My girlfriend has me by the hand, pulling me through a mass of people waiting for the subway. She expertly weaves us through bodies as we try to make it to the front of the platform before our train comes. But then there’s a pole, a person, and a space my fat body definitely won’t fit through. I drop her hand as she squeezes herself to the other side.
This is just one of many moments when my girlfriend’s thin privilege has shown up in our relationship. When you’re a plus-size person dating a straight-size person (aka, what society deems “normal” for body size), there’s no escaping the way thin privilege fractures your experiences. In that second, my girlfriend wasn’t thinking about my body. She saw a space she knew she could get through and went for it. I didn’t blame her for that — it was a knee-jerk decision based purely on her own experience — but it highlighted how differently we move through the world.
That disparity nearly caused me to miss out on Meredith in the first place. When flipping through dating profiles two years ago, I mostly skipped over thin people in favor of those whose bodies looked more like mine. I was coming off a six-month casual relationship with a woman who seemed supportive on the surface but flung microaggressions about my size at me nearly every day, slowly breaking down my confidence. She proudly told me she had dated women “even bigger” than me in the past, as if her sacrifice deserved a prize. And when her friends asked her if she wanted me to lose weight, presumably so that she didn’t have to be embarrassed to be with me, she said nothing to defend me.
After we split, I wanted nothing to do with the way her comments (or lack thereof) made me feel ever again. And so I nearly Noped Meedith, whose snarky, nerdy personality captured my attention and held on. I decided to give her a shot, but this time I knew how I should be treated and had the courage to make sure Meredith knew it, too.
To do that, I’ve had to express these needs.
“I need you to listen to me — really listen, without judgement.”
Listening is obviously crucial in any relationship. But for mixed-weight couples like my girlfriend and me, it’s especially important for the privileged partner to “really listen with an open mind and try to understand,” says Becky Belinsky, LMFT, a couples therapist in California.
We, as fat people, have lived in our bodies every day. We know how people look at us on public transportation. We feel them shy away when we sit down next to them. We know the statistics about how being plus-size causes doctors to discount your pain and illness and leads prospective employers to skip over you for an equally or less-qualified candidate. No amount of reassurance that people “probably aren’t as fatphobic as we think” is going to make us feel better.
Instead, when we express fear based on our lived experience, ask why, give us space to respond, and make a plan. That way, the fat partner can go into a situation — let’s say it’s a hangout with family or friends — knowing that their partner is on their side should someone say something fatphobic.
“I need you to educate yourself.”
“Any thin person I date, especially if they have always been non-plus-size, needs to work toward understanding thin privilege, body positivity, and bias related to body size. It’s basic allyship at work,” says Amanda*, 27, a writer in New York. Belinsky agrees. “A lot of the burden should be on the thin person to do their own work, to understand their own privilege and the biases that they have, and to try to understand some of the experiences of a fat person,” she says.
Allies of any marginalized community have to stand up for those people when someone is being homophobic, racist, classist, ableist, or fatphobic, even when no one in the marginalized group is present.
Although there will certainly be moments when your fat partner has to explain their experience to you, the burden to educate shouldn’t be entirely on them. Not only is carrying this load exhausting, but doing the work yourself also shows that you care to understand your partner’s everyday interactions and how those experiences shape the way they feel about something as simple as going out to eat.
With the rise of online body positivity movements, it’s easier than ever to give yourself this education. Jessica Torres and Liesl Binx’ podcast, Fat Girls Club, has episodes about internalized fatphobia, sex and body positivity, navigating being the plus-size family member at Christmas dinner, dating while fat, and intro episodes like Fat 101. And Instagram is a hotbed for body-positive inspiration, if you know who to follow. Laura Delarato, Jes Baker, Virgie Tovar, Stephanie Yeboah, Jessamyn Stanley, and Olivia Campbell are just a few names to get you started.
“I need you to speak up, even when I’m not around.”
