Fat Heroines Ain't Easy

I just finished reading Jane Graves’ Tall Tales and Wedding Veils (review to follow), and the heroine partly blames her size 14 figure for her lack of sexual experience. This is very typical among romances I’ve read (well, among the small minority of romances which feature plus sized heroines), and it does make a kind of common sense: if you are overweight (so the thinking may go), you have lower self-esteem, and if you have lower self-esteem, you are less likely to initiate sexual relationships.  Or maybe it’s even simpler: if you are heavier, regardless of your self-esteem, you are less likely to be found attractive and thus will have fewer opportunities for sexual activity.

When I was single, I never noticed a correlation between frequency of sexual activity and weight among my peers. Some of my heavier friends were having more sex than anyone else. (I noticed that sometimes the lower the self-esteem, the more sex partners a peer had, actually.)

So I thought I would do a little sloppy bloggish research on this, and it turns out there’s not much out there on this question, and what there is, is not conclusive:

“Little research has examined the relationships between body image and sexual activity and responsivity among non-diseased, non-disabled, or non-eating disordered women. Those studies that have been conducted offer inconsistent results (Weiderman & Hurst, 1997). For example, …  a survey of 14- to 74-year-old women found that those who were more satisfied with their body image reported more sexual initiation, activity, experimentation, and orgasm than those who were dissatisfied (Ackard, Kearney-Cooke, & Peterson, 2000). … Other researchers have found only a weak or no relationship between sexual experience or satisfaction and self-rated attractiveness (Curran & Lippold, 1975; Feingold, 1992; Walker-Hill, 2000).”

From “Feeling Frumpy: the relationships between body image and sexual response changes in midlife women [defined as age 35-55]”. Journal of Sex Research, August 2005, by Patricia Bathalow Koch, Phyllis Kernoff Mansfield, Debra Thurau, Molly Carey.  Full text here.

But here’s some support for the idea that romance authors’ views of their heavy heroines reflect social reality in the US, at least:

“Participants [US undergrads] believed that an obese man’s sexual experiences would be highly similar to those of a normal-weight man. However, participants viewed an obese woman as less sexually attractive, skilled, warm, and responsive, and perceived her as less likely to experience desire and various sexual behaviors than a normal-weight woman. In addition, participants believed that an obese woman was less sexually attractive, skilled, warm, and responsive than an obese man.”

From Regan P. “Sexual Outcasts: The Perceived Impact of Body Weight and Gender on Sexuality”. Journal of Applied Social Psychology [serial online]. October 16, 1996;26(20):1803-1815.

And here’s some evidence for the claim that the higher your BMI, the lower your sexual experience:

“Across indices of heterosexual experience, some attractiveness and body-image variables evidenced fairly consistent relationships, whereas others did not. Women who were relatively heavier (higher BMI) and rated as less facially attractive by the experimenters were less likely to be involved in a steady dating relationship and to have had sexual intercourse. Also, heavier women were less likely to have received oral sex from a male, and women rated as less facially attractive were less likely to have performed oral sex on a male. Are these general relationships between body size and attractiveness and sexual experience due to a lack of opportunity, differential sexual attitudes, or inhibition due to self-consciousness on the part of larger women? … Although there are surely other explanations for the current findings, we conclude that a relative lack of opportunity for heterosexual interaction because of less interest by potential partners may be the primary reason behind most of the relationships between BMI and dating and sexual experience.”

From Hurst, Shannon R. (1998, August 1). “Body size, physical attractiveness, and body image among young adult women: relationships to sexual experience and sexual esteem” The Free Library. (1998). More here.

There’s also a semi-decent About.com article here. And there’s an All About Romance ATBF article from 2006 on related issues here.

I would think there are many variables that intersect with weight and self-esteem in determining frequency of sexual activity and number of partners. From my armchair, I would bet a few include one’s religious beliefs, moral beliefs, culture, sub-culture, peer group, urban vs. rural location.

I find it annoying that fat heroines who aren’t philosophically opposed to premarital sex haven’t had sex lives prior to meeting our hero. (I realize some of this has nothing to do with her size: there are   genre conventions at work also.) Does it annoy you? Am I missing the books with the heavy heroines who enter the picture with some significant sexual experience?

PS. Why use the word “fat” in this post? I know it’s controversial, but there are a lot of obese women who support the use of the term, viewing it along the lines of the appropriation of negative terms by the gay rights and black communities. A good discussion by one woman who owns the term is here.

PPS. The photo is of Lucien Freud’s portrait of Sue Tilley. More on the nude and its record setting sale from a fat acceptance point of view here.

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