For those of you keeping track, my novel is done. It has gone through two rounds of edits, and is now with beta-readers while I focus on short-form writing and, you know, work and life. I suspect I will be ready to query in early March.
Today I wanted to write about something not exactly within the scope of an academic blog, but nonetheless an important issue that affects most of us one way or another, and especially those among us who are women. There will be some discussion of sex and relationships, so if you want to stop reading, now would be a good time.
Let me start with a couple of anecdotes.
There was a guy I dated for a couple of years during the transition from high school to college. When I started dating him, he had beautiful shoulder-length curly hair. At some point, he cut it off to maybe a couple of inches in length. I did not care for this change. I never told him I disliked it, though. I remember beating myself up for catching myself not liking how he looked and for questioning my attraction to him. However, within a few weeks I simply got used to it. I certainly didn’t stop having sex with him over the stupid haircut; it turned out that the haircut was completely irrelevant for our connection. I never discussed this tiny bit of internal turmoil with him because, even at age 18, I knew nothing good would come of it; all it would do was hurt his feelings and damage our relationship.
In another anecdote, my friend from graduate school started dating this girl. He was getting serious about her and thinking marriage and family. He shared that he didn’t think he could be a dad because he couldn’t envision that he would deny himself buying a new CD (yes, this was 20 years ago) in order to buy the kid new shoes. He couldn’t envision putting the needs of a kid before his own. I already had a child at this time and, in a bout of uncharacteristic wisdom, I told him that he was imagining some random kid demanding CD money for shoes, whereas in reality the kid would be his, and the kid would be the person he would love more than anyone or anything in the world, so using CD money for shoes would not feel like a sacrifice at all; it would be something he would feel happy to do. (The friend went on to marry this girl and have two kids with her, and by all accounts they’re all quite happy. He’s a great dad and his children do not go around barefoot.)
Which brings us to why I am presenting these two seemingly disconnected anecdotes. Because they speak to the importance of kindness and the power of really loving someone.
A few weeks ago, this article made a splash on Twitter (also see below). Before you read it, I want to emphasize that Autostraddle is a site for lesbians and queer women, so even though the article reads like it was written by a dude, it most likely wasn’t.
Anyway, in the comments on Twitter and on the Autostraddle site, people have been polarized in response to the article. To summarize, Partner A gained weight. Is it OK for Partner B to just tell Partner A they’re not attracted to them anymore (especially if asked point blank) or should Partner B shut up and deal with their decreasing feelings of attraction in some unspecified but presumably shame-free and socially approved way?
I am of the mind that if it really bothers you that much that your partner has gained weight that you won’t go near them, I don’t think you love them very much and you likely never did, and it’s fine, it really is, you can’t control if you’re attracted to someone or not, and you can’t control if you love someone or not, but do everyone a favor and leave your partner alone, and please don’t go all scorched earth where you obliterate their self-esteem with your bluntness on the way out.
My husband and I have been married for over 20 years. We don’t look like we did when we first got married. However, I don’t know how he would have to look for me to not want to get into his pants. Maybe if he grew horns or a tail? Nah — those might actually be added turn-ons! 🙂 Seriously. I don’t know if this is universal, but I think it is: If you really love someone, you will want to be close to them and their body no matter what. Hey, even the legendary Ozzy Osbourne knew this to be true: “I love my wife whether she’s fat, thin, fucking square, round, fucking oblong shape.”
That’s different from looking at headless bodies and ranking them on attractiveness. Yes, some headless bodies belonging to anonymous people are more attractive than others, but that stops being important when you are really close to someone, because then their body is simply part of them. And what’s with people coolly assessing their partners from multiple yards away? People having sex get really really really close to each other, like you’ll have a square foot or two of skin before your (often closed) eyes, but, most importantly, sex is a whole-body experience, with the touch, taste, smell, and sound being at least as important as sight, and the actual connection with your partner being far more important than any particular sensory input. (I know someone will say here “But men are visual!” Yes; women are, too. Men and women are not different species; they have the same five senses and they both have emotions, FFS.)
Unfortunately, the whole “Don’t you dare get fat” warning is one that girls start receiving from a very young age. I have dieted my whole life, and it brought me nothing but lowered metabolism. For example, here is a picture of me, age 21, at a costume party (yes, I am holding a tail).
I had a BMI of about 22, and was strong and toned because I played volleyball. Yet, there were always guys around who would come to tell me I’d look great if only I lost 10-20 lbs. This “You’d look great if only” negging bullshit started when I was an early teen and would only stop if I bit people’s heads off for it. Most girls have a similar story, with a whole life of feeling like shit, which I’d say is the whole point — to waste our time, make us doubt ourselves, and make us settle for things and jobs and people far below what we deserve. I look at these pictures now and want to slap myself silly, make myself see how objectively great I looked, instead of allowing assholes to erode my confidence.
My beloved childhood BFF (next to me in that pic; sadly, she died of a heart condition in her early 30s) lamented her then boyfriend, who would complain about her face when she had an acne outbreak. She said, “How is he going to act around me if we have kids and I gain weight?” She eventually broke up with him, and I think she was right to for many reasons, this being an important one.
