I used to tell my friends that I could never be with a guy that was smaller than me - that was back when I only considered guys to be part of the equation… My friends agreed, we were all adamant that our male partner had to be bigger than ourselves. But it wasn’t about how attractive they would be; it was instead about how attractive we would feel. For we had been conditioned to believe that the smaller the woman, the better. And that ideal and sense of pride is threatened by a man who is skinnier than you.
Many of us don’t want big, buff guys because of the way that they look, but rather the way that they make us look. The bigger the man, the smaller the woman in comparison. It’s like a trick of perception, shrinking us away into the perfect woman. We could be the biggest tomboy in terms of hobbies and interests, but place us next to a bigger man, and we’ll be batting our eyelashes like Marilyn Monroe. It gives truth to the time old saying: “it’s not you, it’s me”. Because it is me, it’s what you make me look and feel like, not how you look at all.
I never questioned it, even when I fell for quite a slim guy who would become my boyfriend for three years and more recently my housemate. When it started, I was aware that he was slim, and it bothered me slightly because I was still insecure about my weight. But we seemed similarly enough sized, so I managed to ignore this as long as he never tried to pick me up or touch my stomach. But then whilst together, I actually started to recover from my mental health issues, and part of that was the disordered relationship I had shared with food and exercise since the age of fifteen. I began putting on a bit of weight. Relationship weight, COVID weight, no longer exercising an hour a day weight. Nothing major. I no longer weighed myself as I found scales to be a huge trigger. I’m at the point of working on loving myself at this size, rather than working to be a size that I can love. And that’s all fine and work in progress, but the real issue facing me is that I am now definitely bigger than my boyfriend. And no matter what I try, that feels like a threat to my self-worth, my femininity and my level of attractiveness. I’m growing comfortable with being a ‘bigger’ woman, but I struggle to feel comfortable as a girlfriend bigger than her boyfriend.
Why do we want to be smaller than our partner? What do we gain from it?
There is an extremely strict rulebook to femininity. It says that we should have ample breasts and butt, but that a flat stomach and toned/thin legs are a must. But the ‘less is more’ approach to femininity extends past appearance. Less talking is better, as otherwise, we’re bossy, dominant, overbearing, chatty, nagging. Everything we like, do, say or want is determined by these rules of femininity. And being next to a partner that is larger than us, allows us to feel more feminine.
Think of boyfriend jeans, an entire format of jeans designed with the basis that your partner is larger than you, so his jeans will hang off you in a way that highlights your slim legs and waist. Well, I’ve tried on boyfriend jeans, and they don’t work so well on curvy girls. Our legs fill the pant section whilst the low hips do not serve to flatter. I’ve also tried on my actual boyfriends jean, in one of those manic “what will I wear to this party?” moments. I had hoped they would look loose and cool on me, and I could casually throw into a conversation that they were actually his. Maybe an attempt to claim him as well? I couldn’t pull them up my legs. I cried, and that’s when I realised I was officially larger than him. Not similar, not close, but I was fatter than my boyfriend. It felt like such a failure; I had failed at being the petite girlfriend.
After that, I started wearing a t-shirt during sex again. Something I had rarely done during our entire relationship. He tried to get it off, and I said no, he didn’t push the matter again. I almost wish he had so that I could admit why I was wearing it and he could tell me that I was beautiful even at this larger size. But would it really help? He calls me beautiful on almost a daily basis, and as long as I weigh more, I won’t believe him.
I feel like less of a woman now. Like sexy lingerie or cute outfits don’t work because I am wider than him. I feel less like the hot girlfriend he lives with who will cook dinner and waltz around in his oversized t-shirt. Because now his t-shirt fits too snugly and hints at the stomach beneath. Now I am the woman who gave up, who stopped trying and is fighting to keep his interest.
Women are taught to take up less space in this world. This happens from a very young age and doesn’t seem to end, well at least until you realise it. Maybe this is that moment for you.
We’re taught to take up less space with our opinions. Women should be seen and not heard. If a man shares his thoughts, even through interrupting, he is driven and ambitious, he is intelligent. A woman who keeps speaking up? Bossy, nagging, needy. We are taught to be less opinionated than men, as our opinions are not given the space or validation. I never even knew I was ambitious until this year. Think of how girls were always taught the importance of sharing, whilst somehow this lesson remained absent for men, as they were taught to take, to earn it.
We’re taught to take up less space with our bodies. Why else should women be driven to be smaller than men? We carry humans with this body, don’t we deserve more room to do that? Even if we choose not to have babies, there is no logic to us needing to be smaller. Women put on weight easier; our bodies naturally crave and cling to this fat. If we get too thin, our periods stop, highlighting that our bodies want more fat and substance to them to perform such tasks. We’ve been taught that men should eat more than women, but did you know that women biologically have bigger appetites?
The funniest part is that we’re driven to be smaller than our partner when they’re the very reason that we’re putting on weight. Partners that live together have been found to put on weight in the first months or years. It’s actually a sign of a happy couple, as if you’re more satisfied with your partner, you’re more likely to put on the extra pounds. For women, it can be eating like a man. Men have always been taught to eat more, to take seconds, to snack away. Whilst girls tend to see their mother dieting from a young age and be taught the horrors of the carbohydrate. Being with my boyfriend encouraged me to take seconds if I liked dinner, that the world wouldn’t end if I helped myself to a handful of his crisps. But I also was less driven to go for a run early in the morning when I had him to cuddle in bed with. I didn’t feel the need to be constantly watching my weight, as I had someone who claimed to love my body. Not just the big butt, but the squishy tummy and soft thighs. Having someone who likes the entire landscape makes you less driven to ‘fix’ it.
And men put on this weight too. My boyfriend has left the age where he could eat everything he wanted and not see a pound of it. He’s still a very slim man with a great figure, but it’s weight he’s never dealt with before. It brings insecurities to him, ones that I am quick to soothe. I tell him that he still looks great, that I love his body, so why don’t I believe him when he tells me the same?
I mean it when I say that his body looks fine a size larger, yet I refuse to allow the same to be true for myself. So gaining weight isn’t the issue; it’s gaining weight as a woman. For men can fluctuate and grow, whilst women are expected to remain the size that he signed on for. He was promised a UK 10, and now he ended up with the bigger model. We treat fat like this disgusting term, unless it’s associated with a man, and then it’s quickly excused.
But the double standard stretches further than that. Because I have friends who put on weight, and I think they’re ridiculous to consider themselves as anything but gorgeous. I fill my Instagram feed with bigger women who are showing the world that beauty is any size, that a thicker frame is normal and to be celebrated. I love how they look in crop tops or tight dresses; I think they’re incredible. But then I torture myself over every small detail. I adamantly call myself a feminist and yet continue to believe that I should be smaller than my boyfriend.
So maybe I’m far from a perfect feminist right now, still unable to apply that same love to my own bigger body. But for today I recognise the issue, I admit that I shouldn’t have to be smaller. I consider other bigger bodies to be unconditionally beautiful, and I celebrate them for it. The next step is bringing myself into the equation, applying these principles at home. Taking off the t-shirt and celebrating the body underneath. It’s a body that has survived a lot of pain, mainly self-inflicted, and it doesn’t deserve to be shamed and hidden.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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