Personal Preference, or Perpetuation of Oppression?

I just returned from the AASECT annual conference in Philadelphia, and it was, in my opinion, a particularly excellent conference this year. In the next couple months, I’ll share some of the thoughts that are stirring around for me in the aftermath of the presentations and workshops I attended.

First up, I want to tell you about a fascinating talk entitled “The Politics of Desirability.”

Consider what we think of as “personal preference.” Tall, dark, and handsome? Slim, blonde, and athletic? Able-bodied? White? Christine Shio Lim, who presented her research findings, suggests that what we have thought of as “personal preference” is not only socially constructed to the point that the word “personal” hardly applies, but also that these preferences arise from politically and socially oppressive systems that result in biases around weight, race, differing ability, and so forth.

This is not shocking for those of us who believe in social constructionism. But consider the implications for our lives and for therapy. “It’s my right to prefer what I prefer” is a common stance. But what if our preferences perpetuate oppression? Or, if we bring the discussion down to earth in real relationship examples, what if someone experiences diminished attraction to their partner after, for instance, they gain weight, but they want to stay together?

Have you ever felt uncomfortable when this situation has comes up in therapy, or is it just me?

As a body positive activist with a life-long history of experiencing our culture’s rampant bias against fatness, I have done lots of research on the topic of fatness and health, and have worked hard on my own personal feelings about my body and, more generally, cultural norms of beauty. I definitely am not interested in perpetuating myths about body size and beauty, or health.

However, I also appreciate the differentiation it takes to say something as hard as “I’m not feeling attracted to you because you have gained weight”. At least, once it has been said, a discussion can happen, if (and this is a big if!) the therapist can hold the tension sufficiently and guide the conversation in productive ways.

Here are some things to consider, from my experience working with body image issues in therapy, and guided by Shio Lim’s findings:

  • The story you’re seeing play out is not just about the relationship between partners—it’s about the relationship between the partners and the culture they exist in.
  • Attraction is malleable. If you want to change it, you can change it. Help the partner whose attraction has waned to look at beauty from a values-led perspective. Do some psychoeducation about size acceptance. Get creative about stretching perception.
  • No matter what a person says about their preference, or how they say it, it is more about them and how they see the world than about their partner. Help both partners understand the emotional boundaries here. There is no “too fat to be desirable” in a global sense. Also, fatness is not a character flaw. The person who states “you are too fat” is expressing something important about their own perception, belief system, and how they see the world as a result of their experiences. They are not right or wrong, nor are they unchangeable. They are just expressing something about their perceptions in this moment.
  • There is an inherent boundary problem with expecting your partner to lose weight. First, it might not be possible for multiple personal or medical reasons. Secondly, it is essentially none of your business.
  • Nobody ever made any difficult change by beating themselves up. Supporting beauty and self-love at any size is a powerful way to help your client stay empowered to make and act on their own decisions about their life.
  • Have you ever experienced being attracted to a person’s attitude, vibe, or presence rather than their body per se? Help the client who has gained weight to find an internal sense of sexiness, body love, joy in life, embodiment of pleasure. That’s the sexiest thing they could do, and almost certainly more powerful than losing weight.
  • It is very possible for a couple’s dynamic to remove or block all motivation to change. In other words, coercion, pressure, auditing or remarking on food choices, or any other subtle or not-so-subtle judgment is more likely to block change than create it. Challenge the pressuring partner to mind their own business while they work to expand their erotic template.
  • I love to have couples watch the film Embrace together. It is about body image for women, but it generalizes well for anyone who needs a new perspective on oppressive systems around size, health, beauty, and ability.

As a therapist, and a human being, you would be doing a radical thing by challenging your clients (and yourself) to consider that all bodies are beautiful, all are worthy, all are equal. Our sense that thinner bodies are more valuable and more desirable is shaped by our culture and our media. At many points in history, and in many cultures, fatter bodies have been valued over thinner ones. Our culture’s current preference does not reflect an eternal truth. The same goes for preferences and beliefs around skin color, ability/disability, gender presentation, and so forth.

This conversation can be incredibly difficult and painful. It’s also an amazing opportunity for both partners to put differentiation of self into practice. It takes real emotional muscle to hear something like “I’m not as attracted to you anymore because of your weight” and recognize it as something that comes from your partner’s experiences and history rather than as an indication that something is wrong with you.

I know a lot of therapists might shy away from having an open conversation about weight and attraction. It just feels too personal, too painful, and too potentially explosive. But once we recognize that our ideas about desirability are both personal (meaning they reflect our values and experiences, not objective reality), and shaped by our society (meaning that factors like systemic bias and oppression play a meaningful role), it becomes possible to have a non-judgemental, non-pathologizing, diversity-embracing conversation about where our desires come from and what roles they play in our lives and relationships.