Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Do I Have A Type, Or Do I Have A Fetish?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I need an honest opinion from you on something that I feel shame and guilt, after I give some more details: am I fetishizing women?

I seem to be only attracted to very curvy women with wide hips, thick legs, “pawgs,” “bbws,” etc. I’ve dated a variety of body types throughout my twenties (30 now), and only really feel a strong sexual connection and satisfaction with women who fit those body characteristics. I also notice a pattern in that it’s mostly white women and some latina and Brazilian women, but I don’t feel sexual attraction to asian or black women. So, am I also racist? I really hope not, because I find all different types of women “beautiful” and “gorgeous,” and appreciate diversity, but I just don’t feel sexual desire for most. If it turns out I do have internalized prejudice, how do I go about reversing that outside of therapy? (Can’t afford it at the moment, and not sure how to bring the subject up with a professional)

Anyways, I’m quite cognizant about who I want to date, and I really want to get to know a person before I engage sexually with them, so I don’t have any interest in cruising, hooking up, or “trying to get laid.” I think I’m looking at the bigger picture when it comes to dating and sex, but can’t help shake off the feeling that even if I care about a wider variety of traits other than the physical, I’m still “objectifying” women because of their bodies. I honestly wish I could be attracted to thin and average sized women, because that would open up my possibilities, but it just doesn’t happen.

Not really sure how to end my message but I appreciate your writings and will be grateful if you find the time to offer your insights. Thanks!

Female Body Introspector

DEAR FEMALE BODY INTROSPECTOR: This is an interesting question that’s going to touch on a lot of issues that’s hard to distill into a single advice column, FBI. I’m gonna try to simplify things as best as I can, but keep in mind: this is a topic that involves a LOT of history, context and nuance.

There’s a lot of discussion around what it means to have a preference or a type, and when (and how) that crosses the line into objectification or fetishization, FBI. And while it can feel like folks who’re just Too Woke To Function sticking their noses into people’s love-lives and policing who people are attracted to… it really is a topic that’s worth examining. Especially when it comes to your own interests and types.

Part of the issue at hand is the fact that “beauty” is a cultural creation. None of us exist in a vacuum; we all are the sum of the culture we grow up in — often with influences we’ve been exposed to for so long that we’re not consciously aware of them. While there are some traits that are relatively commonly spread amongst cultures — mostly facial and body symmetry — what we find attractive or unattractive is shaped by cultural norms, expectations and messaging. We are bombarded on a daily basis with images that define what “beauty” or “attractive” is to us; it’s something that’s quite literally marketed to us by advertisers and pop culture. Think of the narratives of so many movies, TV shows and even advertisements about someone who’s “not attractive” having some sort of glow-up; what are the differences between the “before” and “after” stages? For that matter, think of who gets marketed to us as “hot”, such as on shows that are explicit about their purpose like, say, Too Hot To Handle. There are certain traits that we are told, over and over again, are what make someone “hot”.

And one of the things that informs this is, in fact, racism and white supremacy. It’s significant just how many body types and facial features that we’re told are attractive are centered around Northern European phenotypes — the size and shape of noses and lips, the size of eyes, prominence of cheekbones, height, waist-to-hip ratio, and so on. Generations of Black men and women have been told that darker skin, wider noses and natural hair are less desirable, including dress codes that forbid Black women from wearing their hair in dreads, bantu knots or natural hair. Similarly, consider the ways that Southeast Asian men are portrayed as being less-masculine or entirely sexless — something that has much of its origins in the racism and prejudice against Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. Similarly, there were the ways that women of various ethnicities have been portrayed for decades and even centuries — the “submissive” Asian woman, the “fiery” Latina, and so on.

Body types are part and parcel of this, with certain figures being more associated with different ethnicities. Think of the phrase you use in your letter, “PAWG”. This stands for “phat ass white girl”. While this is focusing on someone’s physique — someone with a larger butt — the body type it refers to is inherently associated with non-white women, particularly Black and Latina women… hence why “white” is part of the phrase. It marks her out as being different from other white women.

