Body heat

Can men become attracted to women who aren't their physical ideal?

By Cary Tennis
Published December 4, 2003 8:13PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a female graduate student in my early 20s. A couple of months ago I met someone amazing -- let's call him Peter. He's smart, sweet, artistic, funny. We have amazing emotional chemistry. But in the first days of our acquaintance, Peter made a comment to the effect that he's most attracted to slender women. And while I'm not overweight, I know my body isn't the type he prefers.

I know that attraction is mutable, but I can't get the remark out of my head. I've always been irrationally self-conscious about my body, but I've never questioned my ability to attract men. Now I'm confused: How serious are Peter's ideals? Does my curvier body eliminate me from consideration as a romantic prospect? Or is this just a preference that could be overridden by the right woman -- maybe me?

Peter and I see each other every day; we work at adjacent desks and spend hours talking. Sometimes I feel an overwhelming affection for him; other times I am angry and disappointed that he doesn't -- or can't -- see me the way I see him.

Sometimes I think he must, and I know that if it weren't for this one remark there'd be little doubt in my mind. But I'm afraid to give any concrete indication of my feelings. I'm worried he'll reject me in some way I can't bear, and that I'll have to continue to see him constantly. Or that he won't reject me, that things will progress and it will make our working situation difficult. Or that I won't be able to get past my body issues.

I've considered turning my schedule upside down to avoid him, but that seems defeatist. I've thought of writing him a letter, or asking him on a date, or waiting for the right moment and then just kissing him. But I'm not used to being that aggressive, and I'm afraid to disturb our friendship.

Can men become attracted to women who are not their physical ideal? Can a relationship between close colleagues work? How soon is too soon to make my feelings known, and how late is too late?


Dear Stymied,

That's a lot of questions for one advice guy. Lemme see what I can do for you. First off, if men knew how deeply rooted women's insecurities about their bodies are, and if they understood the political complications of it -- how our dominion is served by your insecurity, the whole deep historic psychological domination of women, our sick splitness, our divided mothering, our gun thing, our brittle coldness, how we dream of Andrea Dworkin in a Miss America swimsuit darkening our picture tubes, how feminism saved many men from eating their own flesh, if men understood how bloody their wishes really are and how much they frighten the children and horses not to mention the women, if men knew the kind of gulag they've created ... but I'm babbling like a fool. What I'm saying in plain language is that yes, body image is a big deal, and it helps to have some political and psychological grounding for understanding why you're so afraid of revealing yourself and of being judged. The whole male gaze thing. Screw it. Take up arms against it. It's your gulag.

But feminism will get you nowhwere if you pretend you're living in a world of ideas. You're living in a world of men's bodies. It's our bodies and their responses to your body that fill you with doubt. So how do you get from a man's mental picture of a 17-year-old cheerleader with thin hips and pointy tits kicking her leg high in the air after a touchdown to your screaming night as a bucking bronco under this cowboy at the next desk?

I don't think it's about waiting for him to superimpose his mental picture of the cheerleader over your face. You have to break through his billboard and wake him up. There is a place where men and women meet that is so deep there are no billboards anymore, there is just the desert sky and a scary howling that you're not even sure is coming from you or him, it's so animal.

Yes, many men get hard over skinny hips and big tits. Big deal.

What you're after is the ideal, where physical love becomes this transcendent thing, where a man is really loving the woman. Yes, her body, but not just her body, in her body but not just in her body, the woman but not just the woman -- the hair, the eyes, the sweat, the fold of flesh, the memories, the voice, the idea of her, the person she is, the things they've done, the wounds they've given, the food they've eaten, the walks they've taken, like falling to their deaths the whole thing flashes before them, and that's the ultimate thing, that's where in that moment it would be so silly for him to think, gee, I wish she weighed 3 pounds less, I wish I could see her hipbones, I wish her ribs were showing, that would really turn me on. How absurd for a man in love, so enraptured with this woman that loving her is the same as loving his own life. Think how odd that would be. But then the rush always wears off and he thinks I have to pay the parking meter or whatever did happen to that one blue sock I used to like so much ... but that's after the rush wears off. Your body didn't prevent you from getting to that precious few moments near the sun.

How you get there, where you are lost to the world with your soul mate, where you aren't even one person anymore exactly, but just this exploded citizen of the sun, this bell set ringing by her blow, her tap, her fist, her knock, when you're just this ancient eternal force of life with no need even for an ego, who needs an ego when you're already eternal, you've kicked off the shoes, you're a barefoot corpse laughing at the autopsy, you're there, you've arrived in your sweetie's arms and that's where you're staying even when they wheel you back into your dark little chamber. Where am I going with this? What am I saying? I'm saying that the mystery of attraction lies not in a visit to the Size 5-7-9 Shop. There's something overwhelming out there and it's not about your measurements. It's waiting for you. He might have it in his house, who knows? It might be lying in his heart just waiting for you. It might be hidden in an ironic laugh and a plate of spaghetti. There might be a ring involved. There might be a ceremony with lots of white. Or there might be a drunken misunderstanding, a walk through a storm, tears washing down your face with the rain. But it's not about the length of your femur and your percentage of body fat. It's about this thing that happens between people when they lose themselves.

Life is short. Maybe he's the one. Get some courage. Shake him up. If he likes you and he's not doing anything about it, maybe he's sleepwalking. Take his book away and see if he wakes up. Put a plate of food in front of him and see if he eats. Roll him over and scratch his belly. Find out what gives.

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Cary Tennis

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