Fat Acceptance: My Wife, the Dehumanized Hippo

[Content Note: Fat Hatred, Mention of Cancer, Digestion Issues, Diet Talk, Cosmetic Surgery]

I joked on Twitter a week or so ago that I wanted to write an advice column that was "sex positive, basically Dan Savage, only not horrible and hateful". That idea has been kicking around in my head, and then Liss did a blogaround link to Cristy's awesome re-answer of this Dan Savage column, and you really should go read Cristy's re-answer first. Go on, I'll wait.

Then I'll quote the column after the cut, because it's pretty triggering and fat-hatred-y.

Question: I love my wife. We’ve been married 10 years. Young punk-rock love turned into adult debt-ridden love. She’s been there for me, helps me achieve my goals, all that. But she’s let herself go, while I’ve gotten myself into better shape.

I pride myself on being a good husband. I’ve been 100 percent faithful, I clean, I tell her I love her. I don’t want to hurt her. I love her. I just don’t lust for her anymore. My wife’s skin is a mess, she has dietary issues that cause gnarly gas, she eats bad food that causes her to gain weight. I always thought I was against the society-imposed, magazine-model, porn-star look girls are supposed to have. So it’s hard for me to admit that I’m not cool enough to think my wife is hot the way she is.

I’ve started stoning to dull the fact that I’m hating on myself for not being hot for my wife. She’s picking up on all of this, which is affecting her mood, self-esteem, and energy levels. And since she tends to eat more when things aren’t going well for us, this is creating a hugely negative feedback loop on the weight-and-lust fronts.

When almost any girl you see is hotter to you than your wife… what the fuck do you do? When the desire to be with someone who actually turns you on is overwhelming… what the fuck do you do? When people you find attractive, women and men, hit on you all the time… what the fuck do you do?

Hawt And Royally Depressed

I want to talk about two things here. One, Dan Savage's actual advice, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever heard of Dan Savage. He illustrated the column with a picture of a Sad Lion and a Stupid Hippo, with the hippo sitting on the word "FAT" because haha the woman in the letter is a dehumanized fat animal. And while hippos may be badass river horses who can and will outrun you doomed humans in the audience in order to kill you with their sheer badassery, the important thing about them is obviously that they're fat and ugly and only the utterly depraved would find them attractive amiright.

Dan Savage then advises the man to tell his wife that her fat makes her unattractive because she might be unaware of this fact (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHALOLSOB) and then once she knows that she's unattractive because she's fat she will, follow me here because it gets a bit complicated at this point, stop being fat at her poor husband. Like you do.

So: Point the first, this is really stupid advice. Because, believe me, it is basically impossible to be a woman in modern US society (and, I'm sure, many other places as well) and not be aware that (a) you are fat and (b) lots of people consider you ugly because of the fact that you are fat. Even not-fat women are constantly bombarded with messages that they are fat-and-therefore-ugly, and believe me the bombardment only gets harder when you actually are a fat woman. I cannot go to the dermatologist to get a mole removed without an extended lecture on how fat I am. (I am not making this up.) There are maybe, maybe, three clothing stores within a 50 mile radius who carry clothes that fit me. Whether those clothes will be attractive and flattering to my body is another question entirely. (And the answer is almost always: NO.)

Fat women know they are fat because literally everyone and everything around them tell them so all the time. Telling a husband to inform his wife of this thing isn't informative, it's agressive. It's aggressive in the same way that informing someone of a blatantly self-evident fact is pretty much always aggressive. "Carl, there is mayonnaise on the counter," when Carl is standing right there looking at the mayonnaise that he split and wondering if he feels arsed enough to dig out a dishcloth, is rarely going to be taken as an informative fact because no doy there is mayo on the counter. "Jenna, your car is in the driveway," is a statement that is seeking for some kind of corrective response, and in a way that we would usually understand to be passive-aggressive. "What do you want me to do about it?" is the usual answer reserved for these things.

Which brings me to point the second: HAWT, what do you want to do about this situation?

If you're looking for validation about your attraction, consider yourself validated. You are not obliged to be attracted to anyone. If stinky gas doesn't turn you on, it's your right to feel that way, just as it would be your wife's right to decide that your (hypothetical) body odor makes her green with nausea. I validate your non-attraction to your wife as a thing you are allowed to have.

If you're looking for a way to fix your non-attraction to your wife, it strikes me as interesting that you seem to have fixated on the idea that she should change in order to resolve an issue that seems to be yours. I'm sure on the surface that makes sense to you: you know, for example, that you used to be attracted to her, and her body weight appears to be a major delta between Then and Now; you also have probably internalized social messages that weight change is easy and a simple matter of willpower, so it seems reasonable to you that a body change (in her) is easy whereas a psychological change (in you) is difficult.

