Sexual preferences are not hardwired, they are socially ingrained ideas that we ingest and rarely question.
By Sonalee Rashatwar
TW/CW: The following video transcript and audio contain mentions of fatphobia, dieting, and trauma.
Hi! My name is Sonalee Rashatwar, I use she and they pronouns because I identify as non-binary and I’m popularly known on Instagram as The Fat Sex Therapist. I am a super-fat, queer, bisexual, non-binary, Indian-American, second-generation immigrant, documented, non-practicing Hindu, lower-caste, upper-middle-class, East Coast for life (Jersey girl), cat-mom, plant-dad and licensed clinical social worker living in Philadelphia.
I am here today to talk about why fatphobia is not a sexual preference. Before we go into any content, if just upon hearing that statement you ask yourself, actually it’s ok to not be attracted, sexually or physically to fat people, or not wanting to date fat people doesn’t make me fatphobic, well, we might need to talk about that. So let’s get into it.
Anytime we are working through unraveling internalized fatphobia, it can feel like an almost not-wanting-to-be-unraveled, and it’s helpful to know that when we interrogate internalized fatphobia, it might come up through feelings of defensiveness and frustration, especially when looking through some of the posts that I write [on Instagram], especially this one, on fatphobia not being a sexual preference.
Typically the way that we understand fatphobia as a structure, is the same way that we would understand any other typer of body-based oppression. So when I say structure I mean that there are two levels of fatphobia, there’s the individual level and the systemic level of fatphobia, and within each of these there are two separate types of individual and systemic fatphobia. So within the individual level, there’s internalized fatphobia and interpersonal fatphobia and within the systemic level of fatphobia there is institutional fatphobia and structural fatphobia. I find that this four-tiered system is really important for us to really understand when we’re trying to dissect the different ways that fatphobia exists across a structure laterally because oftentimes we get stuck thinking about fatphobia only as, “someone called me fat on the internet” or “my aunt commented on how much weight I gained at her Thankstaking,” yeah, these are both great examples of fatphobia, and we can’t forget about the ways that we internalize fatphobia — not just the ways that we communicate fatphobia interpersonally, but also the institutional ways that institutions create unfair policies and discriminatory practices that perpetuate fatphobia, and how those practices happen across institutions to create structural fatphobia.
We see this often in medical offices, we see it in insurance companies, we see it on airplanes. That’s kind of what we think of when we think of structural fatphobia. We think of fat folks who lose their jobs to fat folks who get kicked off planes, I think of fat folks who get denied insurance coverage or medical care due to their BMI status (the BMI number assigned to them), they’re often refused things like top surgery or fertility treatment which is fatphobia. That is medical fatphobia and discriminatory practice that is created intentionally to discriminate against fat bodies.
If you’re watching this video in the U.S. then you know that the BMI, or the Body Mass Index, is a scale (a metric) used to apply discrimination on fat individuals. So, when I go to the doctor’s office, I am assigned a number on the BMI scale and depending on what number I am assigned, that will grant or deny me access to certain medical procedures. This is called structural fatphobia and I often go a step deeper and call it medical fatphobia, the types of surgeries and procedures that you might assume might be denied—I’m not talking about knee-replacement surgery, which is absolutely a fatphobic thing to deny a fat person to receive—no, I’m talking about fertility treatment, top surgery. So someone who is assigned a higher BMI category might be denied any fertility treatment might be denied treatment based on their fertility doctor’s own fatphobia. The same can happen [with] a surgeon who may deny a trans client to receive gender-affirming surgery, like top surgery, due to their assigned BMI. These are both really specific examples of structural medical fatphobia.
Internalized fatphobia is my favorite one to talk about on Instagram, and that’s the way that we ingest this whole structure and system and understanding the value of fat bodies and the way that we internalize it—meaning that we put ourselves within that worth hierarchy. I experience this anytime I experience the pressure of wanting to go on another diet or wanting to pursue intentional weight-loss. I experience internalized fatphobia anytime I imagine that might life would magically be easier if I just x number of pounds lighter. Internalized fatphobia for me assumes this conflation between thinness and health instead of breaking down “what does health mean”, “what does mobility mean,” “what does happy, joyful, quality of life mean?” — instead of assuming that thinness is the epitome of really great health.
