Real Talk: On Fatness, Desirability, And Why Socialization Is a Beast

Let’s talk about sexual capital, baby, let’s talk about you and me!

Von C. Detrow

The other day, in my queer theory reading group, I (again) silenced my voice in a room of thin people, albeit all radical queers of various races and backgrounds, when someone made a comment about intersectional analyses of issues of privilege and didn’t include bodies, body politics, or the privilege of attraction and desirability. No one wants to hear the fat girl’s rant; internalized fatphobia through western, hegemonic socialization is a real bitch.

© Jen Davis
Self-Portrait © Jen Davis

I’ve been fat all my life. Not always the kind of fat that threatens people at airports or amusement parks, but definitely, undeniably fat. The kind of fat that can euphemistically be referred to a zaftig in Yiddish, kräftig in German, or chubby or big boned in English. The kind of fat that can still keep up with you walking around town and maybe borrow your oversized jumper when it’s cold and we’re walking home from a party, but only if it’s cutely oversized on you as a thin person and then fits me ever so snugly as a fat person. The kind of fat that can no longer be wishfully thought of as just baby fat, a phase I’d grow out of — I’m 28, it’s okay, this isn’t baby fat.

A few weeks ago, I was in New York City visiting my parents. My mom goes to the gym every day, counts calories, and is a big fan of Weight Watchers. She’s 63 and rejoiced in telling my multiple times that she has lost 6 pounds since Christmas. She looks great, and for whatever amazingly angelic miraculous reason, she’s never critically commented on my weight. After our joint spin class together, drenched in sweat and having burned thousands of calories, I exhaled in a moment of frustration „why doesn’t this do anything for me?“ My mom immediately responded „you’ll never be skinny. You’re just not a thin person.“ She’s right. And despite being in my late-20s and a full-on queer feminist killjoy, it sometimes still bothers me. My thighs are massive and solid. My stone hard and amazingly round ass gets me up and down the five flights of my altbau apartment building day in and day out. I cycle all over Berlin. I swim four times a week. I can run 5k at the drop of a hat. But I’m still fat. I always have been, and I most likely always will be. But writing that doesn’t eradicate the 20-something years of socialization that pounded into my head the idea that my fatness is bad. It’s not just bad—it’s undesirable. Uncool. Unpleasant. And most unequivocally unsexy.

My earliest memory of realizing that my fatness rendered me undesirable was on a canoe trip during the summer after fourth grade, one of my many summers at Camp Eagle Island, an all-girls summer camp literally on an island in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. The place was essentially your North American Isle of Lesbos, replete with rugby playing butch counselors who went by camp names like Timber and Sparrow and who spent their time away from camp studying at the women’s colleges in Western Massachusetts. Anyway, we were on a canoe trip up the lake and I must have been ten years old. It was dusk and we were pulling the canoes in for the night when someone told us to look up at a shooting star and make a wish. I don’t remember ever having seen a shooting star before, let alone in the rural woods of northern New York surrounded by dreamy dyke counselors and all my camp friends, so the moment was quite magical. I specifically recall following the star’s trail in the sky and wishing to myself that I’d one day be skinny and have a boyfriend.

I cringe at the memory. What a fucked up conflation in my tender, prepubescent, baby mind of compulsory heterosexuality and thinness as singularly signifying desirable. Socialization is a real psychological and psychosomatic beast.

Fast-forwarding 18 years later, I do have a boyfriend, I’m still not skinny, I’m a queer hard femme dyke, and I live in Berlin, a city known quite well for its queerness and known less well for the queer scene’s glorification of masculinity and thinness. I’ve dated a handful of people over the years, all masculine, all thin. I wonder how this reflects my internalized notions of what is desirable, how to offset my fatness and femmeness in a way that makes my queer relationship less threatening to my community, and to the heteronormative world beyond. A psychoanalytic analysis of this consideration could go very, very deep, I’m sure.

As I mentioned, I now have a boyfriend. We’ve been dating for over a year and I’m happily in love. He is sweet and body-positive and respectful. He listens to the critical thoughts I share on inhabiting a fat body, and seems to care. I remember early on in our relationship though, I had such doubts, because I always have doubts; my walls are high and my defense is strong, especially dating thin, masculine queers. I remember the exact moment I realized one of his closest friends, someone he deeply admires, is a fat femme whose fatness is political. I remember feeling some sort of relief in knowing he socializes with fatness. That I didn’t have to be the first one to tell him it’s a thing, a political thing, and a difficult thing.

