When I started writing this post, I thought it was going to be about coupledom and privilege. It hasn’t turn out that way – it’s turned out as a post on my history of dating while fat. I still intend to write that post on couple privilege, but I think this is important background.
I have some strange ideas about my relationship history. Up to nine months ago, I claimed that I’d never had a ‘real’ relationship in my life. I also claimed that all my relationships were bad relationships. (See the strange yet?) I’ve always been convinced that both of these things were because I was fat. But NONE of these things are true. I’ve had relationships, I’ve had good relationships, and I’ve had relationships both because of and regardless of my fat.
It is true that I’ve spent a lot of my life as a single person. And it’s true that I’ve broken my heart a helluva lot. But I have dated a respectable number of people (for some values of ‘respectable’, anyway). And I’ve actually only had two truly bad relationships. Only two. Other relationships may not have gone the way I wanted them to, but there’s only two that have been really bad - by which I mean emotionally or psychologically damaging.
The first of my bad relationships was in my late teens and early twenties. It lasted just over two years and is the longest relationship I’ve ever had. We were never officially a couple, and the whole affair was kept secret, even when we lived together (twice!) – partly because we worked together, partly because he didn’t want the fact that he had a lover to interfere with picking up other girls, and mostly because he didn’t want anyone to know that he was fucking a fat girl. I’m not making that up, or extrapolating from anything – he told me straight out that if anyone found out he was it would be over (people found out, it wasn’t over, we just continued to deny it). He also told me once that if I were thin, “we’d be married by now.” I’m counting that as a lucky escape.
I accepted the lying, the secrecy, the other women because I thought I didn’t deserve any better. Because I thought that I was so incredibly hideous that no one would ever want to be with me ‘properly’ and so this was the best that I could get. I’m pretty sure there was also a bit of the myth that a bad boy will come good with the love of a good woman at work in there. Romantic comedies have a lot to answer for. I eventually met some new friends who made me feel like I wasn’t the most hideous person in the world and finally had the courage to leave. I was heartbroken for years after. I really and truly believed that no one could ever love me because I was fat.
The second really bad relationship was in my late twenties, and quite short (three months or so). We started going out because she chased me. My interest in being with her was primarily my interest in being pursued (even though she’s one of the most conventionally attractive people I’ve dated). The sex was absolutely minimal (once) and absolutely non-reciprocal. (Incidentally, sleeping with her made me very aware that fat bodies and thin bodies are incredibly, radically, different. It was kind of shocking to be confronted with a body so different from mine when, both being girl bodies, they were ‘supposed’ to be so much the same.) I raised the no-sex issue, but never pushed it because, well, who’d want to fuck a fat girl? Even though at that stage I was well and truly into fat acceptance. Even though I’d had experience of dating people who loved fucking fat girls, who only wanted to fuck fat girls, or who really liked fucking this particular fat girl, I was so indoctrinated with the idea that fat girls are unfuckable that I couldn’t actually stand my ground and say “This is not ok”. There was, of course, more to the story: I was trying to do-things-differently from the past and not instigate a pre-emptive break-up; I told her that I was not going to break up with her and that if that’s what she wanted, she’d have to do it herself. She kept reassuring me she really did like me but had “issues”. After three months of this, I decided that doing-things-differently-be-damned, it wasn’t ok. She had decided the same thing at the same time.
The way she told me was to say: “I was only pretending to like you”.
I wasn’t heartbroken, but I was psychologically devastated. This was my secret paranoia in every relationship (which she knew, because I’d told her in order to reassure her that “everyone has issues”). “Only pretending” has been my secret paranoia since year seven when Ben Richardson used to shout across the schoolyard, “Sizeoftheocean, you give me orgasms!” Since year seven means every single relationship I have ever had. EVER. I always “knew” that anyone expressing interest in me was probably doing it to mock me. To set me up as a punch-line. AND: She knew this. SHE KNEW THIS. Yes, I am still angry. It was a cruel and deliberate thing to say (looking back, there were plenty of clues to this tendency, but I ignored them because, well, I’m fat and she’s not and surely I should just shut up and be grateful for the attention).
But back to the point: I’ve had two terrible and devastating relationships. Hardly every relationship I’ve ever had. I’ve actually had some quite wonderful relationships, even if they mostly haven’t gone the way I’d like them to. But I always believed that I hadn’t had – and couldn’t have – the kind of relationship I wanted because I was fat.
I know fat acceptance as a movement works pretty hard to dispel the idea that fat women will accept anything just to get sexual and romantic attention. But at a certain time in my life, this was absolutely true for me, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that being fat does actually make it likely you’ll encounter extra challenges in dating (because there aren’t enough challenges already), even if it’s just in the constant, endless, relentless message that no one will ever want a fat girl. A message which is rubbish, by the way, but still extremely powerful. A message which taught me to put up with being mistreated. A message which taught me to pre-emptively reject myself before anyone else could, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy because I foreclosed any possibility before it could become a reality. A message that brought with it the nagging idea that because being fat precluded me from having a “real” relationship (despite ample evidence to the contrary), it meant that I was precluded from being a worthwhile person, someone who really mattered. Romantic love and coupling-off are culturally positioned as profoundly desirable, deeply necessary, and ultimately validating. “You’re no one until somebody loves you” and all that. A message which taught me to negate my personality and desires in order to become what someone else wanted (yeah, that worked out real well). A message which has been the hardest thing about fat acceptance that I’ve dealt with, because it’s necessarily completely wrapped up with other people’s opinions and desires.
For the last nine months I’ve been dating a boy (let’s call him ‘The Socialist’). I wouldn’t say our relationship is perfect by any stretch, but it’s good. We have fun together. I’m completely myself around him, which is a revelation. I don’t feel the immanent threat of being dumped for someone else, someone thinner, someone more interesting (it’s amazing how trying to be what someone else wants actually makes you incredibly dull). More importantly is that I’ve started to seriously deconstruct the ideology of romance and coupledom, and what exactly a ‘real relationship’ is anyway.
I think there are a lot of reasons for wanting the kind of relationship privileged by the dominant culture. Primarily, that is THE ONLY KIND OF RELATIONSHIP that is ever depicted as valid in the dominant culture. I think this message is much stronger for women, but men certainly don’t escape it. There are all sorts of privileges which accrue to couples – economic, social, and cultural privileges. There’s the incredible benefit of emotional support and knowing that someone’s on your side and always having a friendly face at parties, of not having to go it on your own all the damn time*. Of knowing that you’re loved. Of having visible social approval in the form of someone who loves you and publicly acknowledges that fact.
The privileges and social validation that comes along with coupledom have become more and more blatant the longer I’ve been seeing The Socialist. And that will be the subject of another post.
*I am, of course, speaking only of functional relationships, where there are tangible emotional benefits. Obviously not all relationships are like that, and sometimes being in a relationship can actually be emotionally damaging rather than nurturing. I also realise that this is a bit idealistic even for good relationships.