It’s important for us to acknowledge that the actual roots of fatphobia come from anti-Blackness and colonization. And I say that based on a lot of the material published in Sabrina Stings’ recently published book, “Fearing the Black Body”, and basically, what she asserts is that through European colonization of West Africa, there was this specific usage of fatphobia in order to establish a hierarchy of “civilized” white European and fat “savage” Black slaves. In creating this binary, this hierarchy, European colonizers rationalized through things like race science and white supremacist art, they rationalized their desire to enslave people who they deemed to be “savage” due to their body size, skin color, assumed temperament and based on the type of food that they ate. And that’s especially why that’s important when we’re going to have conversations about fatphobia, that they need to be linked with food. So whenever we talk about fat people, we’re often talking about the type of food that fat people are eating. So anytime someone is criticizing a food based on its presumed nutritional quality, there is usually an inherent conversation that is subtly happening within the subtext about fat people. It’s hard to prove, but it’s usually happening.
Another way that I observe fatphobia seeping into our personal relationships is through the experience of non-consensual diets and diet trauma more broadly. So non-consensual diets can happen, especially to children when they’re placed on their bodies by adults/caregivers. And I call them non-consensual because oftentimes children cannot consent to a diet that’s not medically-necessary without fully-informed consent. I call it non-consensual because that is based on my personal experience, what I experienced as a child was being put on diets from the ages of eight—as young as eight, nine, ten—and I believe that I could have not consented that young to a diet. And what I experienced, it didn’t feel good in my body, it didn’t feel consensual, it didn’t feel good. And so that is why I use that language and that wording. But more broadly diet trauma can, we can experience this anytime: we attempt to diet and we “fail”, meaning our body compensates for this famine that we are putting it under, and it resists the famine, by making sure that it doesn’t lose weight, and it maintains the body size or gain the weight that was lost. Diet trauma can happen because of a lot of consistent yo-yo dieting, we can experience diet trauma by going to see several medical providers who recommend weight-loss, and when we try it we don’t feel good because we were not successful at losing weight, because some of the research that the anti-diet dieticians that I admire, that I look up to and that I refer to like Christy Harrison just to name one, she sites research that estimates something like 95-97 percent of diets (and diet meaning intentional weight-loss) do not result in long-term sustained weight-loss after five years. So that’s something that is significant for us to think about because, if many of us dieters ahd that knowledge before trying a new diet, we might not have gone in with all of our eggs in that basket and we might not have fallen so hard when all of our hopes and dreams were dashed by having our bodies save us from what it perceived as famine.
One thing that I want to make sure is stated is that sexual fetishes are not sexual preferences. And sexual orientation is not sexual preference. So these are things I’m not talking about when having this conversation. If someone were to state, “my sexual orientation is that I am a lesbian,” I will never tell a lesbian that they are discriminating against men if they are not attracted to men. So that is not what I am saying here when I am talking about fatphobia not being a sexual preference, and I am not talking about individuals who fetishize someone’s fat body, and how fatphobia is not a sexual preference there either. There are many fat individuals who consensually engage in being a fetished person, a fetished fat person in a romantic relationship. And that is, body autonomy overall, that is my personal motto and I’m not here to comment on adults making autonomous decisions about their own fat bodies. Never! Girl Scouts’ honor, never am I here to keep consensual adults from doing what they want to do.
What I am saying though, is that when someone states and offers this broad statement such as “I’m just not attracted to fat people. Never have, never will be. No desire to interrogate why that statement just exists unchallenged in my brain space,” those are the individuals that I want to talk to. And again, not for the purposes of forcing of anyone to be attracted to me, no! This is part of the larger conversation of better understanding how we ingest fatphobia and make it part of our belief system without totally being aware of where those messages came from and how they have been so seamlessly been woven into the fabric of our own personal values, beliefs, and attitudes.
Related: DESIRABILITY: DO YOU REALLY LOVE FAT PEOPLE WHEN YOU CAN’T EVEN SEE US BEYOND THE POLITICAL?
