Though we live in a culture that’s in many ways in your face about sex, the sad truth is that meaningful discussions about sexuality and sexual intimacy don’t occur often enough. Too many of us assume that everyone else is having great sex and loves their body and that we’re the only ones who aren’t and don’t. The subject is even more taboo for women of higher weight who are ashamed of and hate their bodies. They barely share these negative feelings with me, their therapist, let alone divulge them to anyone else.
All of us would benefit from speaking more openly about how we feel about sexuality and our bodies, whatever our size, but it’s especially important for high weight women who frequently feel so far from the norm. No matter what their weight, women usually have a host of conflicting feelings about their bodies, sex, sexuality, and intimacy: We’re supposed to be demure yet seductive, refined yet foxy, and look perfect while trying to seem as if we could care less about our appearance. Add to that the constant barrage of cultural messages insisting that fat is unhealthy and repulsive and that thin is healthy and the only road to happiness and why on earth would we want to share vulnerable thoughts and feelings on the subject.
Women who feel comfortable in their bodies at any weight are few and far between. Their discomfort is due primarily to our fat phobic culture, but there are also psychological reasons, conscious and unconscious, that cause some women to keep weight on—at least this is what I’ve discovered treating them in therapy. They may fear romantic or sexual rejection and find safety in being larger sized. Or they may use excess weight as protection because when they were slimmer they went overboard sexually and fear this might happen again.
Many large women, at least the ones I treat, are depressed and anxious and incline toward being highly emotionally sensitive. They cringe at the thought of not being asked out on a second date or of getting their romantic hopes up only to find a relationship crash and burn down the road. Because many are survivors of childhoods that were full of trauma or emotional pain, their fear of rejection and abandonment is, not surprisingly, intense and longstanding. Therefore, they hold back from putting themselves out into the world sexually or romantically because they equate dating or sex with unbearable emotional hurt and suffering.
For some women, remaining at a high weight acts as a buffer against partner intimacy or is a passive-aggressive way of retaliating against a lover who hurts them emotionally or shames them for their size. Remaining large may be a way of making themselves feel better when they’re with someone who refuses to have sex with them unless they slim down, that is, they can tell themselves that it’s only their fat that’s being rejected, not their personhood. Other times, maintaining high weight stems from fear of being attracted to someone who is not their partner, as a deterrent from being seen as sexually appealing according to our cultural norms.
Women may have difficulty considering these issues because thinking about them generates emotional discomfort. They may feel they have no one to discuss their feelings with who will understand, sympathize, and not judge them. Most high weight women benefit greatly by sorting out their feelings and fears about sexuality, intimacy and their bodies. Therapists can help normalize and universalize their concerns, doubts and internal conflicts—and are used to talking about sex without blushing! Once fear of vulnerability lessens, these women are more likely to open up and share their feelings with lovers, close friends or family members.
Sex should not be a taboo subject, but often our religious or family training makes it so. Weight, on the other hand is a topic we talk about ad nauseum but superficially: We schmooze about diets and weight loss, but often hide our deeper sentiments about our bodies, weight and sexuality so that these thoughts and feelings are left unspoken and unheard. Let’s change that dynamic and start speaking and listening to each other about weight and sex and pave the way for having intimate, authentic, challenging, enlightening, and rewarding conversations that will open the door to greater health and happiness.