Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 5, Jan. 15, 2002



Lilka Woodward Areton


In our western society, women who consider themselves overweight are facing a personal sexual crisis of enormous proportions. They have come to believe that as soon as they gain even a small amount of weight, their bodies become undesirable, unattractive, lacking in sexual appeal, even repulsive and ludicrous. An absence of images of large women in the media implies that they are not attractive enough to sell products or even be seen. In fact, the media's lack of portrayals of large women implies that large women do not really exist or count in our society. Therapists and professionals working with obese persons have revealed the following tragic consequences for those who consider themselves sexual outcasts: they become exquisitely self-conscious about their appearance, immensely critical of their bodies, especially their fat. They fail to flirt for fear of rebuff and ridicule. They tend to avoid interpersonal erotic encounters, and come to expect the agony of frequent rejection. Obese women are often full of shame about their bodies and consequently feel deeply sexually disempowered. They fail to recognize sexual approaches because they can not believe anyone could be attracted to them. During sexual intimacy, they may feel overly exposed, critical of themselves, and hide their bodies from their partners (Abraham and Llewellyn-Jones, 1997; Bess, 2000; Bovey, 1994; Faith, Myles, Schare, Mitchell, 1993; Millman, 1980; Masters, Johnson, Kolodny, 1982).

Cash, Winstead, and Janda (1997) have interviewed women about their bodies every decade since 1972. Some of the interviewees described the above dilemmas for large women thus: "I try to lose weight for boyfriends. When I am fat, I know that no one wants to be with me. I feel like unless I have a good body, no decent guy wants me!" "The less attractive I feel, the less I desire sex. If at all possible, I avoid sex. However, if it should happen, I am unwilling to let go. I have the feeling I may be vulgar to my partner." (p. 44)

Those who are affected by the societal attitudes about larger bodies can become fat phobic, that is, develop a pathological fear of fatness in themselves and an aversion toward fat in others. Fat phobia not only causes women to reject their bodies, it can also lead to eating disorders of every kind: anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating, bingeing, crash dieting, over-exercising, recipe scrounging and hoarding, fat and/or calorie counting, measuring bites, obsessive taking of supplements, compulsive weighing in, and even the utilization of dangerous, life threatening surgeries (Robinson, Bacon, and O'Reilly, 1993).

Adding to the problems of large women is the fact that many men are also convinced that they need the "ideal woman," the "trophy wife," who is supposed to be trim, fit, and firm. Sexual images for men are limited by the media to a narrow type that does not reflect the society at large. Because there is only one perfect type (adolescent thin) presented in the media, men attach high status to this type and can more easily be proud to be seen with women who fit this image. On the other hand, fat, even a small amount, is seen as unattractive or lower in status. The effect of this type of programming is that men become ashamed to be seen with a fat woman, even if they prefer them sexually (Buss, 1994; Farrell, 1986; Smith, 1995; NAAFA Newsletter, p. 79).

Large women are not only considered unattractive, they are also considered neurotic. Many therapists suggest that women's overeating is due to suppressed sexuality which leads to anger, frustration, compulsive eating, and a host of other psychological ailments and personality disorders. Many large women have sought some form of therapy to assist them in finding the solution to their eating problems and to help them lose weight. Therapy often consists of recommended diets, exercises, nutritional awareness, changing one's lifestyle, attending life-long meetings, and vigilant psychological reevaluations designed to assist the woman in raising her awareness of her feelings and her eating behavior enough to alter it (Fisher, 1996; Hollis, 1996; Hornyak and Baker, 1989; Katherine, 1991).

In spite of the problems associated with obesity, and in spite of the barrage of magazine articles, TV programs, radio announcements, new diets, support groups, therapies, and drugs that supposedly help people lose weight, women are getting heavier every year. Currently, more than 50% of women in the U.S.A. are considered overweight, that is, have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 25 (see Definitions, or BMI Chart in Appendix A), and 25% of U.S. women are considered obese, that is, have a BMI of 30 or more. Although definitions and measuring strategies have changed over the years, studies that adjusted older data to make it comparable to current data show that the percentage of overweight people in each age group is rising (Flegal, Kuczmarski, and Johnson (1998) as cited in NIDDK, 1998).

If being overweight carries so much self-condemnation for women, this growing increase in weight points to a developing crisis in sexual self-esteem for women in the western world. Feminists and other observers of the culture have been warning women about this emerging predicament (Beller, 1977; Bordo, 1993; Bovey, 1989; Chernin, 1981; Epstein and Thompson, 1994; Fraser, 1997; Hesse-Biber, 1996; Hirschmann and Munter, 1995).

In spite of the devaluing and shaming of obese women by our society, many have been able to develop satisfactory sexual relationships. These women may have much to teach us.

Who are they?
How much do they weigh?
Have they always been large?
Is their weight interfering with their sexual satisfaction?
How do they feel about their bodies?
How do they feel about their sexuality?
Are they willing and able to talk with their partner about their sexuality?
Is their partner satisfied with their sexuality?
Is their partner focused negatively on weight?
Has their weight affected their sexual relationship?
Do they feel body shame?
Have they been abused?
Do they have sexual dysfunctions?
Has dieting assisted them in losing weight and feeling more desirable?

This study investigates the factors in the satisfactory sexual relationships of large women. It is designed to discover which attitudes, circumstances, and essential conditions lead to the enjoyment of their sexuality. Therapists, sexologists, sex educators, doctors, and professionals working with adults and with young women and men need to have the information that will be furnished by the subjects in this study. With this information, they will be better able to teach, advise, support, and counsel women and their partners who are struggling with issues of lower sexual self-esteem.


Body Mass Index (BMI) - A measuring tool that is currently being used to determine whether or not a person is overweight or obese. To calculate BMI, multiply the person's weight in pounds by 705, then divide the result by the square of the person's height in inches. Many organizations consider a BMI of 25 to 29.9 to be overweight, and a BMI of 30 or more to be obese (NIDDK, 1998). (See Appendix A for chart.)

Obese, fat, heavy, large, overweight - For the purpose of this study, anyone with a BMI of 30 or more.

Body image - The attitude one holds about oneself regarding one's appearance.

Body shame - A painful emotion that one's body is not desirable, needs to be hidden, deserves to be rejected by others, and is not worthy of sexual pleasure.

Sexual satisfaction - A feeling that one is both desired and fulfilled sexually.

Fat phobia - A strong fear of being or becoming fat. A strong distaste for fat in others.

Fat acceptance - A political movement and an attitude that proclaims that one's body is acceptable as it is, no matter how large.

Desexualization - A feeling that one is not desirable nor worthy of sexual pleasure or expression.

Partner - For the purpose of this study, anyone, male or female, in a sexual relationship with another.

Fat Admirer (FA) - Anyone who is sexually, sensually, and psychologically aroused by and responsive to fat people of the same or opposite sex.

Obese couple- A couple in which one or both of the partners is obese.

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