The first time I recall a boy commenting on my body was when I was in the fifth grade. I must have been ten. “Fat little Kate-lyn,” Jack said, apropos of nothing, during a PE class. Everyone else giggled as I felt frozen in place with shame. It is unlikely to surprise you — and in most ways, it hardly matters — that at the time I was a pretty average weight, barely even chubby. And yet with that comment, my gaze — previously trained outward on the ball, or my classmates, or (most likely) the horizon — turned sharply on myself. I saw myself through the lens of Jack’s contempt, even disgust, in that moment. And I felt myself monstrous in size and diminished in social stature. (Note that apparently paradoxical word “little,” and the use of the diminutive — “Kate” is my full first name.)
I was a figure of fun. As I grew older and bigger, that would become a routine occurrence.
Another incident remains particularly vivid. I had begun to attend a previously all-boys’ school at age sixteen, the year the school integrated, accepting me as one of three girls among a cohort of hundreds of boys. (The point was so I could study for the International Baccalaureate rather than the local high school graduation certificate in Australia.) I became close friends with a boy named Kieran (who, like everyone else in this essay, I’ve given a pseudonym). He used to call me in the evening for long, meandering conversations, even though we were together at school most of the day anyway. Rumor had it that he liked (like, like-liked) me. One night — and again, apropos of nothing — he proposed to rate me on an attractiveness scale from 1 to 10. He gave me a 7, which struck me as generous. “Why 7?” I wanted to know. “Well,” he said smugly, “you have nice eyes and hair, but your figure leaves something to be desired.” The sting of the words did not abate as they echoed in my mind long after we had hung up. I heard them when I stripped down for a shower. I heard them as I tried to go to sleep that night. I heard them when I twisted to peer at myself in the mirror, trying to see myself as he must.
That candid assessment was still salient some months later when I sat, with Kieran and our friend John, at a local pizza hut one night, hanging out before debate practice. They ordered and ate normally. I, meanwhile, had nothing. “She’s eating light,” John explained to the server. I mentally corrected him: I was eating nothing. I regularly went all day at school without eating, trying to avoid the cafeteria and the ignominy of being seen, as a now slightly “overweight” teen, to consume anything. I would return home to my daily meal of a few hundred calories. My parents were worried, but I concealed from them the extent of my dieting, often scraping my dinner into the trash, or giving it to the dogs, and pretending I’d eaten.
As a result, I learned to function — more or less — on very little sustenance. Back then, I would frequently rather be hungry than run the risk of weight gain. I was sometimes willing to starve to enjoy the relief of weight loss. And, though my unrelenting hunger might have saved me from a full-blown eating disorder, the toll of trying to shrink myself was nevertheless considerable. I, like many people, was so afraid of being sexually rejected for my fatness that I’d do almost anything to be smaller.
That little comment, that small quip, that my figure “left something to be desired”: it continued to echo for many years. It conspired with other, more horrifying incidents — having “fat bitch” scrawled on my locker, which was also doused with fish oil, to indicate, and cause, olfactory disgust — to leave me not only insecure but, at times, desperate for positive male attention. The high school graduates’ last assembly saw a series of the usual superficially lighthearted prizes awarded to students, from “Most likely to succeed in white collar crime” to “Most likely to have children out of wedlock,” and so on. “And Kate Manne receives the prize for being the person” — I waited, trepidatious, bracing myself for the punchline — “most likely to have to pay for sex.” The punchline was my sexual unattractiveness. The punchline was my body. The auditorium roared with laughter.
I recognize now, looking back, that the hostile treatment I faced in high school was likely the result of a complex glut of factors. I was at the top of my class; I was outspoken; and I was sexually unavailable, with a stereotypically “hot” boyfriend who attended another school. (“He must be a face man, not an ass man,” one of my school friends opined of him.) There was envy and jealousy and perhaps even attraction, as well as contempt and disgust, in the mix then. Kieran learned of my new relationship over the phone one evening, abruptly hung up, and essentially never spoke to me again.
A therapist once remarked to me, some fifteen years later, “They must have been so scared of you,” instinctually sympathizing with the boys whose turf I had encroached on. In some sense, the negging and the harassment and the bullying weren’t about me; they were about them and their insecurities, he tried to point out to me. But this is manifestly cold comfort: as I’ve said before, when your effigy is your body, you burn along with it. And my body, such as it was, made for a crucial point of vulnerability. It gave misogyny an “in.” My fatness not only made me a target but, in being a target already, gave them a way to get to me. And get to me they did, much as I might have liked to deny it.
