My relationship with the male gaze as a plus-size woman


It’s complicated.

Ever since I was little, I’ve always had a strange relationship with my body. I’ve been the bigger girl since primary school, and it meant I always felt an outcast. I’ve had peers assume I wasn’t good at sports, despite having a black belt in Taekwondo and years of swimming and dancing lessons to prove otherwise.

I’ve been compared to celebrities like Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy, who I look nothing like. There have even been times when I was left out of shopping dates with friends because I wouldn’t fit into certain stores’ size ranges.

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No matter how hard I tried – the hours spent exercising, the different fad diets, routines and medications, the hours of manifestation – I could not lose weight. It took seven years of being thrown between various doctors, specialists, naturopaths and the like before I was really listened to about my health complaints.

In June this year, I underwent laparoscopic surgery where it was discovered I have adenomyosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. These conditions make it difficult to lose weight and cause fluctuations in my size. Since being diagnosed, I’ve begun taking medication that helps me to process sugar effectively, and with a strict diet and support from my specialist, I’m slowly hitting healthy weight loss goals.

But being a plus-size teenager and adult has left me with emotional scars and some pretty damaging habits. The more weight I lose, the more I realise I use the male gaze as a means of validation, tying my confidence and self-worth to the opinions of men around me.

Whether I find myself sexy or alluring hinges on the opinion of who I’m interested in romantically. Whether I perceive myself as fun and worthy of kindness is decided by how my male friends treat me. Whether I believe I’m attractive or interesting relies on whether I draw the attention of men I’ve just met, regardless of whether the attraction is reciprocal.

For the past four years, I’ve had the persistent feeling I’m falling short on these fronts. To counteract this, I spent hours a day working out, I would eat one meal a day for months at a time, and I sought out casual relationships via online dating to try and gain the male validation I was so desperate for.

While I did feel like I was beginning to be viewed as attractive by men and my straight-sized female friends, I no longer felt like myself. The superficiality of it all came to head in 2021 when the guy I was talking to couldn’t make a commitment to me despite all the changes I’d made – changes I’d made in an attempt to make myself more ‘worthy’ of his attention and affection.

It’s a sad reality, but it’s not uncommon. More and more women are revealing the struggles they’ve endured existing in a plus-size body, and the insidious ways the male gaze has impacted their self-worth. This desire for validation is only reinforced when we’re rejected, both openly and in subtle ways.

For me, being rejected by my long-term fling was hard to deal with. It made me feel like a sell-out for trying so hard to change myself for a man. But it also cut deeper; I realised I would continue seeking out male validation, even if it’s in a way that straight-sized women may perceive as perverted.

I want to be checked out at a bar and smacked on the butt. I want to be catcalled. I want someone to stalk my Instagram account and message me trying to hit me up. These actions make me feel attractive – even if they are creepy – because at least I’m worth someone’s attention.

It’s a thought process I’m working on pulling myself out of because I know that kind of behaviour reduces me to being objectified and the feminist in me is disgusted by my betrayal. But rewiring my brain out of the tangle that is internalised misogyny isn’t easy, especially as the world is designed to work against me.

Until I can walk into a standard-size store and not be referred to the ‘curve’ section to find clothing, I won’t feel like I fit in. Until I see more plus-size women in the media who aren’t just the funny best friend side character, I will still feel like an outsider.

And sadly, until I get hit on at a bar by the drunken group of finance bros who I absolutely do not find attractive, I won’t feel as pretty as my friends who are treated that way. I’m incredibly happy with my life and have a supportive boyfriend who constantly hypes me up, but there is always a lingering feeling that perhaps I could be more if there was less of me.

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