I Don’t Want to Look How They Want Me to Look: On Tininess and Sexuality


by Ansley Clark

She is on top, curled between his legs with her back against his groin, almost a fetal position. Her thin thighs press together, contained into a skinny tight v. Her arms wrap around her knees, her calves lifting to reveal tiny wet vulva lips, a cock sliding between them. She is a ball of tiny-shaped legs and a swell of belly barely there and thin arms and a sharply prominent rib cage. The caption reads: “I love this pic because it shows how tiny I am and how big he is.”

As I sift through more images, changing up my search terms occasionally in hopes of something different, the captions remain the same: “big man + little me,” “pretty naked tiny pixieeeeee,” “fragile and feminine <3,” “so tiny-looking when i wear his tshirt lol.”

How many times when walking down the street do I feel as though I am physically on display?

I’ve internalized that it’s sexy when women are small enough to be thrown around—tossed onto a bed, lifted onto a counter or against a wall—their petite, flexible, compliant limbs bent into whatever shapes their partners require.

A therapist tells me a story of a woman dealing with body shame. After sex, her partner lovingly rests his hand on her belly. Ashamed of its size, she pulls away from this offer of tenderness.

How many times has body shame caused me to close myself off from tenderness? Pulling the sheets over my body to make sure that it isn’t fully on display.

When I was younger and first having sex, on the days that I anticipated being fucked by a partner later, I remember thinking, Well, I’ll just skip lunch today so that my belly looks smaller later. I say “being fucked by” because especially in those days, sex did feel like a passive thing, for which I needed to make my body as small and as pleasingly tight as possible.

I would like to say that my experiences with disordered eating/body image struggles aren’t entirely about sexual partners. But they are definitely at least partly about sexual partners. Or at least what I have been taught that sexual partners want from me—which is tininess.

In my undergraduate years, a professor observed that images of smallness, mainly women in oversized men’s shirts, recurred throughout my creative writing. A woman steps out of the shower with wet hair, wearing an oversized t-shirt. A woman curls up into a ball in someone’s lap. “Women who are swallowed by something larger,” as she phrased it.

I remember feeling embarrassed by her entirely correct observation. I hadn’t even noticed that I was doing this. I was just trying to write about something that felt true and sexy to me. I didn’t realize that these oppressive, limited images of women’s bodies had become a part of my sexual education. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t even begun to peel back the layers of culturally imposed/white (let’s just call it what it is, okay?) bullshit to understand the things that actually feel true and sexy to me.

Isn’t there a recurring image of a woman in an oversized man’s shirt, showing off her tiny, perhaps slightly bowed legs and bare feet? The small but shapely swell of her breasts beneath the large shirt? In the age of Instagram’s ideals of effortless effort (Oh lol I don’t even care how I look, so I’m going to pile my hair in this perfectly messy bun and just look sort of uncomplicated and organic), this image has come to symbolize intimacy and relaxed beauty. Tiny white girl aesthetic. Where does that image even come from? Could I trace it back to a source or is it everywhere?

How many times when in a public space do I look at other women to sum up their bodies? I’d like to think that this automatic practice is not judgmental, that I simply am noticing other women’s bodies: small body, large body, smaller than me body, larger than me body, similar to me body. I am ashamed to admit these instincts. Is it an internalized mimicking of the male gaze? It makes me feel like a bad woman and a bad feminist.

It is true, though, that I am not looking at these other women out of the need to judge them, but out of the need to judge myself. I am trying to feel okay in my body. If other women have bodies similar to mine, maybe that makes my body okay.

Googling pictures of “short but not tiny” to try to find other women who have bodies like mine.

I have internalized the violence against women’s bodies, which is a violence born out of and enforced by white, patriarchal, western European, capitalist ideals of beauty, and I perpetuate it in my own disordered thoughts.

That deserves repeating, every day. Not to beat myself up, but because sometimes the internalized violence is still so hard to recognize.

One of the issues behind my experiences with disordered eating is the fact that I am fairly short. I’ve been 5’2” since I was twelve. Growing up, I was (am) shorter than my brothers, my parents, my partners, and most of my friends. I developed large breasts, hips, and thighs at the age of twelve and have had them ever since. A boy in my eighth grade class looked my legs up and down and said, “Whoa! Are your legs muscular or just fat? I never would’ve guessed since you’re so short.”

As if there is one way to be short and that way is being tiny. Also, never would have guessed what? What kind of disruption to his male expectations had my body just presented to him?

I also have chronic lower back and hip pain, which I’ve been told several times is the result of not having “abs” (even though, like, everyone has abdominals because they are actually a type of muscle??). “You need to do more ab exercises so that your stomach isn’t so weak and pouchy,” someone (a man) told me. He touched my belly, showing me how it stuck out through my shirt.

“Have you lost weight?” a woman asked me, after I’d had a bad bout of pneumonia. “You look so tiny and great.”

At some point, I internalized the idea that being small is a part of my identity, and if it wasn’t then it should be, and that there is only one way to have a body as a short woman—tiny, elfin, fairy-like.

I know that there is an important connection between the idealization of feminine tininess and fragility and the male idealization of child-like women. I’m just too tired to tease out those connections more right now.

