The old “Is the glass half empty or half full?” question does more than just illustrate a person’s proclivity for pessimism or for optimism. It alerts us to the possibility that the same real world phenomena may be interpreted in entirely different ways, with very real consequences. It is this notion that I apply to the way fat sex and thin sex are conceptualised in the larger social consciousness. While sexual, romantic and/or intimate acts between people where at least one individual is fat (Fat Sex) are deemed atypical, abnormal, fetishistic and even abusive (Saguy qtd. in Swami & Tovee 90; Schur qtd. in Prohaska 271; Gailey 119), such encounters between able-bodied individuals who are thin or of average weight (Thin Sex) are deemed normal and desirable. I argue in this article that this discrepancy in how we label and treat fat and thin sexuality is unjustified because the two domains are more similar than distinct. Given their similarity we should treat similar aspects of both domains in the same way, i.e. either as normal, or as fetishistic based on relevant criteria rather than body size. I also argue that fat prejudice and thin privilege underlie this discrepancy in modern western society. I finally conclude that this causes significant personal and social harm to both fat and thin individuals.
Fat Sex – The Fetishized Normal
Hanne Blank, in writing of her foray into publishing body positive material exploring fat sexuality, speaks of the need for spaces that acknowledge the vitality and diversity of fat sex; not in fetishistic and pornographic portrayals of Big Beautiful Women offering themselves up as an object of desire but reflecting the desires and sexual experiences of fat people themselves (10). If there are a 100 million people in America who are obese according to BMI standards, she argues, they represent a whole array of body sizes and a lot of sexual activity, which she describes as follows:
Fat people have sex. Sweet, tender, luscious sex. Sweaty, feral, sheet-ripping sex. Shivery, jiggly, gasping sex. Sentimental, slow, face-cradling sex. Even as you read these words, there are fat people out there somewhere joyously getting their freak on. Not only that, but fat people are falling in love, having hook-ups, being crushed-out, putting on sexy lingerie, being the objects of other people’s lust, flirting, primping before hot dates, melting a little as they read romantic notes from their sweeties, seducing and being seduced, and having shuddering, toe-curling orgasms that are as big as they are. It’s only natural. (15)
Such normalcy and diverse expression, however, is not usually portrayed in popular media, nor even in much scholarly research. Apart from body positive spaces carved out by the fat acceptance movement online and the research of fat studies scholars, which, contextualises fat sexuality as healthy and exciting, in “the majority of scholarship on this topic, fat women’s sexual behaviors are never the result of women’s agency, are always the result of their objectification, and are never healthy” (Prohaska 271).
This interpretation of fat sexuality, the assumptions associated with it and the reinforcement of these attitudes have much to do with the pervasiveness of fat prejudice in society today. One study estimates that the prevalence of weight based discrimination in the US increased by 66% between 1996 and 2006 (Andreyeva, Puhl and Brownell) and is now comparable to gender and race based discrimination (Puhl, Andreyeva and Brownell). This is not an isolated trend. An anthropological study analysing the globalisation of notions of fat being unhealthy and a marker of personal and social failing suggests that we have on our hands a rapidly homogenising global stigma associated with fat (Brewis, Wutich and Rodriguez-Soto), a climate of discrimination leading many fat people to what Goffman describes as a spoiled identity (3).
Negative stereotypes affecting fat sexuality are established and perpetuated through a process of discursive constraint (Cordell and Ronai 30-31). “’No man will ever love you,’ Weinstein’s grandmother informs her (Weinstein, prologue), simultaneously offering her a negative category to define herself by and trying to coerce her into losing weight – literally constraining the discourse that Weinstein may apply to herself.
Discursive constraint is created not only by individuals reinforcing cultural mores but also by overt and covert messages embedded in social consciousness: “fat people are unattractive”, “fat is ugly”, “fat people are asexual”, “fat sex is a fetish”, “no normal person can be attracted to a fat person”. Portrayals of fat individuals in mainstream media consolidate these beliefs.
