Fat girls and sex

NPR’s “This American Life” had a fascinating story featuring Elna Baker, a young fat gal (she used the F word). She tried to convince herself it wouldn’t truly matter, that people would see her for who she really was. Finally, she realized it just wasn’t so. She couldn’t get the kind of work she wanted, nor the love life. So she decided to get control of her life, through control of her body.

Elna before & after

Elna succeeded; lost 30 pounds in a month; 110 in all. But there was a new problem: skin. Its surface area did not shrink with her poundage. Solving that (mostly) was another (not pretty) story.

But anyway, Elna achieved the desired results, careerwise and socialwise. She got a long-term boyfriend.

What I found fascinating was her discussion of how the world changed for her. Like she was entering a whole new one.

Eddie Murphy in white-face

She analogized it to the Saturday Night Live skit where Eddie Murphy masquerades as white, and discovers the secret white world. On a bus, when the last black passenger exits, the partying starts, with cocktails being served. Who knew?

So people did see Elna differently, and interacted differently with her. But she was conflicted in her feelings about this; in some ways less happy now, upset at what she saw as previous unfairness. She was tortured pondering that her boyfriend had known her before, but didn’t even seem to realize she was that same person. So, if her weight made all the difference, were his feelings for her a matter of “who she really is” or just her physicality?

I think she was looking at this the wrong way. One can’t know “who she really is” on casual acquaintance. Removing the weight removed a barrier between her and others, like her boyfriend. Only now was the way clear for him to know “who she really is.”

Postulating “shallowness” of people for whom weight is that kind of barrier was a trope in the program. But this asks too much of what are still, after all, biological animals. We are programmed by evolution — very powerfully programmed — to reproduce. Sexual attraction plays a big role there. It’s why sexual attraction is a key element of romantic love. Fine and dandy to talk about “who she really is” inside, but without sexual attraction, forget about it.

And the fact is that we are sexually attracted to who we are sexually attracted to, and for any given person, there’s no changing it. It is simply a fact of one’s existence. And don’t tell me about cultural influences with ads and so forth glamorizing thin women. That gets the causation backwards; thinness is glamorized because that is what most men (most Western men at least) do find most attractive, for reasons going much deeper.

In my own case, women’s sexual attractiveness rises strongly with slenderness (but then drops off sharply at the point of anorexia). Why? I’ve tried to psychoanalyze myself, but really it is just a fact of my existence, as though in my bones rather than brain. Just like for gay men whose sexual attraction to males is intrinsic.

This points up the idiocy of “gay conversion therapy.” Heterosexual men who promote this foolishness should ask themselves if any kind of “therapy” could make them want sex with men rather than women.

But back to fatness. It’s a modern problem because we evolved to cope with environments of food scarcity, and “feast or famine” patterns. Thus programmed to eat as much as possible when food was available, to make up for lean times. Energy-rich foods like fats and sugar were especially rare, so we’re made to crave them especially. But in modern societies food is everywhere, with lots of fats and sugar. We’re not made for this environment.

Of course eating discipline and exercise are important. However, we are increasingly learning how much more complex the story is. Take calories — it turns out not all are the same, it’s a very crude measure. One dish of 200 supposed calories can affect the body very differently from another kind of 200 calorie meal. And, even more importantly, it depends on who’s eating, as people themselves differ greatly, in their genetics and internal biology. In fact, your body contains more bacteria cells than ones having your own DNA, and different bacterial populations affect how food is processed after swallowing. Result: some people are much more prone to fatness than others, and for them dieting can be an extremely frustrating, even futile, endeavor.

Elna was apparently one of the lucky ones for whom that isn’t true. Me too. Gatherings of my local humanist group often feature potlucks, and I indulge freely. People commonly express wonder that I eat like that and stay so slim. I tell them, “I only eat at humanist events.”

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