In Which I Ramble About Attraction

So, Shapely Prose readers might have seen this douchehound responding to my gayest look the other day:
Goddamn Kate. You are an unbelievably unattractive woman!!


every straight man with a set of eyes. (except for your closeted boyfriend, of course)

The funny thing is, Sweet Machine approved it because she only skimmed, and thought he was calling me an unbelievably attractive woman. Funnier still, Fillyjonk and I both thought the same thing when we first read it, even though I puzzled over the closeted boyfriend bit (and the fact that he would pick that picture to swoon over, frankly). But still, even while misreading it as a compliment, I agreed heartily with Shapeling Jen's immediate response: "Go fuck yourself."

There were two reasons for this:

1) The closeted boyfriend bit--seriously, go fuck yourself.

2) The fact that he presumed to speak for "every straight man with a set of eyes." Dude, whether you're telling me you think I should be living under a bridge or gracing magazine covers, you cannot speak for everyone. Attraction is subjective. And it irritates the living fuck out of me that this culture tries so hard to divide people into categories of "attractive" and "unattractive," as if individual preferences don't even exist--when in fact, individual preferences (conscious and unconscious) are at the core of attraction as it plays out in the real world.

Want evidence that attraction is subjective? Well consider the fact that all three of us SP bloggers, each of whom fares quite well on reading comprehension tests, completely missed the "un" on the front of that "attractive." I cannot imagine such a collective failure happening if all three of us believed that I am an unbelievably unattractive woman, and furthermore, everyone knows it. If we were primed to agree with this douchehound, we undoubtedly would have read it exactly as written--but we weren't, because we all know plenty of people find me plenty cute, and I have gotten numerous comments extolling my hotness before. (They were all from Jon B., but that's beside the point.) Despite the number of trolls we get, a comment calling me pretty is really no more unusual than one calling me a bloated, fugly cunt.

Know why? Attraction is subjective.

I was thinking about this recently while writing a piece on fat women and sexual power for Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti's upcoming anthology, and then it came up again yesterday while reading a comments thread on my superhero girlcrush Breakup Girl's blog. (MAJOR Sanity Watchers warning there, I am not kidding--and if you're faint of heart, you might even want to skip the rest of this post, 'cause I'll be quoting from it.)

A woman wrote to BG's alter ego, Lynn Harris, asking what to do about a guy she'd had this great connection with in e-mails and phone calls, who then saw a picture of her and said, "Call me when you lose some weight." Lynn's advice (he's got a right to his preferences; you've got a right to blow him off and should totally exercise that right; also, how the hell did you go 6 weeks without exchanging photos?) is right on the money in my opinion, but when she opened it up to comments on the BG blog, a whole lot of people disagreed.

'Cause, see, the problem here is not just that she fell for a guy who doesn't dig fat chicks, which could have been avoided by coughing up the photo a lot earlier. The problem is that no normal guy in the whole entire world digs fat chicks, which means she is Categorically Unattractive and must lose weight if she doesn't want to die alone.

Several commenters went down the fucking evo psych path with that:
We are programmed to look for healthy in every sense….healthy is attractive. Forcing the argument that people should accept others who are overweight goes against this natural selection switch, and makes it impossible for some people to accept.

Society has not conditioned us, evolution has. Men are attracted to women that represent the best chance of bearing their young and caring for them. This means young and physically fit.... This is not opinion, it is fact.

Evolution has produced men who are attracted to women who appear to be good prospects for bearing HIS children.

(HIS children! Got that, ladies?)

But most didn't even try to pretty it up with "science." They just flat-out don't bother themselves with trifles like the distinction between opinion and fact.
very few guys want to date over-weight women

She should trim up or accept that people will not be attracted to her for her size.

Ok,before everyone jumps down my throat. I used to be height/weight proportionate but over the years I’ve gained weight. I’m a chunky woman ok. I’m not denying it. And I know that’s why I don’t have a BF.... OK, men are really not that complicated and we women are just wasting our $ buying all these books. You don’t even have to be that pretty. You just have to be THIN. That’s right, crucify me now. YOU HAVE TO BE THIN.

Most guys don’t want heavy babes. Unless of course they are larger themselves. Just reality. While the recent move to accept larger people proliferates, and, while it is good to feel good about yourself-self love and all it’s just too much.

You can’t expect someone to agree to marry someone else who is obese.

the fact of the matter is that men prefer shapely over fat or large or whatever you want to call it. Until woman “get” this they will always wonder why they don't have as much success dating as they could or should. It is not rocket science.

Are you really that naive? seriously. You KNOW what guys want, look around! They want that hot, sexy, body, a gal to make them look good too. MOST men do not prefer an overweight woman.

This lady just doesn’t GET it. Some men just AREN”T sexually motivated, or attracted by a chunk. Girls, get the picture…If you want to be happy in your own skin, as all these self help horsecrap books talk about, remember, the author is hoping you buy her book, because she wants your money, so she is going to say it’s OK for you to be fat. NEWSFLASH ! You just might be happy in your own skin ALONE. Yes, you DO actually have a responsibility to look good, if you want to be accepted.

