By now I hope we can all agree that Valentine’s Day is, well, a little bit silly. The last time I stressed out over this alleged holiday was in fifth grade, when the printer ran out of ink in the middle of printing cards for my classmates. Man, they really drill in the message early with this nonsense:
Romance is important. Don’t fuck this up, children. Maybe that’s why dating as an adult so often feels like a class we’re flunking. I really believe that’s true for everyone. With rare exception, dating is considered a pain in the ass, but a necessary hurdle if you want to advance to the next romantic level. And when you’re plus-sized (or if your appearance doesn’t conform to mainstream beauty standards in other ways), dating can seem fraught with even more challenges. It’s not a level playing field, and there’s no point pretending it is. But having a larger body is not a deal-breaker — though it may seem so. The internet is full of stories about women being horrifically fat-shamed or harassed on dating sites, and yes, those stories need to be told. But they’re not the whole story, by any means. And at a certain point, I think they can become inadvertent scare tactics, frightening plus-sized women out of the dating pool. So, I reached out to Marie Southard Ospina, journalist, style blogger, and beloved bad-ass of the body positive movement. She’s also a seasoned vet of dating as a plus woman — as well as navigating a long-term relationship (she and her partner recently welcomed their first child; for the baby pics alone, you should definitely check out her Instagram). With her guidance I’ve put together a list of reminders to bear in mind when diving into dating, whether you’re new and nervous or experienced and tired of the BS. The bad news is, dating always comes with a certain amount of BS, no matter what your size. The good news is, your size doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. Read on to learn why.
1. Yes, fat shaming exists. Real quick, just a little more bad news — which you’ve probably already heard. “We know there exists plenty of fat shaming and fat biases in this world,” Ospina says. “And people often will disregard a potential partner based on weight.” This is a grim fact, and while it’s not the only fact, it’s not helpful to ignore it entirely. “There are people with whom you might get along great, on a base level — on a spiritual level, an emotional level — who might just have those biases,” she adds. But it’s their loss, because: “I hope that there are also an equal number of people who don’t. And that’s certainly been my experience.” On first glance, this may seem, frankly, wrong. An equal number of people don’t have hang-ups about weight? But, consider the stats: An estimated 44% of Americans are single, meaning that 66% are in a relationship of some kind. Meanwhile, neither the average American male nor the average American female have body sizes considered thin. The majority of us fall outside the current concept of conventional beauty, yet the majority of us continue to couple up. So, if you feel ostracized from the dating realm, it’s not all in your head. But a lot of it is.
2. Confidence changes the way people see you — and the way you see them. Confidence is like highlighter for your whole persona; it makes everyone seem charismatic and look as if they’ve stepped into professional lighting. But confidence doesn’t just make you seem more attractive to others. It also changes your perception on the world around you. “In high school, dating was the worst.” Ospina says. “My body image was nowhere near where it is today. And I came from a town where anything that ‘othered’ you in even the tiniest of ways was a recipe for complete social abandonment.” When she moved to New York for college, things began to change. “Because of the diversity of New York, in all capacities — to see couples of different sizes and couples of different races, people of different walks of life coming together. Only then could I conceptualize that this was possible. But I didn’t apply it to myself immediately because of my own body hang-ups.” It took time, but eventually the message sunk in as Ospina discovered body positivity and began to actively embrace her own body. “Honestly,” she says, “dating got pretty easy once my body image improved.” Looking back, she adds, “I think I was always my biggest barrier with dating. I wonder if there would have been a lot more chances to date had I felt better about myself [earlier on].” I know, I know, if we could all just snap our fingers and be confident, everything would be solved and this story would be over by the end of this sentence. Just like dating, self-confidence is challenging for almost everyone. But it really is hard work worth doing.
3. A note on fetishism. A lot of plus-size women fear becoming a fetish object rather than a romantic partner — at least I did while dating. While many women might really enjoy being someone’s fetish, I assumed most would not. So, I asked Ospina how to keep an eye out for fat fetishists in the dating pool. That’s when she schooled me, hard. First: “I’m inherently anti fetish-shaming, as a general rule. Sexuality is so complex, and I’ve met so many people who have at least one kink that makes their sex not ‘vanilla,’ for lack of a better word. I think it can often come from liking something that you’re taught not to like.” The word “fetish” brings its own stigma, just like the word “fat.” Second, there is a distinction between a fetish and a preference — but in this case it amounts to the same thing. Some people naturally incline toward brown hair. But brown hair is considered normal; it’s a neutral physical characteristic. Size is not. “Telling your bros you like fat chicks? That’s weird, at least in some communities,” Ospina points out. “If your preference is something that isn’t conventionally attractive...it can still be deemed a fetish.” In other words, fetishes and preferences are often conflated when it comes to things like size. So, try not to get too hung up on the language.
4. A note on fetishFinally, even if you do encounter someone who identifies as a fetishist, don’t imagine they only like you for your body. “It’s automatically assumed that if you have a fetish that is all you see in the person. And that’s just wrong,” Ospina says. Just as you are much more than your size, they are more than their fetish. ists. “I really enjoyed dating people who identify as fat fetishists,” Ospina says. For her, it simply meant knowing her size would never be an issue. “I had an instant knowledge that they wouldn’t just be okay with my body. They actually loved my body. They loved everything that we’re told are flaws about my body, be it the stretch marks or the rolls or the cellulite.” “I’ve had really lovely experiences dating on fat-specific websites,” Ospina adds. “For me, it felt very safe.” But she understands that others just aren’t comfortable, and stresses that it’s just as doable to find good matches on mainstream sites (and, you know, IRL — as she met her current partner). “If fetishization of any kind is not your jam, cool. You don’t need it to be.”