One of the most loved fat characters of 1990s, Fat Monica from the sitcom Friends is gluttonous, ungainly (rolling around in a bean bag, jolting the sofa as she sits), undesirable (Chandler says to Ross, “I just don’t want to be stuck here all night with your fat sister!”), and desperate for sex, affection and approval from the opposite sex: “the comedic potential of Fat Monica is premised on an understanding that her body is deviant or outside the norm” (Gullage 181).
In Shallow Hal, a film in which a shallow guy falls in love with the inner beauty of a fat girl, Hal (Jack Black) is shown to be attracted to Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) only after he can no longer see her real fat body and her “inner beauty” is represented by a thin white blond girl. All the while, the movie draws laughs from the audience at the fat jokes and gags made at the expense of Paltrow’s character.
Ashley Madison, a website for married people looking to have an affair, used the image of a scantily clad fat model in an advertisement with the tagline “Did your wife scare you last night?”, implying that infidelity is justified if you’re not attracted to your partner, and fatness precludes attraction. And a columnist from popular magazine Marie Claire wrote about Mike and Molly, a sitcom about two fat people in a relationship:
Yes, I think I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other ... because I'd be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. (Kelly)
It is the prevalence of these beliefs that I call the fetishisation of fat sexuality. When fat bodies are created as asexual and undesirable, it gives rise to the rhetoric that to be sexually attracted to a fat body is unnatural, therefore making any person who is attracted to a fat body a fetishist and the fat person themselves an object of fetish.
The internalisation of these beliefs is not only something that actively harms the self-esteem, sexual agency & health and happiness of fat individuals (Satinsky et al.), but also those who are attracted to them.
Those who internalise these beliefs about themselves may be unable to view themselves as sexual and engage with their own bodies in a pleasurable manner, or to view themselves as attractive, perhaps discounting any assertions to the contrary. In a study designed to investigate the relationship between body image and sexual health in women of size, one participant revealed:
I’ve had my issues with T as far as um, believing that T is attracted to me…because of my weight, my size and the way I look. (Satinsky et al. 717)
Another participant speaks of her experience masturbating and her discomfort at touching her own flesh, leading her to use a vibrator and not her hands:
Like, I don’t, I don’t look down. I look at the ceiling and I try to – it’s almost like I’m trying to imagine that I was thinner. Like, imagine that my stomach was flatter or something like that, which sounds bizarre, but I guess that’s what I’m trying to do. (Satinsky et al. 719)
Others stay in bad marriages because they believe they wouldn’t find anyone else (Joanisse and Synnott 55) or tolerate abuse because of their low self-esteem (Hester qtd. in Prohaska 271).
Similarly, men who internalise these attitudes about fat find it easier to dehumanise and objectify fat women, believe that they’d be desperate for sex and hence an easy target for a sexual conquest, and are less deserving of consideration (Prohaska and Gailey 19).
On the other hand, many men who find fat women attractive (Fat Admirers or FA’s) remain closeted because their desire is stigmatised. Many do not make their preference known to their peer group and families, nor do they publicly acknowledge the woman they are intimate with. Research suggests that FA’s draw the same amount of stigma for being with fat women and finding them attractive, as they would for themselves being fat (Goode qtd. in Prohaska and Gailey).
I do not argue here that all fat individuals have spoiled identities or that all expressions of fat sexuality operate from a place of stigma and shame, but that fat sexuality exists within a wider social fabric of fat phobia, discrimination and stigmatisation. Fulfilling sexual experience must therefore be navigated within this framework. As noted, the fat acceptance movement, body positive spaces online, and fat studies scholarship help to normalise fat sexuality and function as tools for resisting stigma and fetishisation.
Resisting Stigma: Creating Counter Narratives
Gailey, in interviews with 36 fat-identified women, found that though 34 of them (94%) had ‘experienced a life of ridicule, body shame and numerous attempts to lose weight’ which had an adverse effect on their relationships and sex life, 26 of them reported a positive change after having ‘embodied the size acceptance ideology’ (Gailey 118).
Recently, Kristin Chirico, employee of Buzzfeed, released first an article and then a video titled My Boyfriend Loves Fat Women about her relationship with her boyfriend who loves fat women, her own discomfort with her fatness and her journey in embracing size acceptance ideologies:
I will let him enjoy the thing he loves without tearing it down. But more importantly, I will work to earn love from me, who is the person who will always play the hardest to get. I will flirt as hard as I can, and I will win myself back.