But I'd like to suggest an alternative paradigm: What if your wife cannot change? What do you want to do then?

Cristy brought up the excellent analogy of your wife having body changes resulting from cancer; I'm going to point out that "dietary issues" are not a picnic. I'm violently allergic to a number of fruits and vegetables. Pop those down my hatch, and you'll see them come up in a matter of minutes--and that's if we're lucky. If we're unlucky, the "gnarly gas" will hit you about the same time that the debilitating stomach cramps will hit me, and then a few hours later everything will blessedly exit in diarrhea that would curl your hair from the pain.

Did you not like hearing that? To be honest, I don't like experiencing it. That's why I--and I wouldn't be surprised to learn, your wife--eat "bad" foods that don't trigger my dietary issues. When the only thing you can safely eat for breakfast is, say, a carb-heavy English muffin with naughty-naughty cream cheese on it, and the "healthy" alternatives aren't Healthy For You, then you're probably going to go with the thing that gets you through your morning staff meeting without clearing the room with a pants-tearing fart. Even if (note: IF) the English muffin might impact your weight.

What I am trying to point out here, HAWT, is that your wife probably has a lot to deal with, what with dietary issues and food allergies and disability navigation and whatever work she does (because we all of us work, even if we're not paid for it), such that making decisions that don't prioritize being hawt for you MAKES SENSE. In the Maslow hierarchy sense, keeping your stomach pain down and not having everyone at work nickname you Stinky Galore understandably comes before making sure one's husband has a constant boner for what you yourself call a "porn-star look".

And that's assuming that she can control her weight at all, which I urge you to not take as a given.

Which brings me back to this: Why are you thinking that the answer here is that she reprioritize her life to suit your needs? That seems like a really major demand that you're making, and you seem to be making it without realizing (or at least acknowledging) that this is not a small request. It seems to me like if you're unhappy with your non-attraction to your wife, you ought to at least consider ways in which you can change this yourself.

You state a degree of shame and guilt for buying into the "society-imposed, magazine-model, porn-star look girls are supposed to have", but then barrel on with your letter as though you've moved (very quickly!) in the Acceptance phase; your letter reads to me like, welp, I never wanted to be the guy who bought into all that, but I have so there's nothing to do but ask my wife to buy into it, too! Why do you feel that way? Why would you ask her to buy into a social paradigm that you yourself feel shame and guilt over embracing?

How is it an act of love to ask your spouse to buy into a toxic mentality that hurts you by reducing your attraction for her and will hurt her by causing her to hate her body? How are you not asking her to be codependent with you in a mentality that is, by your own admission, causing you nothing but unhappiness? It seems like the question you should be asking is not "how do I get my wife to be as unhappy as I am", but rather "how can I shed this expectation that is harming me". (This is called The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too, just so you know.)

Let me take a crack at answering your question, HAWT.

Dear HAWT,

First of all, your wife is already aware that she is fat and that you find her unattractive as a result. She knows she is fat because she is a fat woman living in America; she knows that you find her unattractive because your hostility to her body is manifestly dripping off the pages of your letter, and if it's obvious to me (a complete stranger!), it's surely obvious to one of the people in this world who knows you best, i.e. your spouse. And if your wife knows that she is fat (she does) and that you think she is unattractive (she does) and yet hasn't changed her weight for you, it's a pretty safe bet that her weight is something that she either can not (think physical capability), or may not (think Maslow's heirarchy again), or will not (think non-subscription to toxic standards) change.

Keeping the above options in mind, I would say that viewing this problem as needing to be fixed by an alteration in your wife (rather than in yourself) is a rabbit hole I urge you not to go down. If she cannot change her weight for you, then your expectation that she do so will just make you both miserable; if she will not change her weight for you, then you will be pressuring her to alter her physical being against her own inclination in order to conform to a toxic standard that is already causing you both pain. I wouldn't want to be that guy if I were you, and I wouldn't want your wife to be with a guy like that, would you?

So instead, let's look at the problem here as being a problem of your attraction and not your wife's body. You say you're taking drugs; it strikes me that drug use can absolutely affect physical attraction and sexual performance. Is it possible that you're blaming your lack of attraction on the wrong source? (I.e., your wife's body rather than the substances you are ingesting.) You also say that you're going out of your way to associate with people who have bodies different from your wife, and also that those people are sexually propositioning you. Is it possible that you are blaming an attraction for other people on your wife not because of her weight but because she is not those other people?

