Credit: Shilo McCabe.
(WOMENSENEWS)–Lady Gaga made headlines recently by posting photographs of herself in a bra and underwear and confessing to suffering from eating disorders since she was 15. The move followed news reports scrutinizing the pop star’s recent weight gain.
Fans have heeded Gaga’s call for a "body revolution" by posting photographs of themselves that reveal bodies that are disabled, sick, healing, tattooed, fat and skinny.
While the virtues of the pop star’s campaign are subject to debate, similar calls for embracing bodies of all kinds may have real-life implications for women.
Last week, a Wisconsin news anchor earned massive support for shooting back at a viewer who sent her an email suggesting her size was setting a poor example for young girls.
"You know nothing about me but what you see on the outside, and I am much more than a number on a scale," anchor Jennifer Livingston said in a four-minute clip that has since gone viral.
Such challenges may have the potential to intimately impact women’s experiences. In fact, the movement for size acceptance may be helping fat women have better sex, according to a researcher at Texas Christian University.
Jeannine Gailey says fat women reported better sexual experiences after embodying the ideals of fat acceptance, a social movement dedicated to ending size discrimination and embracing all bodies.
She also notes the widespread benefits of fat acceptance for women of all sizes, not just the small group of women she surveyed, most of whom were "morbidly obese" based on body mass index.
"There are so many women who are not as large as this particular sample who are really miserable with their bodies," Gailey told Women’s eNews in a phone interview. "It was really interesting to talk with a group of women who really kind of are outside the norm in the spectrum of weight who have really been able to just subvert these cultural messages."
Gailey’s findings are outlined in "Fat Shame to Fat Pride: Fat Women’s Sexual and Dating Experiences," a study published earlier this year in the semiannual journal Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society.
Decades of Push-Back
For decades, self-identified fat activists have pushed back against a society that sees them as inherently undesirable and unhealthy, rejecting beauty standards they say are harmful to all women, even skinny ones.
"Even women who are read socially as thin are afraid of becoming fat, or believe that they are fat, or believe they have some kind of fat deposit that is going to become exposed during sex or something like that," said Virgie Tovar, fat activist and editor of the fat-positive anthology "Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion," available online now and in bookstores on Nov. 1.
What activists call "fatphobia" affects people of all sizes and social positions, as Gaga’s confession shows. But fat women bear the brunt of the stigma, and that stigma can profoundly impact their sex lives, Tovar said.
"There is no way to overstate how important fatphobia is in terms of women having a positive sex life," Tovar said.
Tovar added that in her own case, the physical sensation of sex improved dramatically after she began to embrace her body, allowing her to become more present in the moment. "Fatphobia can take up 99 percent of your brain power. When you can turn down the noise, you can hear all the things that you actually want."
Some women Gailey surveyed reported being sexually used, fetishized as objects or disrespected by men who, for example, refused to use condoms. But contrary to the stereotype that all fat women are either nonsexual or sexually desperate, most reported having satisfying sexual relationships.
Gailey conducted phone interviews with a self-selected group of 36 North American women who were involved to some degree with size acceptance organizations. Of the 36 women, 34 reported "a life of ridicule, body shame and numerous attempts to lose weight" that negatively impacted their sex lives and relationships. Three identified themselves as African American, the remaining 33 as white. They ranged in weight from 215 to 500 pounds.
Most of the women in Gailey’s study reported a positive shift after embodying fat pride; 26 of the women, or 72 percent, said they felt less shame, were more self-confident and had better sexual experiences.
In addition, Gailey interviewed two fat-identified women who, against the odds, reported always having had a positive body image and positive sex lives. One woman reported an extremely negative view of her body, but a highly gratifying sex life.
In many cases, fat acceptance helped women gain the confidence to ditch abusive partners. For example, a 26-year-old participant with the pseudonym "Rachel" described her initial acceptance of a partner whom she says didn’t respect her and refused to use condoms:
"It first started like, OK I can deal with that, and then as I started getting a little more confident, I was like well, no, why should I deal with that?"
Gailey also interviewed seven women who subscribed to size acceptance listservs or blogs but had not "embodied" fat pride. They reported continued insecurities, such as not feeling sexually desirable and not wanting to get naked in front of a partner.
"Women who were still struggling with their body size tended to report less sexual ful?llment and were more likely to report that they felt men used them sexually," Gailey writes.
Gailey notes there are gaps still to be filled in her research; race is a big one. The study also included a disproportionate number of heterosexual women; one identified as lesbian and three as bisexual, while all had participated in heterosexual relationships. Since fatphobia impacts people of all genders, not just women, the effects on men and LGBT people seem to merit further study.
Gailey suggests that her work seems to extend far beyond the three dozen women she surveyed. In a society where all women are taught to fixate on their bodies, Gailey notes fat women may be making political strides simply by accepting themselves for who they are. In a sense, they may be doing all women a favor.
Amy Littlefield is a reporter and founder of The Provider Project, a blog about reproductive health and justice, online at theproviderproject.org. She lives in New York. Follow her on Twitter @amylittlefield.
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