[Content Note: Fat bias; dehumanization; racism; heterocentrism; discussion of thin and fat bodies.]
#5: Fat is axiomatically ugly.
This is, by far, the most-requested entry for this series. And it's simultaneously the easiest and most difficult myth to address, because, on the one hand, that is obviously false: Beauty is subjective, and there are people of all sizes who find individual fat people beautiful, attractive, sexy, desirable—even in modern Western culture, which is the setting for this post. On the other hand, there are all sorts of qualifying narratives that are used to "explain" fat attraction and set it outside the rigid bounds of a "normal" spectrum of attraction, and those need to be addressed to really get at the heart of this belief.
"You have such a pretty face." This is probably the most common iteration of a theme that essentially boils down, in all its variations, to: "There is something vaguely attractive about you despite your hideous fat body." These sorts of "compliments" implicitly acknowledge the "conventional wisdom" that fat bodies are gross and unattractive, but one part of that body might not make strangers want to barf! It's a strategy often employed by fat-haters who fancy themselves tasked with the responsibility of bestowing upon wretched fatties the gift of self-esteem via the rhetorical equivalent of salvaging a diamond from pig slop.
This sort of salvage-complimenting is deeply harmful, because it's embedded with the message that our bodies are the pig slop—which salvage-complimenters treat as so axiomatic that they don't understand why their "compliments" aren't well-received. (Also because these "compliments" are deeply narcissistic, and don't really serve to compliment fat people, but to display the salvage-complimenters' imagined magnanimity. They are very confused when they are not rewarded for their "kindness" to fat people.) Salvage-complimenting works on the premise that fat is ugly, and identifying attractiveness in fat people is something you do out of the goodness of your heart, not because fat people are actually attractive.
This not only feeds the narrative that fat people can't be viewed as attractive by "normal" people, but also feeds the narrative that anyone who finds a fat person comprehensively attractive is "not normal."
The Exceptions. There are narratives of exception to the rules that fat is axiomatically ugly and fat attraction is axiomatically unnatural. BUT! These exceptions all exist in service to a kyriarchal beauty standard. For example: Women of color can "get away with" curves, or are "allowed" to be fat, in a way white women cannot. Or: Men of color like fat women, in a way white men don't. Or: Gay/bi women can themselves be fat, and also love fat women, in a way straight women cannot.
These narratives are, of course, not true. Fat women of color are just as likely to face fat hatred and discrimination as fat white women. See, for example, Keena speaking about her experiences in The Fat Body (In)Visible. Women partnered with other women are not magically insulated from institutional fat bias by virtue of their sexuality. Men of color have individual preferences and biases informed in part by the cultures in which they're socialized, just the same as everyone else.
Like many other cultural narratives, these myths serve to monolithize and Other people who intrinsically deviate from the kyriarchal beauty standard and a heterocentrist model of partnering. They are not, as they are frequently positioned, authentic evidence of a more diverse spectrum of attraction within marginalized communities, but instead are myths told by privileged classes in order to suggest: It's okay for those people to be fat and/or find fat attractive, because they don't matter anyway.
(Which is not to say that there have not existed and do not currently exist communities, particularly communities of color, in which fat bodies are admired and valued. But this post is addressing a central fat-hating myth of the dominant modern Western culture.)
Often these attitudes among privileged people toward fat marginalized people are inextricably wrapped up in other marginalizing narratives, i.e. black women are sexually voracious jezebels, whose voluptuous bodies are vessels of insatiable sexuality, or Latino men are lustful lotharios whose sexually charged machismo renders their libidos impervious to the aesthetic discernment of cooler-blooded gentlemen. Within these frames, "women of color can have curves" and "men of color like fat women" are clearly not evidence of tolerance, but narratives in service to oppression.
Thus, do these narratives also reinforce the ideas that fat and "objectively attractive" are mutually exclusive concepts, and that attraction to fat is deviant.
And they also underwrite the similarly functioning narrative…
White men who prefer fat women are fetishists. To prefer fat women's bodies is not simply a preference, as it is considered to prefer thin women's bodies. It is considered a fetishistic sexuality—which, naturally, has its roots in the premise that natural body diversity does not exist (thin is "normal," and fat is "abnormal"), so attraction to fat bodies is thus deviant.
But, of course, natural body diversity does exist, and so it is eminently reasonable that it would follow a natural spectrum of attraction exists. (Brian has eloquently written about being a fat admirer here, for example.) If it seems there are fewer men casually expressing their preference for fat female bodies than men who openly prize thin female bodies, that may have a lot less to do with an assumed dearth of men attracted to fat women than the strong cultural disincentives against partnering with fat women.
Men, especially thin men, who partner with fat women risk being bullied by their peers, being questioned and criticized about their choices by family, being professionally disadvantaged by employers, and in other ways negatively judged, because fat attraction is seen as deviant, and because a straight man's worth is still valued in large part by the "quality" of the woman he dangles off his arm like a trophy.
Thus exists a self-reinforcing cycle: To be attracted to fat women is "deviant." Men are discouraged from expressing attraction to fat women. Few men express that attraction. Their paltry number is cited as "evidence" that attraction to fat women is "deviant." Rinse and repeat forever.
(Among men partnered with men, there are similar disincentives, and to be attracted to fat gay/bi men outside the bear community can carry similar stigma.)
There are men who do not fetishize fat women—that is, they do not reduce our qualities exclusively to our fatness—but nonetheless prefer fat female bodies. That shouldn't be controversial—and wouldn't be, if fat were not pathologized.
It would also be less controversial if we recognized that fat admirers, i.e. people with a preference for fat bodies, were not the only people attracted to fatsronauts.
No one is attracted to both thin people and fat people. Except for all of us who are, of course. I have been with thin men and fat men. Those men have been with thin women and fat women. I don't believe I've ever fucked anyone who only liked fat women, or who only made some wild exception for me in order to cross "fuck a fatty" off their bucket list.
This myth is deeply entwined with…
Only fat people are attracted to fat people. Except for all the fat people who are happily partnered with thin people who find them attractive, of course. Naturally, we're meant to believe that thin people who are partnered with fat people are just grody fetishists, or aren't really attracted to their partners, as if the world is just one big game of musical chairs and those poor skinny folks just ended up without a skinny
(There are, I will briefly note, d-bags who prey on fat people with low self-esteem, and that is not really about attraction at all. That is about exploitation and control.)
There are people who prefer thin bodies, and people who prefer fat bodies, and people who don't really have a preference—who find individual thin people and individual fat people attractive.
Again, an idea that shouldn't be controversial—and wouldn't be, if fat bodies weren't treated as though they were monstrously grotesque, instead of the different presentation of the same parts that they actually are.
There is nothing aesthetically unpleasing to me about a fat body—not other bodies, and not my own. There was a time when I did not like what I saw when I looked at my own fat body in the mirror, but it was not because I thought it was ugly; it was because all I could see was how different it looked from what I believed all bodies are supposed to look like. Once I believed, truly believed, that it was okay to look the way I look, I found I was pretty damn happy with the curves and bulges and dimples of my fat body.
I'm not making the argument that everyone would find fat bodies beautiful if only they didn't subscribe to fat hatred. (Although undoubtedly a lot more people would.) I am simply saying that it made a difference to me, and that intrinsic attraction was not the issue. Perceived deviance from a "norm" was.
And that, really, is what the myth that fat is axiomatically ugly is all about—the failure to conform to a beauty standard structured to uphold the kyriarchy and routinely (mis)represented as a reflection of attraction designed by biological imperative. "Norms" are socialized. Failure to exist as a kyriarchetype is not "ugliness." It is deviance ascribed by privilege.
Until we make thorough examinations of whatever thin privilege and internalized fat hatred we have, as thin or fat or in-between, we can't truly know what we find unattractive, and what we simply find aesthetically transgressive.