Friday, July 11, 2008

The Fetishization of the Abnormal

My roommate and I were walking down Broadway after work today and started talking about couples in New York. We noted that there are a lot of really skinny and toned women out there who date heavier men with beer bellies. It’s basically socially acceptable for this WASPy tennis playing blonde to marry someone far less attractive or athletic. If you’re cynical, you could say it’s because she wants his money, or she settled because she couldn’t find someone that lived up to her original standards; or it’s also possible that she does love him, because isn’t it true that women are more open to deeming intellect and sense of humor as attractive and thus more easily allow those qualities to override physical imperfections? It’s not unfair to say that women do this far more often than men, because we do, we’re fine with dating men who we don’t find 100% physically attractive because their personalities often times make up for what they might lack upstairs (balding?) or downstairs (small dick?).

But the thing is, men aren't the only ones not granting women the same grace. Ashley and I realized that when we see skinny women with heavier men, we accept it and move on. But when we see heavier women with skinny men, we automatically assume that the guy has some sort of fetish for heavier women. And that’s a very American thing to do, I think: automatically fetishize anything that is considered “abnormal” within society’s stringent expectations. We don’t grant that skinny man the possibility that he’s dating the heavier woman because she’s smart, or has a valiant sense of humor, or is nice to strangers, whatever. Instead, we automatically assume that there is something wrong with that man for being willing to date someone who doesn’t conform to the societal standard of beauty.

And that’s a type of sexism - but also a symptom of societal judgment - that is engrained in everyone, even women. It’s something I’m going to try to consciously banish from my thinking. I don’t want to be complicit in the fetishization of anything deemed “abnormal.” It’s not right.



Sara Benincasa said...


And I'm ashamed of myself.

Thanks for writing about this, Jess.

Mazi said...

wow. yeah, good call. you're gaining superpowers for this kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

I have had these same thoughts for the past five pisses me off that women settle for dowdier men. At the same time, I get angry with myself when I judge a homely woman who is with an attractive man!

Marshall said...

^does not get.^

bering said...


a. i'm a big fan / your writing is kick-ass / (your choice of compliment/endorsement here)

b. this comment turned out way longer than planned. Apologies. Feel free to delete.

I've been reformulating this for the past ten minutes, what with hoping (and failing) at keeping up with the high level of style on this page, so i'll just go ahead:

1. Fetish: deviant form of attraction (at least in the way you use the term here)

2. Considering a man who is with a heavy woman a fetishist: bad/sexist because we don't give the man enough credit, i.e. consider the possibility that he may be with the woman because of some other redeeming feature.

My problem with that logic is that you essentially skip over the whole part about laws of attraction being completely relative, subjective and personal. You come to the conclusion that being attracted to heavier women is not a "fetish" but is still "abnormal".

Why not: "We don't grant that skinny man the possibility that he's dating a heavier woman because he finds her 100% attractive", instead of: "We don't grant that skinny man the possibility that he's dating a heavier woman because, although he thinks she's mildly repulsive, he is infinitely practical and thereby able to find other reasons to remain with her".

The fact is, "society's stringent expectations" are an aggregate mass that when broken down do not in any way represent any one person's actual definition of beauty. I mean, you know this, i don't imagine i'm revealing anything particularly shocking, but the point is, you consider heavier women unattractive and so focus on that here. But what about tall women, short women, women with asymmetrical features, hunchbacks? They all deviate from the golden mean of attractiveness and so are "abnormal". Except people are, simply, attracted to them. Without needing additional justifications such as factoring in their intelligence, wit, juggling talent and their ability to do that thing where your hands make circles around your head and your belly simultaneously. And of course our perception of a person's personality in general contributes to the level of attraction they exert. There isn't really (solely physical) attraction on one end, and on the other the additional criteria we add to the equation to make up for physical "defects", at least not when initially considering whether we find someone attractive or not.

The fact of being with someone you don't find 100% attractive is an altogether different problem, linked to the fact that a) most objects of desire are found lacking when under close scrutiny and as compared with the idealized version our initially infatuated mind feeds us, and b) given enough time, lack of novelty will lead the mind to find faults and irritations where there were none before. And this leads to considering other -non aesthetic- parameters in summing up our total percentage of attractedness and/or desire to remain in the relationship.

Aaanyway... i realize this is a bit long for a first comment, it's just that your other posts I simply read and then cheer, or would like to comment on but am daunted by.

Jess and Josh said...

Behring - you make some really great points. Society's standards are very much a mashup of religiocultural ideals, but I think for the most part there are definitely things considered "normal" and "abnormal." Just look at women's mags and their effect on teen psyches, for example.

Don't be afraid to comment! We don't bite, and we would love to hear your thoughts.

bering said...

You're right. I'll try to reformulate, now that i've had a few hours rest :)

I wasn't contesting the existence of a norm. Nor would i even vaguely consider denying the unfortunate effects on the teenage psyche of being constantly bombarded with images of physical impossibilities.

I was simply suggesting that all attraction deviates from the norm, which as an absolute is simply an aggregate of every individual's definition of attractiveness. Everyone's tastes deviate from the norm to some degree. Therefore, and as you stated in your post, it is not because your tastes are "abnormal" that you have an actual fetish.

It was just a strange logical jump to assume that because the woman was outside of your personal definition of an acceptable margin of deviation from "the norm", her companion necessarily felt the same, and therefore needed additional reasons (i.e. her intelligence, wit, etc.) to be with her.

gallatin said...

That's because you and your child fedora wearing child molester are abnormal yourself. Do you have anything that are based on facts and not assumptions? You INTELLECTUALLY NON-EXISTENT PSEUDO-BOHEMIAN POSERS!

I guess Josh needs to find his next victim giving candy to some unsuspecting confused, depressed and lonely newbie arrival once Jess has gone to France.