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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?")
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.
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.
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.