When Anne, a 31-year-old administrative assistant in Chicago, noticed that two colleagues in her workplace were both obsessed with the New York Times crossword, she thought it would be nice to introduce them. “He was a 50-year-old guy who I’d occasionally go to lunch with, and I figured they were around the same age,” she tells me. “I work in a big office, and often people from different teams don’t ever work together.” The exchange, however, didn’t go according to plan. “When I told him about her and suggested she was really smart, he responded by saying, ‘I wouldn’t know,’” she continues. “‘I only speak to beautiful women.’”
The experience was jarring for Anne, but she says it’s not the only situation she’s faced like it, both with that same man — who she describes as “not particularly attractive himself” — and others. “Just a week ago, I was with a guy in his mid-30s who I was casually dating,” she says. “He told me, ‘If a girl isn’t pretty, I don’t actually see her as a girl.’”
The idea that men are dismissive of women they find unattractive surfaced on social media recently after Marie Le Conte called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s boyfriend ugly (specifically, a “bin raccoon”). Backlash ensued and the joke was derided as pointlessly mean, but Brooklyn-based filmmaker Annelise Ogaard noticed that the defensiveness was inconsistent. “I’m assuming all the dudes currently going berserk because somebody said AOC’s man is homely maintain that energy when their friends say monstrously cruel things to women they find unattractive,” she tweeted. “A lot of men interpret politeness from women as flirting because they themselves would never show even the barest courtesy to a woman they found unfuckable.”
But do men treat women they don’t find attractive cruelly and discourteously? The response to Ogaard’s tweet — at the time of writing, more than 1,000 retweets and 3,700 likes — indicates there’s at least a feeling they do. For further evidence, I spoke to more than 40 people who report being treated this way, the majority of whom are women.
Anna, a 30-year-old student based in Philly, presents a classic example. “I lost a ton of weight in my early 20s and started taking care of my appearance, and suddenly, the world got so much kinder,” she explains. “I was shocked how people started treating me differently.” She recalls visiting a mechanic and being offered a drive home so that she didn’t have to walk, something that never happened when she read as less conventionally attractive (read: thinner). “That was the first time I realized that the world was opening up for me,” she adds.
Of course, it’s difficult to determine with any certainty whether someone is treating you rudely because they find you unfuckable, but it seems obvious to many women that their attractiveness is the independent variable. For some, it’s clear because certain markers of conventional beauty have recently changed, like Anna’s drastic weight loss — or for Sara, a 40-year-old marketing manager from North Carolina, becoming ill. “I got diagnosed with breast cancer at 36, and my visible illness (due to treatment) immediately rendered me invisible to the same dudes who used to sexually harass me,” she says, explaining that men now dismiss her because of her bald head. “No one says much now because I look unfuckable and sick.”
This is a consistent theme among the women I speak to: a change in physical appearance — gaining significant amounts of weight, aging, having skin conditions that worsen or becoming ill — means they’re either ignored or treated rudely by men, whereas men had generally been flirtatious, courteous and kind before the change.
Others tell me it’s apparent that their ill treatment is due to their looks because of how much better they see conventionally attractive women being treated. Take Mel, a writer in her early 30s in California, who says she was picked on mercilessly by boys as a teenager. “They mostly saw girls as objects, and I wasn’t that kind of object to them,” she tells me. “So they picked on me the way they never would have picked on a girl they wanted to fuck. It wasn’t ‘he teases you because he likes you!’ teasing either; it was angry and mean.” She says she’d watch boys go out of their way to be nice to other girls, and then call her ugly or tell her to shut the fuck up — once even putting a ‘KICK ME’ sign on her, “like this was 1955 in Back to the Future, or some shit.”
Many women echo versions of this sentiment to me, explaining how they’re consistently talked over, cold-shouldered and belittled by the same men they watch treat beautiful women with respect and courtesy. Whether it’s at the bar or the office, they receive either overt hostility and insults or a freezing out they describe in the following terms:
- “I’m not on their radar.”
- “I’m invisible to them.”
- “They will be warm with others but cold with me.”
- “They kind of treated me like they would a boy.”
Is this a gendered thing, though? Aren’t unattractive people of all genders treated rudely and dismissively, and not just by men?
Well, sort of. I notice in particular that fat people of all genders report being treated in this manner. “As a fat man, it feels like most people think of me as inherently unfuckable most the time,” explains Matt, a 29-year-old office worker in New Zealand. I’m also told by several people that the male queer scene is rife with body shaming, especially on Grindr, where the “NO FATS NO FEMMES NO ASIANS” disclaimer has become notorious. “An important bit of context for gay men is just how prevalent sex is as part of the culture,” explains Dani, a 26-year-old teacher also in New Zealand, who says that dynamic makes it “more socially acceptable to see and value others in the community in terms of their fuckability — it’s practically a currency, and that’s devastating.”
But the fact that some men face this treatment doesn’t mean the phenomenon isn’t gendered. After all, it’s NO FATS NO FEMMES NO ASIANS, and it’s clear that, while people of all genders view fatness as synonymous with unfuckability, fat women are punished more than fat men. “When I lost a significant amount of weight, women treated me the same, apart from being more likely to reciprocate romantic interest,” says Justin, a 43-year-old senior software developer in Portland. “But other men felt free to talk shit about fat people, and particularly fat women.”
The gendered nature of fat shaming is well documented. Fat women earn less than thin women and fat men, and a study of high schoolers found that fat girls experience more weight stigma than fat boys, that girls’ body fat was more closely monitored and criticized than boys’ and that girls perceived as fat — even if they have BMIs in the normal range — have a more difficult time socially. The study’s author sums this up brutally: “There is no social space within which it is considered normal or attractive for girls to be large.” And while fat boys certainly suffer, it isn’t to the same extent. “Fat guys can still get girls,” one female interviewee notes, pointing to a fat boy on campus who “always has girls hanging off of him” and noting that “all of these fat rap guys [in the media] have beautiful, thin women all around them.”
Also, in direct conflict with the high school “mean girls” myth, the author found that boys were, well, the mean ones. “Not only were girls teased more frequently and directly by their male peers than their female peers,” the author reports, “but girls also told me during interviews that it was sometimes their own boyfriends who teased them about their bodies.” One boyfriend, for example, reportedly asks his girlfriend, “Why can’t you look like your sister?”
In a heteronormative social context, women and girls are punished for being fat — perhaps the most unforgivable beauty sin of all — in a way that men and boys aren’t, and it’s most often guys who dish out the scorn. One teen boy described as “overweight himself” sums it up succinctly by saying he’d “rather be a fat guy than a fat girl.”
Given the disproportionate and lifelong toll of being an insufficiently fuckable woman, who’d blame him?