This is how misogyny works: take a hierarchy, any hierarchy, and use it to derogate a girl or woman. We value intelligence: so call her stupid, inane, clueless. We value rationality: so call her crazy and hysterical. We value maturity: so call her childish and irresponsible. We value morality: so call her a bad person. We value thinness: so call her fat and, implicitly or explicitly, ugly. We value sexual attractiveness: so make her out to be the kind of person whom no one could ever want. This despite the fact that not only can fat people be found sexually attractive, it is a common sexual preference, at least if porn consumption is any indication.
After my experiences in high school, I did not initially worry that no one would ever want me. I was shielded, for a time, by a variety of factors — being at most a “small fat,” having a loving family, and dating a boyfriend who was never anything but sweet and respectful. But, as time went by, and after our breakup, those experiences caught up to me. I became desperately afraid that no other man’s desire would ever alight on me. Another man’s love seemed quite unthinkable.
And so I entered a period during my college years of needy and sometimes risky promiscuity. I went out to nightclubs and raves. I took up smoking to allay my social anxiety and to have something to do with my hands there. I reverted to not eating for days at a time, losing a significant amount of weight in the process. (I gained it back soon afterward.) Partly to aid my dieting, I took party drugs like speed and ecstasy. I drank more than I could handle. And I slept with more or less any conventionally attractive man who approached me. These behaviors, while not necessarily problems in themselves, made me feel empty, anxious, and depressed, given my natural proclivities for order, comfort, and safety. Most important, they put me at risk and made me vulnerable to sexual predation.
I remember going home one night with a man named Nick, some fourteen years my senior — or probably more, I now recognize. I was nineteen. He was ostensibly thirty-three. Over drinks at a bar we both frequented, he said I had the face of an angel, and tilted my chin up sharply to kiss him. Later, I learned that his cheesy, indeed groan-worthy, pickup line had been a proxy for a different, and more specific, judgment. He had confided in a friend that he thought I looked like “a little Elvira,” but “more compact” and with “even bigger boobs.” (Inaccurate.) White Australian men not infrequently treated me, in my Jewishness, as slightly exotic: opining that I must have “Spanish blood,” or that my Jewish friend Noa and I must be sisters. (This despite the fact that she was tall and willowy, and I was quite the opposite.)
When we got back to his place, Nick complimented my face again. “Do you like my body too?” I asked him, yearning for validation. He hesitated. “I like how you’re so confident in it.” My precarious confidence evaporated. I contemplated leaving, but I felt too far in at that point. My top was already off, and both his age and his self-assuredness intimidated me in the moment. The prospect of making an excuse and finding my way home felt impossible and exhausting and, perhaps, futile. I knew he would try his utmost to make me stay. Probably I would end up sleeping with him anyway. I did what I felt I had to.
There’s an enduring myth that fat women can’t be sexually assaulted, because we would have reveled in the attention. This lie does tremendous, demonstrable damage: A 2017 trial for sexual assault in Canada saw the judge opine that the seventeen-year-old victim likely enjoyed a forty-nine-year-old man’s sexual advances because he was handsome and she, meanwhile, was “slightly overweight.” (She did have a “pretty face,” though, the judge acknowledged, thereby paying her the most backhanded compliment known to fat womankind.) This was probably the girl’s first experience of seduction, Judge Jean-Paul Braun hence mused, and she must have been at least “a little flattered.” A recent study found that when a woman sexually coerced by a man was depicted as fat rather than thin, participants expressed greater sympathy with the perpetrator, had less negative affect toward him, and posited more mitigating factors for his criminal behavior.
In reality, not only can fat women be sexually assaulted, but some researchers argue this is even more likely to happen to us than our thinner counterparts. But the systematic derogation of certain bodies — ones that are fat, as well as trans, nonwhite, or disabled — leaves some of us vulnerable to additional harms. For one, we may consent to sexual and romantic relationships we don’t want out of a sense that we’re not entitled to say no, or that this is the best we can do. You may well bank the checks you get when you’re living with a deficit — however dubious their source, and however paltry their cash value.
Of course, fat boys and men also suffer from the oppressive effects of fatphobia. But it is girls, women, and other marginalized genders who are disproportionately likely to face sexual fatphobia and its associated violence. We see this in the fact that, in 2014, parents were around twice as likely to google “Is my daughter overweight?” as “Is my son overweight?” even though boys were slightly likelier to be so classified. Parents were also nearly three times more likely to google whether their daughter was ugly; how a Google search might turn up the answer to this question remains something of a mystery.
We see this in the fact that as many as 90 percent of so-called obese women in heterosexual relationships have been bullied and belittled for their weight by their male partners; anecdotally, at least, the converse seems to be less common. We see it in the fact that “dad bods” are considered sexy; “mom bods,” not so much. And we see it in the noxious practice of “hogging,” or a “pig roast,” where young men compete with each other to see who can bed the fattest, or heaviest, woman — including, recently, at Cornell University, where I have been teaching for the last decade.
