Many years ago, I started chatting online to a young woman whose father happened to have worked for Wildcat Engineering & Design, where I was working at the time. We made a little game of it that I would find out who her father was, her phone number, and give her a call. She bet me that I couldn’t because he hadn’t worked there in a couple years. I eventually narrowed it down to two names, both of which turned out to be wrong because she thought her father was a Machinist rather than a Welder. Once that was cleared up, I got it right. It’s one of those things that would have made a “good story for the grandchildren” if we’d had any. Which, of course, we didn’t. What did happen was that I found the mall where she worked, clandestinely stopped by, bought an ice cream cone from her, and we never really talked again. She was… substantially overweight.
Maybe she had a thyroid problem. Maybe she had a crappy metabolism. Maybe she was actually healthier than some of the slimmer girls that I had either dated or wanted to date who smoked. In the end, though, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that I didn’t find her attractive and the weight was the primary reason for that. She was a nice enough girl, though her personality wasn’t really enough to overcome that. There are cases where I did indeed date someone quite heavy, but notably in those cases I was the one that was doggedly pursued and I was the one that “stopped calling” once I determined that, for whatever reason, it didn’t seem like it was going to work. I don’t think I ever directly attributed it to weight, but I do suspect that in both cases if they had been less overweight I would have less hesitant.
I would like to think that if I met (or got to know) a perfectly wonderful person that was overweight, I would be able to get past it. I think that I could in some cases, particularly if they gained weight after I fell in love with them, but my track record doesn’t bear it out. Not just because of the three girls mentioned above, but because of a fourth. Someone who was a really, really great friend at a time that I needed one. Someone who listened to me whine and get petulantly angry but who nonetheless always listened and was there for me. One day, I decided to consider investigating things further. Her DMV profile said that she was 5′2″ and 270lbs. I never followed up on that.
None of these had anything at all to do with health. None of these were about her “failure to take care of herself” or because she “didn’t respect her body”. I may have told myself these things at one point in time so that I could look myself in the mirror, but the reality of the situation is 20/20 clear in hindsight. I didn’t want to date a substantially overweight person. I had no problem dating someone that was as overweight as I was or even a little more. In some cases I actively pursued people that were more overweight than I was. But not much more, and none that fell into the “morbidly obese” columns on the BMI chart. If I myself had been morbidly obese, I suspect that my expectations would have adjusted. But one of the benefits to being somewhat rather than gargantuanly overweight was that I did not have to adjust my expectations downward.
That I am superficial enough to care about weight is not something that I am particularly proud of. I wish I wasn’t. But it is the way that I was built. Further, all of the social conditioning I have received about not judging a book by its cover is not sufficient to counter the social conditioning component of (middle-class white) America’s (and much of the world’s) aversion to dating fat people.
My old flame Tracey Roberts made a comment several years back that stuck with me. In the years after she and I parted ways, she entered into depression and self-esteem desolation (for which I may have been a factor but was not a primary one). She gained considerable weight. On her LiveJournal account, she said that she is told over and over again that any man that cares about her weight is not worth her time. To which she commented, “I don’t think it can be true that 90% of men are not my time.”
Now, we could turn this around and say that the reason she had trouble finding a man was not the weight but rather the depression that played a role in it. Also, we could say that the men were off-put by the health implications of her weight or because she didn’t take care of herself. The problem with all of this is that, well, it’s bunk. The depression that put the weight on subsided, but the weight was still there. The self-esteem problems the weight caused were caused by the weight and the reaction of people (men, primarily) to it, so it’s equally hard to say that the self-esteem caused by the fat-averse is grounds for the fat-averse to be fat-averse. As for taking care of herself, she put a lot more effort into that than a lot of naturally thin people. Maybe she was eating late-night cakes and outsized portions at meals (I wouldn’t know), but she also hit the gym quite regularly (that I do know). I’m not saying that she was incapable of losing the weight, but it wasn’t the case that she wasn’t trying even if she was failing.
But to put a finer point on it, even if she had a thyroid problem and the medical documentation to prove it and if she was otherwise healthy (normal blood-sugar, blood pressure, etc) and the medical documentation to prove it, how many of the men that would cite health concerns as a reason not to date her would seriously reconsider? I would wager quite few. Actually, I would wager a number barely statistically significant from 0%.
No, the main reason that we are averse to dating fat people is that we do not find it aesthetically pleasing. I am coming out and admitting it. A lot of people won’t. They will try to turn it into a health issue or a discipline issue or a moral issue and everything they can to avoid admitting to being that superficial. And though I don’t think the health aspect of it is entirely a ruse (many such people won’t date smokers, either), I think that if it’s true that they would not date someone with a thyroid problem that they can’t seriously attribute it to health, discipline, or morality. Rather, we attribute it to those things so that we can feel better about ourselves. I don’t think that everybody is necessarily lying, unless we count self-deception.
I am a believer that there are “noble myths”, meaning that there are certain truths that we are better off ignoring or glossing over. A part of me wonders if that may be the case with dating fat people. Because the more we openly admit that it’s an aesthetic preference, the more validity we assign to it. We grant cover to human-nature-can’t-be-denied types and reinforce the validity of assumptions and behaviors that, while we can’t eliminate, we can try to minimize. While I don’t think that anybody should be socially pressured into dating people that they are not attracted to, I think that allowing it to be more freely declared leads to a greater social stigma on dating a fat person to the point that someone that would otherwise keep an open-mind would discriminate on that basis not based on their own preferences but because of concern regarding society’s reaction to their decision. I also worry that lending cover to people that believe that discrimination on weight and appearance is perfectly acceptable would allow some men whose wives had gained weight (and vice-versa) to rationalize infidelity the same way that certain commenters on Half Sigma wanted to give Mark Sanford a pass because men are hard-wired to be attracted to younger, fertiler women.
On the other hand, the use of health, discipline, and morality already allow for some of what I fear would happen in a society where discrimination against weight were considered even more okay than it is now. It provides a respectable face to a generally unfortunate (if not entirely avoidable) aspect of human nature. Strip that respectable face from it and more people might approach it the same way they do, say, an undesirable height or facial feature. It may not change their behavior, but it would add a little more compassion for those left behind in the dating arena. Further, to the extent to which we add a stigma to announcing that we don’t want to date fat people because they’re ugly, we’re making it so that only the more callous and indifferent people will admit to what’s really going on. That allows overweight people to take the moral high ground rather than see their dating handicap for what it really is. And, the myth of the health/discipline/morality rationale leads quite frankly to questions like Tracey asks.
The answer to Tracey’s question is actually yes. Men that won’t date a fat woman are not worth a fat woman’s time. The same goes for nerds who are frustrated with women’s unwillingness to date nerds. But the answer is also no. That men or women won’t date you does not make them immoral, bad people. It makes them, well, people. It does no good to judge people on the basis of a test that the vast majority of everybody will fail.