Navigating Sexuality as a Fat Teen
I remember it like it was yesterday: my last homecoming in middle school.
One of the only slow songs of the night came on, and instantly everyone was partnered up. I looked around, trying to find a partner, but I couldn't find any familiar faces in the crowd. I sighed and tried to act like I didn't care, going off to the bathroom to reapply my lip-gloss.
I've always been fat, ever since I was a young kid. But what this meant socially didn't really register until I was a young teen. When it seemed like everyone was starting to date, have their first kisses, and find mutual crushes, I was left in the dust. I was always the funny, smart friend who people liked but who they were never interested in in "that way." I didn't have my first kiss until I was 17.
This made me feel inadequate, and the first reason that I jumped to was my weight: it was no secret that I was a curvy girl and most of my friends who had significant others or got a lot of sexual attention were thin. I wanted to change my body because I thought it would change my world.
In reality, it may have. Unfortunately people don't always judge people from the inside out and not fitting into the mold of what body type society considers to be attractive (or even acceptable) can marginalize you. This experience is what has become known as fatphobia, or society's oppression of people of size. Often the solutions that are offered to this stigma are to change one’s body or to lose weight and this loses sight of the fact that the body we have is the body we have. There might not be anything we can do to change it and even if we can, that’s not the core of the issue - it’s the stigma. There are things we can do to manage it that have nothing to do with changing your body.
Dealing with this as a teenager can be difficult, especially as you are learning how to navigate sexuality. So let's look at the issue more closely.
What Is Fat?
There's a lot of ambiguity when it comes to discussing fat, as fat stigma is not only something faced by fat people, but something everyone else also has to live in fear of. After all, according to mainstream narratives about fatness, many of us are just one cookie away from being considered too big.
But, “There is a difference between living with stigma and living with the fear of stigma. Living with the fear of stigma is not fun. Living with the presence of stigma is also not fun. They are two different things, though, and it is useful to recognize this,” says Hanne Blank, a body image writer, activist, and speaker who focuses on fat bodies in her work.
Fearing fat discrimination and actually experiencing fat discrimination are two very different lived experiences. Both are valid and both need to be addressed, but the experiences people of size go through need to have special consideration, since these individuals face direct prejudice as a result of their bodies. This however, should be a two way street:
“People who have experienced being fat-shamed (should) remember that fat-shaming is not the only way in which people who are actually fat are stigmatized. You may share the experience of being fat-shamed in one way, and still not share the experience of living life as a person who is routinely stigmatized for being fat.” Blank elaborates.
The takeaway here is that people have different experience of fatphobia and that is okay. Whatever your reality, it’s important to remember that your experience is valid and so are others. Hanne makes a great point on this, stating that “Other people's experiences may be worse than yours, and it is fair to you and to them to acknowledge that.”
Some Big, Fat Myth Busting
It’s probably not at all shocking that there are plenty of myths when it comes to fatness - especially where sexuality is concerned. Let’s bust some of them up and be done with them:
1. Being Fat Means You’re Unattractive
This entire idea is based in the problematic idea that fat people are somehow inferior to their thin counterparts, which is basically the definition of fatphobia. People also tend to assume that their personal preferences dictate the preferences of humanity as a collective, which just isn’t true. People are attracted to people of all body types, shapes, and sizes. The media does a poor job of representing this, but they’re lying to you - not everyone finds thin people sexy and not all fat people are found to be undesirable.
2. Fat People Don't Have Sex
People tend to assume that fat people are not having sex at all, because those people just can't imagine that fat people can both be sexual and have partners, whatever their shape or size, that don't find fat and sexy to be mutually exclusive. Fat people are not all asexual or perpetual wallflowers who aren’t forthcoming in their sex and dating lives. Fat people can have incredibly rich, fulfilling sex lives, just like people of all sizes, and aren’t all waiting in the wings for someone to make their sexual debut with. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience! Whether someone is or isn't sexually active usually has very little to do with their size.
3. Fat People, Especially Women, Are Desperate
This might be the biggest offender of all of the myths. Going back to the former myth, since people assume fat people aren’t getting laid, there’s a societal assumption that they are desperately trying to find a sexual partner. Desperation can have a lot of sources and sure, fatness might be one of them, but as Hanne Blank (got to love her!) poignantly states, desperation is just another part of the human condition, “I don't know of a single group of people where that isn't true. PEOPLE sometimes feel desperate about sex. PEOPLE sometimes feel like they have to be extra pleasing sexually because they feel like they have to compensate for something or another. These aren't really about fatness. They're about being human.”
Coping With Fat Stigma
Here are some ways to help you deal with some of the effects of fat stigma and sexuality:
1) Don’t Compare Yourself To Others: When you treat sex like it is a competition, it usually ends up being a not-so-great experience for your partner and you! Think about how much more fun it is to live in the moment than to compare yourself to others.
2) Get Rid of As Many Negative Messages as Possible: There are so many messages out there that tell you that you need to be thin in order to be attractive or desirable. You’ve probably been told inadvertently at some point that if you lose weight, your peers will look at you in a whole different light. This is all based on the idea that being thin is always better than being fat and that you can change your body at will. But in reality, 95% of diets fail. Trying to force your body to become a size that it isn’t is probably not going to work and in fact, may cause you to gain more weight (or stay the same weight and become unhealthy). So get rid of (or limit your exposure to) the unhealthy people, magazines, TV shows, and influences that are telling you that your fatness is a problem.
