Depending on who’s being asked, public displays of affection—ranging from kissing to holding hands to groping—are considered everything from cute and sweet to invasive, unnecessary, and ridiculous. We’ve all rolled our eyes at the couple who can’t keep their hands off of each other on the train or the amusement park or in line at the grocery store. Couples loving on each other in the presence of strangers is still considered taboo, even leading sites like BuzzFeed to call it “the worst thing to ever happen to humanity” and Elite Daily to name it “cringe-worthy.” “Get a room” is the common refrain, used to create a clear boundary between public and private displays of intimacy. After all, kids have to be shielded from seeing two adults tonguing each other down, right?
Yet, none of this cultural commentary about PDA considers the importance of public intimacy for fat women who are often loved privately and shunned in the presence of others. When I first began dating, I often heard horror stories from other fat women about how their sexual partners would deny their relationship in public. Then, the public shunning happened to me. When I was 20, I started dating a handsome chocolate dude named David*. Although we’d met while at a club, we never went out again. He’d pick me up on my college campus, buy us something greasy to eat, and then take me to his house where we’d watch movies, have sex, and cuddle. Whenever we’d plan to have an actual date—outside of DVDs and chill—he’d suddenly cancel, claiming that he had an unexpected emergency that had to be handled right away.
Throughout our three month situationship, we never went out—not a single time. Eventually, we faded, as many college relationships do, but in hindsight, I realize that he thought I should be comfortable dating behind closed doors. Since I have a larger body, he assumed I’d be okay with this private arrangement, since some attention is better than none. At the time, I was so immersed in a lust-filled bubble that I didn’t realize how different our relationship was than those of my other friends. Yet, I felt a slight pang of hurt as I watched my college friends navigate healthier relationships with partners who weren’t concerned with how their bodies were perceived by outsiders. I began internalizing that neglect, and questioning my worth as a partner. If the people I was choosing to be intimate with didn’t see me as worthy of partnership, was I actually defective? Was there something wrong with the size of my body?
From being passed over for job promotions to being targeted and fat-shamed by doctors, fatphobia dictates so much of how society interacts with fat people. And nowhere is this more prevalent than in intimate, personal relationships. Since larger bodies are often seen as unattractive and undesirable, there’s an intentional failure to publicly embrace us. It only fuels the stereotype that we’re undeserving of love because we’ve refused to adhere to our society’s thin ideal. Since we don’t often fit into conventional beauty standards, we’re relegated to the quietest corners of people’s lives, only fully seen away from the eyes of others.
Images of fat women in media further fuels this. With few exceptions, fat women characters, including our beloved Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) on This Is Us, are two-dimensional punchlines. We’re depicted as weight obsessed, insecure, comedic reliefs who settle for partners who aren’t invested in loving us as we deserve to be loved. In movies like Pitch Perfect, Rough Night, The Heat, and Bridesmaids, plus-size characters aren’t afforded the opportunity to fall in love front and center. They’re relegated to sidekicks who break up tense moments with exaggerated humor that usually pokes fun at the size of their bodies. This bleeds into how we’re engaged with in real life, and enables our partners, including my brief college boyfriend, to mistreat us without consequence. If fat bodies are meant to be ridiculed, shamed, and hidden, then there must be something wrong with being attracted to a fat person. Hide us away, and the problem’s solved.
Our PDA is an ego boost that pushes against fat bias by showing fat people as desirable and worthy of love.
But that, quite frankly, is bull shit. Now, after graduating from college and gaining the wisdom that only hindsight and experience can provide, I make it a point to date people, including my boyfriend of three years, who don’t see my size as a hindrance or something to be hidden. It’s empowering and affirmative to be embraced publicly by my partner. Whether it’s sharing snippets of our life on Instagram, holding hands while we ride the subway in New York, or touching my waist or thigh unconsciously while we wait in line at the grocery store, our PDA is an ego boost that pushes against fat bias by showing fat people as desirable and worthy of love. It might seem like a public kiss is routine—and for some, invasive—but for those who’ve long been relegated to dark bedrooms and secret, it’s incredibly important to see that we deserve so much more than secrecy.
When writer Lindy West got engaged to her now-husband Aham, he made sure his proposal was a public spectacle because that’s something she requested. “A public proposal to a publicly valued body might be personally significant, but culturally it shifts nothing,” she wrote for the Guardian. “A public proposal to a publicly reviled body is a political statement.” Similarly, physically embracing and loving a body that’s often rejected is political. Although it shouldn’t be revolutionary, it is. No one should settle for affection that’s only expressed behind closed doors. You deserve more than conditional love from a partner who’s ashamed of your body. If you’re a partner to a plus-size woman? Take the hint and give her a longer kiss than you need to—screw the eye-rolls. And for anyone else bothered by a lingering embrace or interlaced legs sitting on the train, kindly shut the hell up because you have no idea why that public display is so important to that couple.
For fat women, PDA is more than just an obnoxious exchange of kisses. For those of us who often can’t rely on relationships for affirmation, it can be a shift in how we’re treated publicly. And sometimes, that shift starts with just a kiss.