BY LISA C. KNISELY
A few weeks ago, online dating website OkCupid announced that paying users on the site could now “search” their matches by the answers they gave to the site’s user-generated match questions. These questions are as varied as “Have you ever had sex with a person within the first hour of meeting them?” and “Do you like the taste of beer” and “Do you often find yourself wanting to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?” There is a lot of random shit people on OkCupid want to know about the people they might one-day marry/fuck/kill.
I’ve been waiting for OkC to allow users to search by match question answers for a long, long time. I used to spend hours manually scrolling through each potential match’s questions until I found out how they answered one question in particular. It goes like this:
If one of your potential matches were overweight, would that be a dealbreaker?
1) Yes, even if they were slightly overweight.
2) Yes, but only if they were obese.
4) No, in fact I prefer overweight people.
As a fat woman, it is basically imperative to me that any of my potential matches answer “No” to this question if I’m going to seriously consider meeting them IRL. What’s the fucking point, otherwise? (Warning: heartbreak and rejection ahead.)
Almost as soon as OkCupid announced the change in search options, people on the interwebz began to consider what the change meant in relation to questions on OkC that address racial preferences in dating. Rehashing older discussions about online dating and race, Slate’s Reihan Salam penned a piece titled “Is it Racist to Date Only people of Your Own Race? Yes.” He concludes:
To be sure, dating is about more than the sharing of bread, and OkCupid users who express strong racial preferences may well be doing the world a favor by being open and honest about their wants. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask those who do express such preferences, and those who live them in practice, to reflect on them, and on how there might be more to fighting racism than voting ‘the right way.’
I agree with Salam’s assessment that fighting racism (and other forms of oppression and discrimination) isn’t just about formal manifestations of equality like voting but is also about our hearts, minds — and even what we do with our genitals. Far from being innocuous and purely personal “preferences,” who we date, love, live with, befriend, and fuck is extremely meaningful for how we organize social power, hierarchy, and affiliation.
And that is part of why discussions about dating are so convoluted: desire and attraction cut to the heart of deeper, subterranean social meanings, ones we’re not fully aware of or able to negotiate freely and rationally. Who we desire to be and to love isn’t just a matter of individualist private choice in the way that the ideology of American free-market political liberalism leads us to believe.
As much as online dating can feel like online shopping, neither activity is devoid of political meaning. Both activities are about creating human relationships situated within larger sociopolitical and economic systems that are beyond our control as mere individuals.
The links between a conservative political agenda and a notion of apolitical personal blame and responsibility is particularly salient when it comes to body size. As the report “Weighty Concerns” by Samantha Kwan and Mary Nell Trautner notes:
In Western cultures with an ideology of individualism, this belief that we can control our destiny, including our bodies, is deeply ingrained. Sizeist attitudes are particularly embedded in individualistic cultures such as the U.S. Work by social psychologist Bernard Weiner and his colleagues shows that fat stigmatization is more likely when individuals assign individual responsibility and blame to fat people, and Christian Crandall and his colleagues’ research further shows that fatism correlates with belief in a just world, the Protestant work ethic, and conservative political ideology.
Being fat is, in this frame of mind, an undeniable visible marker of an individual’s failure to live up to the demands of Western political ideologies of personal responsibility and self-empowerment.
While we all have both explicit and hidden (even to ourselves) preferences about who we date, the insistence that those preferences are merely personal, entirely apolitical, or that they are, somehow, our God-given right, belongs to the same genre of ideology as other salient conservative political myths that attempt to decontextualize individuals from their social surroundings, like the welfare queen or the pro-choicer who just loves murdering babies. To say that dating “preferences” lack political meaning or that they cannot be harmful because the intent of the individuals expressing the preference is not to cause harm entirely misses the point.
Systems of oppression are systems and ones that replicate themselves through us. That is, we “inherit” these “preferences” and it is our job, if we are committed to progressive social change, to “work” on those inheritances so that our desires, and consequent “choices” align with the social world we want to pass on to others in the future.
Still, Salam is right to point out in his article that people who are explicitly and openly discriminatory in their dating preferences may be doing the rest of us a favor by letting us know. I was really pleased when OkC announced the change in search options, in part, because I do want to check to see if my potential matches have publicly expressed dating preferences such as “I strongly prefer to date only people of my own race.” Overt, public racists like that have, quite simply, got to go. People who think that expressing a racial “preference” for their match is just a matter of personal choice are extremely unlikely to be a good match for me.
