Growing up, I was a pretty girl. Styled in my mom’s handmade dresses, my long, thick hair intricately woven into braids. I was told I was pretty. I was encouraged to pursue prettiness. I was taught this was one of the most precious gifts a girl could have.
When I started to gain weight at age nine (on a subconscious level, to keep boys and men away from me), everyone panicked. It was an extended family crisis. I was betraying my people. I was setting fire to my birthright. I was throwing my gift in the trash.
Compliments morphed from “you’re so pretty!” to “you’ve got such a pretty face!” Concerns for my health masked an underlying thought: “What a waste.” A waste, because beauty is currency. In our world, beauty is not only a moral virtue, but a moral imperative. I was spitting in their faces. I was cannonballing right into the middle of the blessed gene pool.
No one bothered to ask what was going on beneath the surface. Why, as a child, was I worried about being seen as attractive to boys and men? They simply knew this had to be remedied as quickly as possible, before I grew into a person no one wants to be.
I often talk about beauty not being an obligation. Like the quote by blogger and author Erin McKean goes, “You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.”
“You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.”
When I reference this, inevitably someone will weigh in with an enthusiastic “but you’re so pretty!” as if that’s the point I’m trying to make. I’m saying, “Let’s burn these beauty standards to the ground.” They’re saying, “But you could be conventionally attractive if you tried.”
I’ve internalized that message, so I don’t bother dating in the ordinary sense. I’d rather do away with the whole idea of it than subject myself to near constant rejection based on my size. Instead, I’ve fallen into friendships that turn into what appear to be relationships on the surface, but are really just a means for me to be exploited. Men grow attached, then attracted, and this confuses them. They’ve been socialized not to love fat girls.
They use me as a stand-in for the role of Romantic Partner, until someone better comes along. I’m a friend, a lover, a therapist, and a cheerleader, but I am not to expect any more. Any mention of commitment is met with the confused stare you might give a prized pig if they asked you to prom. “How could you, a fatty, think I’d want this to be a romantic relationship? But listen…there’s someone for everyone!”
No one is obligated to be attracted to, have sex with, or date anyone they don’t want to. Of course not. But it is infuriating when men act like it’s just some bizarre twist of fate that they’ve never dated a fat woman. You can be the most mediocre cishet dude in the world, sleeping on a bunch of old magazines on the floor, washing your body with laundry detergent, and still you’ll land yourself a gem.
Don’t tell me to put myself out there when you’ve only ever dated thin, white, able, conventionally attractive cis women. You can miss me with your discussions on feminism, body positivity, and visibility if you aren’t going to examine how you’ve been socialized to find certain people attractive.
I need men in particular to stop believing they’re not deeply entrenched in a culture that vilifies fat bodies. I need them to stop pretending they don’t reap the benefits of that culture. I’m tired of dudes doing the bare minimum, or worse, exploiting conventionally unattractive women for their emotional work and sexual energy, and thinking this is feminist. Like they deserve a parade for talking to a woman who doesn’t look like Bella Hadid.
As Hari Ziyad discusses in an article for Everyday Feminism, “Desirability politics deal with the questions of how social ideals of attractiveness can have a pull, and how one can also pull back. It’s the idea that desire is political – both affected by and simultaneously shaping systems of power and oppression.”
“Who you date and sleep with is not just about biology and innate behaviour”
Who you date and sleep with is not just about biology and innate behaviour, and working towards an understanding of who you are attracted to and why is an essential part of the journey to become more aware of our influences and the ways we oppress other people.
In their piece for The Body is Not an Apology, Caleb Luna says, “Our desire and desirability is not just about who we do or want to have sex with, or who or how often people want to have sex with us. It informs how we treat people in the larger world.”
When you only date conventionally attractive women, this is a reflection of how you view women in general, and often how you treat them. It’s not about trying to force yourself to be attracted to someone you’re not. Rather, it is about an examination of these tendencies, and how you use marginalized people to satisfy something you are otherwise lacking, and whether or not this is fair treatment.
Unlearning desirability politics is an essential part of our feminist journeys. And for those who aren’t conventionally attractive, a big part of coming to terms with that is having people with more privilege examine their prejudices, or at the very least, acknowledge they exist.
Ashleigh Shackelford says the following in her piece from Wear Your Voice: “The only bodies and beauty we see in media, in images that surround us every day, is that of thin, able bodied, white or light skin people. How can we ever divest from beauty when we have never had the opportunity to navigate the mental and psychological joys of being seen as worthy? We live in a world where beauty is a currency, and if you’re ugly, you won’t make it out unscathed. Whether it be your internal perception of yourself, or how far you get navigating capitalism, it affects your experiences and trajectory.”
When we aren’t able to come to terms with how the world treats people who simply don’t fit its beauty ideals, we reach a point where we will do almost anything to feel we belong.
When I was 20 years old, I fell in love with my best friend, and I lost a large amount of weight in a few months in the hopes he would love me back. On the last night we were together, before I moved back across the ocean, I slept with him in our friend’s garden.
I remember standing in front of him as he lay down.
“You’re hot,” he said. I didn’t say anything.
“I love you,” he said, upping the ante. The words didn’t feel like I thought they would. My soul felt as empty as my stomach.
I’d eaten very little in the previous months, and I had, in a way, achieved what I set out to accomplish – he was attracted to me. He loved me. But it felt hollow. I took my dress off. I lay down with him. I put my arms around him and ran my fingers through his hair.
The next morning, I woke up, hungover. I saw a large snail crawling through the red bra lying next to me. I felt sick. I went inside the house. He was on his laptop looking at the MySpace profile (yes, MySpace, fellow kids!) of his ex-girlfriend’s sister. He told me back in December that he was falling for her. He looked up at me and said, “Ew, what’s wrong with your knees?”
They were badly scratched from the concrete in the garden. Blood was running down my legs. Blood was running down my legs and he was acting like nothing happened. Blood was running down my legs and he was gone. I went to the sunroom and I cried, I wailed, like a demon was leaving my body. He asked what was wrong, and I said nothing.
I wanted to say, “Look what I’ve done for you.”
I wanted to say, “I’ve thrown my body to the wolves for you.”
I wanted to say, “I’ve starved for you. I’ve destroyed myself for you. And you’re looking at her?”
As Hari Ziyad says, “Women are never enough until they become desirable to men by meeting the thin ideal – and are expected to do everything in their power to get there.”
If we truly want people to stop forcing themselves into this unattainable ideal, if we truly believe there is someone out there for everyone, and if we truly believe our hearts are what matter most, we have a lot of unpacking to do. Pretending our sexual preferences are not part of a larger cultural obsession with thinness, prettiness, and whiteness is doing real harm. We need to hold ourselves accountable. Trust me. Trust me and this pretty face.