5. Be the most yourself you can possibly be. There’s an assumption in dating, particularly online, that first impressions are mostly fake. We post only our favorite pictures, we craft a spectacular profile, and we sweat over every message before sending. And sure, it never hurts to put your best foot forward. Just make sure it’s your foot. “I completely understand the reluctance to be honest when there’s so much that you could potentially be picked apart for,” says Ospina — especially when it comes to photos. A lot of plus women, she adds, tend to avoid posting full-body pictures. But then what happens if and when you set up a date? It’s only natural you’d start to panic about showing up as the whole you when they’ve only seen your face. “I really think it’s important, for your own mental health, to eliminate that sense of dread,” she says. “Try to post those full body pictures. I mean, you should like the photos. But sometimes we choose photos that are more ‘flattering,’ where we’re posed in such a way that we look smaller.” (You might even consider updating your profile answers. Ospina says: “I started to put a little thing in my profile that said ‘fat positive’ or ‘fat babe.’ Something that made it very clear right of the bat.” She herself prefers the word “fat,” but you can, of course, use whatever descriptive you like. It’s not so much about the language as it is about clear communication.) Bottom line: “The more genuine the pictures, the more like yourself you look, the less chance there is of someone approaching you who has an issue with the way you look,” Ospina concludes. “And you don’t need people who have issues with the way that you look in your life.” Can’t argue with that.
6. Reminder: You’re allowed to date people you’re attracted to. Growing up, Ospina says, “I was taught that fat people go with fat people and thin people go with thin people… If I liked a boy who was more conventionally attractive than me — who had a chiseled jaw line instead of the double chin like I had — my mom would be like, ‘It’s probably not gonna happen. Here’s this nice chubby boy over here.’ And maybe I was attracted to the chubby boy, but maybe I wasn’t. Maybe I was attracted to the guy with the jaw line.” But the message was clear: “Stick to your box.” Obviously, that message is baloney. But it’s easy to believe when that message gets delivered every day, in every media image and every social norm we encounter the moment we step outside. “It takes a long time to deconstruct that and to learn that attraction and beauty are so subjective and individualized,” Ospina adds. “We’re taught to believe that beauty is one thing and attraction is one thing, and it’s not. Even if it’s just slight differences, we’re all attracted to different people and we all perceive beauty differently. And that’s okay. That’s a beautiful thing.” Like confidence, this is a bit of mental rewiring that’s worth the effort. Once you learn that, you’ll be naturally less self-critical, and therefore less likely to assume that anyone — regardless of their jaw line — will be critical of you.
7. At the same time, mind your own biases.While we all have individual preferences, it’s important to remember that sometimes those inclinations are influenced by the outside world. Sometimes, they can underscore an unconscious bias. Grindr, the hugely popular gay dating app, has been struggling to address this evident issue among their users — a certain subset of which overtly declare they want, “no fats, no femmes, no Asians.” So, how do you find the line between going for what you want, and making sure you’re treating potential partners fairly? “Analyzing and being critical of your preferences to learn where they’re coming from, and trying to be honest with yourself, is hugely important,” says Ospina. “[But] I don’t think a preference is inherently a bias.” Furthermore, just because someone has a preference, that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t consider people who don’t necessarily meet those preferences. You should expect a certain degree of openness, both from your potential partners and from yourself. “That openness is super important,” Ospina concludes. “You can have a preference, but just be really body positive and allow yourself to meet and explore potential relationships with people of all walks of life and all aesthetics. “I think that’s important.” Bias is something we all suffer from. It’s a societal issue that trickles down into our individual lives in many ways, most of which are unconscious. It’s very likely that bias plays a role in forming at least some of our personal preferences when choosing romantic partners. As Ospina points out, it’s important to explore our own unconscious biases — and that can be really complicated. But, treating people the way you’d like to be treated? That part is simple.
8. Intimacy is about practice (and deep breaths)Just like dating, getting intimate with someone new is a little nerve-wracking for everyone — and I don’t just mean literal intercourse. Kissing, cuddling, anything that requires physical closeness can cause anxiety. And if you don’t like your body, it’s virtually impossible to imagine someone else could. Now, not all plus-size women dislike their bodies (far from it). But most of us have gotten negative feedback on our bodies at some point, and there’s something about being alone in the dark, pressed up against a paramour, that brings those old nasty voices to the surface. Don’t beat yourself up. Just take a deep breath and remember this: “No one has forced this person to be in a room with you,” says Ospina. “They’re there because they want to be there. They’re there because they are already attracted to you. They already want to be on the bed with you. They already wanna see you naked.” And, guess what: If you’ve gotten this far, they probably already know what you look like. “You can wear whatever clothes you want to try and hide [your body], but there is no a-line skirt that’s going to convince anyone that you’re not fat.” Ospina adds, teasing like a loving older sister: “They probably already know.” Whether you’re searching online profiles, prepping for a first date, or already in the bedroom, Ospina urges you to remember this: “The world is full of internalized and externalized fat shaming. Those are all things that need to be worked on. But don’t convince yourself that there aren’t people who will see you for more than your body — or people who won’t love your body. There are plenty who will.” So if you want to be out there, get out there. “Just remember, you’re fucking rad.”