Like most gay boys I had my sexual awakening at the underwear section of a department store. Most of the men in question were merely headless torsos with chiseled abdomens and sock-stuffed packages. Sometimes you’d shamefully lock eyes with David Beckham or Dan Carter as they caught you attempting to be nonchalant while you parade by your mother’s hand.
From a young age you understood that sex sells, but over the next 10 to 15 years you’d come to see that sexual attraction is only ever associated with a very specific physique that wasn’t always replicated in real life’s design.
Men were muscular or well-defined, the women ever so effortlessly thin. Forever taut and toned, sexy bodies, you would come to understand, were the bodies which had sex.
Learning that a director offered Kate Winslet an edit to a sex scene due to a “bulgy bit of belly” was therefore horrifying, but also completely unsurprising. In Mare of Easttown, Winslet plays a detective who doubles as a grandmother. Her interests include hitting the vape, sipping on post-mix and chewing down a Philly cheese while comfortable in her car. In short, she plays a normal person.
Winslet’s response was sadly more radical than it ever should’ve been: “Don’t you dare.”
But the sad truth is that when people like Kate Winslet (that look like Kate Winslet!) are asked if they want their bodies edited in post-production, you can only imagine why we don’t see many (if any) diverse bodies eroticised on screen.
There’s been plenty of attempts in recent years to disrupt our narrow view of which kinds bodies can have sex. In teen drama Euphoria, the character of Kat overturns a tired trope of the subservient asexual fat friend, while Lindy West’s Shrill promotes a fat women’s experiences as she negotiates sex, romance and living in the mores of fatphobia. For all its problems and complications, Lena Dunham’s Girls remains one of the few instances I can recall where a non-thin person is shown having sex without the looming shadowy burden of some grander body image politic. And then, of course, there’s Lizzo, who unflinchingly centres her body, sexuality and desires through her artistry and works to reclaim a body positivity movement that has since strayed from its roots.
But for every depiction of a fat person with a fully realised and respected sexuality, there are a myriad more that casts their desires as comedic relief or completely illegitimate. With Shallow Hal, Family Guy, I Feel Pretty, Norbit, even the flashback episode in Friends, Aubrey Gordon has carved an entire chapter exploring fat representation in What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk about Fat. These tropes, she concludes, “both create a social template for thin people’s understandings and judgments of fat people, and simultaneously lay a narrow foundation for the kinds of people fat folks are allowed to be.”
While there’s no question that the intersection of fatphobia and sexual desire is predominantly gendered – Hollywood’s women are barely allowed to age let alone gain weight – Gordon’s thesis reminds that shame around body image harms all.
As someone who was once fat, I’m acutely aware of the loneliness of not being represented in any meaningful or important way. How this absence of seeing yourself as a body worthy of recognition, respect, sexual proclivities, romantic pursuits, can, in time, come to stain your self-worth and limit your libidinal potential.
Because the truth is, beauty, desire, sexual attraction – whatever you prefer to call it – is all just a series of repeated conversations; it’s just that we’ve just been having the same conversations for far too long.
The truth is that most bellies do, in fact, bulge. Bulging bellies are desired, therefore, desirable. The truth is that fat people have sex – and perhaps we’d have a far healthier approach to body image, and our subsequent sexualities, if we chose to widen our viewing.