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On Heavy Girls and Sexy Time

There’s a new study, which apparently hasn’t been published yet because I can not find it ANYWHERE, examining rates of sexual activity among teenage girls in various weight categories. MSNBC published an article and interview with the study’s lead author, Margaret Villers, that leaves me absolutely enraged. Here are the facts:

The study found that 6 percent of normal weight teens had sex before age 13, as compared with 11 percent of overweight teens and 15 percent of obese teens. And 39 percent of normal weight teens reported having sex with more than three partners as compared with 45 percent of overweight teens and 47 percent of obese teens.

What’s more, they are not only more likely to engage in earlier sexual activity and with more partners, “overweight” and “obese” girls are less likely to use birth control:

[O]bese and overweight girls were also less likely to use condoms and other birth control. The study found that girls with weight issues were almost 20 percent less likely use condoms than thinner girls, and more than 30 percent less likely to use other methods of contraception.

Okay, I am going to get really tired of putting quotes around everything. Can you all, kind readers, just assume that for the rest of the piece, every time I write the words “obese” or “overweight,” I am putting scare quotes there? Because they belong there, and now is not the time when I am going to get into an extended Fat Acceptance 101 explanation. Just take it from me. The BMI categories “normal weight,” “overweight,” and “obese” are pretty much bullshit. But let’s just accept that girls who fall into the overweight and obese categories are, in fact, fatter than the other girls. Okay, fine. These girls are having more sex, earlier, and with more partners.

There is so much wrong with the analysis of this study’s results that I’m not even sure where to start.

I’d like to do a critical analysis of the study, too, but it’s not out yet, so I am only left with the wise words of Ms. Villers:

“They develop sooner,” Villers explained. “They look like women sooner. And maybe that’s why they are more likely to be pressured by their boyfriends to have sex at a younger age.”

Seriously? Do we understand so little about sex that we think the question of who’s having sex and who’s not is just about who is the most attractive to men? That ladies with big boobs get laid and ladies with small boobs don’t, because apparently men are unable to speak and therefore can’t determine anything about a woman except boob size? Okay, well there’s also the “they have low self-esteem, because, duh, they’re fatties” explanation:

Another factor could be low self-esteem and poor body image, which have been correlated with obesity in other studies.

“It may be harder for girls who don’t feel good about themselves to say ‘no,’ or even to stop a partner long enough to say they need to use a condom,” Villers said.

The article goes on to quote another scientist-person who says that parents should thus help their girls by encouraging them to “eat right.”

So let me get this straight. According to this analysis, the correlation goes like this: fat –> low self-esteem –> can’t say no –> sexy time. So, thus the solution is to prevent the fatness, and therefore prevent the low self-esteem and thus the sexy time! Got it. But this is in serious contravention of piles and piles of research that shows that fatness, especially among children, has serious genetic components and we still don’t know how to make fat people thin. Okay, MSNBC and Margaret Villiers and all the countless pundits who will surely weigh in on how horrible it is that these poor young fatties, in addition to the indignity of being fat, have to suffer the horrors of sexual activity (quick! Someone call Caitlin Flanagan!), let me explain to you how it works. I am a veritable expert, having been both a slightly fat teenage girl and a bonafide fat adult, and also someone who has engaged in sexual activity throughout these times!

1. Unless you are very naturally thin, people around you will constantly be worrying about your weight well before you even hit puberty. I remember this well. I wasn’t a skinny kid. I wasn’t a fat kid either. Looking back on pictures of my child self, I don’t even think I was chubby. I just…wasn’t as skinny as some of the other girls who were my friends. Unfortunately, instead of fighting the negative media messages I got about thinness and my body, the adults around me reinforced those messages by not going WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING when I announced I was going on a diet, and by being constantly on diets themselves. When you are in the pre-teen era, you spend a lot of time looking to adults to figure out how you should behave, because you are just beginning to become aware of changes in your body that mean you will be an adult within a few years! And holy shit! And guess what — the adults around you are constantly obsessing about their own weight. And yours. Because, since it is the responsibility of parents to decide what their kids eat, and there are a million narratives about how if you don’t eat right you will get fat, parents are looking for your not-fatness as a way to verify that they haven’t completely fucked up as parents. And they are talking about how when you grow up, you will “struggle with your weight,” so enjoy it now, kid! Except you think, wait? I have compared myself to friends that I have? And I am, in fact, bigger than some of them? DIET TIME.

