Moments in Size Acceptance

This afternoon, I spotted the following status update from one of my Facebook friends and smiled, because I thought it captured a very cool and heartening reaction:

“amusing size acceptance moment of the day: busting the seam on a pair of underwear down the back & taking a picture of the hilarity instead of feeling bad about it.”

It comes on the heels of a very good talk called Fat Bottomed Girls (about size acceptance) that I heard last night at Ignite Bloomington by Leah Jones (you can see an earlier version of her slide deck on her blog, and read her notes for it).

The size acceptance movement is controversial in some circles, particularly public health circles: some get very upset about the size acceptance movement and worry about the outcomes of promoting acceptance of various sizes, with the idea being that some shapes/sizes are better/worse or healthier/unhealthier than others (being “too thin”/anorexic and being “obese” often fall in the “bad” categories, though I’d encourage a review of these illustrated BMI photos for a sense of the limitations of BMI labels).

Others feel passionately in support of size acceptance, which can feel incredibly positive and affirming, particularly in contrast to much of the fat-negativity in some cultures (including US culture). If a downside of some aspects of the size acceptance movement is that some solid research findings related to body fat/weight are brushed aside as “not valid” (and some are definitely problematic, but not all are), a major upside of the movement is that research related to body fat/weight is scrutinized more closely. Also, there’s a valuable focus on mental health (which is often just as, and sometimes more important than, a person’s physical health indicators). Accepting ourselves matters to our mental health, our relationships and our sexualities.

Then there’s another difficulty: that some people who publicly identify as being into “size acceptance” can make some pretty negative comments about thin people (the targets are typically thin women, less often thin men), leading some to feel that they are more into “fat acceptance” (or “thin shaming”) than “size acceptance”. Why we women continue to hurt each other, especially in critical ways about each other’s bodies, I will never know.

To complicate things even further, some people take individuals’ personal aesthetics to reflect their stance on others. This has happened to me in the sense that some people think that because I have a certain size/shape preference for my own individual body, that I apply it to everyone else (I don’t). I do, however, like my body to feel and look a certain way. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable with my own body if I had much more, or much less, body fat than I do now. I have roughly a 10 pound window that I like to stick with – and I say that as someone who doesn’t get on a scale too often, so it’s more of a rough guess than anything precise. I don’t worry too much about my weight, though if I had to say I worried more about having more vs. less fat or “mushiness” (as I think of it on my own body, because that’s how it feels to me), I’d say I worry more about having more fat. This isn’t because I think it’s any worse to have more fat; rather, given my genes and my personal love of eating, I think it’s far more likely that I’d gain weight rather than lose a lot of weight (which is the case for most of us). The chances of me becoming very, very skinny are, um, slim to none and so I rarely ever worry about it.

And yet my aesthetic for other people’s bodies is different than my own. I have fallen in love (and lust) with men of remarkably different sizes, shapes, heights, BMIs and ages. Every body I’ve ever known has been an adventure and has felt new, which to me is pleasurable. I don’t personally find all people sexually attractive (though I believe that everyone is likely to be highly sexually attractive to someone). However, those that I do find sexually attractive don’t fall into one body category: a man or woman’s personality is a far bigger influence on how I feel about them than their body size/shape/height/etc. So, it’s complicated.

Some final thoughts/take-homes:

1) It would be great if we could all be more accepting of each other’s bodies, and our own bodies. Read up on size acceptance to see if there’s a way you might be able to connect to it. Try to help yourself and those around you feel good about their bodies. 

2) People can have great sex at all body sizes and shapes. Body image has a stronger influence on a person’s sex life than size itself. If you feel that your body image is getting in the way of your sex life, try talking with a friend, your partner, or a counselor/therapist. For more on fatphobia, including internalized fatphobia, read this blog post by Kinsey Confidential blogger Eric Grollman.

3) I’d like to see body size/shape/image research continue – and for it to get better. I don’t believe that *all* research related to body size/weight is bad research. I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bath water. Having spoken with people whose work is focused in this area, it seems clear that varying levels of body fat are linked to things like vaginal dryness, yeast infection likelihood, breast cancer risk, joint health, and other issues. Just because an area of research is controversial does not mean that we should avoid doing it. We do, however, need to do it well and report on it accurately and with sensitivity. We should also look for the advantages of varying levels of body sizes/shapes/fat compositions and not only the disadvantages/”risks”.

4) I’m probably screwed for writing this post. It’s a shame but I often avoid saying much about body size and weight because it’s an area that is so contested that it seems like an easy target for mean comments and far too much political correctness (for example, there was this). However, body size and weight are issues that many people think and wonder about, including many readers of my columns (see this Q&A over on Kinsey Confidential) and this blog. I wish there were more public conversation but too often people are attacked for sharing their thoughts on all sides of the issue. If you have comments, join the conversation. All I ask is that you do so with care and respect for others. And if you can be kind and considerate of me, too, that’s a plus. Thank you.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.

  • http://sinthetik.com/ SushiSpook

    This is a subject that is very near and dear to me, and I think you’ve handled your take on it with a great deal of respect and care – as you always do for any subject you discuss!

    I think that one thing regular readers of this column can likely agree on is that shame is not a healthy force, and is virtually impossible to harness in a healthy and productive way. And shaming people for their size is not going to result in any healthy outcome – indeed, if shaming fat people for being fat was going to work, the media wouldn’t have all this “obesity epidemic” gristle to chew over. 

    Whatever discussion does occur here, I sure hope that people remember that everyone involved is a person, and deserves to be treated as such. 

  • Debby Herbenick

    Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. And of course I completely agree with your point about shame – whether it’s shame about one’s body, sexual fantasies, desires, lack of desires, etc – it’s rarely a helpful strategy.

    I also think that shame is more than an interpersonal issue, but a cultural one. For example, in teaching human sexuality classes to college students, I often find that a number of the straight guys wish their girlfriends felt better about their bodies (more open to receiving oral sex, having sex with the lights on, trying more body-contorting positions, etc). We often talk about the roots of these body concerns, and how perhaps making negative comments about the bodies of celebrities or other women (or men) ends up hurting us all. Creating a culture of body-negativity, of people judging others’, has effects that go on and on…. I’ve seen it in my own family and friend group, and I’m happy to have (mostly) come to peace with my own body. I only hope that, as I age, I can sustain these good feelings that focus more on how my body “works” and feels than appearance.

    Fingers crossed….

    …and thank you again for chiming in on this important issue.

  • http://profiles.google.com/hmoyseenko Holly Moyseenko-Kossover

    I think you handled this is a great and intelligent manner, so I thank you for posting this! This is an incredibly difficult topic to tackle, and i feel that many people do shy away from it for fear of political correctness.

    Size is not always an indicator of health. I used this as an example once as I knew someone who was tall, slender, and worked as an athletic trainer. However, he ate McDonald’s at least 8 times a week and bragged about how unhealthy he ate. His blood pressure was high and his cholesterol was scary. I’m not skinny at all, but my blood pressure and cholesterol are great (that said, those two items aren’t the best indicators of health). 

    Size issues bother me as I find it hard to be comfortable with my body. Like you, i’ve fallen in love with (and crushed on) people with all different body types. However, I’ve had too many friends with eating disorders.