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‘They tell me that I’m lucky to be with him, as if I’ve won the lottery’: Why couples continue to be judged when the man is the thin one in the relationship

The romantic partner of Arsenal player Declan Rice has been subjected to fatphobic attacks on social media. Apparently, she doesn’t meet the beauty standards that are supposed to apply to a professional footballer’s girlfriend. This phenomenon perpetuates the harmful stereotype that a successful and attractive man has to be with a slim woman

A skinny man and a curvy woman. If this causes any surprise, it’s because we’ve become accustomed to the image being exactly the opposite.
A skinny man and a curvy woman. If this causes any surprise, it’s because we’ve become accustomed to the image being exactly the opposite.Getty Images / Blanca López (Collage)

“My wife is the love of my life and there is no one better for me.” With these words, Declan Rice — a professional soccer player, who plays as a defensive midfielder for the Premier League club Arsenal — stood up against the barrage of fatphobic messages directed against his girlfriend, Lauren Fryer. As a result of the pressure of such comments, she has deleted all photographs from her Instagram profile. This online hatred is another example that society doesn’t accept the idea of high-profile men falling in love with curvy women, who don’t have what are considered to be “normative standards” of beauty.

“Social circles — as [French sociologist] Pierre Bourdieu would say — are informal groups that provide social capital to their members and play an important role in social reproduction. If we took a photograph of the majority of elite soccer players, they follow the same pattern of social behavior — including intimate behavior — and, within this, Western societies are impregnated with beauty stereotypes that privilege thinness, especially for women,” explains Ulixēs Fernández García, a journalist and social anthropologist.

“This norm — deeply rooted in popular culture, as well as in media and advertising — exerts significant social pressure on women, internalizing the idea that individual value is closely linked to body weight. Surprise or discomfort with non-normative partners can reveal our own insecurities about body image and self-esteem. It makes us uncomfortable to see that someone we consider attractive (the soccer player) doesn’t follow the standards of their own circle. This generates social rejection,” he explains.

Lauren Fryer — the partner of Arsenal soccer player Declan Rice — among the audience at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Lauren Fryer — the partner of Arsenal soccer player Declan Rice — among the audience at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.ANP (ANP via Getty Images)

There’s a surprisingly enormous number of online forums in existence, whose users wonder why athletic men date heavier women. We also have plenty of testimonies from curvy women, who describe what it’s like to date when their weight doesn’t match the prevailing norm. In the series Louie (2010-2015), the actress Sarah Baker — in a scene when Louis CK reproaches her from referring to herself as “fat” — gives a spectacular monologue: “You know what’s funny? I flirt with guys all the time. And I mean the great looking ones, the really high-caliber studs? They flirt right back, no problem. Because they know their status will never be questioned. But guys like you never flirt with me, because you get scared that maybe you should be with a girl like me... Have you ever dated a fat girl? Have you ever kissed a fat girl? Have you ever wooed a fat girl? Have you ever held hands with a fat girl? Have you ever walked down the street in the light of day, holding hands, with a big girl like me?”

Of course, it’s rarely questioned when men — who may be chunky, bald, aging and not very tall — systematically have beautiful girlfriends (once they acquire enough money, fame or power, of course).

In his 1973 article Radiating beauty: Effects of having a physically attractive partner on person perception, psychology professor Harold Sigall examines how men who date the most attractive women are better valued. Hence, as we observe in the aforementioned monologue, in reality, the halo effect (the cognitive bias by which certain characteristics are attributed to a person according to their features or appearance) could explain why there are men who fear being seen in public with women who are beyond what the canons of beauty consider to be “normal.”

Blanca Caballero — a 41-year-old communications specialist — is dating a very attractive 32-year-old man. “His body doesn’t make me feel insecure. What’s more, when I go out with him, I feel more confident and powerful. I may have felt that insecurity at first… actually, I never thought he would even notice me. For a while, I worked out with him, but I stopped, because it isn’t my thing. We’ve always been clear about what each of us is like and what we like about ourselves and about each other. People are surprised to see us together, and I know I’m going to say something politically incorrect, but I notice that it happens especially with men. [When we go clubbing], I’ve been called a slut more than once. There’s an obsession with the cult of the body,” she explains to EL PAÍS.

Beatriu Carbonell works in online marketing. She’s 41 years- ld and is dating a “normatively beautiful” woman. She’s aware that, when people see them together, there’s often curiosity and discomfort. “I notice that they’re looking at me, trying to figure out what’s so great [about me], or what I’ve managed to hide about my look. Which, by the way, isn’t a bad look, but we already know that being fat is almost worse for this society than death,” she shrugs.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to go to Hollywood to find similar cases. This is what Gabriela Gamarra, a 34-year-old restaurant manager, tells EL PAÍS. “It’s been happening to [my partner and me] for 17 years. I notice that people are looking at us, and it’s clear that they’re wondering what we’re doing together. The fact that he’s Spanish and I’m Latina adds to the rarity,” she notes.

Ana de Miguel — a writer and philosopher — explains the reasons for this societal judgement, while using irony. “What if, historically, there had always been a system in which men had all the power and, within that power, they said that older men and men with bellies were attractive? Men can always be attractive, because they [define their own] attractiveness with things that aren’t related to their bodies,” she points out.

The truth is that it’s common for humans to implement a positive assortative mating strategy, which responds to the idea that “like attracts like.” This is explained by Ryan Anderson, from the University of Queensland (Australia), in an article published by Psychology Today: “Studies have demonstrated that people choose others with similar education levels, age, race, etc. (One study even found that people tend to marry others with similar DNA). In this case, we can say that romantically desirable people generally partner with other romantically desirable people. This makes sense: I’m sure you can think of examples of romantic partnerships where one seems to be more desirable (to the opposite sex) than the other, but you can probably think of more in which each partner is comparably desirable. Think about attractive, wealthy, high-profile celebrities — they often date other attractive, wealthy, high-profile celebrities.”

Perhaps that’s why the case of Declan Rice and Lauren Fryer remains so striking. And maybe that’s why we need more visible examples like them.

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