The fact of the matter is that our sexual preferences are not hard-wired, they’re actually really socially conditioned, we do have some control over the fluidity of those preferences and I often see this when I work with clients who have experienced sexual trauma and are sometimes willfully shifting the fluidity of who they are attracted to because of their experience of trauma. So my challenge to you is, don’t hide behind the excuse of sexual preference, if you’re going to tell me the list of reasons why you don’t date x person for y reasons, just name it for what it is, say that you’re fatphobic, say that you’re anti-Black, say that you’re dealing with a certain kind of racism against a certain nationality or ethnicity. Let me know that you’re xenophobic, let me know that you’re transphobic, let me know that you’re struggling with misogyny, let me know that you don’t date people with addiction because you’re really affected by addiction stigma, let me know that you’re whorephobic and that you don’t date sex workers. Let me know that you’re anti-Native and you don’t date indigenous people, let me know that you don’t date people who are not upper-caste, Hindus, let me know that you’re actually a really elite classist and you don’t date poor people, let me know that you’re actually super ableist and that’s why you don’t date disabled people, let me know that you’re super-duper islamophobic and that is why you don’t date Muslims. Don’t hide behind the sexual preference label, don’t hide behind this understanding that you are hardwired to not be attracted to Muslims. No, please acknowledge the cultural climate that is islamophobic, that is informing that sexual preference. It is not a hardwiring, your DNA does not know who a Muslim is (laughs). If you’re watching this video and you’re like, “shit, I think I’m struggling with fatphobia because I will not date someone who is fat, or I am realizing that I do not experience attraction towards fat bodies, I don’t find them desirable, I don’t find them beautiful, I don’t find them even in artful ways, attractive” — what I am not telling you, as a sex therapist, as an activist, as a fat person, what I am never telling you to do, is to human experiment on people by dating them and working through your fatphobia with fat people, or whatever x group of people you are wanting to work through your bigotry. Please don’t do that, it will harm the individuals that you are dating even if you don’t intend to.
What you can do instead however is doing things like trying some porn or erotica with different bodies, notice what feelings are coming up for you, are you looking at porn that is reflective of your body or the bodies of people who you want to be attracted to? Why or why not? So I often work with clients who are fat, who are struggling with internalized fatphobia, and what they notice is that they are often watching porn of thin-bodied individuals, of thin, skinny, slim people. And when I ask them, “why is that?” when we interrogate that further, sometimes it’s because they have a hard time finding and eroticizing fat bodies. So an exercise that we do together is an intentional looking for porn with fat bodies in order to internally interrogate and ask ourselves and have this dialogue with ourselves of, “hey, what’s coming up for me when I watch this fat porn? Am I feeling disgust? Am I feeling aroused? Am I surprised by that arousal? And how can I challenge myself to find two to three attractive qualities about this fat body? How can I look at this fat, attractive, aroused body in this erotica, in this porn, in literature that I may be reading? And how can finding gratitude and desirability in that fat body help me to find gratitude, peace, neutrality, stillness from my own body?”
Oftentimes the fatphobia that we inflict on others, sometimes what that’s really about is our own very, very deep inability to be at peace with ourselves and allow ourselves to take up the space that we need. And so when we see others being able to take up the space that our body demands, we project our own disgust with ourselves onto those other fat bodies. Sometimes that’s really what our fatphobia is actually about.
Thanks so much for having some curiosity about this conversation, if you looking for more information or resources about how I even came to this conclusion on internalized fatphobia and how it’s not a valid sexual preference, I’m going to offer you some names and some ideas. So a lot of these conversations that are happening right now are actually understanding and deconstructing social construction theory and using social analysis to better understand how desirability politics and how sexual desirable we are as individuals is what actually informs the way that we are treated in the board room and in the bedroom. Desirability politics was actually a concept that was written about by Catherine Hakim and this conversation happens around the concept of erotic capital. If you’re looking for more around the conversations around the concept of desirability politics, I am going to name two more names: Mia Mingus, I’m a personal fan of hers, and what she has written was a keynote address titled, “Moving Toward The Ugly: Moving Beyond a Politic beyond Desirability”, and the final name that I am going to offer you is my friend and fat savior, Caleb Luna and the piece that I want to offer you that they have written is, “Treating My Friends Like Lovers: The Politics of Desirability” and what Mia and Caleb are both doing are building upon the narrative of erotic capital, what we can do to better understand how sexual desirability impacts our treatment in many hemispheres. They’re trying to push the conversation forward by helping us understand what to do with that information. What do I do if I am a fat person who exists at multiple margins and I still want to access romantic love or any kind of love? Caleb Luna talks about how to still access love in ways that de-stratify romantic and platonic love and flatten that hierarchy. These are brilliant thinkers and I recommend that you look them up and learn more about these topics.
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