To be honest, people who have high match percentages with me generally fit a certain profile. They like to read. They’re politically leftist. They either went to college or are in college now. They probably like art, coffee, cooking, wine, or whiskey. They might write poetry or paint. They’re mostly young-ish, urban-dwelling, hipster-y types. Many of them are queer/of color/feminist. And they almost never overtly express racist/sexist/classist/homophobic sentiments in how they answer their match questions. And that’s rad for me.
But ask them the question about “obesity” and it’s fucking no holds barred. Time and time again, I’ll be excited about some Proust-reading feminist bisexual carpenter or some effeminate philosophy graduate student barista only to have my hopes dashed on the rocks of overt and unabashed sizeism. No fatties. As in, I won’t even consider dating someone who has a BMI of 30 or greater (the technical definitions of obese and dealbreaker).
The same people who are seemingly able to make the political connections (or at least try to make them, who want to make them) between desire, power, and race/class/sexuality/gender unabashedly refuse to do so when it comes to body size. And I never fail to feel surprised and disappointed about this. It doesn’t matter how many times it happens, it defies my expectations.
By marking “No” to the question “If one of your potential matches were overweight, would that be a dealbreaker?” you are not saying “I love all fat people and want to fuck/marry all of them.” You’re just saying, “I’d consider going on a date with one single individual ‘obese’ person sometime in my life before I die. It isn’t out of the question that I might find a fat person interesting/sexy/romantically viable at some point, someday.” And, from what we know about how fluid human sexuality actually is, this seems like a pretty reasonable assumption that this will, indeed, happen at least once.
But admitting that you’re into a fattie, well, that’s not something most people want to do — because admitting that fact is incredibly stigmatizing. You might, like, get fat by association — or something. Your social prestige will plummet like tech stocks in 2000. Especially if you’re a dude.
I first learned this in the fourth grade when I asked out my first crush, Jake, on Valentine’s Day. Jake and I had been talking on the phone everyday after school for several months, doing things like playing our favorite songs for one another. He got fourth grade me, or whatever.
When I finally worked up the courage to ask him to be my boyfriend, officially, publicly, he told me he’d call me back with his decision. Jake called me back after a few minutes to tell me that he had consulted with his older brother, showing him my yearbook photo, and that his older brother had advised him against us going out, officially, publicly. It was a lesson on gender, desire, and social status for both of us.
And while the ins-and-outs of negotiating gender, desire, and social status in dating have become more nuanced as I’ve aged, in a lot of ways it feels like nothing has really changed. The details might be different, but being a fat girl who (sometimes) dates dudes is a lot like being stuck in the fourth grade, forever.
What’s fascinating, though, is that I sometimes receive messages from people expressing interest in me and when I look for the answer to the “obesity” question they have said they won’t date an obese person. This puzzles me a little, but I have a feeling I know what is probably happening. They don’t fucking see me as obese. Obese is bad, but they think I’m cool/sexy/interesting, so I can’t possibly be that.
This dynamic was recently driven home for me when I foolishly searched for the answer to this question as I was Internet stalking a real life friend/crush/hottie. He had also marked, “Yes, but only if they were obese.” I contacted him to tell him I had a hard time understanding how we could be friends and/or political allies given his answer to the question despite the many other ways we were clearly friends and political allies around issues of race/gender/sexuality/class.
“I don’t think of you as obese.”
Can you feel the harsh, hot sands of oppression brushing over you? As the fat girl dating monologue on Louie recently addressed, the fucking worst thing you can tell a fat girl is that she isn’t fat. Just don’t.
“I don’t think of you as fat/of color/gay/disabled/a woman” is one of the oldest fucking tricks in the book of false universalisms, right? The logic is this: X form of difference is treated as something bad/abnormal/undesirable/gross in society. I don’t think of you as bad/abnormal/undesirable/gross, therefore I do not think of you as X. X remains squarely unchallenged as a stigmatized/minoritized identity and the power hierarchy replicates itself, but you get a free pass as an individual (which is supposed to make you feelspecial and good). Difference is erased and assimilated back into the idealized norm of white/straight/male, etc.