2. Here is what you learn very early, as a young woman prone to fatness, even before puberty: My body is bad. My body is disgusting. My body is something for me to fight against. My body will not cooperate with my desire to be thin. My body is a disappointment to the people around me. I hate how all these studies and articles just assume as true that it is the natural order of things that fat girls will feel bad about themselves, as if this is, in fact, the proper way to view yourself when you are fat. No, this is not natural. This does not come from looking in the mirror. Girls are inculcated with messages that fatness is bad and that their bodies are their enemies. Loving your body is not option. That fatness-shame, combined with the puberty-shame of our puritanical, anti-woman, anti-sex culture, means that at the onset of puberty fat girls undergo deep, deep dissociation with their bodies. This happens to all kinds of girls, but especially fat girls.

3. On the other hand, you have all these anti-sex messages coming at you, hard and fast, which says, oh your body is a temple your body is special don’t just let anyone touch it, sex is only for true love blah blah blah. But those messages can’t take hold, because you’ve already been taught that your body is bad and disgusting and is your enemy because it does not conform to the beauty ideal (and, yes, I am sad to say, there is a beauty ideal even for twelve-year-old girls). And those message are working on the other girls, who think that they will devalue their bodies if they get intimate with boys. But for fat girls, your body is already devalued, and so, it’s kind of like: FUCK IT.

4. Ever read asshole rich people complaining about how poor people are so fat because they eat too much junk food? Well, nevermind the fact that a lot of people living in poverty don’t really have the resources to “eat healthy,” I also think: hell yes, if I was poor, I would eat a lot of crap. Because you know what, when your life is miserable, fattening and sugary food is just about one of the only sensual pleasures that you can actually afford. And at the end of that day where you are working several jobs and dealing with child care and not having health care and living in a shitty apartment, you really just might want some McDonald’s, and I can’t blame you. Being a young fat girl, sex is like that. You just don’t care. Your body has been the source of so much unhappiness, so much shame, that, oh my god–here is something you can do with your body that makes you feel good and alive and yes? Sign me up.

5. Can we talk about how we automatically assume that having more than three partners as a teenage girl is automatically a bad thing? Because I don’t see why it has to be, except for in our narratives about how promiscuity is awful. It’s only awful because it’s supposed to be awful, and presto! You get slut-shamed out the wazoo for doing it. And then you do, in fact, feel awful, because slut-shaming sucks. But you also get slut-shamed for not doing it. As has been aptly covered by every feminist everywhere, you can end up a slut for completely perplexing reasons, like because you have a single mom, or because you have big breasts, or because of your race or ethnicity, or because of a rumor that might not even be close to true.

6. Fat girls are more likely to get labeled as sluts, because “slut” is a catch-all word for women and girls who do not conform to ladylike and womanly behavior, and being fat is definitely not lady-like or womanly behavior. And look, I can say from experience, if enough people are calling you a slut, you start to believe it. You’re 12! What do you know about what a slut is? And you are hitting puberty, and having all these sexual thoughts about boys, and thinking, okay, people are saying I am a slut so OBVIOUSLY this is not normal and there must be something deeply, deeply wrong with me. Perhaps after a while, you think, hey, if everyone is calling me a slut, I might as well go ahead and be one, because they sure as hell aren’t going to stop, are they?