Over the years, I used disordered patterns of eating to cope with moments when I felt like a failure, when I felt like I didn’t fit in with the world, that I wasn’t doing life as a woman correctly. I thought that if I could just be small, look the way the world wanted me to, not take up too much space, I might also finally fit in and enjoy the kind of success that I was supposed to in this world. Fitting into the physical mold of femininity would help me find more partners who truly loved me.

As a white, young, thin, cis, straight, able-bodied woman, I approach this topic from a very privileged position with a very limited point of view. Everyone experiences body image issues differently. Also, there are just so many goddamn angles I could take on the subject of body image/violent ideals of tininess in women. The angle I do really want to take right now is discussing this violence in terms of one’s erotic life.

In porn, when bodies that exist outside of mainstream white ideas of beauty are represented, they are often fetishized. They become niches of sexual desire, rather than normal bodies that are integral, whole parts of sexuality. While there is nothing wrong with consensual kink and fetishism, there is something wrong with labeling certain body types as fetishes, and with labeling sexual behavior involving certain body types as non-normative.

This is not to make this essay about criticizing the porn industry—that is far too complicated a topic to get into in this space. Also, I enjoy porn, especially a lot of the feminist and amateur stuff. However, at the risk of understatement, the porn industry needs to do better in a lot of ways. One of those ways is in how it depicts or does not depict diverse bodies.

I am fucking sick of the normalization of tiny women’s bodies in porn and erotica. If I have to read/watch one more sex scene where large male hands cup a woman’s small but perky breasts and stroke her taut belly, where petite little legs are parted to make way for a gigantic cock, I am going to throw up.

I am sick of the way that American culture normalizes tiny feminine bodies. I am sick of the dominance of flat bellies, thin legs, and tiny round smooth hairless scar-less acne-less butts, women small enough to be cupped in the palm of a hand.

It’s not that tiny bodies aren’t beautiful and valid—they are. But they are not the only bodies that exist. They can’t be the ideal anymore. It’s too destructive.

We desperately need more representation of bodies beyond the mainstream cis/white/thin/able-bodied/young individuals represented. Again, I am saying this as someone who is cis/white/thin/able-bodied/young. Even I do not feel safe in these oppressive spaces.

I’m not really trying to call out anyone or anything here, except, again, myself for internalizing these narrow, violent ideas of beauty and sexuality and bodies and femininity.

Actually—I am trying to call out something here. I’m angry. And pretending to be anything other than angry is another way in which I’ve internalized the idea that I need to be tiny and take up as little space as possible. For the sake of my own mental and physical health, I need to own this anger in a productive way. The limited depictions of and expectations for women’s bodies within sexual expression is just so pervasive that it feels like I would like to call out everyone and everything.

Today when I become inundated with these images of tiny women in porn, I sometimes have the understanding to shut my computer and take a breath. When I was younger, I didn’t know how to do this. Scrolling through images and watching videos of tiny naked women taught me that this was the normal body.

I hang on to a quote I found on Tumblr from soybeanbaby (bless them, whoever they are):

Every time I hate my body I remember that there are millions of old rich white men who benefit from my self hatred and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s old rich white men so I snap out of that shit instantly cos I ain’t EVER giving them the satisfaction.

Yeah! Yeah.

How many times have I let old rich white men (and young rich white men, for that matter, and also my fellow white women) control my relationship to my body, my sexuality, and my erotic life.

When I’ve grown up in a world where almost everything is expressed through the male gaze, I still can’t help but think that tininess is really what partners want from me, that I will live a life of rejection and failure if I don’t look a certain way.

And when I try to logic my way into accepting my body, all I can think of are images of tiny women being fucked by their partners. Surely, surely, these women must feel so loved and well-adjusted and sexy, just totally empowered and self-possessed all of the time, right?

When I feel most successful in rejecting the cultural violence against women’s bodies, I feel it as a steely whisper somewhere in the back of my brain, a desperately flapping flag, someone who is trapped and trying to get out. I don’t want to look the way they want me to, the voice says.

It was a few years ago when I began to realize that there is a different way to be in my body. My mom was sick. I was working outside, cleaning camp bathrooms, working a rusty saw on a pole to scrape mistletoe off trees, tending a filthy flock of sheep. I ate whatever was available on the farm: mostly meat, cheese, pasta, white rice, milky tea, heavy cream, and berries.

I remember walking through the tall grass to the camping bathroom one morning, stuck in my head with fears about my mother’s illness. I looked down at my legs covered in hyperpigmentation and cellulite, dirt, sweat, bug bites, scratches, scabs, and sheep shit. I felt the morning’s heavy breakfast in my stomach. I felt strangely sort of blissful. My body felt expansive and strong and adaptable and close to the hot summer grass I was walking through and also maybe even beautiful.

In this moment, I was able to peel back some cultural layers and glimpse my own erotic truth (which, I suppose, may or may not involve sheep shit).

I still have never had a moment like this with a sexual partner—not because I haven’t had good partners, but because so much of the slow, frustrating peeling back of the violent cultural layers comes from no other place than myself. When these moments do arrive, their truths come as reliefs and unfurlings.


Ansley ClarkAnsley Clark has an MFA from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches undergraduate creative writing classes. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Colorado Review, Typo, Sixth Finch, Black Warrior Review, Jellyfish, DIAGRAM, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. You can find her here: ansleyclark.com.


Top image: Ansley Clark / France

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