The Series Philosopher

Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn

S04E03: Love and physical appearance

LOUIE: 4x03 So Did The Fat Lady - Louie C.K. (Himself) is speechless when listening to Vanessa's (Sarah Baker) speech about the way society treats fat women.

LOUIE: 4×03 So Did The Fat Lady – Louie C.K. (Himself) is speechless when listening to Vanessa’s (Sarah Baker) speech about how harder it is for fat women to find love.

What is the role of looks in human interactions? Does your appreciation of someone’s physical appearance condition your bonding with the person? [Also read: Do We Trust People Based On How They Look? with Brooklyn Nine-Nine] What does our choice of love partner tell about ourselves?

In the third episode of the fourth season of Louie, Louie gets hit on by a funny, witty and overweight young woman (Sarah Baker, Go On) who appears to really fancy him. She works at that place where Louie does his comedy stand up shows at night. At that same place, he repeatedly gets rejected by the attractive bar maids and waitresses he tries to pick up. He looks really desperate to find a girlfriend, like he always does. So this girl comes to him, blonde, friendly, petite, fat. She talks to him, seems definitely more confident with him than he was with the waitresses. Her name is Vanessa and she really sounds great to us, spectators; she makes us laugh and everything, we are under her spell. But Louie is not. He does not react like us, he is cold and distant, as if she was embarrassing him every time she would approach him (because she does, several times). She asks him out once, twice, he turns her down. She is so great that she manages to find another witty funny way to ask him out a third time. She is flirting, she knows her game. He clearly doesn’t want to flirt back. But one day, she wins, she gets to have a date with him. But something is still bothering Louie and we cannot say what:

LOUIE: If they didn’t call it “dating,” you know? Something about the word “dating”, it makes it worse for me.

VANESSA: Yeah? What would you call it?

LOUIE: “Trying,” maybe? Like, try– “I’ve been trying this girl.” “I’m going out on a try with this– with this dude.” Everybody’s just trying.

VANESSA: Yeah. Not bad.

LOUIE: I mean, I would still– I would still hate it.



VANESSA: Try dating in New York in your late 30s as a fat girl.

LOUIE: Well, you’re not– I mean–


LOUIE: You’re not fat.

VANESSA: Oh, dammit. That is so goddamn disappointing, Louie.

LOUIE: You– you’re– no, you’re not. You’re not, I mean–

VANESSA: Louie. Do you know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? “You’re not fat.” I mean, come on, buddy.

LOUIE: I’m sorry.

VANESSA: It just sucks. Oh, it really, really sucks. You have no idea. And the worst part is, I’m not even supposed to do this.

LOUIE: Do what?

VANESSA: Tell anyone how bad it sucks, because it’s too much for people. I mean, you, you can talk into the microphone and say you can’t get a date, you’re overweight, and it’s adorable. But if I say it, they call the suicide hotline on me. I mean, can I just say it? I’m fat. It sucks to be a fat girl. Can people just let me say it? It sucks! It really sucks. And I’m gonna go ahead and say it, it’s your fault. Look. I really like you. You’re truly a good guy, I think. So sorry. I’m picking you. On behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all the guys. Why do you hate us so much? What is it about the basics of human happiness, you know? Feeling attractive, feeling loved? Having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us. Nope, not for us. How is that fair? And why am I supposed to just accept it?

LOUIE: You know, Vanessa, you’re a very, really beautiful…

VANESSA: Come on. If I was a “very, really beautiful,” then you would have said yes when I asked you out. I mean, come on, Louie. Be honest here. You know what’s funny? I flirt with guys all the time. And I mean, the great-looking ones, like 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. And why not? You know… if you were standing over there… looking at us, you know what you’d see?

LOUIE: What?

VANESSA: That we totally match. We’re actually a great couple together. And yet, you would never date a girl like me.

Want to know if Louie and Vanessa ended up together? Watch the show!

According to Vanessa, Louie does not want to date her, not only because she is fat, but because he is fat too. Cervantes (1547-1616) puts in the mouth of Sancho the famous proverb “Tell me what company thou keepest, and I’ll tell thee what thou art” (Don Quixote, 1605). Moreover, a broadly applicable rule-of-thumb is that people find similarity attractive. Generally speaking, the more similar people are, the more likely they are to be attracted to each other. In a study called “Beyond initial attractiveness: Physical attractiveness in newlywed marriage” (McNulty, Neff & Karney, 2008) researchers explored similarity in the facial attractiveness of newly married couples. The research suggests that people pair off with similar others. 

But Louie does not like the way he looks and he is only interested in thin women (his ex-wife is a mixed very attractive thin woman). Like Stuart (Stephen Merchant) in Hello Ladies who is obsessed by the idea of dating top models and nothing less, Louie is determined to date a thin woman. But isn’t romantic love deemed to be of a higher metaphysical and ethical status than sexual or physical attractiveness alone?