As fat women, we may be a cheap, tasty snack, not a proper meal, then: the sexual equivalent of junk food. They’ll throw away the wrapper and brush away the crumbs, sated but vaguely disgusted — with both us and themselves — when they are done with us. Our bodies may be desired but deemed low-status, then, rendering us disposable. Fat women are regarded by some men as fuckable but not loveable.
I remain ashamed of being treated in this way, often by older men, whose approval I so craved after my experiences in high school. I learned that I would not have to pay for sex, after all — far from it. But my sexual relationships in my late teens were dangerous, exploitative, and deeply unsatisfying. I did not feel entitled to better until I lost a lot of weight, in my early twenties, and fortunately met a man who treated me beautifully even after I regained it all, and then some. His name is Daniel, and he is now my husband.
As fat girls and women, we contend with the boys and men who judge us and find us wanting. We leave “something to be desired,” in failing to be so. But there’s a truth that remains, to me, just as painful: girls and women play a crucial role in perpetuating sexual fatphobia. And they may not only internalize but deliberately weaponize it in policing and pulling rank over other girls and women.
In my own life, for every Jack there was a Jill — the girl one year above me in elementary school who told me about a boy named Mark from another school who supposedly liked (like, like-liked) me. When I expressed skepticism, Jill told me, with a cruel smile, that Mark liked his girls “a little chubby.” Ultimately Mark turned out to be an invention, as she eventually admitted in a tone of offhand boredom. Not only did he not like me, he never even existed.
Why did Jill make him up? Just to mess with me, and to have something to joke about with her many male friends. The idea that a boy would like me in that way was apparently truly laughable.
For every Nick who called me “a little Elvira,” there was an aunt — my own aunt — who described me, in front of my family, as “an intense-looking girl with big boobs.” “Don’t be offended,” she said, smirking, seeing my face turn ashen, “I am too.” On other occasions, she suggested I shrink myself — breasts and all — by going on extreme diets. I was furious then; perhaps unfairly, I remain so.
For every Kieran there was a Candice — a girl who attended the boys’ school with me, who had forewarned her group of male friends there not to expect to like me (in any sense), because I was somewhat fat. She didn’t even have the decency to cover her tracks well. The night before we started at the school, she invited me to sleep over at her house, in a gesture of the incipient friendship that never really materialized. A male friend of hers at the boys’ school called her up on her house phone (remember, this was the 1990s), and she told him she was with me. “What’s Kate like?” he must have asked, because Candice began to describe me as the smartest person she’d ever met, almost as if I’d swallowed a dictionary. (I blushed with profound embarrassment, beginning to realize that her description was not doing me any favors.) “And she’s . . . you know,” Candice added to the boy, conspiratorially, casting a sidelong glance at my body. “Not, like, Madeline Davis–level, but . . . yeah.” Madeline Davis was the fattest girl at our old school. I flinched in humiliation. And I failed, to my shame, to speak up for her — or for myself, it lately occurred to me.
Candice told me, later, that her middle-aged father had commented on my body. “She’s very attractive,” he’d apparently said. Candice imitated his leering. “I found it kind of disturbing,” she reflected. “I think he wants you, Kate; it’s disgusting.”
Candice’s father wasn’t the only older man whose roving eye — or worse — I had to contend with as a teenager. And therein lies the answer to a question I’m often asked, nowadays, when people learn about my high school experience. Why didn’t I leave? Why did I stick out two full miserable years at the boys’ school? Surely I could have told my loving, attentive parents what it was like, and they would have done something. I could have; they would have. The short answer as to why I didn’t is that I was frozen and stubborn. But the full story lies in the heavy, roaming hands of a music teacher at my old school. I didn’t want to go back there; I felt that I couldn’t. And I didn’t have it in me to have that necessary conversation about why I wouldn’t. He had left abruptly; perhaps other students spoke up when I didn’t. But his smell was still everywhere. It suffused the whole campus. It still comes to me when I think of him, a kind of olfactory hallucination. I still smell his aftershave around corners, in hallways, on stairwells.
When I confided in a trusted male teacher about what had happened, I told him that I couldn’t tell anyone else. And I begged him not to report it. “No one else would believe me,” I said dully. “I’m not one of the pretty girls. Who would want me? Nobody.” I couldn’t bring myself to say the words “ugly” or “fat” to him. But that was my real meaning.
For want of a safe school environment as a girl, I got myself into a much worse one. And at the age of fourteen, I’d already intuited an important piece of social knowledge: as a fat girl, I would be deemed not only unfuckable but also unbelievable.
From the book Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia, by Kate Manne. Copyright © 2024 by Kate Manne. To be published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.