Feminists, fat acceptance advocates, and others seeking to promote respect for the body frequently have to grapple with the following question:
What do we do about marriages in which someone just isn’t “doing it” for the other partner anymore? If you grow old, gain weight, or acquire a disability or deformity as a result of an accident, you are at real risk of being abandoned by your current partner. My Fat Spouse is just one example of many “communities” in which a lack of respect for another person and for marriage in general is the norm. Society reinforces this perception daily that the essence of a marriage is hot sex and that it is available and allowable only to the genetically perfected, able-bodied elite.
As for the question of what we do about those marriages, a number of solutions have been proposed, talking it out and sex therapy being among them. In my opinion, these have the potential to work but they are still mere damage control. The crux of the issue remains untouched.
Think about it. If you agree to commit to another person, body and soul, for life, spend years in intimate company with that person, and abandon them because you no longer get aroused by them sexually, what does that say about you as a person or the meaning of your marriage? That is the crux of the issue. That is what needs to change before we can truly answer this question.
For the next part of this essay, I will discuss sacramental sexual theology for illustrative purposes. Later on, I will discuss the political implications for body-related activism. I focus on marriage here because My Fat Spouse is a prime example of the dynamic I am describing here, but this info is not exclusive to the marital relationship.
Marriage: A Mission Unrealized
That said, there is more pressure than ever to accomplish two objectives: to have it all and to look good doing it. Marriage is very much a casualty of this mentality. Marriage is more than just the next step in a relationship. It is both a symbol and a promise of total and complete communion of body and soul.
The argument here is not that unmarried people cannot have committed, satisfying relationships, nor is it that all marriages would succeed if people just tried hard enough. Rather, it is that marriage is considered a seal of someone’s love and that marriage has connotations-social, emotional, and religious, among others-that distinguish it from unmarried relationships. Once you are married, the character of your relationship changes and to live as though those changes have not occurred is a recipe for marital strife and divorce.
A Replacement Theology for Marriage
As I said earlier, there is ever greater pressure to have it all and look good doing it. For too many people, marriage is a quest for social acceptance (“You’re a loser who can’t get any!”) or a trophy (the hot spouse). Because able bodies and conventional attractiveness are highly culturally privileged, being the hot spouse goes beyond conferring trophy status and bring other benefits into the mix like higher earning potential. Between the conflicts generated by married people poorly suited for each other and the impression that transition into marriage is impermanent and unimportant, you get people like what you find on My Fat Spouse. You get people who have no clue what marriage is about and who obviously don’t care.
In secular speak, genuine marriage is about understanding and respect, perseverance and appreciation. In Catholic ecclesiastical language, it is the mutual self-giving of a man and woman which bears both physical and metaphorical fruit. On pg. 408 of the US Catholic Catechism for Adults, marital love is described as follows:
“The unitive aspect of marriage involves the full personhood of the spouses, a love that encompasses the minds, hearts, emotions, bodies, souls, and aspirations of husband and wife…so that they are no longer two but one flesh…Acceptance of a spouse’s failures and faults as well as of one’s own is a recognition that the call of holiness in marriage is a lifelong process of conversion and growth.*”
Without the religious overtones, that sounds like a good marriage for anyone. Most religions that I know of teach that a person’s body is a temple for the soul and that a piece of God resides there. Of course, this would make every body a sacred object and therefore deserving of the utmost reverence. Atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists may not recognize objects as sacred, but they do believe that each person is unique and endowed with innate human dignity and autonomy by virtue of their common biology, evolutionary origins and goals. This is wholly consistent with the aforementioned description of marriage as a Communion.
How do you know when you have achieved a Communion of Minds? A Communion of Minds is judged by the subtle connectedness of two people and the light in which they view each other. People in communion know intellectually that they are expending effort to remain together, but the burden born is diminished by the rewards. They know each other on an intimate level without having to say or do much of anything with each other. Should they disagree, or have qualities that contrast, it is an exciting challenge and a chance to be a better person and to better know the other partner. Contrasting qualities compliment each other.
They are one flesh.
None of this means that you partner does not have genuine faults and failures that need to be reformed. What this means is that these differences are viewed in the context of the whole person. If they are minor, they add spice to life and help make that person who he is. Those qualities that aggravate you sometimes might also enhance the good ones. If the difference is major, you solve the problem with what you’ve got because this IS a whole person here, a wealth of traits and experiences. One or a few flaws should not detract, and should in fact enhance, the whole picture.