7. I really hate that female desire is just completely erased in that MSNBC article. It chaps my hide something fierce. Because if it is the case that fat girls go through puberty earlier, why do we say “they grow boobs, so boys pressure them to have sex” rather than “they go through puberty, so they have sexual desire earlier than other girls.” Why was that not even thought of as an explanation? No. NOT POSSIBLE! Teenage girls? Actually wanting sex or sexual activity? No, it must be the boys who are making them do it. Puberty happens because of a rapid hormonal shift in your body. Those hormones do all kinds of things: make you grow boobs, get your period, grow body hair, and START FEELING SEXUAL DESIRE. Yes, so the girls who go through puberty earlier will start feeling sexual desire earlier than other girls. But we couldn’t possibly advance that as an explanation because if girls engage in sexytime because they want to, rather than because boys force them to, it doesn’t fit into our nice little narrative about how girls are being ruined by sex, does it?

In short, they are so completely wrong and this whole enterprise is bogus. As one of my favorite ladybloggers (and personal friend) Gayle Force said to me in chat: “Can everyone stop examining teen girls’ sex lives? It is creepy and morbid. I think the articles are secretly hoping to find how it fucks up all the girls, and then they are miserable and deranged.”



  1. Molly Ren wrote:

    So every time I see an article about fat shaming and read the comments I think I must have had the most unusual fat childhood ever. I grew up L/XL/size 14/18, and I never got teased about it. High school wasn’t great, because I was awkward and geeky and didn’t manage to find anyone to get laid with until I was of legal age, but how did I avoid getting fat shamed by my peers all through high school? They went for the fact that I read constantly instead and was a sci-fi geek, but I can’t recall any instances of being called a “fat slut”. Was reading weird to them that my weight was secondary?

    Saturday, May 29, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  2. Molly Ren wrote:

    I mean, Was reading *so* weird to them that my weight was secondary?

    Saturday, May 29, 2010 at 10:55 pm | Permalink
  3. ZugTheMegasaurus wrote:

    Hey, I just hit this site through StumbleUpon and I’m really glad I did. This is a great article. I will definitely use that point about taking young women’s sexual desire out of the equation. I can never quite express it in the way you did here. Thanks for the great commentary. 🙂

    Saturday, May 29, 2010 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  4. speedbudget wrote:

    I wanted to add that everything you outline in the post is true for me, and I had an athletic body in high school from playing soccer, basketball, and tennis. I was not obese, just not super thin. I went through every bullet point you had up there, and I especially agree that I could only appreciate my body through the male gaze. This beauty compliance idea was brilliant. No woman, no matter what, can live up to it, so we live our lives constantly distracted by an impossible goal. It’s a Sisyphean existence.

    Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 8:28 am | Permalink
  5. Silvana wrote:

    To the multiple commenters who commented with comments on the theme of: thin women have problems, too!

    Dude, what the fuck. I know. Why do you think I am a feminist? Why do you think I wrote a very long and recent post about performative femininity and how it sucks? Why do you think I agitate for less body shaming for all women?

    The study I was commenting on was specifically about fat girls. Which is why I was talking about the experience of fat girls. As we like to say, if it’s not about you, it’s not about you.

    Also, read this.

    Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  6. Nikki wrote:

    As a chubby, sexually precocious middle school girl, this article hit so close to home.

    At the time, I thought male attention = power. Girls might make fun of me for being chubby, but if I wore a bikini guys weren’t talking to me about thunder thighs, ’cause we could make out for a while instead and it wasn’t a big deal. At 12, I had the skinny Catholic girls I went to school with didn’t have and were afraid to use and it was kind of awesome.

    Shortly afterward I hit a teenage hormone induced severe depression and got all weird about my body like everyone else. Ages 12-13 were probably the most sex-positive I’ve ever been until I hit my 20’s.

    What’s interesting is that with a little more thorough data about race and class and the reasons why “fat” girls choose (or don’t choose) to have sex earlier, this study could have opened up an interesting conversation about how young girls express their new sexual urges. But noooo. Looks like the researchers got enough data to say “I dunno, fat = sad?” and left it at that.

    Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  7. Rikibeth wrote:

    Silvana, I want to thank you for saying that about “WHY should it only be in a long-term, committed relationship?” When I look back on my sexual activities as a teen (I’m including a range of things here, not just intercourse), the things that I did with casual partners for mutual pleasure were pretty much all good fun and educational and not problematic (and when I had intercourse I used contraception), but the relationships I got into as a teenager were pretty much all disastrous to greater or lesser degrees. Sex itself isn’t all that complicated, but relationships ARE! I was ready to cope with sexual activity LONG before I was ready to cope with intense relationships.

    Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  8. Ksb wrote:

    Very interesting and thought provoking…

    On the idea of preteen sex vs not consented sex or rape; rape is complex of course but I think that the reason it is so scary and is so “effective” (if its goal is authority or power) is because we, as a society, place sex in such a secretive, exclusive and “dangerous” space. If sex was an everyday topic at the dinner table or at school, rape wouldn’t have the same face. Therefore, preteens (male or female) who are experimenting sexually would at least have some sort of idea of what they are getting into, and I do believe that a 12 year old can make proper decisions about sex if they have the right information. It is just our responsibility, again as a society, to provide this information. and it seems this is where we are failing.

    Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  9. maggie wrote:

    Silvana, I’ll back you up on questioning “sex should be when you’re X years old and only in Y kind of relationship!” Not that me having your back is useful, but anyway.

    I don’t know why it’s so hard to say a) Don’t do anything you don’t want to do and b) Be safe and responsible, whatever you choose to do.

    I don’t think there needs to be anything more than that to it. No X age, no Y relationship. Fill in those blanks yourself.

    Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  10. AK wrote:

    I tried to post a comment here a couple of days ago, but I can’t see it here. Maybe there was something wrong with my internet connection or maybe I didn’t make it through moderation (I actually have no idea why, if that’s the case, and would appreciate an explanation if possible). I’ll try again though: I wonder if the study tried to correlate sex drive with weight or dieting. A lot of normal-weight girls try to lose weight with strict diets, and hunger will often kill any desire for sex. The underweight girls would probably have an even lower drive. (This is where I said “I know this for sure since I’m underweight”, maybe this sounded like a “but thin people have problems too!” thing? English is not my native language and I didn’t intend to derail the discussion, I just thought I’d mention the reason I know things about weight loss and sexual desire.)

    Anyway, I’d like to know how overweight girls compare to normalweight girls who don’t diet when it comes to sexual experience. Like, maybe the deciding factor isn’t the bodyweight but the hungriness or something.

    Monday, May 31, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  11. Carolyn wrote:

    Not directly addressed here, but – lifelong automatic rage button for me – when chicks slut-shame other chicks. My path through my teen years were pretty different from yours. And perhaps because I was judged a “good girl” other girls/women have felt they can slut-shame a third woman in my company and not get a smackdown. This assumption was not correct.

    Monday, May 31, 2010 at 11:01 pm | Permalink
  12. Meg Thornton wrote:

    I was a fairly plump kid (I had the beginnings of the short, solid physique I inherited from two of my grandparents) except for a short while around age 8 when I was going through a growth spurt. By the time I was 12 – 13, my mother was putting me on diets on a regular basis, and that was pretty much the pattern for the whole of my teenage years. Of course, this wasn’t helped by me developing chronic depression and the standard hormonal insanity of puberty anyway, along with a combination of a multi-generational legacy of emotionally deprived parenting, so I was doing one hell of a lot of comfort eating in order to keep myself even vaguely emotionally stable. By the time I was about 14, I was convinced I’d been swapped at birth with a whale, and I hated my body, had no confidence in my own attractiveness, and was deadly certain that nobody male would ever be interested in me. I basically retreated from male/female interaction at full tilt, using the weight I’d gained as an excuse not to even attempt anything in the line of getting boyfriends or similar.

    It helped that my mother was very accepting about sex and also about alcohol – if I’d started sexual activity at a young age, she would have probably been disappointed, but she would have been supportive, and certainly she would have made certain I was on birth control. She also had a very frequently stated policy for both my brother and myself – if we wanted to drink, we could, but she’d prefer we did so at home, where there was someone adult to keep an eye on things. She’d answer questions about things like “what does sex actually, y’know, feel like?” and she was fairly honest about sex and love not being the same thing at all. Those plus a long-term interest in anatomy and physiology (starting at age six) meant I knew all the mechanical stuff, and the thing I really yearned after wasn’t so much the “what is sex like” stuff as much as the emotional connection of being in a relationship – and that I wanted so much it was probably terrifying to any guy who even considered it.