There isn’t ever a single moment in a sexual relationship where I’m not considering how my body and its size affect the desirability of my partner toward me. Dating involves so much consideration of sexual capital, and if you’ve been granted any, navigations of how to yield it and wield it. Sometimes, as a queer fat femme, I think about monogamy—a concept in my community that is sort of frowned upon—as a comforting insurance that you’re desired. The thought of sexual desire as abundant is a real fucking privilege. I have reservations about the concept of dating around, reservations that stem from the internalized socialization I fight every day that tells me my body is undesirable. The unattractiveness of dating around because of internalized shame re: my body as not desirable. What does it even mean to date around? Aren’t I supposed to be lucky if I get one date?

“You’re so lucky.” I want a euro for every time I’ve been told that in my current relationship. When your partner is masculine and thin and everyone tells you he’s hot (I wonder how many people tell him I’m hot?) and emphasizes how “lucky” you are to be dating him (I wonder how many people tell him he’s “lucky”?), what are they saying? When other queer feminists tell me this in the queer bar, what do they mean? Do they mean that because I’m fat I should be single or dating someone less attractive because logic, obviously, would say that I’m undesirable of the sexual capital that his masculinity and thinness generates?

I mean, I know I am lucky, because he is terrific. Because he listens and makes me food and goes with me on silly errands to look at weird things and brings me flowers and scratches my back and likes my mustache and thinks I am cute and intelligent and lets me know, and, and, and, and. But I’m pretty certain this isn’t the data the luck analysts at the bar are considering when announcing their theories on how in gay hell I came to be in this relationship. Pure luck!

Another thing: the word slut does not apply to me. I can’t use it. I have no capital to spread as a slut living in Berlin—when I hear the word used by other queers, especially femmes, I’m not sure whether to cheer on their confidence or check them on their privilege of being able to boldly assert that their sluttiness is not just a theory but in fact a practice that is exercised week after week in party spaces, online platforms, at the bar or whatever other space sluttiness can be embodied and practiced. I realize that I, too, am entitled to claim and own the label, but asserting my sexual capital vis-à-vis the label of slut, as a fat person, takes a lot of emotional work to undo years of socialization that have rendered my body and my identity undesirable. Even in the queer feminist use of the word slut, it’s still difficult to pronounce my body one that is capable of engaging in sexual abundance, because while I firmly believe that I am physically and emotionally capable of such a thing, the reality remains that there isn’t a huge market for investors into my sexual capital in a place like Berlin. I’m not seeking pity in this statement; I’m just reporting the lived-experience based facts.

My subjective experience of fatness doesn’t just engage with desirability politics, it also has a load of respectability politics to consider that thin people probably don’t have to worry about in their daily lives. Like, for example, how I always try to take the elevator when I’m late to my university seminars, because showing up to a class five or ten minutes after it has begun, and trying to silently enter the room whilst huffing and puffing because I just climbed five flights of stairs is a whole different experience as a fat person. I still can’t explain this to my thin, queer, feminist, cis-man classmate, who insists we “not be lazy” and take the stairs every time. Fatness never gets to be turned off; fatness never gets to hide; fatness never gets to be ignored.

Writing this is simultaneously liberating and also terrifying. These are things I’ve never articulated to anyone, experiences of socially prescribed shameful Otherization that I learned to keep deep inside of me, because if I had a problem with my body then it was my responsibility to change it. (Neoliberalism.) Inevitably, I anticipate well-intentioned friends to respond with compassionate prodding, wanting to know why I’ve never shared my “experiences” with them. It’s like recently when I told my dad that I’d experienced homophobia and been kicked out of places for my queerness, and he wondered why I hadn’t shared this with him before. It’s easy: why would I share something you can’t relate to and instrumentalize my own complex emotions of anger, embarrassment and pride as a teaching opportunity? Fat people are conditioned to be silent; making a scene is exactly what you don’t want. A lot of the time, I’m silent about my body, my fatness and my internalized issues of undesirability. It’s fucked up, but I repeat my refrain: socialization is a beast. Just because I’m not telling you this all the time doesn’t mean it’s not there. I’m not required to be the tokenized spokesperson of what it’s like to be in my plus-sized body.

I’m pretty sure my fourth grade self would be in awe of my 28 year old self. My weight, my body, and my appearance continues to inform my person every single day. Socialization is a beast, and fatness is a never ending psychosomatic reality in my life, affecting everything I do and most acutely informing the ways I perceive myself as a sexual being, in particular the ways in which I perpetually underestimate my sexual agency and capital. I’m now an empowered, intelligent, happy person, but I’m also an angry one; existing at the axes of social and structural oppressions can do that.

