Desireable objects and desiring subjects

So I’ve been reading and writing and thinking and talking a lot about fat and sex lately.

Well, ok, I haven’t been reading a lot, exactly, because there’s not a lot of academic work on fat and sex to read and some of what there is, is frankly appalling.  I have been reading what Samantha Murray, Jana Evans Braziel, and Laura Kipnis have to say on fat and sex, though, and it’s most interesting.  It’s got me thinking.

There’s so few images of fat women as sexual beings in mainstream representation.  Most of these representations are set up as parodic, absurd, carnivalesque, grotesque.  Images from fat porn occasionally find their way into the mainstream, where they are recontextualised as objects of ridicule rather than desire.  Any fat woman who dares to desire sex  is cast as oblivious to the disgust and repulsion her body must engender.  She must be delusional to think anyone could possibly want her.  As Murray says:

as a ‘fat’ woman I am expected to deny my own sexual desires and identity because my body stands as an ’embolism’, to use Sedgewick’s term, between  my sexuality and my society (p123)

Yeah, I fucking love Sam Murray.  But that’s not really the point I’m trying to make.

The point I’m trying to make is that what this suggests to me is that being able to conceive of ourselves as a desirable object is integral to constituting ourselves as validly desiring subjects.  Extended out to the cultural level, it is necessary to be able to conceive of a body as desirable in order to conceive of its desires as valid or real.  In order for desire to be intelligible as desire.

What do you think?


Samantha Murray, The Fat Female Body, 2008

Laura Kipnis, ‘Life in the Fat Lane’ in Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, 1996

Jana Evans Braziel, ‘Sex and Fat Chics: Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body’ in Bodies Out Of Bounds, Desirable objects 2001

11 Replies to “Desireable objects and desiring subjects”

  1. Okay, I’ve been out of school for 25 years, so I can’t talk that way anymore, but the way I see it there are two kinds of people in the world, shallow people and deep people. The entire concept of a human being as a “desirable object” is shallow. Is this the goal of the fat community? Just to expand the definition of beauty to include fat chicks? Either you have the ability to see beauty in things that don’t appear in movies and magazines or you’re frankly not worth bothering about. In terms of the shallow people, I don’t expect to make converts. I just expect them to treat me with the respect due every human being. In terms of how we view ourselves and our own sexuality, I think we’re much better off focussing on our self-worth generally, and let the sexuality flow from a place of more fundamental joy.

  2. A friend once said she was glad she’d reached the point where she could look in the mirror and think, “Yeah, I’d do her”.

    Obviously this is helped by the fact that she’s bisexual, but I do think it makes a good point 😉

  3. living – I agree. While I’m not necessarily saying that we have to desire ourselves, I think being able to conceive of ourselves as desirable to someone is really important.

  4. Trabb’s Boy – I think you raise some interesting points, although I fundamentally disagree with some of them. I’m actually working on a post about why I think appearance isn’t simply shallow, but I want to respond to a couple of things now.

    I do agree that there is a drive in some parts of fat acceptance which is pretty simply to expand the idea of beauty to include fat, and I think that’s problematic, though understandable, and in some ways valuable as a first step. I think that being objectifiable is an extremely limited position, if that’s all there is to it.

    I think that some parts of fat acceptance are re-defining beauty and aesthetics in ways that aren’t simply about trying to fit fat bodies into a mainstream ideal, but about re-working the system to allow for a range of bodies and aesthetics and expressions to be seen as valid and valuable, and I think that is really important work.

    I think the dichotomy of shallow people and deep people is overly-simplistic – I think in reality, most people tend to be a combination.

    I think sex is quite fundamentally about bodies – not only about bodies, but definitely about bodies, and the idea that they can be overlooked, or gotten past, or seen through is…well, it reinforced a split between the body and the self which I think is really damaging.

    I want my lovers to want my body. I want them to want my heart and my mind as well, but in order for sex to happen, I absolutely, unquestionably want them to be physically attracted to me. That doesn’t mean I have to mimic the ideals of Hollywood, but I can’t – and don’t want to – remove my body from sex.

  5. Well, I don’t mean that bodies are irrelevant in terms of sex. I guess I more mean that interest in a person’s heart and mind makes that person’s body attractive sexually. I mean, look at genitals. They are not, on the whole, a thing of beauty regardless of how thoroughly coiffed your pubic hair is. We like a person’s genitals because we are already attracted to that person, and I believe we like their overall looks in the same way.

