuality out in the open, I’m not talking about encouraging fat people to go have sex in a crowded parking lot. However fun that might be, it’s not really effecting change to just have mass displays of public fat sex. I’m talking about not excluding fat people’s sexuality in discussions about and representations of human sexuality. I’m saying the sexuality of fat people should neither be reviled nor ignored.
You can’t say that the media doesn’t sell us sex and sexuality 24/7. We’re exposed to it in every form of pop culture. In the post I previously referenced I mentioned the show “Mike and Molly” and Marie Claire columnist Maura Kelly’s disgust over the show’s display of two fat people kissing. Positive representations of fat sexuality are few and far between in the media, and when we try to include them, we get responses like Ms. Kelly’s. Talking openly and often about fat sex destigmatizes it and opposes the idea that fat sexuality either does not exist or is disgusting as compared to the sexuality of “normal weight” people. It’s confrontational, and a form of resistance. In that sense I think it’s more important to promote the display of fat sexuality—maybe not buck naked in public, but at least in our media. We need to get to the point where seeing fat people kissing is not cause for alarm.
Just as queer folks fight for their right to express their particular sexuality, fat folks need to fight to not have their sexuality erased by the dehumanization fat people are subject to on a daily basis. This is more than bombarding the world with excessive PDA. Demanding equal representation in discussions and displays of popular sexuality is one of the keys to fat acceptance and body love.
In so many questions submitted to Ask a Fat Girl, I was asked how to start loving your body. I gave many suggestions, but I want to touch on something that I think is integral to truly loving your fat body—taking responsibility for it. What I mean by taking responsibility is not denying culpability in your fatness to ward off judgment. You can’t love your body and at the same time view it as being outside your control. I recognize that a main party line of many in the fat acceptance movement is often that fatness is not a choice. And I also recognize that when you’re oppressed, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance, which in this case would be the denial of culpability. To enjoy sex you must LIVE in your body, and living in your body means accepting the state it is in and the choices you make that affect it.
Although outside the fat acceptance community it is not popularly accepted that fat people may not be fat by choice, within the fat acceptance community it is a cherished tenet. Of course many, many fat people are fat despite their best efforts. But there are also many fat people who are fat because they choose to be, who may be able to lose weight but simply choose not to attempt it. I am one of those people. I believe my fat body is beautiful, that I deserve love and pleasure no matter what my size and my self-esteem is high—yet I choose to count fast food as a major part of my diet and am perfectly happy to admit it. Many fat activists claim that if you love your body, you’ll “treat it right” by adjusting your eating and exercising habits or practicing Health at Every Size. Our worth as fat women should not rest on our doing “all the right things.” Many of the women who espouse the innocence line would be the first to give me the side eye should I start practicing HAES and lose weight. My love for my body doesn’t falter as the scale fluctuates, nor does it waver when I eat nothing but McDonalds all day and move very little. This has everything to do with your mental health and little to do with physical health. You can love your body when you’re physically healthy and when you’re not. But you can’t love and accept your body if you’re preoccupied with your perceived lack of agency over it.
Likewise, a preoccupation with control over your body through dieting prohibits you from experiencing true self-love and acceptance. When you’re constantly dieting you are existing in a state in which your self-image and ability to exert control over your body are fluid. You never truly inhabit your body because you’re constantly seeking to change it. Yet some say the feeling of self-love and dieting are in a way not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some women may diet because they love themselves/feel beautiful and misguidedly seek to have their external appearance be validated by society in the same way it is validated by themselves. This is the old “skinny girl in a fat body” trope often executed in film and TV. I would argue that believing you’re beautiful “on the inside” and that your true beauty can only be expressed by shedding the “shell” of fatness is not a belief consistent with true self-love. What your body looks like at this instant is what’s important, not an idealized vision of yourself that you feel is hiding under layers of fat. In this sense, control over your body becomes something you perceive yourself as having too much of rather than something you innately lack. Same trap, different way to spring it.
When agency over our body becomes something we willingly surrender in an attempt to shield ourselves from persecution, we’re not gaining ground. There’s no way to create a viable self-image based on body politics that encourage resignation over celebration. Coming to terms with that lays a foundation for the cultivation of healthy self-esteem and true body acceptance, and in turn starts you down the road toward total self-love.
In a previous post about beauty standards/ideals, I suggested that fat women loving their bodies and viewing themselves as beautiful subverts the dominant beauty paradigm. One method of expressing your love for your body is through the action of dressing it according to your own personal style—whether you’re a full-blown fatshionista or a jeans and t-shirts kind of girl. I specifically want to discuss the mindset of the former, those who embrace fat fashion as a way to resist cultural beauty standards. At its core, this can be seen as political resistance via capitalism—using the increasing options available for fashion-minded fat consumers to defy the mainstream fashion industry’s continued insistence on shutting fat women out of the realm of the fashionable. Because more retail representation does not translate to representation on the runway or in mainstream glossies, these fatshionistas must create their own fashion icons, in fact turning themselves into said icons by their building of online communities whose members share pictures of themselves in outfits they’ve cobbled together from the growing but still limited options available.