I will most likely never strut into a bar and work it like I’m the hottest thing since sliced bread. My fatness precludes that, and I’m not interested in putting myself on display for majority-thin audiences. I can’t undo the 23 years of body-shame I experienced before finding out that being a fat, femme queer was a thing and that I wasn’t alone. I won’t gratify you with a concluding statement that comforts you and lets you know that despite all this, I’ve overcome the struggle and love my boyfriend and my life now, so you can continue to ignore my fatness as a non-issue the next time we meet, because that’d be a lie. At the same time, I don’t seek your sympathy. Don’t pity me, but do check yourself. And let me take the elevator. And adhere to a truly queer politic that seeks to disrupt the ways in which neoliberal demands are reconstructed in our communities through the normalcy and acceptability politics that center masculinity and thinness as the unnamed neutral and desirable ways in which to have a sexy body. Thanks.

  • elishes

    This is the best thing I read in a long while. Your writing style is just the dopest shit! Thanks for sharing and letting me know about this great thing and checking my thoughts about myself and others. Keep on writing on whatever topic you want to write about as I’m sure it will be a pleasure to read it just like this one!

  • A Zurich China

    Thanks. I learned a lot through this articel. Shared on FB.

  • carladarla

    this is heartbreaking to read – this woman has obviously given up. I don’t think it needs to end here. I am a 45 year old woman who has also let her fatness define her entire life – and was unluckier than this writer (my mother was and let my sister be so cruel – I was fat shamed since I was 3 years old, publicly, violently, without an apology, ever – and after being ignored or worse, socially abused by so-called „friends“, I utterly gave up. At 38, a miracle happened – met someone who loved me as is. The self esteem started taking root again (shaped and lost a few times in my 20s). Suddenly I stopped shying away from the comments and social abuse. Called every single last one of them out, including a fertility doctor. Guess what? They ran tests. It was diabetes, it was messed up hormones, it was not My Fault. 2 years later and gastric sleeve – I have reset my body and I don’t have to suffer anymore. There is alot going on in this article, and I’m not some paid shill for surgery. All I read in each line of this article was self loathing and hopeless depression. It doesn’t have to be that way. I lived it – I am so empowered, so happy, so content, and most importantly now, so healthy. And a MOM which I was told I was too fat to be (at only a size 18!! Effing California Doctors!!!) I wish you all the best, and hope you find some peace.

  • kaligrrrl

    Hey! I’m a disabled, death fat, queer femme. I loved reading this. Our perspectives are quite different and I wanted to share some from mine. I’m 41 now and living with chronic pain/illness/disability and I simply can’t do stairs or walk a block anymore–challenging ableism and pushing for a recognition of all the ways we marginalize bodies that are not „normal“ has been a point of intersectionality that has been profoundly liberating and healing for me. You don’t have to prove that you’re a good fat person who’s healthy and active because *every* body, fat, disabled, old, addicted, lazy etc. deserves equal respect as human and freedom from judgment.

    Another point–desirability. I’m around 380lbs. I have never lacked for abundant sexual partners or attention. There is absolutely a market for your sexual capital–I tell you with the evidence of my own and abundant other fat women’s experiences. Even in Europe–I got mad offers my years in France. It’s the profound social conditioning you point out, plus the erasure of fat people as objects of desire culture that is telling you differently. But people, real people, will want you, if they think you’re open to it. But–and I say this with the deep love of one fat queer femme to another–it seems very clear to me that the damage to your confidence and self-esteem from living in a sizeist world prevents you from projecting that vibe

    Thank you for this piece. It’s raw, beautiful and critical by turns and it’s invaluable that the world sees it. <3

  • SNS77

    I wish I could be bothered to point out the inaccuracies and straight up bullsh¡t in this piece, but the truth is that I simply don’t care. C’est lavie.

  • sugarunicorn

    but you cared enough to log in, type a comment, and make sure evvvverybody knew. got it.

  • Shira Hoffman

    Thanks for sharing. Please ignore the haters. You are obviously a smart self possessed intelligent woman and I got a lot out of reading this article. Please keep writing!

  • Femmegrrrl

    Thank you, from a hot fat femme.

  • Kat Kamp

    @carladarla:disqus I can’t believe they would even give you surgery at size 18. Generally, you have to be 100lbs pounds overweight with a BMI of 40+ or 35+ and two coexisting conditions related to obesity. I’m a size 16 and have lost 70lbs through diet and exercise, but due to my own hormone problems losing another 50lbs has been almost impossible. I can’t get surgery, I don’t qualify. It sounds like the author of this article is in fact not obese enough to qualify and is quite healthy and active. I think the point is they are sharing their experiences and coming to terms with body acceptance and loving themselves as-is, despite the culture they’re surrounded by that shames them just for not looking a certain way.