Books such as Wann’s Fat!So?, Blank’s Big Big Love: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them), Chastain’s Fat: The Owner’s Manual and her blog Dances with Fat, Tovar’s Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion, as well as Substantia Jones’s fat photography project called The Adipositivity Project are some examples of fat activism, size acceptance and body positive spaces and resources. The description on Jones’s site reads:
The Adipositivity Project aims to promote the acceptance of benign human size variation and encourage discussion of body politics, not by listing the merits of big people, or detailing examples of excellence (these things are easily seen all around us), but rather through a visual display of fat physicality. The sort that's normally unseen.
When fat individuals create personal narratives to resist stigmatisation of fat sexuality they confront the conundrum of drawing the line between sexual empowerment and glorifying fat fetishism. To see one’s own and other fat bodies as sexual, normal and worthy of pleasure is one way to subvert this fetishism. One would also take seriously any sexual advances, seeing oneself as desirable. The line between normal expression of fat sexuality and the wide spread belief that fat sex is fetishistic is so blurred however, that it becomes difficult to differentiate between them, so it is common to ask if one is being sexual or being an object of fetish. There is also the tension between the heady sense of power in being a sexual agent, and the desire to be wanted for more than just being a fat body.
Modern burlesque stage is one arena where fat bodies are being recreated as sexy and desirable, offering a unique resource to ‘fat performers and audience members who want to experience their bodies in new and affirming ways’. Because burlesque is an erotic dance form, fat women on the burlesque stage are marked as ‘sexual, without question or challenge’. The burlesque stage has a great capacity to be a space for transforming sexual identity and driving changes in audience attitudes, creating a powerful social environment that is contrary to mainstream conditions in society (Asbill 300).
The founder and creative director of “Big Burlesque” and “Fat-Bottom Revue” the world’s first all-fat burlesque troupe, however, notes that when she started Big Burlesque there were a couple of “bigger” performers on the neo-burlesque circuit, but they did not specifically advocate fat liberation. ‘Fat dance is rare enough; fat exotic/erotic dance is pretty much unheard of outside of “fetish” acts that alienate rather than normalise fat bodies’ (McAllister 305).
In another instance, Laura writes that to most men her weight is a problem or a fetish, constraining the potential in relationships. Speaking of BBW (Big Beautiful Women) and BHM (Big Handsome Men) websites that cater to Fat Admirers she writes:
As I’ve scrolled through these sites, I’ve felt vindicated at seeing women my size as luscious pinups. But, after a while, I feel reduced to something less than a person: just a gartered thigh and the breast-flesh offered up in a corset. I want to be lusted after. I want to be wanted. But, more than this, I want to love, and be loved. I want everything that love confers: being touched, being valued and being seen.
That sexual attraction might rely wholly or partly on physical attributes, however, is hardly unfamiliar, and is an increasing phenomenon in the wider culture and popular media. Of course, what counts there is being thin and maintaining the thin state!
Thin Sex: The Normalised Fetish
Unlike the fat body, the thin body is created as beautiful, sexually attractive, successful and overwhelmingly the norm (van Amsterdam). Ours is a culture fixated on physical beauty and sex, both of which are situated in thin bodies. Sexiness is a social currency that buys popularity, social success, and increasingly wealth itself (Levy). Like fat sex, thin sex operates on the stage set by the wider cultural ideals of beauty and attractiveness and that of the burden of thin privilege. Where stigma situates fat sexuality to abnormality and fetish, thin sexuality has to deal with the pressures of conforming to and maintaining the thin state (vam Amsterdam).
Thin individuals also deal with the sexualisation of their bodies, confronting the separation of their personhood from their sexuality, in a sexual objectification of women that has long been identified as harmful. Ramsey and Hoyt explore how being objectified in heterosexual relationships might be related to coercion within those relationships. Their evidence shows that women are routinely objectified, and that this objectification becomes part of the schema of how men relate to women. Such a schema results in a fracturing of women into body parts dissociated from their personhood , making it easier to engage in violence with, and feel less empathy for female partners (in cases of rape or sexual assault). (Ramsey and Hoyt) What is interesting here is the fact that though aspects of thin sexuality are recognised as fetishistic (objectification of women), thin sex is still considered normal.