The first time I knew Meredith wasn’t going to be like the woman I dated before her, she was recounting something her mom said. While on a ferry, a family with a couple of plus-size members walked past. “Ugh, that is so unhealthy,” Meredith’s mom said.
I wasn’t there, so Meredith easily could have let the comment slide without me ever knowing. Instead, she challenged her mom to rethink her bias and told her for the first time that the woman she recently started seeing is plus-size, too.
When I heard all this, I felt two main emotions: nerves about the inevitable day I would meet her mom and complete trust that I had found someone who would stick up for me. She won’t always be able to understand what it’s like being a fat woman in a fatphobic world, but I know she has my back when I need her most.
Being a good partner to a fat person is essentially the same as being a good ally to fat people in general. And allies of any marginalized community have to stand up for those people when someone is being homophobic, racist, classist, ableist, or fatphobic, even when no one in the marginalized group is present.
“If the thin partner is out with friends and someone makes a comment about someone else’s body, the supportive thing to do is to point that out, take that person aside, and explain how the comment was not OK and how it might be impacting other people in the room,” Belinsky says.
“I need you to touch me.”
Touch is an obviously important feature of most sexual relationships. But it often has extra meaning to fat people who’ve been told again and again that they aren’t desirable.
“As a fat woman, it’s especially important for my partner to talk about my body in a loving, lustful way and vocalize their desire for me,” Amanda says. “As a plus-size person, I’m no different from anyone else,” says Emily Crosby, 21, a plus-size blogger in London. “I want to be kissed and cuddled. I find intimacy helps to build a stronger connection.”
For me, intimacy is essential to feel secure in my relationship. Anytime Meredith and I get too busy to pause and give each other anything more passionate than a peck on the lips when she leaves for work, my confidence starts to slip. Is she really attracted to me, or is she just with me because I’m a nice person who cooks and cleans? I wonder.
There’s a lot to unpack there, and a big part of that burden is, of course, on me. But vocal and physical intimacy from my partner helps keep my insecurities at bay. While many thin partners may shy away from talking about their fat partners’ big bellies, butts, and thighs, focusing on those body parts in a sexy and loving way can sometimes be the best way to help us heal.
“I need you to be patient with me.”
“When I started dating my boyfriend, I was extremely nervous as I had never dated anyone before,” Emily says. “This was the first time, as a plus-size woman, I had ever been taken out on dates and treated like I wasn’t some dare to be won.”
You know the trope — you’ve seen it in those ’90s-era rom-coms when a skinny, “nerdy” girl quickly turns into sexy bombshell with a haircut and some contacts.
For young, fat women like Emily and I, the real-life dare story doesn’t have a happy ending. For me, it happened in Home Ec class when a boy I barely knew came to my table with a note asking me out. I was awkwardly trying to figure out how to turn him down when I heard the snickers coming from three other boys sitting at his table and it dawned on me: He wasn’t really asking me out. It was all a cruel joke.
Although I ended up not being attracted to men, I still carry an anxiety that no one really wants to date me. After Meredith and I had our first date, I texted a good-night message that promised her we could “just be friends” if that’s what she wanted. Even though we met through Tinder, I wasn’t convinced she was really interested in dating me. That insecurity still comes up now, after we’ve been together for two years.
For Meredith, my lack of confidence that someone like her really does want me means she has to have patience. While I understand that it can be exhausting to have to convince someone that you want to be with them, it’s a conversation I’ve needed to have many times. I need her to understand where I’m coming from — not only that one cruel high-school incident, but growing up in a culture that insists that fat people aren’t desirable, especially not to thin people. I need her to be there to have the conversation with me again and to keep working on our relationship.
Overall, what we need from thin partners is understanding and support. Because the world tells us we don’t match and because having these kinds of deep, honest conversations about our feelings can be difficult, some plus-size people refuse to date thin people at all. I was on that path when I Liked Meredith. What I’ve learned since is that a mixed-weight partnership can “come with a lot of great learning and growth,” even though it has its fair share of challenges, too.
*Name has been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.