In this particular case, the use of the term “obese” causes some real trouble. There is simply no way to make the term “obese” sound like it isn’t the worst fucking thing on earth in our contemporary cultural climate because it is a medicalized term meant to signify abnormality, disease, and unhealthiness. We see “obese” people as immoral, unhealthy, lazy, gross because that is part of the built-in definition of the word. Who would want to date someone who is all of those icky things? You could basically re-write the answer “Yes, but only if they were obese” to read “Yes, but only if they were abnormal, diseased, unhealthy, lazy, gross, and immoral.”
You can’t really blame people for clicking that answer when you put it like that, can you? Well, yes, I can, but I expect people to be less fucking idiotic. This is the root of all my disappointments in life, I’m aware.
As my friend/crush/hottie explained to me, he thinks of “obese” as a health determination, but he doesn’t think of me as unhealthy. But the thing is, I’m still fucking obese. “Morbidly” so by BMI measures. And I have no interest in pretending that I’m not, even though I also consider myself to be reasonably ethical, healthy, ambitious, and appealing. And that’s what I told my friend before I abruptly ended our conversation to go to the gym.
What makes the question about obesity as a dealbreaker such a good barometer for my potential matches is that it’s a really good measure of whether a match gets it — or predictably, disappointingly, boringly doesn’t. By “it,” I mean roughly whether they get how the personal and political are intertwined when it comes to love/dating/sex and bodies/body size, whether they want to get it, whether they’re even trying.
Besides all the obvious political connections to be made concerning the overlap of sizeism and other systems of oppression, like racism, colonialism, and classism, I want to know they “get it” because I need to know that anyone I’m going to be involved with is going to come to bat for me as a fat person.
Are they prepared to “come out” as fat girl lover/fucker? Are they prepared to deal with street harassment if we go out in public together? Are they willing to fend off the idea that they’re settling for me? If they’re a dude, in particular, is their masculinity fucking secure enough to handle this jelly and all its social significance? Will they help me navigate a social world in which my body opens me up to unique forms of both fetishization and objectification and sexual violence and abuse? Can they handle the criticism they might receive from their friends, their parents, and society as a whole?
I, frankly, have no time to waste on dating people who aren’t down to rumble with me around this issue on the daily — because this shit is part of my daily reality. And that’s what people do when they care for each other: they show up, they speak up, they fight for you. They stand by you. Sadly, it seems, there are a lot of people who just can’t hang, not because they couldn’t, in theory, but because they don’t even want to try. They “prefer” not to.
This is not an essay I ever wanted to write. In fact, I’ve been actively avoiding writing this essay for weeks and passively avoiding writing it for years. There is nothing more unappealing than being a bitter fat girl in our culture. This is made abundantly clear to me every time a well-meaning friend tells me to be “more confident” or to “lower my standards” or when people explain to me that there is nothing different about my experience of love/dating/sex than a thin person’s. This shit is hard for everyone, they reason. And they’re right: it is hard for everyone, just not in the same ways and not with the same social meanings.
It’s been made even more clear that I shouldn’t be writing this essay by the way that fat girls are silently pitied or cruelly mocked as the butt of the joke in popular media, but never, ever get to tell the truth about our own experiences in way that feels complicated, nuanced, and authentic to us.
And it is made clear by the way that talking about fat, and being fat, especially on the Internet, opens one up to some of the most harsh and degrading backlash imaginable. It’s made clear by the way I can never read the comments section on any article about fat or fatness without feeling like I want to die. It was for this reason that my mother expressed fear when I told her I was writing this essay. Could I handle the responses I would get? she worried. Well, Mom, I’m afraid, too.
Ultimately, that’s why I had to write this essay, the one I didn’t want to write, the one I’ve been avoiding; the cost of not writing it, of letting other people narrate my experience for me using words and storylines that feel alien and alienating, became too great.
I’m a bitter fat girl. And I have good reason to be. Fuck me, date me, love me, anyway. Prove to me you’ve got what it takes. Show up for me, show up for the struggle.
Lisa C. Knisely is a freelance writer, poet, an assistant professor of the liberal arts, and Editor-in-Chief of Render: Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly. This article was originally featured on Medium and reposted with permission.