Noone likes fat people except fat people and that’s just how it is. It’s sloppy with rolls of fat hanging, creases, pendulous breasts and persperation.These are all the thoughts of the normal mind and rightfully so as it is not a myth.Take a thin person in a restaurant eating, no one takes a second look. Take a fat person eating and one will think, “slovenly overeater” That’s just the way it is. By the way, I’m fat and I think it’s ugly!

(Bold emphasis mine in all cases; caps are their own.)

You might be surprised--though I wasn't, sadly--just how many of those commenters identified themselves as fat in the midst of their tirades against fat people. Of course, they could have been thin and full of shit, but they probably weren't. My primary raison de blog, after all, is trying to help fat people hate themselves less--if other people learn to hate us less, too, that's just gravy. (Mmm, gravy.) Internalized self-loathing exists among every marginalized group, but among fat people, it's rare to find someone who doesn't believe every last thing we're told to feel about ourselves. You're ugly. You're disgusting. You're sloppy. You're lazy. You're embarrassing to be seen with. You're out of control. You have no self-discipline. You will never be loved unless you lose weight.

(P.S. I'm only telling you this because I'm concerned about your health.)

Consider this commenter, who breaks my fucking heart:
I actually married a guy that can’t stand my fat! Yes I did. Some would say I am stupid, but he treats me well, and we have a great life together. It is though, very difficult at times for me. I used to be very obese (almost 300lbs), and I am down to a size 14 and I am happy. Any one who knows anything about losing weight - when you have lost that much, you are really flabby. I can out-do my husband in the exercise department and he will admit it. I have put about 30lbs back on since we engaged, then married. I admit, I got a bit lazy and now I just can’t seem to get it back off. We talk about it frequently, and he apologises for the way he feels, but he claims he can’t change that and I have to lose more weight. He wants me into a size 8!! Hahaha - that will never happen and I tell him that. Anyway - I often wonder where I would be if I had been more true to myself.

The cognitive dissonance, it burns.

Fat people end up in relationships like that--or alone, too crippled by low self-esteem to even put themselves on the dating market--all too often, in large part because of this myth that there are Attractive People and Unattractive People, and every fat person falls into the latter category. Common sense should tell us this can't be true--if fat people aren't having sex, how the hell did so many fat people get here? Spaceships? Pods? But somehow, it has become a universal "truth" that no one wants to fuck, much less love, a fatty. Ever. Period.
Lose the weight and gain the power to choose.

How chilling is that? If you're fat, you don't have the power to choose a romantic partner. I can't be the only one hearing shades of this shit:

  • if any man would want to rape your gigantic ass, i’d be shocked

  • whoever raped you could have just waited at the exit of a bar at 3am and gotten it consenually without the beached whale-like “struggle” you probably gave

  • These fat whores would be lucky to even get raped by someone.I hope you whiny cunts find your way on top of a pinball machine in the near future.

If you're thin, you get to choose who you want to have sex with. If you're fat, you'd be lucky to be raped. Face it, ladies! I'm just being honest!

No. This is the farthest thing from honesty. This is bullshit. Hateful bullshit. Bullshit that causes fat people to stay in abusive relationships or cut themselves off from relationships altogether. Bullshit that causes thin, growing grade-school girls to put themselves on diets; bullshit that triggers eating disorders in those predisposed to them; bullshit that causes feminists and non-feminists alike to identify a "somewhat underweight" woman as "maximally attractive."

The world is not full of Attractive People and Unattractive People. It's full of people who are attractive to some and not to others. I hear from trolls all the time who complain that they don't want to be "forced" to find nasty, ugly fat women attractive--which utterly baffles me, since the last thing I want to do is encourage fat-hating dicks to date fat women. You don't find fat people attractive? Fabulous. Don't date them. I will find a way to pick myself up and move on without your love. But to assume your lack of sexual interest in fat chicks must be universal--or that the mere existence of self-confident fat people having healthy relationships somehow "forces" you to find fat attractive--is the height of fucking narcissism.

I use this as an example all the time, but I find Brad Pitt to be kinda meh, physically. (I also find him pretty charming in interviews, which does ratchet up my attraction to him somewhat, but I just do not get the concept of looking at a picture of him and swooning.) Obviously, he ain't suffering for my personal lack of Brad Pitt lust. But it goes to the point: even someone widely considered to be our culture's physical ideal isn't universally, objectively attractive. I was at a bar last week with Colleen, Tari, and Ottermatic, when a Prince video came on, and we started arguing about whether Prince is, in fact, hot. Colleen and Tari pointed out the obvious: tiny, tiny man, very weird. Meanwhile, Ottermatic and I pointed out what was equally obvious to us: BUT HOT. And of course, the upshot is that there is no fact there, just four opinions, split down the middle.

