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How We Are Conditioned To Love

I usually like to place a kind of distance between myself and the articles I write, because personal essays can sometimes feel self-indulgent or difficult to read. Recently, I’ve stepped away from this attitude, because I’ve come to realize that there are some things which cannot be defined through facts, figures, and statistics. Some conversations can only really be articulated using anecdotes and personal experience.

With that in mind, I’ll tell you a little about a date I went on last week. I’m traveling in Japan at the moment, which means dating apps are more or less the only way to meet new people aside from existing connections and ex-pat groups. Sometimes, it works really well – I meet cool people, some of whom are romantically interested in me and others who aren’t. I’ve discovered that, as long as you’re open about really only wanting friends and people to explore with, guys respect those boundaries and everything goes brilliantly.

This guy was different. The minute I met him I was nervous, but I soon relaxed into it and we had what was, on paper, a pretty incredible first date: a monkey park at the top of a mountain, followed by a long walk through a bamboo forest, finished off by dinner in a surreal, neon-lit entertainment district.

I wasn’t sure if he was sexually attracted to me at first, but a long conversation in a ramen restaurant made me feel differently. We opened up about everything from family and life goals to fears and our experiences of dating.

I told him that I was hideously self-conscious about my body, which rests somewhere between the societally-defined lines of fat and thin. If I’ve been slimmer in the past, it’s because I’ve been miserable. One stint in Paris made me slimmer than I ever had been, but it was purely down to the fact that I was so broke and lonely I would binge-drink whiskey and skip meals just to feel like I was in some sort of control.

My food consumption became something I could micro-manage, which made me feel good. I had long been fat-shamed and teased about my weight throughout my school years. I know now that bodies are beautiful regardless of their size, but no matter how much I immerse myself in body-positive communities and follow scores of incredible fat babes online, part of me still finds it difficult not to internalize the body-shaming that characterized my youth.

In turn, he opened up to me about his experiences of implicit and explicit racism as a person of color. I won’t say anything more because his story is not mine to tell, but our combined experiences cemented a fact I already knew: if you’re a gay male who deviates from the white, cis, slim, masculine norm, dating is a minefield.

As the night progressed, he volunteered to change his plans to travel to Tokyo and come home with me instead. Internally, I was still worried. He told me how he obsessed over his appearance, and I was terrified that he would hold me to those same standards and instinctively loathe my body. I told him this. He told me not to worry.

As we continued to trade shitty experiences, I began to relax into the idea of being with him sexually. Still, when we got home, I showered and changed before leaving the bathroom, nervous about him seeing me naked. He clearly didn’t share this concern and emerged ten minutes later wearing nothing but a towel and a smile. I was nervous, panicked almost, and tried to deflect the situation by making him laugh and showing him YouTube videos. As we watched, I felt his face hover closer to mine until we kissed.

This opened the floodgates; he tugged at my clothes and began to explore my body from top to bottom. I reciprocated, discovering every bump, freckle, and blemish until we both came. We repeated, fell asleep, woke up, and repeated four more times, stopping only to grab lunch at a local restaurant. I felt content – like I had let my guard down for somebody worthy of seeing the vulnerability in me that I try to keep so well-hidden. He left at 7 p.m. the next day, we exchanged numbers, and that was that.

The next day, things got complicated. He sent me a long, brutally honest message which explained in detail that my body “made him feel uncomfortable” and that I was “fatter than he liked.” He couldn’t help it, he said. It was a preference.

A large part of me was unfazed, which probably tells you a lot about my past dating experiences. “Four orgasms suggest otherwise” I replied. He agreed. We went on to have a long conversation about what the word ‘preference’ really means – he had said himself that it was a word often used to mask racism, transphobia, fatphobia, and misogyny. “Preference” is a quick escape clause for people who don’t want to truly confront their prejudices. He disagreed, at which point I underlined that my body made him uncomfortable, but it also made him really, really horny. He had been conditioned to find me undesirable, but he still came multiple times and admitted it was the best sex he’d had in recent memory.

That brings me to one crucial implication – when we overlook our “preference” and date people we’ve been conditioned to find unattractive, the results can often be surprising. As I pointed out, he was the one that initiated sex, that rearranged his travel plans, and that maintained a more-or-less constant erection for a grand total of eight hours. We had a long, difficult discussion in which he said I should want to “better myself” by losing weight. I told him that losing weight had never made me happier in the past and that it wouldn’t now. The facts were there – my body pleased him, as he admitted, but that made him question the desires he thought he was sure of.

In the conversation, he said that I would be proving I was a strong, admirable person if I lost weight. I disagreed. We live in a society designed to marginalize. Low self-esteem sells products. Dangerous diet products and unsubstantiated weight loss programs wouldn’t exist without body-shaming. Somewhere along the line, these ideas of “perfection” which are so deeply ingrained in society were created by ad execs to sell: diet pills, skin-bleaching products, laxatives, chemical straightenersThese products wouldn’t exist without the systemic discrimination that informs our “preferences.”

I’m not trying to say that we should all be attracted to literally everyone. Sexual attraction is, to some extent, based on chemistry, and that “spark” is impossible to quantify. What I am saying is that apps are appearance-based, and first impressions can be clouded by prejudice.

Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that attraction isn’t as clear-cut as we think, and that we should open our minds and give people a chance. A date doesn’t guarantee sex, so what’s the harm in genuinely getting to know someone that might not necessarily be your “type” on paper? Naturally, my own recent experienced dragged up old insecurities with my body, and his words left me wounded. But ultimately, we’re still in touch.

He sends me Snapchats, comments on my Instagram posts and makes other low-key gestures to keep the lines of communication open. Why? Because he dated someone that made him feel uncomfortable and, by his own admission, the orgasms were more than worth the discomfort.