In her new book, XL Love: How the Obesity Crisis Is Complicating America's Love Life, journalist Sarah Varney chronicles how obesity is altering sexual development, dating, marriage and sexual function. Among her eye-opening findings:
Obesity and girls' development: The negative effects of childhood obesity begin early for many girls. "Some 15% of American girls now begin puberty by first or second grade," Varney writes. Girls are now going through puberty aged on average 10.5 years, compared with 14.6 years in 1920. (The same pattern has been seen in boys who go through puberty around a year later than girls.)
A British study found that a sex hormone that governs when puberty occurs is closely linked with obesity. When levels of the hormone, called Sex Hormone Binding Globulin, drop puberty follows. Children with low levels of SHGB at age five tended to be obese, and girls in this group had their first period at around 11.5 years. This was compared with girls who had high levels of SHGB at age five who had their first period at 14.3 years.
Carlton Gorton, a doctor in Belzoni, Miss., told Varney that he has seen obese girls as young as 5 and 6 who are developing pubic hair.
"Among girls who go through early puberty," Varney writes, "there is an increased incidence of depression; alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse; riskier sexual adventures; teen pregnancy; and even suicide attempts."
One 2005 study found that "a teenage girl's odds for a romantic relationship … dropped 6 to 7 percent for every 1-point increase in her body mass index."
With dating becoming that much more challenging, overweight girls often wind up in one of two categories, neither positive: Some become late bloomers, leaving them behind in knowing how to forge real relationships as they approach adulthood; or, seeking approval, they have sex earlier, leading to even lower self-esteem and continually high risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Varney writes that based on feedback from therapists, "Overweight teenage girls can be reluctant to refuse any advances out of fear that they'll have few chances in the future for romantic and sexual attention.''
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Obesity and adult females: According to Varney's research, 92% of girls who are obese as teens will remain so as adults, leading to problems such as feelings of sexual inadequacy and difficulty reaching orgasm due to decreased blood flow to the clitoris.
A 2006 study even found that "one out of three obese women said that because of her weight, she 'usually or always did not enjoy sexual activity, had little sexual desire, experienced difficulty with sexual performance and avoided sexual encounters.' "
Varney shares personal stories of love lives dramatically affected by weight. We meet Dana Englehardt of California when she is 265 pounds, strapped to a CPAP machine for sleep apnea and completely indifferent to her husband's advances to the point where he had stopped trying. "I just felt so bad about myself. Even though my husband said, 'I love you the way you are,' I couldn't even begin to imagine that that could be true," Englehardt said.
She said she had a satisfying sex life at 200 pounds, but when she gained 65 more after marriage, "it just pushed me over the edge."
Englehardt later undergoes bariatric surgery for weight loss and encounters an interesting twist: Weight loss didn't solve her sexual roadblocks; therapy that addressed body image as a whole and marriage counseling did.
"I do think there is this stereotype that (the obese) just shut down, this idea that you go numb and are at war with yourself," Varney said in an interview with the New York Post. "But when you go knocking on that door, what you hear are things like, 'I'm incredibly saddened by this. I desperately want to be in a relationship with my husband or my wife. I want to it to feel good when he/she touches me.' ''
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Obesity and adult males: While overweight boys might not have the depth of challenges overweight girls do, once into adulthood — where 80% of those boys will remain overweight — the extra weight creates similar feelings of inadequacy, along with a unique problem of their own.
"For every 50 pounds overweight you are, you lose an inch of penis," Dr. Edward Karpman, a California urologist, says in the book.
"A man's penis is actually fixed to his abdominal wall, holding it in place," writes Varney, based on Karpman's explanation. "The more a man's fattening belly grows outward, 'the more it eats their penis,' leaving them with, according to the doctor, 'this little nubbin of a penis.' "
Extremely obese men face an extreme version of that, called "buried penis syndrome."
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Varney spent nearly three years researching XL Love. "I certainly don't see the obesity epidemic reversing itself any time soon," she says. "We're just beginning to understand how human relationships are being affected."
In an article on the book, Larry Getlen of the New York Post wrote: "There are plenty of reasons for America to lose weight. XL Love, with its portrait of sexual dysfunction and loss of intimacy, shows us one of the saddest.''