I’m twenty-three, female, and single—not entirely by choice. I’m fat, also not by choice, but I feel as though it has irrevocably damaged my romantic and dating life. After years of being told my body is ugly and unattractive by my parents, classmates, and god knows who else, I kinda believe it. I have a decent-ish face, which helps offset some of the feelings I experience from being overweight. And I have a strong, brash, loud, sarcastic, and funny demeanor, almost as if to compensate for my fatness. So, when I do happen to be in a relationship, I see and feel myself change. I convince myself that because I’m so ugly, I should be grateful that a man should even want to be with me. As a result, I have forgiven my past two partners for being awful, ignorant, not treating me right (the list goes on), because who the hell else is going to date me, right? Luckily on both occasions, I ended things with each man after having a moment of clarity.
The thing is, it’s been two years since I broke up with my last boyfriend and I feel lonely. I haven’t even kissed anyone in the time since. Men don’t tend to hit on me. If they do, it seems like a joke to me and I push them away. That has only happened once this year, anyway. In the other instance this year where it didn’t seem like a joke, I wasn’t attracted to him—and I’m proud of myself for rejecting him.
I’m trying to use Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble for something—anything. I just want to feel some sort of contact. I get matches but all my pictures are from the bust up, so I’m made to feel like I’m being deceptive by not revealing my body. My friend who is also plus-size but much prettier than me advised just to say I’m fat up front on my profile. When I did that, I got no matches.
I want to know: What can I do to gain confidence? How can I undo the years of attacks on my appearance? How can I feel attractive enough to take a simple full-body selfie? How can I ensure I won’t lose my personality to a man ever again?
– Lost and Lonely
Dear Lost and Lonely,
I’ve been reading and rereading your letter and I keep coming back to that thing that people often say in moments like this: You have to love yourself before anyone else can love you. This idea has always kind of annoyed me, but it’s taken me awhile to figure out why.
I think the folks who offer this particular platitude often do so with the best intentions. Confidence is attractive. And loving yourself is an absolutely worthwhile aspiration. But the idea that someone doesn’t deserve love—or isn’t ready for it—until they are a model of relaxed self confidence just doesn’t sit well with me. Because it implies that if you want a partner and don’t have one, it’s at least a little bit your fault. But I don’t think that’s how love really works. Don’t most of us—in the darker corners of our psyches—harbor a quiet fear that some part of who we are is truly unlovable?
I suspect we like the “love yourself first” ideology because we like to believe that love is connected to deservingness. We also like to imagine that attraction and desire are shaped by forces beyond our control. We don’t like to think that love traffics in the same biases that shape our culture—but of course it does. And one of those biases is that being thin is the only way to be beautiful.
Our culture fetishizes thinness in countless ways, from gossip mags that monitor celebrities’ “post-baby bodies” to Oprah’s endorsement of Weight Watchers. We act as if being thin is a triumph of willpower and being fat is a moral failure. People who are fat are promised that when (and only when) they lose weight, they’ll suddenly find happiness, health, and love. And yet, the evidence shows that most people who lose weight are unlikely to maintain the weight loss over time. Our obsession with transformation, dieting, celebrity cellulite, and shows like The Biggest Loser isn’t harmless. It has real, serious consequences. According to Linda Bacon, a nutritionist who founded the Health at Every Size movement, these consequences include: “food and body preoccupation, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, distraction from other personal health goals and wider health determinants, reduced self-esteem, [and] eating disorders.” Far from making us thinner or healthier, the shame we assign to being fat is making our physical and mental health significantly worse.
To put it concisely, fat stigma is a load of hot garbage. It’s not just unkind and unhealthy, it’s deeply dehumanizing.
I’m so sorry that the people you love have thrown this load of garbage across your shoulders. I’m sorry we live in a world that says that fat is inadequate, shameful, “ugly”—the word that echoes each time I read your letter. I admire how honest you are about all the things we’re told never to mention—shame, desire, longing, loneliness. I couldn’t even say these things with the voice in my head when I was twenty-three, but I felt them—deeply.
It’s really hard to love yourself when the world tells you every day in a hundred tiny ways that you have failed to achieve the incredibly narrow standard for desirability. But what’s ugly here isn’t you, it’s our culture.
Last weekend, I spent several hours lying on the couch researching skincare regimes. While I did this, my partner washed the breakfast dishes, walked the dog, went to the grocery store, and made us lunch. “Still looking at beauty products?” he prodded as he set the table.
