This is the first of five "Books In Dialogue" posts. Each BiD post will be about a new book, and the ways I see the book dialoguing with themes in Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion. This post is dedicated to Feministing's Samhita Mukhopadhyay's book, Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life. I fell in love with the title immediately and as a fat woman of color who has been in the dating world for a little over a decade I was excited to see a fat-identified feminist of color's take on this very fraught issue.
I wouldn't say I've read a lot of dating and relationships books, but it's always fun to stick my head into all that strangeness for a minute. Back when there were actual bookstores, you always knew you'd hit "Dating & Romance" in the self-help section because that whole area would be a blob of pink and red covers (a gendered nod to the fact that, of course, only women would have any interest in this kind of thing). There's always some scientist explaining sex-based neurological differences or some guru extrapolating on his beliefs that women and men are from different planets (or some ex-World of Warcraft NerdLord who wears goggles giving you advice on how to score some poontang). Samhita talks about these theories, but quickly points out their limitations: gender binaries, heteronormativity, exclusion of non-monogamous love/dating styles, racist notions of what romance looks like, and the perpetual misogynist explanations that somehow always find women to blame for failed relationships, sex emergencies and dating faux pas. The book points out that it isn't that your boo is from Mars or that feminism has ruined chivalry, it's that sexism sucks and feminism is the only chance we've got of pulling out of this dire situation.
I have to admit when I saw the book I was kind of secretly hoping maybe she was going to give me a permission slip to opt out of the dating world altogether; maybe this book held a secret treasure map to an alternative universe called Ass-Grows-On-Trees-And-I-Never-Have-To-Make-Another-Romantic-Decision-Landia. I read the book as largely a work of theory that deconstructs the cultural flaws and short-comings of the environment in which most of us are carrying out our dating lives. The book's premise is a defense of feminism in the face of a renewed onslaught of cultural backlash that would have us believe that feminism is the culprit for failed love lives and marriages and the rise of a terrifying "raunch culture" in which young women give hummers in the backs of hummers and glue sequins to their coochies.
The book spoke at length about how single women are portrayed as villains in our culture. Samhita writes that single women are constructed culturally as "living irresponsible and/or immoral lives," (p. 55-56) and are "perpetually a child" (p. 55). This analysis has incredible similarities to the way that fat people are thought of and discussed. In the way that Hot & Heavy critiques the dieting industry, Samhita points out the incentive of the "romantic industrial complex" is to feed a fantasy machine that pushes people to pursue fairy tale myths at the expense of their financial stability and emotional well-being. Sound familiar?
Let me back up to the part where the author identifies herself in the book as a fat girl on page 74 (this was an exciting moment for me!) in the section entitled "Fat Girls Don't Get Dates;" she writes: "I'm a fat girl and I have worked to maintain the belief that I am beautiful despite what the culture tells me about my weight" (fuck yeah!). She continues:
It is completely acceptable to say the most appalling things about the way people look when it comes to dating, and if someone is called out for it, their opinion becomes a matter of "preference." What gets ignored in calling this level of categorization "just preference" is a history and culture of mainstream advertising that impacts our psychology, causing us to actually want to respond to certain things over others... preference is not really a "preference"; it is more like a culturally sanctioned fetish... Attraction is not just about a feeling. It's a heavily mediated experience and part of an industry that pumps billions into creating images of what women should look like. It can be hard to decipher what you are attracted to versus what you have internalized as attractive. (p. 71)
In Hot & Heavy numerous authors write about what it's like dating and having sex as a fat girl (including me, Tasha Fierce, Rachel Kacenjar, Golda Poretsky and Kitty Stryker). Navigating stigma and internalized messages about our desirability are things that make romance, sex and dating even more complicated (like picking cute panties or the perfect strap-on isn't hard enough!) and can lead to the sense that something is wrong with us - rather than the fucked-up culture that's proffering bullshit at an increasingly alarming rate.
On the subject of fashion, Samhita says that our style can be a "form of resistance" (p. 75), an opportunity to play with gender, and "fight back against dominant ideas of what we should look like" (p. 75). Her words remind me of Kirsty Fife in her chapter in Hot & Heavy entitled "On Dressing Up: A Story of Fatshion Resistance." She wrote: "To you it might just be an outfit, but to me it's performance, care, support, resistance, survival, and it's fighting" (p. 194).
Reading Outdated reminded me of a hard realization I had a few years ago: that the culture I was brought up in was not created to make me happy. The reality TV shows, and the diets, and the singing mermaids who would rather not be mermaids, and the Spanx (now available for men too), and the underwire, and the incredibly restrictive and racist notions of what it means to be a woman, and the weird vagina rituals, and the Jesus stuff - none of that shit was engineered to make me happy. In fact, it was like a recipe for how to have a totally fucked up, miserable - and yes, lonely - life. Harsh, I know. But once you realize our culture is basically your creepy abusive boyfriend (yeah, the goggle-wearing kind) it makes it easier to break-up with it.
Samhita encourages us to push ourselves and the people in our lives to love in ways that feel authentic to us and requests that we be brave enough to stand up and talk back to a "romantic industrial complex" that is broken and dangerous. She points out that the current romance status quo churns out fairy tales that lead people to chase fantasies - a distorted idea of love - rather than love itself. She encourages us to remember that the world we inherited is not flawless and the way we love and date and have sex can be an extremely powerful mode of change-inspiring resistance.
You can buy Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life and Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion on Amazon.
Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.