By that same token is the question of objectification and fetishization. This is a topic that a lot of folks don’t fully grasp, or misunderstand. Objectification doesn’t mean “appreciating someone’s good looks” or thinking that somebody is physically attractive. There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to somebody’s body. Objectification is when you erase their personhood and focus entirely on their body; their body — and your interest in it — becomes the sole defining quality. Often it means reducing someone to a particular shape or body-part; breasts, buttocks, penis size and the like… doubly so when those are also associated with their race or ethnicity. When you look at porn featuring Black men, especially Black men in interracial scenes, the emphasis is on the fact that they’re Black and that the sex they’re having is somehow transgressive because of it. In a very real way, it dehumanizes them because it makes the entire point of the video about their skin color or the size of their penises, not about them as individuals.

Same with fetishization; handicapped and disabled people often deal with folks — called “devotees” who are attracted to them because of their disability, less so the person. This can become incredibly problematic because of how often the fetishization is about the power imbalance between the two — especially when the handicap limits their mobility or ability to function the way abled people do.

But having said all of this, these aren’t the only things that will cause us to have preferences or leanings towards particular body types, different hair colors, ethnicities and so on. Novelty and unfamiliarity can trigger interest because they’re new and different to us. Familiarity and exposure will likewise affect who we tend to date or be attracted to — the mere-exposure effect causes us to have preferences for things because they’re so familiar to us. The more common something is in your experience, the more likely you are to be comfortable with it and to prefer it… including body types and people. And of course there are shared backgrounds, shared culture, shared values and experiences — the more similarities somebody has, the more you tend to like them and be drawn to them.

And of course, people pick up preferences and interests all the time because we’ll conflate certain people or types with moments in our lives, especially with dawning awareness of sexuality. And then there are times people pick up fetishes or paraphilias and have no goddamn idea why — the development of paraphilias is still something that sexologists don’t fully understand.

Now the reason I bring all of this up isn’t to tell you that you’re wrong for your preferences or that you are somehow obligated to have as wide and diverse a dating history and sexual attraction as possible. I bring it up because it’s worth examining those interests preferences and just what it is about them that gets your motor running. Is it because your first crush was a curvy or heavy-set woman? Is there a particular emotional or sexual association you have for that,  that you don’t feel with thinner women? When it comes to the women you’re attracted to, what makes the difference for you? Is it something you associate with them culturally or socially, as opposed to the women individually? Is it just particular features that they have that others don’t? Or are there expectations you have about them based on their race or culture?

The point of this exercise isn’t to say “yes you’re racist/ no you’re not”; it’s so that you’re just a bit more mindful about who you’re into and why. Sometimes who we date is less about who we’re attracted to and who we allow ourselves to express attraction for. One of the issues that fat or BBW women face, as an example, are men who will pursue them because they think fat women have fewer options and will be “grateful” or put up with s--tty treatment because of it.  There’re also men who are attracted to fat women and will happily f--k them… but won’t date them openly, because of the cultural narrative that it’s shameful for men to f--k or date fat women. The same often applies to women of color as well — men who fetishize them for their bodies or ethnicities or perceived culture or personality type, but won’t date them or have meaningful relationships with them.

But again: having a preference for a particular body type isn’t the same as objectifying someone who has that body type. It’s just when the only thing they ARE is that body and the relationship it has with your sexual gratification that it becomes objectification.

The more you can unpack and understand who you’re into and why, the easier it is to recognize when it’s just “yup, I find sex with women with thicker thighs and wider hips more satisfying” versus something informed by race or cultural value. Similarly, it may be worth seeing if you can focus more on the individual than their race, especially if you realize that your interest or lack-thereof has a racial component. Sometimes it comes to giving yourself permission to try to get to know someone and give them a chance when you might have brushed them off without thinking. You may even surprise yourself by realizing that your interests are wider and more varied than you thought if given a chance.

Or you may just find out that this is just who you are and what you’re into. And that’s fine too.

Good luck.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com