    I gave up dieting when I was about 23 (after deciding that ten years of yo-yo dieting hadn’t really achieved anything and wasn’t doing me any good anyway) and got my first sexual experience that wasn’t self-provided when I was 26. But I still have the scars of my teenage years. My fantasy life doesn’t involve me. I’ll get myself off to the tales of other people having sex, and I enjoy sex when I have it myself, but if I’m fantasising, the fantasies don’t involve the body I’m in, because somewhere in my head, I still don’t see this body as being a sexual thing (I doubt it’s helped by the sertraline making my libido pack up and head elsewhere, either). I still don’t tend to regard myself as attractive, and I definitely have the Groucho Marx “I wouldn’t want to be part of a club which would have me as a member” attitude toward guys who find me attractive (of course, I’m a geek, so in order to get me to realise you *do* find me attractive you have to tell me outright).

    (Oh, and just as an aside: I had a bargain with myself that if I was still a virgin at age 30, I was going to hire me a gigolo and find out what all the fuss was about, just so I’d know.)

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 3:14 am | Permalink
  13. Melinda wrote:

    Disclaimer: I haven’t gotten through all the comment, forgive me if I am restating something.

    As a pediatrician, I would like to try to explain the assumption in the study that multiple partners == bad.
    It’s not the sex itself that is so terrible (though we are still taught that multiple sexual partners is a “risky behavior”) but the possible consequences. What we are more concerned about is the possibility of unwanted pregnancy and transmission of STIs. Having multiple sexual partners inherently increases your risks for contracting an STI. It even says in the study that the overweight girls were less likely to use condoms.

    Also, having grown up poor with not infrequent bouts of food scarcity, I found your equation of McDonalds with pleasure to be just as troublesome as the cited richplaining “eat more vegetables.”

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  14. diane wrote:

    I don’t know if I should feel sad or outraged.
    I am a therapist, and I am myself a fat woman. I can’t possibly understand why I am supposed to have low self esteem, and trust me, I have gone through all the psychology. I am fat, yes, but I am smart, funny, strong and confident. Deal with it. Maybe we should stop labeling women for their size.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  15. Melissa wrote:

    I grew up poor with regular episodes of food scarcity, too, and damn straight the occasional McDonald’s experience when we could afford it was sensually pleasurable! The fat, salt, and sugar felt a lot better going down, and hit more pleasure centers in the brain, than the expired matzohs, gummint cheese, and chlorinated tap water we were used to during lean periods!

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  16. Emily wrote:

    Silvana, I’ll back you up on questioning “sex should be when you’re X years old and only in Y kind of relationship!” Not that me having your back is useful, but anyway.

    I don’t know why it’s so hard to say a) Don’t do anything you don’t want to do and b) Be safe and responsible, whatever you choose to do.

    I don’t think there needs to be anything more than that to it. No X age, no Y relationship. Fill in those blanks yourself.

    Thursday, June 3, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  17. EGhead wrote:

    I was loving this (“calling Caitlin Flannigan” HA!) until we got to the part where poor= miserable. I couldn’t get past how completely wrong that was.

    Thursday, June 3, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  18. Emily wrote:

    @Elysia (10) There is the body fat/estrogen correlation, as well as recent studies that suggest that puberty is partly triggered by weight in girls… I don’t know how scientific it is, but I know that I was very scrawny as a child and both had issues resulting from low estrogen and went through puberty very, very late (ie, when I graduated college I still had acne and barely had enough money to buy bras as fast as I was “outgrowing” them).

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  19. P.R. wrote:

    As someone who had sex for the first time at age 15 and years later has no regrets and thinks that was a perfectly healthy time for me to become sexually active, I take great offense to some of the commenters who seem to think it is their business to say when it is “okay” for someone to be having sex. I knew it was the right time at 15. I know women who knew that at 13 and 14. We were all safe and well-educated about sex. We do not regret our decisions. We should be supported in our choices. Supporting women in making healthy, pleasurable choices = feminism.