Another story I've told before, but bear with me--when I started dating Al, he asked what celebrities I'd dump him for (only because I'd asked him first, I should note; he found the whole convo ridiculous). I started with George Clooney, but he deemed that too cliche (fair enough), so I added the likes of Peter Saarsgard, Paul Giamatti, Jon Favreau, Philip Seymour Hoffman--and probably Prince, too, come to think of it.

Al: Oh, I get it. What you're saying is, you like unattractive men.

I handed him his ass for that one (especially after he told me that made him understand why I was into him)* because he was missing the whole fucking point: I, Kate Harding, am very attracted to all those men--and to Al. It doesn't make a goddamned bit of difference if they ring anybody else's bell (though they're all doing just fine for themselves, thanks), 'cause mine was the bell in question. Al's list (which I had to drag out of him) included Catherine Keener, Maura Tierney, Queen Latifah, and maybe sorta Frances McDormand--none of whom look remotely like me, but I wasn't losing any sleep over that, because the list itself proves that attraction is not about a single set of physical characteristics.

I was recently interviewed by a Trib reporter for a "personal profile" (that may never come out, alas), which involved me running down my whole damn life story. In talking about dating during my twenties, I referred to this boyfriend and that boyfriend and that other boyfriend and that guy I was hooking up with for a while and then that other guy I was hooking up with for a different while, until the reporter finally stopped me and said, "So, even though you struggled with weight and body image, it sure sounds like you never lacked for male attention." Me: BWAH!!!! That was an entire decade, lady, and years of it were spent alone and believing that unless I got and kept myself thin, I would never find love (again). Because fat people are Unattractive People. Full stop.

But at the same time, she was right--and that comment was really enlightening to me. Because until that moment, I looked back on my romantic life as a series of long, lonely periods punctuated by a few fluke relationships, when I could just as easily look back on it as a series of relationships punctuated by a few fluke lonely periods. I spent almost exactly half of that decade in long-term relationships and half not--but given all the flings and fruitless dates in the off years, the balance actually tips toward periods where I did have "male attention." (And that's without even getting into all the times I found out after the fact that some guy had been interested in me, and I was too damned clueless to see it.) So far, I've spent 2/3 of my thirties in relationships (most of that with Al), and only 1/3 alone. If this one doesn't work out, I should be a fucking dating machine when I'm in my forties.

And have I mentioned I'm fat?

But Kate, I already hear some of you saying. You're not that fat. You don't even know.

You're right, I don't know. And there is no doubt whatsoever that the fatter you are, the more discrimination you face in every phase of your life, including dating. But there is also no doubt whatsoever that people much fatter than me are hooking up and falling in love all over the place, every friggin' day. Because there are people who prefer fat partners, and people who are attracted to all shapes and sizes, and people who think they're not attracted to fat folks until they meet the right one and go gaga. Because--wait for it--attraction is subjective.

But Kate, that doesn't change the fact that in this culture, more people are attracted to thin people than to fat people.

No, it doesn't. But that fact doesn't mean that fat people need to choose between losing weight and getting used to the company of cats. It just means we're looking for our respective needles in a slightly bigger haystack. And on the upside, we've automatically weeded out the people who think adhering as closely as possible to the cultural beauty standard is a prerequisite for deserving love--who wants to date those assholes? I have dear friends who are damn near the Barbie standard, and half of their romantic lives have been spent fending off guys like that in the first place or figuring out how to dump them; our net relationship success is about even. So who's better off?

The fact is, I am "an unbelievably unattractive woman"--and also an unbelievably attractive woman, a kinda meh woman, a kinda cute woman, and everything else on the spectrum between "eww" and "ooh." It all depends on who's looking--and further depends on whether they've actually talked to me, whether they dig mouthy broads or dog people or spacey writers, whether I remind them of their mothers, whatever. One of the few culturally desirable attributes I possess is a huge rack, but I've met more men than you could imagine who say they actively prefer small boobs--and more than one who has deemed my tits "scary." (SCARY. Not kidding. More than one.) Meanwhile, I have stubby, drumstick-shaped legs, and yet the majority of my boyfriends, when asked, self-identified as Leg Men rather than Breast Men. How the hell did they end up with me? Attraction is not about a single set of physical characteristics.

Attraction is weird and unpredictable and dependent on about 8 zillion variables. If it were actually based on a list of identifiable characteristics, we could all just walk around comparing lists with each other until each of us found a perfect match. And I don't know, maybe that's how some people actually do it--the people who have strict rules about only dating thin, white blondes or tall, rich guys with full heads of hair. The people who think about potential romantic partners in terms of how others will see them, not in terms of what they see. But the rest of us just have to stumble around and wait for the zing!

The waiting can suck, if you prefer being in a relationship. It can suck a lot. But the zing! does not depend on thinness or whiteness or blondeness or tallness or richness or haired-ness. It depends on the time, place, and person, on a host of things you can't control, and on another host of things you can't even consciously recognize.

That is the reality, people. That is a fact. That is just me being honest.

*This did, however, produce one of the best Al quotes of all time: "I mean, I could look like Philip Seymour Hoffmann... if I worked out."

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