3) Stand Up For Yourself: It can be difficult to raise your voice if you’re being shamed, but standing up for yourself is necessary when you’re facing stigma directly. Be assertive and tell the fat-shamers that you’re not going to tolerate that type of behavior and don’t be afraid to call someone out.
4) Practice Self-Care and Self-Love:Loving and cherishing yourself is necessary in coping, as the love you give to yourself can outweigh (no pun intended) any of the stigma you’re facing. Spend time with people who uplift you and love you (and your size!), dress and present yourself in the way you feel best, give yourself compliments, and do good things for your body. You’ll be amazed at how fulfilled you will be as a result of this practice.
Negative Input From Family
Have you ever heard of the saying that those who are closest to you can hurt you the most?
This is oftentimes true in terms of families commenting on your body.
Oftentimes, parents or other family members will comment on body image, as they think they are being helpful or they’re victims of internalizing the negative messages about fat people they’ve seen in society. They might say that you need to lose weight in order to date or be considered attractive, or sadly, view fatness as a quality that is unlovable.
Hanne Blank agrees that indeed, families often mean well when making fatphobic comments. “Parents want their kids to be desired, loved, to find partners, all that good stuff. But first, a lot of parents don't really think critically about the messages the culture sends about how that works (even if they are fat themselves). So they are likely to simply repeat and reinforce the same messages that come from the culture at large, and that message is that fatness isn't desirable/loveable.”
This is something that a lot of fat teens have to deal with and I was one of them. I held on to comments and treatment I received from my family for years - and I’m still healing! It’s often a difficult issue to face, but the sooner you confront it in some way, the less likely you are to take on these messages as your own.
This can be very hard to navigate, as these are people you’re probably close to or see on a day-to-day basis (or very frequently). Families always complicate things, as there’s usually also deep-seated dynamics at work that stem from the connection that you have - everyone has had a family issue of some sort! This can make these comments all the more hurtful, since they are coming from people you love and have complex histories with. Considering that you may be dependent on these individuals financially, emotionally, or otherwise, this can also pose a significant barrier in being able to properly address the issue.
How you decide to tackle these comments is best left up to you, as every situation is different, but finding a way to heal and not internalize the negative messages is going to give you the best long-term results. That could mean talking to a counselor or supportive friend, having a conversation with the family member(s) in question about how what they’ve said affects you, or simply releasing the messages from your mind. The most important thing you can do is take care of yourself in this process.
Gender and Orientation
How fatness affects one's relationships and sexuality can vary in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity. After all, how we experience fatness isn’t static and is often reliant upon how our culture negotiates the intersections of different identities; for example, there is generally more pressure for women to be thin than there is for men. Many of our readers have also attested to this fact in their relationships, as it’s been suggested that those who have male partners deal with fat stigma more often.
But, when we talk about women facing the societal pressures of thinness, what’s missing in most discussions is an intersectional lens; that is, these women that people are usually referring to are cisgender and heterosexual. But the reality is that all women face these pressures - including those who are queer or gender variant.
Hanne Blank offered some perspective on this; “The reality is that queers and genderdiverse folks live in the same culture and are exposed to the same pressures,” she says. This couldn’t be truer, especially since those who are not cisgender or heterosexual have to face the added layer of stigma around their identities. Because of the stereotypes we hold culturally, we assume that certain people aren’t affected - like the idea that lesbians don’t care about being thin, or that gay men are always thin. This can make fatphobia even harder to handle.
The fact is, since we live in a culture that stigmatizes fat, anyone can be on the giving end. “Do not underestimate the capacity of anybody, of any sex, gender, or sexual orientation, to be a total dick about body weight and/or size. But also do not underestimate the capacity of anyone, of any sex, gender, or sexual orientation, to be completely cool and awesome about it either,” Blank states. Basically, anyone can be an offender.
In the introduction of this article, I mentioned how real the struggle of sexuality was for me as a teenager. But, it turns out that my story has a happy ending. After doing a lot of work on myself with the help of therapy and intense reflection, I was able to overcome a lot of my societal conditioning. I found self-love at the end of the tunnel.
Self-love is such an important practice - without it, it’s impossible to have healthy and satisfying relationships. When you love and care for yourself, brushing off negative feedback is a lot easier, because you’re not looking for others' approval. Self-love allows you to escape from the cycles of coercion and abuse that we’re often taught to use as motivation to change. When I was able to accept and love myself as I was instead of waiting until my body changed, I was able to start making a difference.
In fact, now I have the confidence to talk about the bullshit that I’ve faced as a fat lady publicly and the greatest example of this is an article I wrote for the Huffington Post, entitled “5 Things You Need to Know About Interacting With Me, A Fat Girl Who Wears Revealing Clothes.” I was somewhat anxious and didn’t know what type of feedback I would receive, as most people's comments up until that point have been that I need to just cover up and shut up. But it not only went viral, it received an outpouring of support; I received so many tweets, Facebook messages, Instagram comments, and emails that I couldn’t keep up. The best part is that over ninety percent of them were encouraging.
So if you’re struggling with your sexuality, fatness, or both, know that you are not alone. Yes, overcoming all of the internalized fatphobic messaging is really difficult and is a lifetime’s work, but it’s possible. Take this as a message of solidarity and support.