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 3:01 am | Permalink
  20. usedtobeavegetarian wrote:

    If fat adolescent girls, even young fat adolescent girls, feel sexy and empowered and want to explore that, God love ’em, I couldn’t be more delighted! However, although I don’t want to reinstate the fat=sad assumption, I think it is true, as some have already pointed out, that in ignoring female desire the study also does the opposite: blurs the line between consensual (or just pressured) sexual activity and what may in fact be sexual abuse.

    It is not at all unusual for young girls to be sexually abused. It is not at all unusual for young girls who have been sexually abused to develop disordered eating. It is finally not unusual for young girls with disordered eating to become fat. That was certainly the case for me, and for plenty of other women sexual abuse survivors that I know.

    Many young girls who have been sexually abused never have the experience of having an adolescent virginity to actively decide to “protect” or “lose”. They may not experience much sexual decision-making or control in their adolescence at all. It’s also not a stretch to imagine that some of these girls may be reporting their incest or abuse and not just casual teen exploration. Sexual abuse survivors often assume some kind of emotional responsibility for their abuser’s actions or feel that they must have wanted it or else they would have been able to prevent it.

    I truly don’t want to imply that all fat girls have eating disorders, or that all fat girls have been victimized. I don’t believe those things, but I do believe that many girls reach adolescent already feeling sexually damaged, and that that impacts their future decisions and behaviors.

    Friday, June 11, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  21. Ashley wrote:

    As a “skinny girl,” I’ve always believed in that study’s analysis of sex and weight. I’ve never thought to consider it from your point of view, but now that I see it, I think I really do understand. We need more people like you so we can stop this from happening to anyone else. Thank you so much for posting this, and really exposing the hypocrisy and negativity that girls and women face every day.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  22. Nika wrote:

    The part that pisses me off most is that their solution is to put fatty on a diet, rather than sex ed.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  23. aly wrote:

    The survey that they are talking about I took when I was in high school…I didn’t pay attention to anything I was filling it. Also what I now see as me being underweight in middle school and high school, I felt as if I was over weight when I was that age. And since it’s a self survey it’s all about how those girls felt about themselves. Meaning a girl like me at fifteen could been around 100 pounds at 5’1” and still feel overweight and be marking themselves as overweight.
    Also when I look to as to why I started having sex so young (barely 15) and now have “so many” partners (around 30 and I’m now 22), my weight issues have never occurred to me. Being sexually assaulted as a child, and the fact that sex is freaking awesome and great stress relief are the reasons I started young and have done it so much.

    I feel the same way I do when I read “studies” about teen drug usage–TEENS LIE and have no idea what they are talking about. They have a huge sample size but that doesn’t mean anything to me because no one is regulating or interviewing the people taking the survey.

    I think the most important thing to take from this survey is that kids are having sex way too young and aren’t using protection. We need better sex ed in our schools and we need parents having an active dialog with their kids at younger ages in order to prevent that.

    Monday, June 14, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink
  24. AmazonaWomona wrote:

    Can we be friends? 🙂 I think we need to have a fat chick get together……And talk about sex and feminism and fat chicks and how they rule!

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. links for 2010-06-01 « Embololalia on Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    […] Tiger Beatdown › On Heavy Girls and Sexy Time Seriously? Do we understand so little about sex that we think the question of who’s having sex and who’s not is just about who is the most attractive to men? That ladies with big boobs get laid and ladies with small boobs don’t, because apparently men are unable to speak and therefore can’t determine anything about a woman except boob size? Okay, well there’s also the “they have low self-esteem, because, duh, they’re fatties” explanation: (tags: sex sexuality women body.politics body.politics:fat adolescence class sady.doyle) […]

  2. Links of Great Interest: 6/4/10 | The Hathor Legacy on Friday, June 4, 2010 at 3:41 am

    […] Let’s flip out about teen girls and sex!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That study? Made of fail. […]