“I know. I know,” I groaned. “It seems ridiculous and vain. But it’s hard—despite my feminist convictions—to feel confident when I see all these ads and magazine articles and blog posts telling me I should be worried about getting old and saggy.”
“I get it,” he said.
“But you don’t!” I protested. “You don’t get these messages.” I explained that, in my quest for reliable information, I’d found an article published by the Northwestern School of Medicine called “Understanding Skin Care for Your Daily Health,” which seemed to offer actual, dermatological information. But even it was explicitly addressed to women.
“If this is actual medical advice then why don’t men need this stuff, too?” I demanded.
The problem with the skincare industry is the same problem with the weight-loss industry, which is that major corporations thrive off of our insecurities. They create ads designed to perpetuate those insecurities and then sell us products that promise to relieve them. Dove may tell us that “real bodies” are beautiful but they do this while simultaneously pointing out the many ways our bodies are inadequate. (Did you know, for example, that your underarms could be smoother?) Modern capitalism is a hot garbage machine powered by our self-loathing. And choosing to reject these messages about what is beautiful, who is desirable—and who, by extension, is deserving of love—feels like a herculean task. (I should know: I just bought a cleanser, two serums, and some fancy sunscreen.) But shifting our ideas about beauty and attractiveness is possible.
A few months ago I heard an interview with the writer Lindy West on This American Life. The entire episode is worth listening to, but something West said has really stuck with me. She describes coming across a series of black and white photos of nude fat women. For West, it was shocking to see these women presented as sensual, aesthetically appealing, and worthy of our time and attention—all the things our culture tells us fat bodies are not. It occurred to her one day that maybe she could just decide that fat was “objectively beautiful.” And so she did. And it changed her relationship with her body.
I like the idea that we can choose to see something as beautiful—even something we’re supposed to hate about ourselves. And it turns out there’s some interesting research to support West’s experience.
A 2012 study called “Visual Diet versus Associative Learning as Mechanisms of Change in Body Size Preferences” found that our ideas about bodies are pretty malleable. The title sounds technical but the lead researcher puts it simply, “Showing [participants] thin bodies makes them like thin bodies more, and showing them fat bodies makes them like fat bodies more.” Changing your visual diet—even just for a few minutes—can begin to shift your ideas about what kinds of bodies are beautiful.
What I like about this research is that it offers some immediate, concrete ways to renegotiate our relationships with bodies—ours and everyone else’s. If just a few minutes of looking at photos can change our preferences, imagine what might happen if the media we consumed included plenty of fat women living normal, satisfying lives in their totally okay, normal bodies.
Forget those guys at the bars; if you want to gain confidence, here is a simple place to begin—not with being desired by men, not by loving yourself, but with loving other fat women, deciding that their bodies are just fine, maybe even finding pleasure in the ways they inhabit the world. West’s interview includes so many great examples of this, but here are some more suggestions: Fill your Instagram feed with plus-size fashion; ditch conventional women’s magazines in favor of body-positive reading; take a break—even a short one—from online dating and surround yourself with friends who love you, without reservation, exactly as you are today; read this amazing essay about the beauty of women who take up space; definitely read West’s essay “My wedding was perfect—and I was fat as hell the whole time.”
I also want to say that the rest of us—everyone reading this who isn’t Lost and Lonely—bear the biggest responsibility for the garbage of fat shaming. Fat people should not have to do the work of convincing us that they are worthy of basic human dignity—and of love. But, for the most part, they’re the ones speaking out against injustice or prejudice.
We have a lot of power to change ourselves and our culture. So, if you’re not fat, make a point to celebrate a fat writer or artist or fashion designer—and share their work. Buy clothes from companies that sell plus-size clothing. Change your visual diet. Don’t talk about your own weight in moral terms. Saying something like “I feel so fat and gross today” isn’t just self-deprecating, it’s dehumanizing to fat people.
Reverence for thinness is so deeply engrained in our cultural consciousness that it’s hard to dislodge. Saying that thin people are no more worthy of love than fat people seems obvious, but we don’t live as if it’s obvious. Seeing fat as beautiful is a powerful political choice. Loving people who are told to hate themselves is a profound act of resistance. We all benefit from the chance to determine who is worthy of love without having consumer culture do it for us.
I know it feels like you’re alone, Lost and Lonely, and I understand why. But a small and mighty group of women here at The Rumpus are sending you our fiercest, warmest love this Valentine’s Day. Because loving each other exactly as we are today is a radical and worthwhile act. And because you deserve it.
Mixed Feelings is an advice column that draws on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to [email protected] or submit it here.
Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.