A Fernando Botero painting. Photo via WikiMedia Commons
I recently stumbled upon a book from last year called XL Love: How the Obesity Crisis is Complicating America's Love Life, written by health-policy reporter Sarah Varney. The book details, through personal stories as well as scientific studies, how being overweight negatively affects men's and women's romantic lives. One chapter focusing on overweight and obese teenage women in particular struck a chord with me. As it turns out, a whole bunch of science professionals are curious about the sex lives of young fat females, though the conclusions they've reached aren't exactly shocking.
One study, conducted in 2006 by researchers at Cornell University, dispelled the popular myth many boys are raised to believe in—that is, "Fat chicks are easy." The truth is, heavyset girls are less likely to engage in sex than their thinner counterparts. Varney references this study, and adds that overweight and obese individuals are more likely to enter early adulthood without any intimate relationship experience. (Hey, that sounds like me!)If you're familiar with my column, you know by now that I am SAF (single as fuck). I've never had a relationship last longer than a few months, yet thankfully—at this point in my life—I could truly not care less. Even so, I still can't help wondering why it hasn't happened for me the way I've seen it happen for every single person on the planet who isn't me.In order to solve this, I've taken to searching inward: Am I too shallow? Do I even know what I want in a man? Am I relying too much on the internet? I take pleasure in being my own therapist, which I know is not as healthy as actually having a therapist (though it is cheaper). But perhaps the reason I haven't been in many deep romantic partnerships is the reason I refused to consider for so long: my weight.Here's the thing: While heavyset young women are less likely to engage in sex, the ones that are doing so are engaging in "riskier" sex than the thin young women. Multiple studies found that bigger sexually active teenage females were more likely to have more than three sexual partners, less likely to use oral contraceptives, and more likely to have anal sex. Varney references a 2010 study conducted by three economists, which claims that obese females attending schools with less fat students were 43 percent more likely to engage in anal penetration. She also quotes a male high school student named Mason, who says: "Many guys will have sex with an overweight girl but won't date them."
Wait. Did a goddamn teenager really just answer the question I've been plagued with? Is this what happened to me? My searching inward, my self-reflecting—has it all been pointless? Could it really be that I was unable to be in a worthwhile relationship simply because of my lack of thigh gap?I've written about my weight before, and emphasized that even though I'm overweight, I do not feel unattractive. I never have. But when I was in high school, boys never chased after me. I experienced what most heavyset teenage girls go through—zero romantic prospects. Before I gained weight, I had my first kiss. After that, the most I'd done was give a blowjob to a boy who went to a different high school, but that didn't go so well. I had no idea what I was doing. His flaccid dick kept falling out of my mouth and flopped about like a fish out of water. I didn't lose my virginity until my 21st birthday, and even then it was to an EDM-obsessed hippie. After about three minutes, it was over with. Thanks, Kevin.After college, I found myself in a city surrounded by the type of men I fantasized about. These were the men I was waiting for. They were smart and sensitive, self-proclaimed feminists who refused to be with vapid women no matter how attractive they were. Finally, men who saw past society's bullshit. Finally, men who would yearn to be with me.Of course, I was wrong. No matter how much we had in common or how well we got along, relationships never blossomed after a night or two of sex. Am I supposed to believe that no matter how many Gloria Steinem quotes these deeply poetic souls scribbled in their moleskin notebooks, they were still not down with fat chicks? A lot of them were overweight too, and many were not conventionally attractive. Are men so base that no matter how they look, they still can't commit to a woman who weighs an extra 30 pounds? When they told me I was beautiful—what did that mean? That I'm thin enough for a fuck, but still too fat to be seen with in front of their friends?
I refuse to believe it. I want it to be more complicated than that. For their sake. Perhaps it's not though; maybe this really is what's been going on. Now I'm left wondering, has my inability to see my weight as a problem been a mistake? Should I just accept the notion that I'm unattractive even though I personally don't feel this way? Is this what Varney's book, as well as the studies she references, want me to conclude?Truly stumped, I turned to fat activist and blogger Marilyn Wann for some more insight. According to her, society deems it OK to be hateful toward fat people, because we have all these things allegedly wrong with us. "That's the logic of oppression," she explained. She went on to say that it's unethical make fat people feel like they're inherently unattractive, and that "it's not possible for there to be no attractive or desirable person in an entire demographic group. In any demographic group there is going to be someone who is awesome that you might like to get to know. Deciding that there's no one in a group that is worth getting to know is not about aesthetic, it's simply prejudice."I also asked Lara Justice, a Los Angeles based family therapist, who added the obvious-yet-still-necessary-to-point-out fact that self-esteem issues in women are not limited to just those who are overweight. "Low-self esteem amongst young girls is an overarching problem that affects many young women regardless of height, weight, hair color, body shape, etc."
Then why is it still the case that bigger teenaged females engaging in sex are having more dangerous sex? "Some of the overweight clients I have worked with have suffered from self-esteem issues that cause them to put other's needs in front of their own and have difficulty setting limits," Justice told me.Both Wann and Justice agreed that losing weight is not going to solve the problem, which also seems to be the overall message of Varney's book. Wann thinks that a book like Varney's, which throws around terms like "healthy weight" when referring to thin women, reinforces bigotry against fat people."The first thing that I want for young fat people who are considering their own approach to sex and romance is for them to feel awesome about themselves," Wann said. The sad truth is, most of them don't. They are discouraged from such thoughts, much like I was.In my early 20s, I was quick to sleep with men because I badly wanted to be loved. Sex was the only sort of affection I could get from the guys I fell for. That's not the case for me today. I now know who I am, and don't hide it from men I'm dating. I'm a dominant, fat bitch. I no longer need a man's affection to determine my self-worth, and because of this, my sex life has never been better.The best part? I didn't need to lose weight. This is the sort of thing I wish I knew when I was younger. I wish that I wasn't raised to define my self-esteem by how men felt about me. Sexually active fat teenage women are being coerced by men—who, on some level, know that they have control over her self-worth—into taking risks they don't want to take. Yet few people who have mainstream media–granted clout are telling them to stop. No one is telling them to think about the consequences of their actions, and to hold themselves accountable.Not enough people are teaching young straight women how to empower themselves in ways that don't rely on a very narrow form of approval from straight males. Instead, we just kept being told to lose weight. That's a problem.Follow Alison Stevenson on Twitter.