By Cory Stieg
[E]arlier this month, an Instagram post by a man named Robbie Tripp went viral (for better or worse) because it was a long tribute to his wife’s “curvy body.” It was hard to miss, between the praise he received from news outlets that said he was the “Husband of the Year,” to others (like this one) that criticized him for fetishizing fat women and said he missed the point of feminism.
While the post as a whole is epically maddening, it does bring up an interesting question: Is it okay to be attracted to a certain body type? That’s complicated, and you have to look at where desire and attraction come from in the first place, says Sheila Addison, PhD, LMFT, a sex-positive couples’ therapist who focuses on size acceptance. Desire is a feeling that happens on an unconscious level, so in a sense, it can’t be controlled, Dr. Addison says. And the way that we perceive our own feelings about desire is shaped by what we see in our world as normal and desirable, plus our own values and opinions, she says.
When people talk about having a “type” it’s more difficult to brush that off as just a side effect of imposed desire. “On the one hand, feelings do what they do, and there are no illogical feelings,” Dr. Addison says. But people do tend to have illogical thoughts about their desires, which can lead to fetishizing, she says. For example, some people might believe that they will only date tall people, when in reality they just happen to be more attracted to taller individuals. Because we’re human beings who like patterns, there’s a temptation to “fall into shorthand” and just say you have a type, Dr. Addison says. That would mean, following the same example, that you never talk to shorter people when you’re out; or that you try to notice a person’s height before engaging in a conversation to get to know them. In doing this, you’ve excluded them from the conversation, and only checked off your “yes, tall” requirement. Problematic!
This line of thinking becomes problematic when it prevents someone from expanding their horizons and connecting with anyone outside of their type, Dr. Addison says. “You get comfortable with just letting [desire] flow along the channel that it’s carved out up to now,” she says. And if your channel is extremely well-worn, so to speak, take a beat to consider the difference between having a “type” you tend to be attracted to, and fetishizing people who fit a certain characterization.
From a mental health perspective, there is a clear line between a type and a fetish, Dr. Addison says. “Psychiatrists have decided that the dividing line is that fetishes really become the center of the sexual act or the sexual desire, as opposed to the person,” she says. So, instead of being interested in a person, you’d be interested in their body alone, if you had a body-focused fetish. “At that point, your world of desire has really narrowed down to whatever it is you’re fetishizing,” she says.
Fetish doesn’t automatically equal objectification, though, and there are certainly ways partners can safely enjoy a fetish with mutual consent. “When it comes to having fetishes for types of people, I think that is one where it can get difficult somewhat quickly,” Dr. Addison adds — because a fetish is putting something specific before the actual person. This can make sex, or a whole relationship, feel somewhat transactional, she says. In Tripp’s post, for example, he neglected to even mention his wife’s name until the very end, after remarking on several parts of her body.
“For me, there is nothing sexier than this woman right here: thick thighs, big booty, cute little side roll, etc.,” he wrote. What about, I don’t know, her personality or literally anything else about her? This is why a Refinery29 writer, and so many others, characterized Tripp’s comments as fetishization — yes, it was his own wife he was talking about; and no, we can’t know how she feels about this line of thinking, but he had removed her humanity to praise, pick apart, and point out the physical pieces of her that excite him. When people are fetishized for their bodies, it tips the balance of power and control in a relationship.
“There’s this cultural idea that fat people, particularly fat women, cannot find love just on their own merit, or cannot find people who love and adore them as total people,” Dr. Addison says. Plenty of people completely reject that idea, but others still find it incredibly painful. “Those people are potentially vulnerable to someone who is offering attention that is really coming from a place of a fetish, but in the guise of a relationship,” she says. Having someone be sexually aroused by your body can feel really good at first, but if you’re hoping it will turn into a reciprocal, mutual relationship, then you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.
So, what’s the solution for this? We tend to forget that desire is actually expandable, Dr. Addison says. Tripp’s post actually included a call to action for guys to, “rethink what society has told you that you should desire.” This is a good point, but it’s also a little beside the point. Yes, question anytime society is telling you what you “should” look like, or be attracted to in others. But also question your own desires, especially if you find yourself being held back by them. “The people who get most uncomfortable with conversations about this are those who are uncomfortable with looking at how learned values and learned aesthetics really do play into who or what appeals to us,” Dr. Addison says. And the time you find yourself scanning the room for the tallest person in sight, for example, consider taking a beat to think about why.
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