Thin Sex, Fat Sex and 50 Shades of Overlap
The normalisation of sexual objectification -- society for the most part being habituated to the fetishistic aspects of thin sex, can be contrasted with attitudes towards comparable aspects of fat sex. In particular, Feederism, is generally viewed within scholarly discourse (and public attitudes) as ‘a consensual activity, a fetish, a stigmatised behaviour, and abuse’ (Terry & Vassey, Hester, Bestard, Murray as qtd. in Prohaska 281). Prohaska argues that Feederism and Diet Culture are broadly similar phenomena that elicit tellingly opposing judgements. She reports that the culture of feederism (as analysed on online forums) is a mostly consensual activity, where the community vocally dissuades non-consensual activities and any methods that may cause bodily harm (268). It is mostly a community of people who discuss measures of gradual weight gain and support and encourage each other in those goals. This, she argues, is very similar in tone to what appears on weight loss websites and forums (269). She contends, however that despite these parallels ‘the same scrutiny is not given to those who are attempting to lose weight as is placed upon those who do not diet or who try to gain weight’ (269).
She notes that whereas in judging feederism emphasis is on fringe behaviours, in evaluating diet culture the focus is on behaviours deemed normal and healthy while only disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and pill using are judged fringe behaviours. This disparity, she claims, is rooted in fat phobia and prejudice (270).
In comparing the dating sections of feederism websites with mainstream dating sites she notes that here too the nature of ads is similar, with the only difference being that in mainstream sites the body size preference is assumed. People seeking relationships on both kinds of sites look for partners who are ‘caring, intelligent and funny’ and consider ‘mutual respect’ as key (270).
This is similar to what was revealed in an article by Camille Dodero, who interviewed a number of men who identify as fat admirers and delved into the myths and realities of fat admiration. The article covers stories of stigma that FA’s have faced and continue to face because of their sexual preference, and also of internalised self-hatred that makes it difficult for fat women to take their advances seriously. The men also create BBW/BHM dating websites as more than a fetish club. They experience these online spaces as safe spaces where they can openly meet people they would be interested in just as one would on a normal/mainstream dating site. Even if most women fit the type that they are attracted to in such spaces, it does not mean that they would be attracted to all of those women, just as on match.com one would look over prospective candidates for dating and that process would include the way they look and everything else about that person.
Attempting to clear up the misconception that loving fat women is a fetish, one of the interviewees says,
“Steve, over there, has a type,” gesturing wanly at a stranger in a hockey jersey probably not named Steve. “I have a type, too. Mine’s just bigger. He may like skinny blondes with bangs and long legs. I like pear shapes with brown hair and green eyes. I have a type—it just happens to be fat.” Besides, people aren’t fetish objects, they’re people. “It’s not like having a thing for leather.” (Dodero 3)
Analysis of the domains of thin and fat sex shows that both have people engaging in sexual activity and romantic and intimate relationships with each other. Both have a majority of individuals who enjoy consensual, fulfilling sex and relationships, however these practices and desires are celebrated in one domain and stigmatised in the other. Both domains also have a portion of the whole that objectifies relationship partners with immense potential for harm, whether this involves sexualisation and objectification and its related harms in thin sex, objectification of fat bodies in some BBW and BHM circles, and the fringes of feederism communities, or non-body size specific fetish acts that individuals from both domains engage in. Qualitatively, since both domains significantly overlap, it is difficult to find the justification for the fetishisation of one and the normativity of the other. It seems plausible that this can be accounted for by the privilege associated with thin bodies and the prejudice against fat.
Our failure to acknowledge such fetishisation of normal fat sex and normalisation of the fetishistic aspects of thin sex creates huge potential for harm for both groups, for it not only causes the fragmentation of effort when it comes to addressing these issues but also allows for the rich vitality and diversity of “normal” fat sex to wallow in obscurity and stigma.
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