These women are unafraid to experiment with styles of clothing once considered off-limits for fat girls. Society may not view pillowy, fleshy arms as attractive, but they rock sleeveless tops and strapless dresses. Fat rolls may not be conventionally desirable, but they work with tight, body-conscious tops expertly. The refusal to hide fat behind layers of black clothing (not that there’s anything wrong with All Black Everything) or under drapey tent dresses utilizes fashion to subvert the dominant beauty paradigm. The mainstream concept of “flattering” is relative, where the industry says women with bellies should wear flowy skirts to camoflauge them, fatshionistas pull on tight pencil skirts just the same. At the same time, fat fashion retailers are now taking note of what these women are wearing and presenting options that mirror the outfits they may have had to assemble from straight-size shops. The action of the market presents a challenge to the desire to subvert cultural beauty standards. Capitalism is driven by consumer demand, so since many fatshionistas are revolution-minded, they shun traditional consuming and utilize their DIY skills to create looks that are wholly their own.
The resourcefulness of many fatshionistas ranges from developing their own line of clothing to altering straight-sized clothing found in thrift stores to fit a fat body. In creating their own market for clothing made for fat chicks by fat chicks, independent designers present an alternative to the more traditional model of capitalist consumption offered by fat fashion stores. On Etsy, for example, which is a marketplace for handmade/vintage items including clothing, designers often offer custom sizing. Often, the price of a custom-made garment is no more than the prices charged by mainstream retailers for clothing that is not made to fit. Supporting this kind of capitalism keeps the money “in the community,” so to speak, and offers another path to subversion. Refusing to accept that a piece of clothing was not intended to be worn on a fat body by altering it to fit is also an act of subversion. In building communities where fat women can support each others’ creative ventures, whether they be selling altered clothing or selling custom-designed clothing, we create avenues for consumer revolution.
To expand and eventually eliminate beauty standards takes an assault from all fronts. Utilizing personal style as political resistance is just one of those fronts, but it’s a significant one, for fat women especially. Because the oppression of fat women is so entwined with bodily aesthetics, any treatment of fat bodies as more than something to be hidden is automatically a form of subversion. The capitalist system simultaneously presents us with two forms of consumption in regards to our weight—supporting the diet industry or “celebrating” our bodies by buying the clothing mainstream retailers have deigned to provide us with. Taking fashion and the presentation of your body into your own hands, with creativity and subversion in mind, can offer a way to throw a monkey wrench in the gears of the beauty industrial complex.
Fat acceptance is often associated with the redefining of beauty standards to include fatness as a representation of beauty. We fight for our bodies to be considered sexy and desirable; we challenge the dominant beauty paradigm and attempt to present an alternative. Many words have been written, by myself included, to encourage fat women to love their bodies as they are and consider themselves beautiful. Books full of nude photos of fat women are published in an attempt to confront the reader with the reality of fat bodies and at least tolerate them, if not find them attractive. In positioning thinness as the beauty standard and attempting to change it so that fat women are included, are we merely propping up the idea of an across-the-board beauty standard by placing another more inclusive standard beside it? If fat is a feminist issue, why don’t we challenge the dominant view that beauty is a viable concept instead of just accepting that unilateral standards of beauty exist and trying to shoehorn fat women into the “beautiful” category?
Beauty is fleeting, subjective and variable. Different cultures have different ideas of what beauty is, but as Westernization runs its course throughout the world, more societies are being force-fed Western beauty ideals and assimilating them into their own. Western cultures’ ideals of beauty have fluctuated throughout the centuries, with fat coming in and out of favor. With the concept of beauty being so impermanent, is it really best for fat women to attempt to be included in what is currently defined as beautiful, or should we focus on dismantling the beauty system beside our smaller sisters? Of course there are many, many thinner women who benefit from this ideal and aren’t interested in challenging it, but if they are supporters of size acceptance, their interest should be piqued. We all have a stake in challenging the nebulous idea of beauty.
This is not to say that those fat women who feel they are beautiful should stop deluding themselves and just wear a potato sack and rock bedhead. The fact is, we don’t exist in a vacuum and although we need to actively challenge the beauty industrial complex, we can still have fun with makeup and fashion as long as we’re quite aware of the need to subvert the standard. Fat women who feel beautiful and don’t feel shame about adorning their bodies are subversive. Just as fat women who feel beautiful but don’t feel the need to adorn their bodies are subversive. But as we push for inclusiveness and the right to be seen and not just seen past, we also have to keep in mind that this system is inherently flawed and unstable and is in dire need of eradication.
Although the concept of beauty is a facade, I do believe it must be subverted before it can be removed. Fighting for fat women to be considered beautiful is important work. Being a fat woman and walking outside feeling beautiful, loving how you look is subversive. Reveling in your fat is ideal. But as you celebrate your sexiness, remember that even the paragons of beauty today would have been or will be considered ugly at some point—which makes it even more imperative that all women (and men) work together to first expand the standards of beauty and then eliminate them.