Which kinda brings me to another point: Even if your wife could/would change her physical body for you, where would it stop? Does she need to be a size 8 tomorrow, but a size 4 next week? Does she need to color her hair for you? Enlarge her boobs? Tuck any wrinkles that appear around her neck and eyes? The reality is that even if your wife were to lose weight, she's never going to have the "porn-star look" you claim to be craving, and she's never-ever going to be someone other than herself. Whether you want an impossible standard ("porn-star looks") or a different partner entirely (that girl on the treadmill over there), she'll never be either.

If you want my advice, it would be to discard the easy-for-you "solution" you've seized upon and seriously look at yourself and why your attraction has changed. If you don't know the cause (age, hormones, stoning, infedelity impulses, etc.), then you can't address the effect. Once you understand the cause, you can go about either reconciling yourself to the effect (i.e., if it's age, then you may have to accept that constant boners are a thing of the past) OR making the necessary changes to reverse the effect (i.e., if it's stoning, you may need to chose between that activity or having boners).

In the interim, while you're figuring all this out, I would recommend two things.

One, find a gym where people aren't propositioning you sexually. I don't think the feeling that you seem to be cherishing--that you have an "out" for sex with socially-approved Sexy People--is helping you work through these issues right now (and may well be the reason why you seized so quickly on the idea that your attraction issues can best be fixed by asking your wife to conform to a standard you yourself acknowledge to be toxic and unrealistic for most women).

If that's not possible, make it very clear to everyone that you are not interested in cheating on your wife--and mean it. To be honest with you, HAWT, the obvious pride you are taking in being propositioned "all the time" makes me feel like you're not handing out clear and firm no's. I could be wrong, but I want to stress that just as your wife can probably tell that you think she's unattractive, I'm guessing that at least some of your would-be sex partners can tell that you're pleased and flattered by their offers. I think that is introducing complexities into your situation.

Two, try to stop thinking about your wife as something unattractive to you. I don't mean think of her as physically attractive, or that attraction is a matter of willpower; I mean to train your mind to think about her in ways other than your non-attraction while you work out your situation. The terms you use to describe her in your letter are fixedly unflattering, and I think this is a potential feedback loop for you: you blame her for your non-attraction and she becomes increasingly unattractive because of the blame and anger you're feeling towards her.

I strongly recommend trying to train yourself out of this mentality; every time you catch yourself thinking about her "messy skin" or "gnarly gas", stop and think about something nice she's done for you today. The corny joke you made that she laughed at; how much you appreciate the work she does even when you know she's tired; the fact that she put up with some annoying habit that you do without comment. When you find yourself thinking something mean, stop, pause, and think something nice. Make a conscious habit of it.

These two things--shutting off the constant temptation to cheat + appreciating the good things about your wife--will prepare you to answer the question I asked earlier: HAWT, what do you want to do about this situation? If your attraction issues aren't something you can fix (like, by giving up stoning), or something you can adapt to (like, by accepting that this is a natural consequence of aging), then what? You're not obliged to remain in a relationship with someone you don't feel attracted to, but neither are you obliged to leave that relationship. Attraction is not mandatory for all relationships for all people. You have some decisions to make that only you can make for yourself--you shouldn't slough that responsibility over to your wife with a lazy-for-you "lose weight or break up" ultimatum.

And I think you will be better placed to make these decisions for yourself if (a) you aren't constantly being boner-tempted by Tiffany-who-propositioned-you on the treadmill over there and (b) you aren't constantly hating your wife because you're blaming your temptation for Tiffany on her gas. (Which, HAWT? I'm seriously about this; blaming a faithful spounse for your own temptations is totally a thing that humans do in order to avoid owning up their own "bad" impulses. Don't be Henry VIII because non-introspective guys are tyrannically unsexy no matter how smoking their bods may be. You owe it to yourself to be honest about your motivations and not deflect your emotional shit onto your wife.)

That's my advice in a not-so-small nutshell: You aren't obliged to be attracted to your wife, but if you want to be attracted to your wife, I would recommend approaching that issue as a function of YOUR mind and body, not HERS. And while you work that out, I would distance yourself from potential distractions like cheating temptations and perpetuating a hate cycle against your wife that may well be rooted in psychological causes that have nothing to do with her.

Because I'm going to be honest with you: I know lots of people, hawt and otherwise, who have frankly astounding gas, and I wouldn't talk about a one of them like you do about your wife. Which makes me think there's more behind this animosity than the occassional stinky fart--and if you really want to fix this, you'll need to figure out what that "more" really is in order to address it.


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