There are so many wonderful carnivals in the blogosphere these days, I have a hard time keeping up. I did check out the latest Big Fat Carnival, dealing with a variety of blog posts on weight and culture. As a result, I found this article at AskMen: 6 Ways to Tell Your Girlfriend to Lose Weight.
The six tips range from the asinine (buy her an outfit that's too small for her and inspire her to try and fit into it) to the manipulative (tell her you have a new female trainer at the gym, and she'll show up just to keep tabs on you.) My first reaction, reading through them, was to make certain that it wasn't satire. I'm fairly confident it's not. I've run into many, many men who complain about the weight that their wives or girlfriends put on over the course of a relationship. Some of these guys are crass about it, while others are clearly guilt-ridden. One of my friends, "Joey", sought me out a few years ago on this very issue. "I feel like such an ass", he said, "but my wife's weight gain is bugging the hell out of me. I love her and don't want to hurt her -- how do I talk to her about it?"
Meloukhia has an impassioned response at her place, one that begins:
First let's start with the premise that it's your responsibility to tell your girlfriend to lose weight as though it's some sort of moral obligation. Clearly, you wouldn't want to be seen dating a fat girl, so as those pounds creep up, you've got to take decisive action...or dump her. And you wouldn't want to dump her, now would you? This premise also assumes that it's totally socially acceptable and ok to tell your partner to lose weight, albeit in oh so clever and devious ways. As a self respecting man, you've got to take a stance somewhere, right?
Though she doesn't expand on it, Meloukhia is dead on right that much of the issue here revolves less around issues of sexual desire and health and more about men's homosocial status. And this reminds me of my reaction to Joey's query. Before discussing strategies for tactfully approaching our partners about their weight, men need to cop to their real reasons for wanting their girlfriends and wives to be slender. Many men are reluctant to admit the degree to which their partner's perceived attractiveness in the eyes of other men bolsters their confidence and their sense of status. Put bluntly, having a trim girlfriend or wife boosts one's standing among one's male peers. In this culture, men are taught from an early age that being with a "hot chick" conveys real and tangible benefits in the eyes of other guys.
For many American men raised to see women as a yardstick with which to measure their own masculinity quotient, a partner's weight gain is going to be perceived as a very real threat to their own standing. We all know men who get turned on when they realize that their wives or girlfriends are objects of desire for other men. One key question we need to challenge men with: is your partner's weight gain really turning you off, or are you worried about how other men are reacting to her as a result? Do you miss being able to use other men's sexual desire as a crutch to stimulate your own libido?
Men are taught to find "hot" what other men find "hot." The whole notion of a "trophy girlfriend" is based on the reality that a great many men use female desireability to establish status with other men. And in our current cultural climate where thinness is idealized, a slender partner is almost always going to be worth more than a heavy one. For men who have not yet extricated themselves from homosocial competition, their own self-esteem and sense of intra-male status may decline in direct proportion to their girlfriend's weight gain.
Let me stress that this is absolutely not women's problem to solve! My goal is not to make women who gain weight feel bad; protecting a fragile male ego is not a woman's responsibility. The key thing men need to do is get honest about their own desire to use female desireability to establish status in the eyes of other men. And here's where pro-feminist men can do a terrific service by challenging one another and holding each other accountable for the ways in which we are tempted to use our wives and girlfriends as trophies. When I confronted Joey with this, he admitted that he still found his wife attractive -- but he was embarrassed by her when they went out with his friends. He realized that he was angry and frustrated because he was scared of what others would think, even though he still responded sexually to his spouse. Our conversation didn't stop his anxiety entirely, but it helped him see it in a new perspective.
Some of my friends who know my wife will point out that she is a toned, muscled triathlete/boxer/cyclist, and this it's easy for me to come down hard on men who are upset at their wives' weight gain. But without getting into much detail, I've been married to women who were considerably heavier than the cultural ideal. Though my past marriages ended for a variety of reasons, my wives' weight gain was not ever one of them! I was fortunate to learn early on to separate my own love and desire for a woman from how other men see her. Whether or not other men think my wife is "hot " or not does not add to my longing for her, because she is not a tool that I use with which to compete with other guys! Like all of us, my wife's body goes through periodic changes. Together we gain and lose weight (though not always in harmony). I'm grateful that I've learned that real sexual desire in a committed relationship is not linked to these inevitable fluctuations.
I'm glad my wife works out. I love her strong, powerful physique. But mostly, I like that she and I share the same passion for fitness. We don't work out merely to live up to some ideal, we work out because we get high on the endorphins and on the exuberance that exercise produces. I'm glad we share that. But if my wife were to stop her exercising and gain weight, that wouldn't be about me. If she gained weight thanks to depression or some other crisis, I would of course be gravely concerned -- not with the weight gain but with what precipitated it. But while we each own each other's body in the sense that Paul discusses ownership in 1 Corinthians, neither of us gets to demand that that body look or feel a certain way. And both of us, I'm fairly confident, are able to separate our very real physical delight in each other from the way that others perceive us.
In the end, our bodies will age and weaken -- nature is nature, and perfection will slip further and further from our grasp, just as it does for everyone. If our longing for each other is built on the way in which our bodies match a cultural ideal, than our love is not worthy of that name.