In our culture, marginalized people - such as feminine people, queer people, BIPOC and plus-size people - are socialized to place a higher premium on our desirability than our desire. Sometimes this can make it difficult to tell the difference between what we want and who wants us.
Let’s start today's lesson by examining some definitions and grammar.
To be desirable is to be “wanted or wished for,” or to have “pleasing qualities or properties.” As I looked up definitions of “desirability,” most of them used the passive voice (rather than the active voice). nce in the passive voice is no longer the doer of the action, but the recipient of the action.”
The word "desirable" always relies on someone else making the assessment. It always implies being acted upon: being the recipient, not the doer.
Desire, on the other hand, is “closely related to agency;” it “motivates the agent to realize” the things they want. Desire is “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.”
The word "desire" is inherently agentic. It encourages us to be the doer, not the recipient.
Someone asked me once if wanting to be desirable is wrong. The short answer is: no - with a cultural critique caveat.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to feel desired. I love the feeling of being desired by a person I trust. My boo is really good at making me feel like the shiniest snack even as I navigate a culture that has many negative feelings about my fat brown body.
I’d venture to guess that most people want to feel desirable at least some of the time. For some people, being desirable is part of their joy, pleasure and gender affirmation. For others, desirability can be tied to economic security, their sense of emotional well-being, or even their physical safety.
Let me share a story that exemplifies what I mean when I say that desirability can feel tied to emotional well-being.
When I was a little fat girl, I was taught that my fatness made me undesirable, and that being undesirable meant that no man or boy would ever love me. A life without romantic love honestly felt like a death sentence to my little kid brain - not only because I was watching Disney princess movies every single day, but also because I was in an abusive home and had already given up on parental love. So, romantic love became magnified in my head because I saw it as my only path to intimacy, trust and safety. In my head, being “undesirable” was a death sentence because it meant - at that time - that I wouldn’t ever be able to access intimacy, trust and safety. Even though I technically wouldn’t die, my brain and body believed I would.
Now here’s where the caveat comes in - in our culture “desirable” is often shorthand for “white, able-bodied, thin, young, and cisgender.”
If we don’t have that kind of body, the pursuit of desirability can often land us in a place of self-harm, food restriction, weight cycling, and confusion. I don't want to belittle the fact that possessing normative desirability can make it easier to navigate our culture. However, we’re socialized to believe that desirability is a marker of worth, when in fact it isn’t. The number of people who desire you does not affect your worth or lovability. Desirability doesn’t necessarily mean that you are automatically getting what you want from your interactions with others, either - it just means they are having a feeling about you.
So, if you're struggling with deciphering desire from desirability, what can you do?
Even though it seems obvious, just knowing that there’s a difference between desire and desirability is already a big step. It's important to name that we live in a culture that demands desirability of us while caring little for our desire.
If what you want is highly aligned with what others want from you, ask yourself if you're into it. If yes, then move on and close this email! If not, try and figure out if there are things you can find in yourself - not from others - that gives you a sense of well-being, pleasure and satisfaction.
Start noticing when desirability (being in the recipient role) is motivating your actions or choices vs. when desire (being in the doer role) is. This might feel like an impossible or scary task if those two things are completely interchangeable right now. That’s ok. Be patient. Don’t judge. You didn’t do anything wrong. Just keep asking yourself this question gently whenever you remember. See what shifts. See what you notice.
Finally, it’s a little-known fact that you can create your own (not shitty and oppressive) version of who is desirable, and it’s also 100% okay for desirability to not even be a goal or a value for you.
+ Take a look at my books: You Have the Right to Remain Fat (I narrated the audiobook), The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion