Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex


Please note: This piece discusses my personal sexuality in a fair amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, you probably don’t want to read this. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

Bare foot on scale I want to start by saying this: I am just talking about myself here, and what’s true for me. These issues are heavily loaded, emotionally and psychologically and politically, so I want to spell that out right from the start. I’m not evangelizing for weight loss; I’m personally finding it to be beneficial, erotically as well as in other ways, but I’ve also found it to be complicated and a whole lot of hard work, and I know that the cost- benefit analysis about it is different for everyone. I’m not talking about what’s right or true for anyone else. I’m talking about what’s right and true for me.

As regular readers of my blog know by now, I’ve been losing weight for close to a year now, and have so far lost 50 pounds. This isn’t something I’m doing for aesthetic reasons, btw: I’m doing it primarily for health reasons (mostly a bad knee that was getting worse).

But the weight loss is having a complicated set of effects on my sexuality: on my libido, my sexual self-image, my feelings about my sexual history, my cultural politics about sex and bodies. Mostly good… but complicated. And I haven’t seen a lot of writing elsewhere about these effects. Most of the writing I’ve seen about weight and sex has either been your standard “Lose weight and magically fix your sex life!” jargon (which I think is bullshit), or fat-positive, body-positive, “fight body fascism and connect erotically with the body you have” activism (which I more or less support, but with a few serious caveats). I haven’t seen much writing about weight and sex from people who are controlling their weight and feel good about it… but who are still informed by the cultural criticism about how our society views weight and sexuality.

So, as usual, when I don’t like the news, I’m making some of my own.

*

Libido The main effect that weight loss has had on my sexuality has been on my libido. Which has gotten cranked up to eleven, and beyond. (Not that it was exactly low-key before…) Being in better health, being stronger and getting more exercise, feeling more conscious of my body, feeling more comfortable and more at home in my body, being happier with how I look and how I fit into my clothes, getting more compliments and attention… all of this is brewing into an explosive libidinous mix that’s making me feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon. Just walking down the street is an exquisitely erotic experience: like my skin is humming, like I’m erotically at one with the universe, like I want to stop and hump tree trunks. I feel like I’m exploding in a hundred directions at once. I feel like I want to masturbate twenty times a day.

A lot of this has to do with just being in better health. The things I’m doing to lose weight — eating a healthier diet, getting tons of exercise — have increased my physical energy, my mental health, my ability to sleep, etc…. all of which are increasing my libido. A lot of it, too, has to do with not being in a state of cognitive dissonance. Before I started losing weight, I was in serious denial about my health and my body and how I felt about it… and cognitive dissonance about your body is not a mental state that’s conducive to feeling connected with it. And some of it, I’ll acknowledge, has to do with the increased compliments and sexual attention I’ve been getting as my weight has gone down. (Although… well, that’s complicated. More on that in a minute.)

Durandelle_Opera_Statues_decoratives_11_Pensee But a huge amount of it, I think, has to do with the simple fact that I’m paying closer attention to my body now, in overwhelmingly positive ways. (I’m not talking about being self-conscious, btw; I know that paying close attention to one’s body, in a critical and self-loathing way, can have a terrible affect on libido and sexuality. I’m not talking about that. I’m just talking about being conscious.) I think about my body way more than I ever did: how it feels, how it looks, what it wants in terms of food and exercise and sleep, how it’s changing, how it’s the same. I’m not living in my head as much as I used to: I’m inhabiting my body now, more than I ever have at any time in my life. And that means I’m inhabiting my sexuality more.

A lot more. Hoo, boy.

Thuja_occidentalis_trunk Which is good. More than a bit frustrating at times — my life is not currently structured to let me masturbate twenty times a day, and our societal norms do not permit the public humping of tree trunks — but good. Being intensely horny is a complicated pleasure… but as long as I’m getting laid fairly regularly, it is nevertheless a pleasure.

The compliments and increased attention, on the other hand… that’s a lot more tricky. It’s not that it sucks. Of course I like compliments and attention. Human beings are social animals, and while it might be lovely if our self-esteem came entirely from within and didn’t have any basis on the approval of peers blah blah blah, the reality is that our self-esteem doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a complex, mirrors- reflecting- mirrors jumble of how others see us and how we see ourselves. So of course I like compliments and attention, and of course they make me feel better about myself.

Greta sun But at the same time, the compliments and increased attention I’ve gotten as I’ve lost weight have been a seriously mixed blessing. When people get really effusive about how amazing I look now, a big part of me is resentfully thinking, “So what did you think of me when I was fat? You think I look amazing now — did you think I looked disgusting then?” The line between feeling flattered by compliments and feeling defensive and pissy about them is razor-thin. Especially from people who knew me before I lost the weight… and only started paying sexual attention to me afterwards. (Some people — especially gay men, for some reason — do have the knack of paying good, tactful compliments to people who are losing weight. If you want to pay a compliment to someone who’s losing weight, you can’t go wrong with, “You look really good, really healthy — have you been working out?”)

Greta now The thing is, though? I honestly don’t know how much of this increased attention is because my body is now a type that more people find attractive… and how much of it is because I feel more attractive, and more libidinous. There is nothing hotter than someone who feels good about themselves, someone who loves their body and their sexuality. And there is nothing less hot than someone who, as a Facebook friend put it, is “slouching and sulking as if they are simultaneously angry at the world and apologizing for existing.” Am I getting more attention now because a lot more people prefer thinner women to fat women? Or is it because I’m walking down the street radiating sexual joy and looking like I want to hump tree trunks? I suspect it’s some of both. I really wish I could tease them out. It would give me a better sense of when to get pissy about compliments, and when to just let them in already. (People who meet me for the first time now, since I’ve lost the weight, have no idea what an advantage they have: they don’t have to deal with my hair-trigger, “So what did you think I was before — chopped liver?” defensiveness.)

And I do realize that this pissy defensiveness isn’t entirely fair. I mean, I have preferences myself about what body types I do and don’t find attractive. Most of them aren’t absolute deal-breakers… but it’s not like they don’t exist. So it’s a little unfair for me to expect other people not to have their own preferences.

Scales_Of_Justice.svg It’s a delicate balance. How do we critique overly rigid cultural ideals of sexual attractiveness… while still acknowledging people’s right to be attracted to whoever they’re attracted to? How do we ask people to question and critique their — our — desires, to look carefully at the ways that a sexist, consumerist, celebrity- obsessed culture shapes our libidos… while still acknowledging that people don’t really have control over who we do and don’t have the hots for?

I don’t know. It’s a mess. And of course I know that the “effusive compliment” people mean well. I know that in our culture, “You look like you’ve lost weight!” is almost universally considered a compliment. And my weight loss project has, in fact, involved a lot of hard work… so when people get really effusive about how great I look now, I try to hear it as praise for the accomplishment, not as an insult to how I looked before.

But that’s hard. Especially since the “You looked like such a fat slob before!” implication of “You look so much better now!” plays right into another part of what’s making this process sexually complicated — the disconnect I’m feeling with my sexual history.

A huge amount of my libido right now is focused on the changes my body is going through, and the ways it’s different from what it was before. Which is understandable: things that are in flux get more attention than things that are in relative stasis. But this has had the unfortunate effect of making me feel weirdly disconnected from my body and my sexuality of the past. My willingness to accept how unhappy I used to be with my body, and how much in denial/ cognitive dissonance I was about it, is making it hard to remember that I did, in fact, like my body at least some of the time when I was fat, and that at least some people found that body attractive, and that I did get a substantial amount of sexual pleasure from it.

Queenlatifahi I know that this disconnectedness is totally irrational. I know that fat bodies can be happily experienced as sexual, both from the inside and the outside. There are, for instance, plenty of fat people who I see as intensely sexual and would do in a hot second. And I know that it’s seriously counter-productive. I was a fat woman for years — years in which I lived out some of the most powerful and formative aspects of my sexuality, and years in which I had some of the best sex of my life. I know that I have to find a way to inhabit my current sexual body, and at the same time make peace with my old one. (If anyone has any suggestions or experience about this, btw, I’m all ears. This is a tough one.)

And while I mostly feel happier and less self-conscious about my body than I used to, there are still aspects of my body and my appearance that I’m not thrilled about. It’s been weird to accept the fact that even when I reach my target weight, I’m still not going to be the cultural ideal of female attractiveness, and I never will be. And while I’ve been letting go of a lot of my old body dislikes, I’ve also been picking up one or two new ones. (Let me tell you about loose skin sometime.) Losing weight doesn’t mean dropping the battle against body fascism — either externally or internally.

I don’t know. It’s a mess. A mess that on the whole I feel good about, but a mess nonetheless.

Thoughts?

Comments

  1. Dave says

    Wow, great piece. I’m in a similar situation (except I’m a guy). I’ve been overweight my whole adult life, and finally started doing something about it this year. I’m down 60 pounds, with a long haul still to go, and I’ve had a huge difficulty adjusting to things like, “You look great!” The sexual aspect is not as big a concern yet, but I’m worried that it will be later. My wife is also heavy and also losing weight, and I’ve been dreaming of a better sex life since we started this. I’m just worried we’ll get healthier and it’s still not better.
    I guess that’s not really much of a thought or comment, but thanks for writing and listening.

  2. desperate says

    I’m in a long-distance relationship; although it’s open, I really don’t have time to find someone else who lives in the right state. I am terrified of most social interactions and am moving to an environment where my usual strategy for finding partners will not work.
    I desperately want to reduce my libido, as well as my desire for human contact generally, so that I can concentrate on more important things like starting grad school this fall. I’ve also been wanting to get in better shape. Do I just need to give up on one of these things (probably getting in shape)?
    While I’ve heard the Pill can reduce libido, it certainly doesn’t have that effect on me, and also produces unacceptable side effects. So that’s not an option. Any suggestions?
    I know that maybe I’m asking the wrong question and maybe I should be looking for someone else instead of wondering whether anorexia is the solution. But I have no idea how to even approach the problem of finding someone.

  3. TommyP says

    Greta darling you have my best wishes, I’m going through the same thing. Pants are just starting to fit me better, but there’s a long way for me to go. I had some great sex at higher weights but I’m really looking forward to being my target weight. It’s mostly for the health, but also because I got sick of having a belly. Guys with belly = fail to my libido, and I was thinking, who am I to inflict that upon someone else? nevertheless some people still found me attractive even then, and I take it as a good thing. Yes you can be attractive even when things are at a lesser ideal than you would like. This can give you confidence that, when you lose weight, exercise, etc. that the new compliments aren’t just about that- I mean that people liked you before, they like you now, so you obviously have enduring qualities no matter the state of your body. You had heaps of goodness and hawtness before, right? You have that plus some more now right? So basically you are a continuum of sex muffin goodness. I’d say, enjoy it for what it is, and be glad you are one of the individuals who is appealing in a number of circumstances, as opposed to very few. Things might not be ideal at all, but that’s still a lot better than flaming out in your teens or something. You obviously have lasting power, and you’ve found a way to be healthier and increase that at the same time. I’d say you’re a lucky lady.

  4. Renee says

    This piece really resonated with me. Although I’m currently way heavier than I want to be, a few years ago I lost a substantial amount of weight and went through a very similar experience. My libido went through the roof and I made some questionable decisions with my sex life (which all turned out ok in the end, thankfully).
    But the compliments always bothered me. Every time someone told me I looked great, all I heard was “thank goodness you’re not as hideous as you were before.” I literally ran and hid when people I worked with looked like they were going to compliment me. Unfortunately, it got to the point where I was more comfortable with the familiar and gained the weight back.
    I’m just starting to reorganize my life and start that project again. As much as i want it, it’s scary in ways a lot of people don’t understand. I think reading that someone else has gone through the same bizarre set of feelings I did is really helpful.
    Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. Marina says

    Thanks, Greta! I think so many people go through this. I recently lost about 65 lbs – I love my new body and my new libido, but haven’t reconciled with my former self, and still have some aprehension about my current self (that hanging skin is annoying…). I had so many self-image issues to start with – but, feeling better in my own skin is really making a difference in my life in so many ways – but, you’re right, it’s complex. I wrote a bit about this here:
    http://nakedi.wordpress.com/2010/06/05/marina-st-clare/
    Anyway – congratulations to you for your weight loss and your self-awareness. I lurk quite a bit, and always enjoy visiting here.
    Marina

  6. Danielle says

    I always thought of people saying “Have you lost weight? You look great!” as being in the same category of compliments as “Is that a new haircut? It really suits you!” and “Are those new shoes? They’re really nice!” It doesn’t mean your former haircut or shoes were horrible, it’s just that they were the norm, and people didn’t feel compelled to comment on them. Also, when you go out in a shiny new pair of boots, it draws new attention to your legs, and people are reminded that, hey, that person’s got a sexy set of legs. Weight loss and comments thereon feel different because it’s such a dramatic change to the whole body, and, for a lot of people, it’s tied strongly with self-esteem issues and cultural norms, but this’ll often go right over the head of the person making the comment.

  7. says

    First of all congratulations on successfully losing weight.
    For me sexual attractiveness is not about body fat, cultural norms or attitude, but primarily about health. Unfortunately, more often than not, more fat correlates with less health, thus is automatically perceived as less sexy (even though I know plenty overweight and sexy people).
    It might help to think about all those people who compliment you now, but did not before, not as judging your attractiveness, but your health, which you admit yourself was the main reason for losing weight in the first place.

  8. DSimon says

    Michael, I think that’s somewhat of a cop out explanation. For one thing, although being fat can be correlated with being unhealthy, it’s far from a very close correlation; some people are at optimal health at a size that culturally is considered “overweight”.
    Also, more directly, I don’t think there’s as tight a relationship between health and attractiveness as you claim. Being healthier can oftentimes be perceived as *less attractive*; i.e. the standard cultural meme that muscular women are unattractive.
    (BTW, nice PHD Comics avatar!)

  9. Maria says

    Just an anecdote, but… About 15 years ago I lost a lot of weight too, and being out with a friend met this guy that I knew a little since before. He did tell me outright that he hadn’t found me attractive before at all, but that now that I was thin he did, and suggested we had sex. In spite of the fact that I was very attracted to him, and had always been I turned him down. He was at least honest, but it didn’t feel very good.

  10. Sin is Fun says

    Thank you for posting this.
    Personally, I’ve put on a lot of weight since my back problems started (I used to run and/or go to the gym pretty often) And though I dislike this, there’s a certain comfort in it that I had the hardest time figuring out.
    Well, a short while back, I figured it out– I don’t want the attention, even if it’s positive, of people commenting on my physical appearance. I don’t want to be assaulted and have little defense because I would weigh so much less than a man would. I don’t want people looking at me and befriending me just because I’m attractive. I want people to listen to the words coming out of my mouth, and not be discounted simply for being a “pretty” female. These things infuriate me.
    It’s scary looking different than what you were used to. Our brains can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, haha.
    And the libido thing is so true, haha. If I’m ever able to return to my running days of yore, I might have to end up taking my boyfriend to the ER for exhaustion (or, um, other stuff…). Exercise makes such a huge difference in this regard!

  11. Jenny W-L says

    You said, “I have to find a way to inhabit my current sexual body, and at the same time make peace with my old one.”
    There’s something in the phrasing here that sounds like your bodies, old and new, and yourself are separate things. Based on reading the rest of your essay I know that’s an oversimplification of how you think, but still the phrasing is indicative.
    I’ve recently lost a relatively trivial 30 pounds, and I felt some of the same discordant reactions to compliments. My solution started with thinking of my body as myself, not just as my residence. Of course my brain is both necessary and sufficient as an instantiation of myself, but being a brain WITH a body is what makes all those other delightful sensual experiences of life possible.
    I am a human, with a particular shape, and aspects I do and don’t like about that shape. And when I examine my shape, like any of us I often start by focusing on the parts I don’t like, so I make a conscious effort to appreciate the parts I like and look forward to the changes I plan & expect in the parts I don’t like.
    And for the unpleasant changes I know are inevitable for my 43-year-old self, like more drooping and wrinkles? I make a conscious effort to think of my future self as a healthy older woman, fit enough to do whatever I want and proud of maintaining that condition. I try to think of my future as trading off the look of the college girl I no longer am for the more complex attractiveness of being an experienced woman who appreciates pleasure and knows a h*ll of a lot more about giving and receiving it than any college chick. And you know what, practice in this line of thinking really, really helps.
    I’ve had some partners now who are old enough to have difficulty reaching an orgasm. And much to my surprise, they have been relatively unconcerned with this fact. They’ve been concerned with being able to please me, but there’s lots of ways to do that of course, and sometimes we have to schedule encounters with some care, but they seem to get plenty enough pleasure themselves in simply being intimate for however long it’s possible.
    This relaxed approach to sex really surprised me and has taken some getting used to, but now I’m seeing some great advantages to it. There’s no tendency to measure the end point of the encounter by THEIR orgasm, they never finish before me, nobody has to sleep on a wet spot, and I feel way more free to simply experiment and follow my whims rather than trying to achieve something specific.
    Your body, and the sex life you can enjoy with it, will be changing all your life. Focus on the new experiences you’re gaining and go from there.

  12. says

    I think the ultimate goal in any journey of body image is learning to be comfortable in your own skin. To not worry about how you look, so long as you are healthy and reasonably normal.
    And that’s precisely what I am not. I can’t find anything particularly wrong with me—I’m not hideously deformed, I’m only slightly “overweight”, my penis is of completely average size… but somehow, I just don’t like the way I look. I don’t feel attractive. I don’t feel sexy. I don’t want to look at myself, and I can’t blame other people for not wanting to look at me.
    Working out doesn’t really help, because while it makes me look better (and as you note, it increases libido), it also forces me to compare myself to other men who can bench press 3 times what I can and whose pecs and biceps bulge far beyond mine.
    Also, increased libido is not nearly as fun when you are male (since it already started pretty damn high) and when you’re not getting laid (which I am not).
    Actually the greatest comfort for me comes from trying to use my body image issues to identify with other people’s (we might say) “brain image” issues—feeling that they aren’t smart enough or creative enough—for these are feelings I have never had. In cognitive tasks I have always been superior, so matters of physique allow me to better understand what it feels like to be inferior.

  13. says

    I so appreciate this post as I’ve dealt with two appearance issues that, although quite different from weight loss, have engendered similar messiness, both in self perception and in the responses of others.
    First I’ll mention my breast reduction (at about age 43) and my tummy tuck (at about age 58). After both: increased libido, compliments on how good I’m looking, me being much happier, etc…..the other side being, “Why would a woman, a committed feminist at that, cut into a healthy body just so she could look more attractive by conventional standards?”
    The other one is the “problem” I have of appearing a lot younger than I am. When they learn my actual age (I turn 73 on the 4th of July), after they pick their jaw up off the floor, many people proclaim some version of, “You look really great” Meaning: “You look really great for a woman of your age.” Which in turn means, “The reason you look so great is because you look younger than you really are.” Sometimes I just say “thank you.” But more often, I can’t resist pointing out the implications of what they’ve just said, and saying that when they compliment me on my youthful good looks, that I feel bad for every other older woman who looks more like others her age. In other words, these compliments create a big load of awkwardness for me, not unlike you’ve experienced with others reacting to your weight loss.
    (Posted by Greta on behalf of Joani, who had technical trouble with her comment.)

  14. says

    I stand by my healthiness leads to attractiveness hypothesis. From a purely biological standpoint sexual attractiveness is the measure of the evolutionary fitness of a mate. Now a lot cultural stereotyping has piled onto that, twisted, distorted or caricaturized it to absurd levels. Like since less fat is healthier, we get anorexic supermodels. Big breasts are sign of a good potential mother, the result are boob jobs. Make up, clothes, hair dies, tanning salons, all of these tend to emphasize (often overemphasize) some aspect of the primitive sexuality.
    I didn’t mean to say that more fat is equal to less health, but it is a strong correlation. Strong enough for most of us to immediately assume the unattractiveness of a fat person. Maybe 1 out of 10 overweight people I know, are actually fit (I’m lucky to be one of them). Studies show that an overweight but fit person is actually healthier than a slim unfit one – .
    I’m not sure how much the primitive biological interpretation of sexuality influences our judgment of attractiveness, and how much the culture impresses the idealized images on us. Here I can only say for myself what I like and dislike. I try to cut myself away from the cultural ideals. How would you judge attractiveness of a partner if you did that as well?
    P.S. @DSimon – I actually find muscular women extremely attractive (as long as they don’t overdo it), as well as women who are slightly overweight (but still fit).

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