Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Southwest Sexual Health Alliance’s presentation of Chris Donaghue, Ph.D., who lectured on concepts from his book Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture and an upcoming book. While I have yet to put up a book review of Sex Outside the Lines, the short version of my opinion of it is that I both loved it and hated it. It’s a work that asks readers to stretch their minds and ideas, sometimes outside the realm of reality and into a utopic society.
One of the things that Donaghue is very good about acknowledging is his own privilege: He knows he is a good looking, intelligent, well-educated, white male. He also recognized during the talk that he’s been recently alerted to the thin privilege he experiences. While I think his awareness of the privilege of being a fit and attractive person is a good start, I feel several of his more popular ideas continue to play directly into the overwhelming prejudice in our society against those who are not thin.
My own experience in the dating world as an obese woman is one which very much demonstrates the attitudes and prejudices in our society towards those of larger size. In the four years since I opened myself up to dating again after my separation and divorce, I’ve had very little success through either Meetups or numerous dating websites. My experience is not unique; almost every overweight person I’ve met who has tried online dating has given up because of the discrimination they faced. I can immediately name you a handful of friends and acquaintances who haven’t been on a date in years because they are seen as undateable by most of the population because of their weight. It’s not due to a lack of openness or effort on their parts.
Despite their desires that I not do it, I often call people on the difference between preference and prejudice. One of the most common things I see on dating profiles is men stating, “I don’t date fat women. I know that sounds rude, but it’s just a preference of mine.” The reality is that it’s a prejudice, not a preference. When we judge others before we even interact with them solely based on their appearances, we are discriminating. I ask people who say or write these words to replace them with a racial minority. Would they say, “I don’t date black women. I know that sounds rude, but it’s just a preference of mine”? The reality is that most of the people I interact with are aware enough to understand that to say such a thing would be incredibly rude and prejudiced. However, to them, it’s ok to have that same prejudice against those who are overweight and excuse it as “just a preference.” To say that you are not attracted to all fat people is blatant discrimination against an entire population of people without knowing them as individuals. It’s judgmental, uncompassionate, and unloving.
While Donaghue laudably argues that people should expand their boundaries and date outside of their comfort zones, he simultaneously argues both in his book and at the presentation yesterday that people should date those whom they are attracted to. Unfortunately, to most men (and probably to most people, though I don’t have the experience outside of my heterosexual experiences to verify that) that translates into being immediately attracted to others’ physical appearance. In her fabulous senior thesis Can She Really 'Play that Game Too'?, Leah Fessler describes the dating experience at Middlebury College in 2015 with a focus on the difference between men and women when it came to the “hook up culture.” One of her assertions is that a majority of men refuse to consider being with a woman if she is not immediately physically attractive to them:
But when it comes to that instinctual sexual attraction, it seems we’re back to basics: For a girl, if care and commitment are there, sexual attraction can develop, and it frequently does, because what’s attractive is the romance, not the body in and of itself. For a guy, if care, and commitment are there, and the sexual attraction is not, I’m afraid it’s most likely never going to be. Note, 26% of female respondents, as compared to almost 60% of male respondents listed “someone who is physically attractive” among the top three qualities they desire in a romantic partner, while 70% of females listed “Someone I can talk to honestly and openly about my feelings” and 55% listed “Someone I can trust.” So, given the sex drive, which is perhaps more fervent in men than women, perhaps ultimately, the body in and of itself is the deciding factor (72).
My own experience has confirmed Fessler’s theory and expanded upon it. When I first got on dating sites, I put up professional quality pictures. When I messaged men, 95% of them did not respond. However, in my most recent round of online dating, I put up a profile with no picture; I noted at the bottom that if men had read that far, I was happy to send them a link to my picture if they were a good match for me. This time around when I messaged men, 95% of them DID respond. What I discovered is that I am very attractive on paper. Men see a woman who is highly educated, open-minded, compassionate, not looking to trap them into a marriage with babies, sex-positive, and more. I’ve had dozens of well-matched men interested me, many of them asking me out, some even providing phone numbers so we can arrange the dates. However, the moment they request and see a picture, the same men disappear into the woodwork. Only a few have the decency to send a final “thanks but no thanks” note. The overwhelming majority of men I approach have interest in me as a person until they discover I’m overweight. Suddenly the same very attractive woman is no longer appealing. That is the very definition of fat prejudice.
I also believe based on my personal experience that sexual and romantic attraction is rooted in much more than just physical appearance. Two of the three men I’ve been in love with in this life were friends before they were love interests. I was not incredibly physically attracted to either of them when we first met. Sexual attraction can develop over time once one has gotten to know the other person better. More often than not, that hot sexual attraction leads to relationships that are doomed to be short-lived. It’s nothing more than hormones speaking. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having relationships like that, it’s also not wrong to open oneself to relationships that might develop from mutual interests rather than hormones. Sexual chemistry and connection can be very successful in a relationship even when there’s no immediate physical pull towards that person if one opens oneself up to the possibility.
Thus, when Chris Donaghue advocates that people should date those whom we are attracted to with no qualifiers attached, he’s perpetuating social dating dysfunction. Donaghue is very aware that people are highly influenced by the media and advertising. Study after study has shown how deeply advertising and media can influence our subconscious minds, changing what we think we want and what we think we are attracted to. Magazines, advertisements, tv shows, movies: They all tell us we “should” be attracted to slim people who fit a certain profile. Most people aren’t consciously aware enough to realize how media is warping their attractions in the dating world. It takes very rare and very strong people to step outside of those cultural ideals and date people who are attractive on the inside when their appearance is outside of that approved by social media. Most people don’t even recognize that their “types” are actually rooted in dysfunction, not genuine attraction.
One of Donaghue’s ideas that I’ve seen shared in numerous places is, “Experience a lot of sex/sexuality so you truly understand it.” This quote was directed towards a person who wanted to become a sex therapist and wanted Donaghue’s advice about it, but a statement like this also becomes shaming for those who daily fight fat prejudice in our society and who, despite their efforts, can’t find dates nonetheless sexual partners. Likewise, stating as he does in Sex Outside the Lines that “Working on oneself while solo is easy and lazy, and is an actual avoidance of doing the real work” also is a very shaming statement for those who are not single by choice (101). It’s far better that individuals work on themselves when single rather than sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves. Just because they aren’t in a romantic relationship does not mean they are not in relationship with others, and just because they are working on themselves while solo doesn’t mean they are lazy.
Last weekend, I went on a generally enjoyable date with a man I’d met online. We messaged for a few days, discovering that we had a tremendous amount in common, so we decided to meet for dinner on the following weekend to see what the chemistry was like in real life. Despite having seen full-length pictures of me in advance, this man declined the opportunity to pursue anything else with me after that dinner because after seeing me in person he decided I was too fat. This is the reality of dating in modern America for those who are overweight. We aren’t fighting against attractions and preferences. We’re up against outright prejudice.
© 2016 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC