So, a friend of mine sent me a link last night to a gorgeous wedding photo of a cute couple. Both members of the couple happened to be fat. I went to find the source to check out something else about the picture, but when I found it, I stumbled across the comments, which was probably a bad thing….
I do believe there is an element of construction here, though. We’re taught what to like. I hate to use a food example, but bear with me for a moment. We’ve all got individual tastes. Things we love and things we loathe. And we’ve also got culturally constructed ideas of “the norm” - things we classify as food simply because we are told they are food and things we classify as “gross” because they aren’t part of our cultural conceptualization of food.
Your own personal tastes do not play into whether or not you think beetles are a food source - that’s cultural construction. Beetles may hit every zinger on your tongue, but you (hypothetical you) may never know because “ew, bugs, those aren’t food.”
When we look at bodies that deviate from the mainstream, a lot of our responses are learned responses. Because just as fat people (and other people who deviate from “the norm”) are constantly barraged with messages about what is attractive and what is not… so is everyone else.
When I stopped viewing fat as an automatically terrible thing on my own body, fat people in general got a lot more attractive - I was ALLOWED to view not only myself but everyone else as attractive and so my own tastes broadened - or, not even broadened. I realized what my own tastes were as opposed to what my culturally constructed tastes were.
Absolutely. (And I didn’t do a great job of teasing this element out in what I wrote.) But I think it’s also equally true that there are people who open their mind to a world of ideas and still find that they happen to like what society told them to like.
Here’s an example that comes up for me a lot: People often ask, “Why is it that there is so much intersectionality of subcultures? Why are so many poly people kinky? Why are so many fat activist people fannish? Why are so many X people Y?” I use the example of the treasure chest. We’ve all got a treasure chest inside us that has all kinds of tags about ourselves stored in it. [This analogy fails deep analysis because the chest would have to be permeable, since I don’t think these are innate born-with-it traits, but whatever, it works really well if you ignore that bit.] And our society and our upbringing and our friends tells us what that treasure chest is likely to hold. Things like “straight” and “vanilla” and “wants kids” and “wants marriage” and “wants a job at a company” and “likes action films or romantic comedies depending on gender” and all sorts of things across the spectrum. And there are certainly a whole lot of people who accept that entirely constructed list as their list of tags and don’t really ever pry open the chest to verify that. (And there are plenty of people who only pry it open in secret and keep the results of that exploration hidden away because they’d rather try to conform to the list they were given.) But then there are people who open the chest and rummage around and discover that some of those tags weren’t what they were told. And the thing is that once you’ve opened the chest and rummaged around, you’re not unlikely to discover more than what you went looking for. Maybe you had an inkling that your chest contained “gay” but while you were in there looking you discovered that it also contained “furry”. It’s a crude analogy for just shifting to keep your mind open to various other kinds of experiences and to self-knowledge and it tramples roughshod over the fact that you often don’t find these things out all at once, but it works for some people.
The reason I bring what seems like a tangential analogy up is that I think it’s good to illustrate why I was being so careful to be understanding of people who really *are* attracted to people who look like the things we’re told are supposed to be “beautiful”. It’s because whenever I discuss this analogy, I try to be very sensitive to the idea that some people open the chest and really do discover all or most of the tags that society told them were going to be in there. And I think that that sometimes gets lost in discussions of this sort of thing — in particular, I think that there’s often an assumption that if you look like you’re leading the default life that our society tries to map out for you that you’re automatically leading an unexamined life, simply because both of those states look very similar on the outside. But I’ve met people who have incredibly open minds, and have lived very broadly examined and experienced lives, and yet wound up right on the path where society would have told them to be in many externally readable ways.
I agree that there’s a lot of construction that goes into telling us what we should find attractive, and that my tags analogy falls down by not factoring in how outside influences can mold those and how we can ourselves mold them by being open in certain ways. However, I find it implausible to the point of unbelievability (to me) that, given my belief that everybody’s beautiful to somebody and probably a lot of somebodies, that that’s actually everybody except supermodels. I don’t go the other way and think that society pushes a certain type for a reason and that that reason is that that’s what people really like, but I do think that if you were to plot everybody in a multidimensional surface describing all the possible ways you can be attracted to someone, and then you pick a given socially promoted and widely accepted sex symbol and shade in the space corresponding to the “close enough” set around that person on all those axes, some number of people’s plot points are going to fall inside that space.
So… yes, you make a totally valid point, but also… etc. :)
Oh, OF COURSE there are people who genuinely find the societal norm beautiful - I just think more people would find more things beautiful as well if we weren’t socially constructed to tag certain characteristics certain ways automatically. And, frankly, liking fat people doesn’t have any impact on whether or not I like stereotypically beautiful people - one can enjoy both.
In the case of the guy who wrote in because he really clicked with a woman intellectually but wasn’t attracted to her fat, we have no way of knowing whether or not he might actually dig on the fatties once he’s open to the possibility that, yeah, fat people can also be desireable, especially this one fat person. I think the language of “in spite of” is really heinous - but I also think it is jumping to huge conclusions to brush off his confusion as “well, if you aren’t attracted to her, you aren’t attracted to her.” Because who the hell knows?
We have this myth of instantaneous attraction - it’s part and parcel of our obsession with really freaking unhealth Romance (there’s a reason the Romantics were tormented, y’all). We are more than our instincts - that’s the beauty of being a reasoning individual. Attraction grows out of all sorts of things - and I think it’s valid to say, hey, I’ve never been attracted to someone with your body type before but I want to see what develops.
I’m married to a totally heteronormative dude. Which kind of erases a lot of my experiences that have gone before. But my penchant for male-identified androgynous people wearing skirts does not negate my attraction to my stocky blond frat boy looking husband. Like, I don’t think we only get to like one thing. So of course lots of people think super models are attractive - but that’s only one type. You can like more things when you start to bust out of the rules society imposes on beauty.
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