    There are people who are conventionally beautiful, and more people may be initially attracted to them because of that, but it seems to me that a person’s looks alter fundamentally once you get to know them at all. Their level of attractiveness changes to fit your interest. If you really like them, their smile turns you to jelly. If it turns out they’re kind of a dick, you sure notice that funny way their earlobes stick out a bit. I guess I’m calling it shallow if that doesn’t happen. Probably unfair; just a different way of being.

    I think where I agree with you most is when it comes to kids. There is tremendous value in seeing someone that looks like you being appreciated by the world. Kids and teens are very sensitive to rejection based on difference, and soothing that hurt in any way possible is valuable.

    But let’s be honest, isn’t it a hell of a lot easier to teach your kid that people who care about this stuff are shallow than to teach hundreds of millions of men that they are sexually attracted to a particular, personality-free body type that they weren’t previously attracted to? No harm in aiming for both, but …

  6. I think the answer to your question (which I understand as ‘do you have to be desirable for your desires to be seen as legitimate?’) is different for women and men. In mainstream media, men’s sexual desires for women are read as valid, regardless of the man’s age, attractiveness, etc. Whether he succeeds romantically or not, men are portrayed as sexually desiring, regardless of their own level of desirability. An analysis of the question of desirability and desire misses the mark unless it recognizes how women and men are situated very differently in current western cultures.

    Women I know talk about not being able to feel turned on (desiring) unless they feel they look sexy (desirable). I don’t know men who feel this way.

  7. HairyLegs – That’s not quite my question. What I’m saying is that in mainstream representation, it is inconceivable that a fat woman could be a desirable object, and this makes her unintelligible/inconceivable/illegitimate as a desiring subject.

    The idea of ‘being desirable’ is far too subjective to hold up for any kind of analysis. I certainly don’t mean that one has to conform to mainstream standards of beauty in order to be desired, or that the viewer has to find that body desirable, but that it has to be conceivable that someone could desire them. And I would argue that, in mainstream representation, desire for fat women is inconceivable (Roseanne springs to mind as one of very few exceptions).

    You’re absolutely right that men and women are portrayed differently, and I thought I was pretty clearly only talking about fat women. Although I think some of the impacts of fat occur across all genders, I think gendered bodies are dealt with so differently that it’s impossible to talk about all in the same way.

    Yes, men’s desires are seen as always valid no matter what they look like – I don’t think the sexual desires of fat men are portrayed as unintelligible (although I would argue that there are times where the fat male body does stand as an ‘embolism’ between sexuality and society). But those desires are almost always for a conventionally attractive (thin) woman – desire for fat bodies is not part of the cultural imaginary.

    I think this is in part because men are positioned as desiring subjects and (conventionally attractive) women are positioned as desirable objects. Women’s desire is produced as the desire to be desired, and only women who are desirable objects can therefore be intelligible as desirous. Even though I’m not actually talking about arousal here, I think your example fits quite well with this idea.

  8. Trabb’s Boy – Let me be very clear: I am NOT suggesting that a person has to be conventionally beautiful to be attractive or desirable or desired.

    What I’m saying is that fat women’s bodies are never (in the mainstream) represented as desirable. I think the emphasis on attraction to ‘the person inside’ perpetuates the idea that fat women’s bodies aren’t desirable, that no one could be attracted to a fat body.

    Absolutely I agree that attraction changes as you get to know people, and personality is a big part of it. But personality is a big part of friendship and platonic love too. Desire – sexual, romantic, bodily desire – is what makes lover relationships different from friendship relationships.

    I just don’t get the idea that sexual desire is shallow. I wouldn’t want to have sex with someone I wasn’t attracted to in order to not be shallow. There are people who I love and adore as friends who I don’t desire sexually (even though most of them are really good looking). I think desire and attraction are actually incredibly deep.

  9. This is a fascinating subject and I need to think some on it. I am also going to consult my extensive Fat Studies library collection and see what else I can come up with for you… YOU should write a paper on this!!!

  10. Bri – I am writing my PhD on fat and sex, so no doubt this will make a paper along the way. If you do find any more (academic) resources on fat sexuality, I’d be thrilled – there’s a few more bits and pieces, but not a whole lot out there yet…

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