Let us take, for example, a woman who was once very conventionally attractive but who now has a facial deformity because of a car accident. The husband can approach the issue one of two ways. He can bail because she is no longer fulfilling her “obligation” to drive him to lust or he can move beyond lust and into the realm of love. He can appreciate her personality and be moved to show compassion, which is all right and good, but it’s incomplete. Too often, “I like you for who you are” is a consolation prize and a super polite way of saying “You’re ugly, but I’ll put up with it.” We should not settle for this.
He can choose to find meaning in the new face that looks at him each day…the face of a survivor rather than of a victim or someone with an exciting story to tell rather than someone who is just not conventionally attractive. He can remember her as she was and not let the accident define her. Better yet, the couple can work with what they have. They can choose alternative centers for physical touch and he can find a new focus for physical attraction, like body shape. They can work together to rebuild her appearance if they so choose. New hairstyles, facial prosthetics, makeup, clothes, and other modifications can recreate or even improvise on her former appearance if they so choose. It may not be natural, but it is modeled after the natural beauty she once possessed and still possesses to some degree. It is recreated with her natural talents. Most importantly, it is a joint act of perseverance and healing. They can chosen to find something to like about each other and improvise with what they have got rather than just cut and run.
Actually, this is probably the surest sign that a Communion of Minds has taken place. When you find yourself irresistibly drawn to someone in a romantic and sexual way when, at a previous point in time, you would not have looked twice at that person as a sexual partner. This is far more, like I said, than just liking someone for their personality. Their whole self turns you on and sex is just a physical reenactment of what has mentally already happened. It’s really quite explosive.
What does this mean for us as activists?
Truthfully, the anti-fat activists have a point. They are not obligated to be attracted to fat people. No one is obligated to be attracted to anyone.
Of course, fat activists have never said anything of the kind, but those who are against fat acceptance must pretend that fat acceptance is actually so powerful that it can force people to do anything. Brian at Red No. 3 has said this over and over again. Despite having so little power, the diet culture is so entrenched in its privileged position that any challenge to it looks like an attack.
Anyway, the biggest problem I have with this line of argument is that people opposed to fat acceptance act like this is some heroic coup de grace that topples down fat acceptance once and for all. People cannot be bothered to accept fat because they just aren’t biologically inclined to want to screw fat people.
“Besides, I married a hot spouse. I didn’t sign up for this fat cow before me,” is the level of argument that we are dealing with.
A popular response to this is to say that he’s right. He’s not obligated to be attracted to fat people, but this does not mean that other people are not attracted to fat people either. Nor does attractiveness weigh in on a person’s right to respect and inclusion of society.
This would be very true, but I would go farther. We need to change, alongside other activists like feminists, the attitude that marriage entitles you to someone that will put out. We need to change the attitude that spouses, i.e. human beings, are trophies to be earned in competition to have it all. When confronted with people like the ones at MFS, we need to ask them, “Why did you get married in the first place? What were your expectations?’
I’m not asking anyone to ask these questions directly because you probably won’t get any results. My goal is to give a perspective on what really motivates people like this to act the way they do. We can’t change attitudes that we’re not aware of.
Then we can focus on our own relationships, married or unmarried, and friendships. Have you achieved a Communion of Minds, and if not, how can you get there? This communion you seek, and the effort you put into it, is much like wearing a bikini while fat. You are bucking a very powerful cultural trend that devalues the marriage and sexuality of fat people. Other people can be inspired by your actions to do the same in their relationships.
The next time you wonder why someone is with someone else, unless that person has some major flaws, like a violent temper, remember this. These two, quite possibly, have a Communion of Minds based on something you, as an outsider, cannot see. They could no more extract themselves from that person than they could pull out their right arm and you should try to see what that other person sees. Don’t take the attitude that that person just isn’t good enough unless you have to.
This is somewhat rambling, and I apologize for this. I know what I want to say but just can’t find the words to express it. On a personal level, the gist of my essay is that I’m disgusted that so many people have this attitude towards marriage and their own spouses that if you are not perfect, or if you don’t put out, that you do not deserve a lifelong companion or, for that matter, a basic level of respect. Why the hell are these people married?
If you get nothing else from reading this, get that. Get that you are a person and that you don’t owe anyone anything.
*Ideas explored further in Pope JP II’s Theology of the Body