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.”