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Stephanie Yeboah
courtesy of Instagram/@nerdabouttown

How sex and dating haven't caught up with the body positivity movement yet

Two women – Stephanie Yeboah, a plus size blogger, and Michelle Elman, creator of Scarred Not Scared – discuss the fault lines between feeling fetishised and desired

Within the realms of fashion and beauty, a shift towards diversity in casting means that representation of varied bodies and multiple ethnicities is gradually improving. Within the worlds of dating and sex however, things are more staid; no matter how progressive we seem to be getting as a culture in the way that we view beauty, when it comes to individual desire we are often judgemental and discriminatory.

A famous blog post from 2014 detailed how on OKCupid, for instance, black women and Asian men are the least liked or least desired on the platform, and on apps like Grindr, not much has changed – minority ethnic people experience so much fetishisation and racism that the app-makers had to publicly address the issue by launching an anti-racism campaign last year. Statistics have found that women discriminate against short men in dating, and men harass larger women. Across sites like YouPorn, plus-size women are reduced to search terms that harness the demeaning language of fetish.

Yet, all of this still doesn’t quite bring to life what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this treatment in your dating or sex life. A few months ago 29-year-old plus-size blogger Stephanie Yeboah experienced this racism and fat-phobia first hand, when she found out that a guy she had gone on two dates with had slept with her as a bet, for money. She received an email from his friend explaining that he had been dared to ‘pull a fat chick’. The experience – although extremely upsetting – wasn’t in isolation for her; she has been made to feel at once objectified and undesirable throughout her life and particularly, her sex life.

Stephanie’s response to all this discrimination has been to change the narrative around what we see as beautiful through her work as a journalist, a fat acceptance advocate and a public speaker. Similarly, Michelle Elman – 25 now but who had 15 surgeries before the age of 20 – started the Scarred Not Scared campaign, which champions body positivity and aims to erode some of the stigma around surgery scars. This work resulted in becoming a body confidence coach, speaker, and writing the book, "Am I Ugly?" which is a response to the statistic that 10,000 women a month google the same phrase. In it, she looks at body image, the complex issue of why we as a culture find some ethnicities, body sizes and body types more desirable or attractive than others, and how we can move past these hierarchies.

Stephanie and Michelle have both experienced discrimination in their dating and sex lives based on their race, their body size, and in Michelle’s case, her scarring. In a time when sex and dating can feel especially frightening if you’re anything less than conventionally beautiful, we asked Stephanie and Michelle to have a conversation about how feelings of desirability are socially constructed, how they feed into attitudes towards consent, and how all women can feel more beautiful and sexually empowered.

Firstly, what does beauty mean to you?
Stephanie Yeboah: Beauty to me means loving yourself and living unapologetically in a world that tells us not to. Beauty means feeling comfortable in your skin and loving and appreciating your imperfections.

Michelle Elman: Beauty is quite meaningless to me in that I don't think it should define you or be a prerequisite in order to be heard and have your opinion valued. Whilst I agree with the side of body positivity that says everybody is beautiful, I also think it is only empowering if we also believe that we are more than our beauty.

Does sex make you feel beautiful?
Stephanie Yeboah: I think it completely depends on the person it is with. I find that I personally do best in long term relationships; that's when I feel most beautiful. It makes me feel extremely confident and powerful. There's a certain sense of power when being at your most vulnerable and, for me, undertaking the act with someone you are in a relationship with or have deep feelings more, makes me feel even better about myself and my body.

Michelle Elman: I wouldn't say sex makes me feel beautiful, my beauty exists no matter how much or how little sex I have but it does make me feel confident in my body and it does make feel empowered when it is a positive experience. The times when it hasn't been are when the other person hasn't listened to my needs or has tried to pressure me into doing something I wasn't comfortable with. Unfortunately, this is way too frequent where partners, specifically men, will be persistent in asking for the same thing over and over again in an attempt to wear you down.

“In a bid to seem 'normal', you participate in sexual activities that you may otherwise not feel 100% comfortable with”

In your own experience, how do sex and beauty relate?
Michelle Elman: I think often times in the media, we are taught sex is for beautiful people and if you are outside of the beauty ideal, you will struggle to find someone who will want to have sex with you. Particularly with fat women, they are rarely portrayed as having loving relationships, or even a relationship that isn't riddled with insecurity and they are most definitely not shown having enjoyable sex. In the bedroom, I often think beauty becomes an obstacle for pleasure because a lot of people focus on maintaining their beauty. They worry about unflattering angles or sweating and it prevents them from actually enjoying the moment rather than having a conversation in their head about what they might look like. 

Stephanie, you have said that you feel like in the past you have said yes to sex because you feel like you should or it's all you deserve? What does this say about beauty and consent?
Stephanie Yeboah: When your appearance falls outside of what society would consider to be 'beautiful' it can affect you in a variety of different ways, this includes dating, sex and relationships. Being plus size, it is often harder to be seen as attractive enough to date or have sex with and so there have been times when some people will put themselves in sexual situations for the sake of being able to say that they have had that experience, in order to fit in. I definitely feel that there is a strong link between beauty and consent; when low self-esteem comes into play and you don't feel as good about your body, you can have the mindset that you're only good enough for a specific kind of partner, or in a bid to seem 'normal', you participate in sexual activities that you may otherwise not feel 100% comfortable with.

So is sex intersectional?
Stephanie Yeboah: When it comes to dating and sex it can be a bit tougher to navigate when you have certain intersections that apply. For myself, it's being black and fat. We're often seen as dominant and aggressive based on negative stereotypes associated with black women, which means being approached by men for sexual reasons. It makes it more difficult to trust people's intentions and makes it difficult to grow relationships as it seems to be purely sexual. Access is extremely difficult as when you do look different from what society sees as beautiful, it seems you are either ignored, humiliated or fetishised, and makes it extremely hard to find and develop genuine relationships.  

What about fetishisation, do you ever feel fetishised?
Stephanie Yeboah: Being a darker-skinned black fat woman, being constantly fetishised is part and parcel of the whole dating game. We are often referred to as BBWs (Big Beautiful Women – a pornagraphic category on websites), which is a fetish that normally involves larger women and smaller men. As I predominantly use dating sites, I tend to normally be approached by men looking to be 'sat on' by fatter women, or men looking to feed women until they burst, as it is a huge turn on for them. I am also approached constantly by white men who have fetishes for black women, solely because of the stereotypes that are made about black women's bodies, as well as our temperment (aggressive, bossy, dominating, "sassy"). This fetish, combined with the fat fetish, makes it extremely difficult to date if you are looking for a genuine relationship, as men tend to see you as a sexual anomaly, as opposed to a human being. It's incredibly invalidating.

Michelle Elman: In my experience, it is someone sees that "fetish" or that component of you more than they see the rest of your being. In terms of being Chinese, or more broadly Asian, I have found it is when people are more interested in the fact I am Asian than any other part of myself like my personality. I had a complicated relationship with understanding what constituted as a fetish, especially in terms of race, because it's not ever that clearcut. One of my friends who is also Chinese, explained it best to me when I asked what the difference was between "a type" or a "fetish". I couldn't understand how you could have a type like being into blondes, but if it was race-related it was a fetish and she said that "if you found every single member of that subsection attractive, then that's a fetish". 

What has your personal experience with scarring taught you about sex, both positive or negative?
Michelle Elman: I was extremely self-conscious about my scars in my teenage years and early twenties and I always found it made things difficult both in terms of sex and relationships to fully trust someone. The scars itself are one thing, but they provoke questions and the stories behind those scars are some of my most personal memories and also the most traumatic memories. This makes it complicated because sometimes I have felt I was comfortable enough to sleep with a person, but I wasn't comfortable enough to go into those stories and finding that balance of how I can be vulnerable whilst still feeling safe has been important. As I overcame my insecurities around it, I realised that the more time I spent thinking about my body in sex, the less I was actually enjoying the sex itself.

“Desire comes in all shapes and sizes and it's time that the media reflects that”

So how can we improve women's sexual empowerment by changing the way that we talk about beauty?
Michelle Elman: I think we need to be showing different body types in sexually empowering ways and that this should be commonplace in the media. We need to remove a lot of the shame that exists in sexual conversations as that creates silence around the issue and makes people feel isolated in the issues they might have with their partner. I also think there is so much miseducation around sex in general – as Emily Nagoski puts it, we see male sexual arousal as the norm and we compare women to them as the benchmark when it has been shown that not only do our sexual organs differ but so does how we become sexually aroused. Due to the lack of conversation around this, this results in women believing that they are broken and society has normalised women's lack of sexual pleasure too much. 

On top of that, women are taught at such a young age that in order to be enough as a woman, you have to be validated by a relationship and, as we get older, we learn in order to be a 'good wife', you need to sexually satisfy your partner. Not once are women taught to prioritise their own sexual needs or to even prioritise their own sexual pleasure in the bedroom and if we continue teaching women this, there will still be a number of women overriding their own needs.

Stephanie Yeboah: Sexual empowerment comes from feeling confident and attractive in our skin, and the main way to do that is to ensure that people of all ages, races, weights, sexualities and abilities feel beautiful, equally. This can be done by changing the way in which society values – and sees – beauty. The Westernised standard of beauty needs to be completely eradicated, and brands, publications and the media need to do a lot more work in being as inclusive and as diverse as possible, ensuring that all people feel valued and beautiful. Visibility is key: we need to see fat people having sex scenes in movies, disabled people being the love interest, black women being seen as desirable instead of being the sassy black friend and so on. Desire comes in all shapes and sizes and it's time that the media reflects that.