  • llde Carr

    Hey, I really enjoyed your piece and found a lot of parallels in our experiences. I feel similarly strained in Berlin for all the same reasons you point out. Would you be interested in meeting up and sharing notes? Let me know. In any case – thanks a lot for the article!

  • Diane Drotleff

    I am IN LOVE with this post. You have said everything I’ve been wishing I could articulate since I came out in what is an extremely pro-thin, pro-masculine, „fat is not hot“ queer community in the Midwest. I feel that when I’m in queer space and want to flirt with another queer woman, I’m doubly invisible/disregarded – fat or femme is bad enough on its own but the combo is detrimental here. And now I’m 40 – most women in this town, butch or not, that I’d want to get with are long married and monogamous. Thank you for talking this intersectionality in such a real, cogent way.

  • contra

    Thanks for this article. As a fat queer woman, I appreciate you using your voice to call attention to the issue in such a personal way. Having been, at one time in my life, a thin person, I am acutely aware of the difference in my sexual/social capital by contrast in the 20 years since I gained weight. It’s something I’ve thought a great deal about as I’ve learned to love my body just the way it is and suspend the internal torture of never feeling it is good enough.

    It’s going to be a happy day for me when I see other fat women/people talking about their experience in the world without qualifying it with how many miles they run or some other indication of their health. It’s a subtle (maybe unconscious) appeal to non-fat readers to see us as legitimate in some way or to hear us at all. Of course, I understand it as an influential device of your writing, but it can also serve to further divide and stratify people in our own fat community/family. „The fat people who are fit and able“ and „the fat people who are lazy,“ etc. We all deserve to be visible regardless of our fitness level, while fat. I urge you to consider this (or at least acknowledge it explicitly) in your future writing.

    In solidarity…

  • Joslyn Thomas

    No. Not at all. So so so wrong. You have your own personal experiences, but nothing about this article is this woman hating herself or her body, or even really expressing that she is depressed. Did you not read to the end where she says that she loves her life and that she feels like she has overcome great personal struggle? This isn’t an article on how to lose weight. She’s talking about loving herself for who she is. And even if the point of this article was her health, which it wasn’t, she’s clearly active by riding her bicycle on a regular basis and she goes to a spin class, so in what way has she given up? She’s more active than most people I know just from the little bit that she shared in this article. But that’s not the point AT ALL. That isn’t what this article is about. She is being honest about her personal experience being a fat person, which, she admits has been challenging for her. Nothing about this article is about hormones or how healthy a person should or shouldn’t be. This is an article about the huge privilege that comes with being a thin person in our society – your comments are completely irrelevant. If you think that inner peace is found in a smaller jean size than you definitely missed the point of this article.

  • Point

    Read your whole essay, but really, you summed it up in your very first sentence: „…in my queer theory reading group.“ This group had it’s analytical and research focus on a specific social issue, and it wasn’t weight or the social concepts regarding body morphology. It sounds less like the „fat perspective“ wasn’t represented for two reasons: the first is that it was incidental to the stated goals. The second reason you iterated yourself, immediately following the earlier quotation: „I (again) silenced my voice in a room of thin people.“

    There is nothing wrong with a conversation about any social issue or concept. However, insisting on shoehorning that conversation on another, equally-important conversation is at best disingenuous. They are related, in some ways, and there are some contexts under which both ideas would be addressed together.

    Much of this is about your „feelings“ of how society, or culture, or people choose to perceive and relate to one another. There are many, many of us, and there are many, many different modes of perception and relation. Our feelings are our own responsibility, and we are responsible – first and foremost – to ourselves. We can let others influence our feelings, if we so choose, but they’re our feelings. We decide, individually. You decide yours, also. You will know a love for yourself that is unique, if you are able to put yourself in charge of your emotions, and not other people.

  • Daniel Fachinger

    There’s someone missing the entire point of that nice essay. As long as you live together with other human beings, none of what you do, feel, say, etc. is totally yours only.

    And how queer and fat is a topic closely linked at each other, in traditional perspective denying each other, should be obvious to you by using google.

  • „My weight, my body, and my appearance continues to inform my person every single day. Socialization is a beast, and fatness is a never ending psychosomatic reality in my life, affecting everything I do and most acutely informing the ways I perceive myself as a sexual being, in particular the ways in which I perpetually underestimate my sexual agency and capital. I’m now an empowered, intelligent, happy person, but I’m also an angry one; existing at the axes of social and structural oppressions can do that.“

    What a rallying cry. Damn. Fantastic writing. Thank you for this.