The idea of romantic love initially stems from the Platonic tradition that love is a desire for beauty, a value that transcends the particularities of the physical body. For Plato (427-347 B.C.), the love of beauty culminates in the love of philosophy. There is however a theory that considers love as a “robust concern”. At the heart of this theory lies the idea that love “is neither affective nor cognitive. It is volitional” (Harry Frankfurt, 1999) Harry Frankfurt (born in 1929) is an American philosopher, professor of philosophy at Princeton University and the author of The Reasons of Love, where he describes love as the most authoritative form of caring, and its purest form, as self-love.  That a person cares about or that he loves something has more to do with the motivational structures that shape his preferences and guide and limit his conduct and less to do with how things make him feel, or with his opinions about them. Frankfurt argues that the purest form of love is self-love. This sounds perverse, but self-love (as distinct from self-indulgence) is at heart a disinterested concern for whatever it is that the person loves. The most elementary form of self-love is nothing more than the desire of a person to love. Insofar as this is true, self-love is simply a commitment to finding meaning in our lives.

The French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) writes in Masculine Domination (1998) that “contrary to the romantic representation of love, choice of partner is not exempt from a form of rationality that owes nothing to rational calculation, or, to put it another way, that love is often partly amor fati, love of one’s social destiny. ” The choice of a girlfriend or boyfriend takes into account the image one would like to reflect to the outside. But what kind of image does the outside receive and reflect to over-weighted women?  Why would it be harder for fat women to date people and easier to fat men? Why would Louie be annoyed by the idea of dating a fat woman?

In Masculine Domination, Bourdieu presents women as “being-perceived”:

Everything in the genesis of the female habitus and in the social conditions of its actualization combines to make the female experience of the body the limiting case of the universal experience of the body-for-others, constantly exposed to the objectification performed by the gaze and the discourse of others. The relation to one’s own body cannot be reduced to a ‘body image’, in other words the subjective representation (‘selfimage’ or ‘looking-glass self), associated with a certain degree of ‘self-esteem’, that an agent has of his or her social effects (seductiveness, charm, etc.) and which is largely built up from the objective representation of the body, descriptive or normative ‘feedback’ supplied by others (parents, peers, etc.). Such a model forgets that the whole social structure is present at the heart of the interaction, in the form of schemes of perception and appreciation inscribed in the bodies of the interacting agents.” (Chapter II: Amnanesis of the hidden constants)

Before being, women are being perceived. Their looks matter more and interest more the others than men’s looks. They thus have much more complexes towards their appearance than men do. The media remind them to be pretty, thin and fashionable, whereas they remind men to be strong, smart and successful (both in their career and with women). Bourdieu writes in the first chapter of  Masculine Domination (“A magnified image”):

“Surveys show, for example, that a large majority of French women say they want a husband who is older and also (quite coherently) taller than themselves; two-thirds of them even explicitly reject the idea of a husband shorter than themselves. What is the meaning of this refusal to see the disappearance of the ordinary signs of the sexual ‘hierarchy? ‘Accepting an inversion of appearances’, replies Michel Bozon, ‘is to suggest that it is the woman who dominates, which, paradoxically, lowers her socially; she feels diminished with a diminished man.’ So it is not sufficient to note that women generally agree with men (who, for their part, prefer younger women) when they accept the external signs of a dominated position; in their represen­tation of their relation with the man to which their social identity is (or will be) attached, they take account of the representation that men and women as a whole will inevitably form of him by applying to him the schemes of perception and appreciation universally shared (within the group in question). Because these common principles tacitly and unarguably demand that, at least in appearances and seen from outside, the man should occupy the dominant position within the couple, it is for him, for the sake of the dignity that they recognize a priori in him, but also for themselves, that they can only want and love a man whose dignity is clearly affirmed and attested in and by the fact that he is visibly ‘above’ them.”

Overweighted women not only represent the contrary of what western women strive to look like, but they also embody a threat to the men’s physical superiority. Taller, bigger men would make the female partner look even smaller and thinner, and women tend to be looking for this feeling of inferiority and fragility towards their male partner. This is what Michel Bozon (French anthropologist and sociologist) calls “a consented domination”.

In the United States, where every third adult American is obese, a social movement against fat-shaming was started in the 1960s. Called the “fat acceptance movement“, its goal was to change the way the American society treats fat people (body-shaming, oppression and encouragement to diet, hatred, discrimination, humiliations, moral harassment). The movement was rapidly supported by the feminist movement, as the stakes where not the same for fat women as for fat men. Dr. Eric J. Oliver, Professor of political science at the University of Chicago, is the author of a book called “Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic” published in 2005 by the Oxford University Press. In his article, he shows that men respond to overweight differently from women. They are half as likely as women to diet, a quarter as likely to undergo weightloss surgery and only a fifth as likely to report feeling shame about their weight. However, it is a man who popularized weight loss diets as we know them. His name was William Banting (1796-1878), he was an English undertaker and former fat man who had tried everything to lose weight. He self-published a booklet entitled “Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public” (1863) that presented the low-carbohydrate diet that still influences modern weight loss theories.

In our episode of Louie, Vanessa may not be the beautiful woman the western societies would expect her to be, and maybe it is not that bad. Because, as we concluded our article “S02E21: “Look, just because we’re good-looking doesn’t make us villains.”(Community):

“(…)we find often, among the female sex, those inexpressible graces adorn the ugly, which are very seldom lavished upon the fair and beautiful. A beautiful nymph generally disappoints our expectations, and appears, after some little time, less amiable than at first sight; after having surprised us at first sight by her charms, she falls greatly off, and surprises us at lenghts by her defects; but the first surprise is a past pleasure, which is become faint and languid, and is almost effaced, whereas the second is a fresh and lively sensation of disgust.“ (Montesquieu, Essay on Taste, 1757)

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