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Inventing Heterosexuality, Ignoring Obesity

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"The Invention of Heterosexuality" by Jonathan Ned Katz (at least, the excerpt we read) wasn't surprising to me. Not entirely, at least. I'd written about the social construction of homosexuality quite some time ago while defending gay marriage in an online forum (both the original and its reprise a decade later are available on my website). So the concept that sexuality is socially constructed isn't a big one for me. I had - shortly before reading this essay - realized how much of an impact the concept of "courtly love" has had on both my and society's perception of sex, so even that was robbed of some of its shock value. If you're shaking your head, wondering what I mean that homosexuality is socially constructed, or wondering what practices in the Middle Ages have to do with today's social norms... you should go read the book.

However, I thought it was interesting to see the author's own cultural prejudice show up. They neglected obesity. How skinny - or overweight - "attractive people" were has changed even in the last thirty-odd years, let alone over the broad swath of history described here. Take a look at Twiggy dancing in these photos, and then look at Betty Page. It's easy to dismiss other cultures as simply being alien; our change over time here is worth noticing. It's even noticeable in individuals, depending on whom they're around. While I was in the military, I'd look at overweight people and think "fatbody" to myself... much to my (overweight) chagrin now.

But it gets worse.

I remember being in the gifted program while in junior high. Rather, I remember seeing Angela, and crushing over her horribly. She was smart, attractive and self-confident. I didn't think I was any of those things. (In retrospect, I'll cede "smart", but only that one.)

She was presenting a group project about the Renaissance and Victorian ages, and I suddenly realized that I had an "in". She was interested in these topics. She idealized them. And my pudgy self thought that I might be able to redefine Angela's view of my attractiveness.

"They liked fat people back then," I said.

"er..."

I ignored the silence that descended over the classroom, pushing valiantly on. "Someone who was a little overweight was considered really attractive!" I smiled, and waited for her to realize that she really did like me, despite my chubbiness.

Twenty years later, I cringe in horror at my earlier self. She - a female in USAian society - had to be grappling with body image issues. I, flailing (and oh yes, I was flailing) with my own insecurities, surely sounded like I was apologizing for her shortcomings. As the author points out, our social constructions seem perfectly natural and everpresent, even though we can note them changing.

Still, it's no wonder she never went out with me.

Discussion Questions:
  1. What other trends in sexual desirability have changed in your lifetime? Have the traits you find desireable changed during your life?
  2. In what ways does the assumption of heterosexuality mirror the assumption of "white culture" being an invisible culture? Discuss how these areas of study inform each other.

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