On The Difference Between Oppression and Ice Cream

I think one of the most resilient forms of oppression is looksism, including sizeism. Liberal, progressive, even radical people who’ve done so much work to de-naturalize systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, cissexism and even ableism will continue to zealously defend their right to be attracted to what they are attracted to without question or analysis. And I can understand why people get nervous when their likes and dislikes, attractions and repulsions are questions, particularly queer people who have had to battle heterosexist, homophobic culture to embrace their desires and have them recognized as legitimate–or at least not worthy of oppression–by others. It can seem like a slippery slope from questioning what body type and facial features one finds attractive to questioning the gender and/or sex one is attracted to. But this is not the real slippery slope, because the only reason such questions of one’s sexual desires are problematic and linked to oppression is because such questioning has always been one sided, with the dominant (hetero) group questioning the ‘deviancy’ of other groups. The real conceptual culprit here is the ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘natural,’ specifically, that heterosexuality is valued as normal and natural and other forms of sexuality are maligned as abnormal and unnatural. Likewise, the real slippery slope is in not questioning our attraction to body types and facial features by naturalizing them. So when I try to get otherwise critical people to analyze their physical attractions and am shut down with statements such as “I like what I like” sometimes with the angry addendum, “and I don’t need to defend that to you,” it is frustrating and disheartening.

Sometimes people try to explain to me that physical attraction is exempt from analysis because ‘there’s someone there for everyone;’ that physical attraction is like preference for ice cream: some people like strawberry, some like pistachio, some like rocky-road, some like anything as long as it’s cold, and some don’t care for ice cream of any flavor. This is a false, although delicious analogy because it assumes that like preference for ice cream flavors, people’s physical attractions are more or less randomly distributed and not shaped by systemic factors such as social hierarchies and inequalities. But the reality is that people’s attraction to various body types and facial features are not randomly distributed. Study after study have shown that most people in our society rate people with small noses and high cheekbones as more attractive that those without; that people prefer taller thinner people to stockier shorter people, with the sometimes exception of buff guys and curvy women (though only if they are the ‘right’ curves in the ‘right’ places); I could go on but you get the point.

These preferences are not just non-random, they also align to a disturbing degree with the typical physical features of ethnic groups that have historically and continue to dominate our global political, economic and cultural system. And even though there is a large variation in body shape and facial feature within most ethnic groups and these preferences don’t line up perfectly with specific ethnic groups relative power, they line up almost completely with the physiology of those members of each ethnic group who face the least oppression and have the most material resources. Don’t believe me? Try going to a bunch of rich neighborhood, walk around and look at the body types and facial features of the people there, especially the women. Now do the same in a random sample of working-class neighborhoods. Note the similarities within and differences between regardless of race and ethnicity.

To return to the ice cream analogy, it would be as if vanilla ice cream has the lion’s share of the best locations in our hypothetical ice cream parlor, and almost every advertisement for ice cream features smiling people enjoying vanilla ice cream and, low and behold, the vast majority of people turn out to prefer vanilla ice cream. In reality it doesn’t work this way. The flavors of ice cream people like might not be random, but they don’t align with any specific cultural, political and economic inequalities. The television doesn’t bombard us with ads for products…and drug-store shelves aren’t loaded with pills and lotions…and surgeons don’t get rich performing expensive operations to make other flavor taste, look and feel more vanilla. So let’s stop talking about ice cream and start talking about what we are attracted to and why.

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