I am going to posit that if you really love your partner, changes in their appearance won’t bother you. You might notice them, but they won’t fundamentally change how you feel about the partner. It might bother you that the changes bother them, and you would likely want to be supportive in however they choose to deal with their own feelings about the changes, but the connection between you two, if it is real and strong, will not weaken, and might, in fact, strengthen in the face of challenges and added vulnerability, leading to deeper intimacy.
If your partner’s changes in body shape make you not want to get close to them anymore, you should probably do both yourself and them a favor and leave. We can’t control how we feel, but we can control how we act. So don’t fucking destroy their confidence by spelling out for them in no uncertain terms that you’re not attracted to them anymore. In addition to being able to see themselves in a mirror, I guarantee they already feel your dwindling attraction, so there’s no need to be cruel and remove all doubt. Trust me, there is no coming back from those words. Not everything needs to be said out loud, FFS, and if you pretend you don’t know that, if you pretend blatant honesty at all times is the only way, you are needlessly very cruel, and you are also very lucky that you haven’t had someone as unkind as yourself serving you a taste of your own medicine. Like so:
There’s a guy I dated through most of college and a couple of years post, which included the time the above picture of me was taken. His family, especially his sister, would often make jokes about the size of my ass, and he did nothing to defend me. I met him last over a decade ago here in the US. He called me fat and told me I should consider moving my family to a more walkable city. To that, I did not say anything about his thinning hair, his receding hairline, the shape or color of his teeth, or how disappointing it was that his style, jokes, and interests hadn’t changed at all.
Well, I guess you warned us.
I think you need to separate the feelings of sexual attraction, or really the lack of sexual attraction, from the expression of those feelings to your partner. I’m glad you still want to jump your husband, xyk, but love and sexual attraction are most certainly not universally tied together. Plenty of people love their partners and are no longer sexually attracted to them, sometimes because their libido changes, or because their partner changes and they like what they like. Don’t you read advice columns? Lol. But I agree that if you tell your partner they are disgusting and you’re not attracted to them, it’s probably not love, and it probably means you’re an asshole.
It’s all so boringly gendered. I was going to make some more comments, but I’m just tired of it all. Tired of the male gaze. Tired also of women who criticize the appearance of other women. Tired, tired, tired.
Anon, I hear you. I have been going back and forth for almost two weeks on whether or not to write about this at all. In the end, I decided to go for it and tried to stay close to my own personal experiences. Other people’s mileage may vary.
Agree but also disagree. I have patients whose partners left them because they developed a medical condition that either left them unable to have sex, or unattractive in some way (think ostomy or mastectomy). Your argument says that’s ok. I think that true marital/relationship commitment means that actually you stay with the partner because 1) you like them even if you’re no longer hot in the pants for them, and 2) that’s what it means be in a long term committed relationship. Finally, there’s a distinction for many people between being horny for someone and loving them. Maybe not for you, but for a lot of people.
I dated an asshole who told me I “had lied” to him because when we met I weighed 120 lbs, and now I weighed 126 lbs. He beautiful long blonde hair also, which I hated, but never told him. We broke up because his jerkiness and entitledness – to everything of mine including my body – transcended even comments about my body.
Omdg, I know that nurses routinely warn women with serious diagnoses to be prepared that their husbands might leave them, because so many do (they don’t want to do the caregiving). There is definitely a very gendered aspect to what people think they are entitled to in a partner, usually without ever questioning what they themselves bring to the table.
Look, I never set out to write a definitive treatise on relationships and attraction, and I wanted to stay close to my own experiences. I am sure everyone has their dealbreakers. But if someone’s dealbreaker is a partner gaining 6 lbs, that person is going to be very disappointed in any long-term relationship and, what’s worse, they will crush their partner’s self-esteem along the way for undergoing normal things like aging.
I mean, everyone likes the appearance of fit 20–30-year-old bodies. But it’s not like we or our partners can stay that age forever, even with all the gym-diet-botox efforts in the world. How are long-term romantic relationships supposed to work if we cannot accept that both we and our partners will change with age (even in the absence of illness or disability) and if we cannot maintain the romantic and sexual connection through it all?
FWIW, I agree with you, at least with my relationship.
Other people are a complete mystery to me, but I would definitely rather be single than with someone who cared more about my weight than the essence of me. And I love DH because he’s DH, no matter his weight– he defines what is attractive to me. Other people may have different preferences (as seen by the controversy) but so long as they don’t intrude on my relationship, they can continue just being quietly confusing to me.
I also agree with you, and I’ll go on to add that people who stop loving their partners because of changes in their partner’s appearances or abilities are probably not people we want to spend our lives with.
That’s someone who sees you as an object, a utility from which they can benefit. Once you stop being beneficial, why should they keep you around? You don’t keep a can opener when it no longer opens cans. If you’re just a useful object (a kind of mobile sex-toy, cook, paycheck, whatever) to this person, of course they’ll ditch you when you stop being useful. Don’t sink your time into such a person. As I often tell my students, better no partner than a bad partner.