I talk a lot about lingerie, perfume, makeup etc. as ways for fat girls to feel sexy/enhance sensual feelings. These are all fine and good ways to do so—but what if your particular groove doesn’t mesh with the more “femme” style of sexiness? Not every fat girl feels hot in skimpy nightclothes or red lipstick, and that’s not necessarily because they don’t feel good about how they look. Some fat women might find the pinnacle of sexiness in wearing boxers and a tank top. In a culture in which gender conformity is expected of not just fat women but all women, how does society treat fat girls who don’t conform to gender stereotypes or engage in traditionally feminine behaviors?
Social norms tend to demand that fat women be hyperfeminine to be considered attractive. We’re supposed to wear clothes that are form-fitting to show off our “curves”, make sure we pay attention to hair and makeup and wear something frilly underneath it all to enhance our femininity—all to offset the fact that we’re fat. That’s not to say that fat girls who love makeup and clothes, etc. are slaves to gender conformity, just that we tend to have it somewhat easier based on our personal preferences. Fat women aren’t often considered attractive in yoga pants and a loose-fitting shirt; they’re more likely to be desexualized and labeled “manly.” Not “androgynous” or “tomboyish,” which are terms of endearment usually reserved for those thin women who have “boyish” figures and short hair, and are not necessarily indicative of the woman being viewed as unattractive. The truth is, if you’re a fat girl and you’re not dolled up, you can be virtually invisible. Your sexuality is erased so potential partners often ignore you, which basically means they see past you. Yes, there are men and women who find less feminine fat women incredibly hot, but unfortunately a large part of society is still conditioned to see less feminine fat women as a “mother figures,” or “good friends,” or “dowdy,” or any number of less-than-sexually-appealing terms/phrases.
The good news for less femme fat women out there is, you (hopefully) know you’re hot. The fat/size acceptance movement is trying to change how society portrays attractiveness, so hopefully one day the whole world will know you’re hot. Knowing you’re hot means you’re confident, which, as I always say, is the most important component to sexiness. Those people who would ignore you or desexualize you or simply not appreciate how awesome you are aren’t really the kind of people you want to be with anyway because clearly they’re not interested in fighting societal beauty standards. And you have your own standards because you’re not putting up with someone who doesn’t find you attractive as you are, and you’re not interested in trying to fit the mold of what someone else says a fat girl should be.
I’m not trying to put down more femme fat girls to lift up less femme fat girls. We’re all in this together, and it takes courage to go out there and do your thing no matter if you’re wearing a tight strapless dress and heels or some purple Adidas, a pair of slacks and a button-down. But I feel it’s important that we acknowledge that not every fat girl is “femme,” and recognize the particular problems a less feminine fat girl faces in this rigidly gender-divided society.
In real life dating, as in pop culture, fatness is often treated as something a person has to overcome in order to be considered an acceptable romantic partner. The trope of the fat girl with the “great personality” (“great personality” being a common code phrase for “ugly” or “fat”) who triumphs over dating adversity and finds a date who is able to see past the fat is commonly used in movies, television, and pretty much any other form of entertainment. An extreme example of this trope playing out is portrayed in Shallow Hal (which I hate to even bring up), with Jack Black’s character literally being put under a sort of spell in order to be able to see the inner beauty of Rosemary, played by Gwyneth Paltrow in a freaking fat suit. In the end, of course, the spell wears off and he’s shocked that Rosemary is fat—but eventually her great personality enables him to love her despite her size.
Rarely if at all are narratives used in which fat women’s bodies are viewed as sexy in and of themselves, where said bodies attract mates because they are desirable. As we’ve discussed before, fat women’s bodies are often desexualized, and fat sexuality itself is something that’s seen as disgusting and undesirable. A movie with a fat heroine who is actively desired and pursued by men and enjoys engaging in sexual activities is the stuff “controversial” indie movies are made of. It’s so counter to our common thinking that fat is a repellent that any narrative daring to claim otherwise is considered “fringe” in many people’s minds. With the majority of U.S. women being lumped into the nebulous category of “overweight,” you’d think the demand would be high for portrayals of fat women who aren’t desired only for their personality. But so many women are used to it being drilled into our heads that our bodies are never attractive because of their size, shape, dimensions, etc., that we don’t even think we deserve to see a woman like us experiencing the pleasure of being desired physically.
Of course it’s important to develop a decent personality for any size woman, but fat women are charged with being twice as nice as the thinner girls. We aren’t supposed to be able to lean back and not be overeager when someone shows a spark of interest in us, whereas thinness often gives you a pass on being worried about having to overcompensate for your size. Fat women are expected to focus all our efforts in the dating world on doing everything possible to make it easier for someone to look past our fatness. Dress monochromatically; don’t eat in front of him; cut your hair so your face looks less fat; downplay your interests and focus on your partner’s. Society, and in turn pop culture, reinforces these ideas and desired behaviors by only producing media that show fat girls who bend over backwards to overcome their “flaws” getting rewarded with love and desire, whereas more “sassy” fat girls only get to be sidekicks to some thin woman.
Fortunately, in real life we get to make the decisions about who is worthy of our time and affection. If we can empower more fat girls to see their bodies as sexually attractive and deserving of a partner who agrees with them, eventually the demand for pop culture that reflects our reality will increase. But first, we have to stop consuming the media that make us feel unattractive and undesirable in the first place.