Floridians Sharon and John Klose describe themselves as an ideal couple. Married 15 years, they say they have the sort of relationship people long for.
"I couldn't ask for a more perfect marriage, a more perfect mate," Sharon said. And the feeling is mutual. "She's just the sweetest, kindest person you'd ever want to know," said John.
But the couple says that the simple act of biking side-by-side, or a hand-in-hand stroll through the mall feels like an act of defiance against a stubborn and often unspoken relationship taboo: an asymmetrical relationship, when you're with someone who doesn't match your appearance physically.
The Kloses say that they are routinely stared at in the course of daily activities. "If John were walking through the mall, somebody wouldn't look at him twice," said Sharon. "But, you know, when he's with me — I can't tell you, it's like a puzzled look sometimes. It's either puzzled, or disgusted." It's a look, Sharon said, that's based entirely on her 282 pound size compared to her husband's lean frame.
"I think if I were a thin woman with him, no one would look twice at us," she said. Sometimes, the looks turn into uncomfortable comments like, "How disgusting," or "Who could love her?"
This experience is a reality that confronts many couples who don't fit the image of the picture-perfect pair. And it's a reality that Sharon has battled for 15 years, ever since she won a weight discrimination lawsuit against a college that went all the way to the Supreme Court. It was then, at an event for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, where she met her future husband. Sharon didn't realize that her size would remain a stigma, not just for her, but for John as well.
Sharon admits that she's self-conscious about meeting John's friends and coworkers. "Because I'm round and have a lot of curves and he's tall and thin and we're just different physically," she said. "We kind of stick out in a crowd."
John said that, "People just don't care what Sharon's feelings are."
It's not just a difference in weight that can cause a couple to raise eyebrows. Belinda Luscombe, a senior editor at Time magazine, has found that differences in physical attractiveness can also elicit a reaction from people. When it comes to finding a partner, Belinda said: "It's like [there is] an attractiveness almanac, and you have to choose somebody from the same chapter or you've done something wrong."
Luscombe addressed the issue of "marrying outside your looks" and couples who aren't the same degree on the "hotness scale" in an article for Time entitled "The Last Taboo."
In the article, Luscombe coined the phrase "interfacial marriages" -- when "somebody's face is a lot different from somebody else's." Luscombe said people would come up to her and exclaim, "Wow, your husband is so cute," as if it were a question.
"Maybe some people think it's a bit of a backhanded compliment," she added. "'You must be something, to get such a good-looking husband, because it's obviously not your looks!'"
Luscombe said she believes that "if you marry someone outside your 'cute-a-gory', as I like to call it, you know that people will comment, especially if a less attractive woman takes a more attractive man for a spouse."
Utah natives Kristine and Pete Widtfeldt may fit into the same "cute-a-gory," but they've been breaking another norm among couples. Pete walked away from his career in Internet marketing to become a stay-at-home dad to the couple's three children.
The Widtfeldts' marriage bends gender stereotypes in ways even they find surprising. "We find ourselves making stereotypical comments to each other that are usually reserved for the other partner," explained Kristine. "I'll get the Visa statement and I'll look at it and I'll say, 'You spent $200 at Wal-Mart'? And he'll say, 'Do you have any idea how much a pair of child's shoes cost these days?'"
According to the the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 5.6 million American mothers stay home to raise their children, compared to 159,000 stay-at-home dads. And in the conservative Mormon community where the Widtfeldts live, Pete sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Kristine said she hears comments like, "So, when is your husband going to get a job?" She thinks there are still a lot of stereotypes about stay-at-home dads. "There is still some of that lingering around where people assume that if a man's at home, it's because he's a slacker. It's because he can't or won't work, rather than choosing to do something different."
Even though the Widtfeldts' decision was a practical one, there's a price for breaking the lingering "breadwinner taboo." "As much as we talk about … society's expectations, I really believe that the biggest struggle we've faced has been internal," Pete said. "You grow up with a certain sense of what your role is going to be in life…And…as a man, that's a different set of benchmarks, typically, than it is as a woman."
So do these couples see society changing its attitude towards them? Do the Widtfeldts see more couples deciding to reverse gender roles at home?
"I hope so," said Kristine. "We made the decision we have because it was right for our family." As for the Kloses, Sharon is less optimistic. "I'm going to be 43 this year and I've lived with this all my life," she said. "I would think by now things would have changed. So many other issues have progressed -- and this one seems to have just stalled and stayed put."
The Kloses do still hope that someday instead of seeing a heavy woman with a thin man, onlookers will merely see "two people in love."