A friend was telling me of her new diet and plans to lose 20 lbs. “I told Jack (her husband of 10 years), ‘I'm so sorry I got fat since we married!'” From everything I can tell, their relationship is thriving, but my friend has a deep-rooted sense that she has an obligation to make efforts in her appearance and weight.
This is no 50s housewife. This is a progressive, fabulous professional woman who enjoyed an adventurous love life for years before marrying a wonderful (also progressive and fabulous) man. I admit I was a bit taken aback by her commitment to maintaining her figure for her husband. The partyline liberal and feminist (is that redundant?) stance is that it doesn't matter what you look like! He should love you/be committed no matter what! Conforming appearances for your partner's sexual desire is degrading! It's what's inside that matters.
Like many liberal and feminist issues, this one does not take into account the very human nature of dudes and chicks. There is no arguing with the fact that men are more visually inclined. Sure, there have been a couple of recent studies that challenge this stereotype, but suffice it to say that an MSNBC poll a few years ago revealed that half of men would dump his female partner if she got fat (just 20 percent of women said the same of their husbands and boyfriends). According to my own scientific research (dating a bunch of divorced guys), I can tell you that if his wife got fat, it bugged him. Even the really progressive and feminist guys. And, I might add, especially the professionally successful ones.
Admit it, you are like me. When I see a handsome man accompanied by a heavy wife (no matter how pretty or wonderful or professionally accomplished), I wonder: Is he faithful? Do they still have sex? Does her weight bug him? Why did she let herself go? The more successful he is, the more questions arise. Yes, the same questions are evoked when a gorgeous, brilliant woman is partnered with an overweight and unattractive man. But that is just different, and you know it. It is that old, old supposedly anthropologically based social norm that a man's value in the mating marketplace is dictated by his professional and financial success, and a woman's value by her physical beauty and ability to charm at the company holiday party. But we can make our own money now. That is both awesome and the source of much grief in our personal lives, including that balancing work and family leaves less time to exercise, which makes us fat and more vulnerable to being dumped for it.
I get this, and I respect it.
I've also lived it.
I've written here about one post-divorce affair in which my boyfriend went out of his way to let me know I was not attractive enough for him – including being too fat. This was particularly devastating because he was not better looking or more successful than l was. WTF? I'd think time and again as I nursed my self esteem. But I did date a very handsome and successful man when I was in my early 20s (about 20 lbs ago) and as the relationship went on and his career exploded, my physical appearance came into question in subtle but painful ways. Eventually he left me for his very pretty and petite co-anchor on the national evening news, where he was a rising star in his Eastern European country. I google him every now and again and he is just as good-looking as I remember and is incredibly successful — and according to the gossip sites in that country, he has consistently upgraded to increasingly, devastatingly beautiful (and thin) women as his career skyrockets. On the one hand, what can you do? On the other: Ouch!
Here is my female anecdote: My husband was mostly fit, though he put on a few pounds after we married, which bothered him, and made him worry it bothered me. It didn't (though his self-consciousness did). I have always taken care of myself, though I could stand to lose a good 10-15 lbs. People often remark that I always look nice and wear makeup every day, even though I almost always work from home. During one marriage counseling session, in a plea for more appreciation, I mentioned that I freshened up my makeup before my husband came home. “Wow, that is really something — women hardly ever do that,” the therapist said (cue gloating).
On the other hand, my current boyfriend has a really killer body. Seriously, I cannot get enough of his broad shoulders and muscular ass. We recently went to the theater and I spent the whole two hours clawing at his huge arms. His back is so rock-solid I sometimes wonder if I'm not sleeping with David, looted from Florence. His physique is not the main attraction, but it is an important one. As our relationship develops — and our bodies deteriorate as bodies are prone to do — I would hope that our intellectual and emotional rapport would deepen, and replace to a degree my focus on being ravished by his man-body. But, of course, if in years to come, the socks-on-the-floor and other minor and major grievances mushroom into serious relationship friction, I can imagine piling onto the list a flabby tummy or swinging triceps. In other words: If the relationship is solid, bodies matter less. But when things go south — drooping boobs and a sagging ass seem that much more egregious — especially if we're talking about something within the person's control, like weight gain.
But this all comes down to expectations from the very beginning. I can imagine my boyfriend's inevitable physical decline bugging me more than my ex-husband's because his is better to start with. His bod plays a larger role in our story, and — should things head that way — the expectations for the long-term. Marriage, after all, is an agreement and a business deal based on current expectations. You expect going forward what you sign up for today. It's not reasonable for a man to be be surprised his wife doesn't acquire a string-bikini-worthy body 20 years into their relationship if she was plump when they met.
So, what is the answer? We can't beat out of men their desire for physically attractive women, and I don't want to. I crave being adored for my physical traits, among many other things. None the less, it seems that the pressure is increasingly off: a number of studies find that as earning power between the sexes balances out, men care less about our youth and looks, and women care less about men's earning power. As we sort out the finer details of those equations, the answer comes down to a maxim of relationship success: Sometimes you make compromises and do things you'd rather not (or don't even understand) because they're important to your partner. Which, for women, may just mean heading to the gym.
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Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.