There IS a difference: BBW vs. fat, performativity & porn

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

Very recently, I was out with my dear friend Jessica, a fat fashion maven and FA activist I met through the fatshionista livejournal community.  We both live in San Diego, and we like to go out and “be fat in public” together, whether that means shopping or sunbathing at the beach or just eating delicious juicy burgers at a neighborhood diner.

Jessica and I were at an event at Great Curves, a plus-size consignment shop, lured there by a woman who insisted we should meet this great plus-size pinup photographer.  For full details, you should read Jessica’s blog post about the experience.  It was awkward and weird and NOT at all what we expected.  (AKA porn.)  So that was interesting… and even MORE interesting, at least to me, was the inability of any woman at the event to say the word “fat”.

So by now y’all know that I identify as fat.  In the past, prior to finding fat and size acceptance, I identified as other things: curvy, voluptuous, well-proportioned, “bigger,” plus-size, and—at least in health contexts—morbidly obese.  I don’t call myself these things anymore, and when I’m having a bad day and am feeling insecure, I no longer turn to shitty platitudes like “REAL women have curves” to make me feel better.  But I used to.  It’s important to acknowledge this because I need to be reminded how these euphemisms can sometimes feel like a fat girl’s only allies in a fat-hating world.

Some of these words, like curvy or voluptuous, still don’t really bother me all that much.  Everyone, by virtue of having a three-dimensional body, is curvy.  And voluptuous means curvy and sexy (at least according to my dictionary)… many things (people, art, landscapes) can be voluptuous, not just fat women.  But these and other euphemisms for the fat female body are a problem if they keep us from truly accepting our bodies just as they are.  “Fat” will always have a particularly loaded meaning and power over us if we can’t find a way to reclaim it, if we choose to hide behind “curvy” and pretend that no one else can see our fat if we don’t say the word.

And really?  The need to justify one’s body by degrading the bodies of others (“REAL women have curves”) is just gross and pathetic.  Body acceptance means loving and accepting all bodies, regardless of shape or size (or gender, or color, or ability, etc.).  And who are you to say what a “real” woman is anyway?  Fuck that gender normativity.

The euphemism I hate the most, however, is BBW (or “big, beautiful woman”).  Mostly you’ll come across this word on dating sites—fat women will describe themselves as BBWs and it’s like code… men who prefer fat-bodied women will search for this word or specify it in their own ads: “BBWs ONLY please.  I don’t like them skinny/anorexic/stick types”.  (Again with the body negativity and thin-shaming!)

It is also used in certain corners of the fat community (in a entirely different fat “culture,” I would even venture to say) where fat women are seen as the ideal, and men (of all sizes) who prefer them (often called “chubby chasers”) can admire them.  In this corner of the fat world, FA doesn’t mean fat acceptance/activism—it means fat admirer.  Within this culture/lifestyle, there are BBW clubs, BBW porn sites, BBW conventions, etc.

Now, I would venture to say that the fat activist community is, at best, ambivalent about the world of BBWs and chasers.  I know that, at least earlier on, BBWs and chasers were very involved in fat rights and fat issues.  I also know that there has been a lot of  in-fighting (especially when it comes to the fringiest of fringe groups, weight gainers and their feeders). For whatever reason, though, there are not many people in the online communities that I frequent now (fat fashion, fat studies, fat activism) who identify as BBW.  I’m not sure if that’s because all of the BBWs and their chasers felt marginalized and went somewhere else, or if there really ARE some but they don’t speak out about it for fear of backlash from people who don’t understand the lifestyle.

Anyway, at the event Jessica and I attended, most of the women there seemed to be of the BBW persuasion—there was even a BBW night club doing some promotional raffling, along with the aforementioned photographer and her BBW porn site.  Although I’m all about fat people having “safe” spaces, as a fat activist I am not inclined to find these spaces helpful if they 1) don’t allow/accept the word “fat”, 2) reinforce an “us vs. them” mentality between fat people and non-fat people, and/or 3) cater to a group of people (typically heterosexual men) who fetishize fat and thus objectify (however unconsciously) the very people they purport to love.

And I’m not exactly sure where the line is drawn between a preference for fat partners and a fetish, but there IS a difference… I just don’t believe that too many of those people with a simple preference are the ones showing up at BBW conventions.  (Also, it should be noted that I once read a Yelp review about a BBW club in L.A. where one of the reviewers—a thin(ish) straight guy—recommended it to those who don’t mind sleeping with fat chicks and want an easy lay.  Do I even NEED to comment on how fucked up that is?).  I want to be clear that I’m not saying that every guy ever who has a preference for the fat female form is a gross, icky pervert.  I’ve just seen too many fat women, self-loathing and insecure, fall prey to the first person who embraces their bodies, even if that means objectifying themselves or performing their fatness in a way they wouldn’t otherwise—and THIS is where Big Hot Bombshells, the supposed “pinup” photography site, comes in.

While most of these women aren’t nude, the pictures featured on the main page are straight-up porn.  The women—all fat—suggestively grab at their bellies, which is apparently the most sexual body part in BBW porn (at least at BHB).  As with many porn sites, some of the women seem more “into” it, while others look kind of dead in the eyes.  I am a pro-porn, sex-positive feminist.  I think sex workers need a union and specialized health care and more safeguards in place to ensure their physical and emotional safety.  Expressing sexuality through pornography is a person’s right and not something that is inherently degrading, wrong, or sexist.  But it can be, and often is a lot of these things and more when the people involved end up in sex work because they have no other options, or because they think it will bring them validation and love.

I can’t speak for the girls of BHB or their motivations—I am sure many of them are there because they truly want to be, because they are confident in their sexuality and they want to share their sexy selves with the world.  Hell, some of them may really fucking love grabbing their bellies and jiggling them.  But part of me has to wonder how much of this performance comes from an insecure place, a place that aims to please chasers by putting the fat front and center, fetishizing and objectifying the fattest parts of the body because that’s what the chasers want to see.  What’s the emotional price these girls pay if all of their self-worth is in their size?  (This question is, of course, applicable to MANY situations and to girls of all sizes.)

I guess the most disconcerting thing is still that some of these women whom I met at the BHB recruitment event (again, totally NOT what we were led to believe the event was about) still can’t even say the word fat.  How body accepting can they really be?  If not confident, sexy fat women, what is BHB (and other BBW porn) really celebrating?  Does it help or hurt (or have absolutely nothing to do with) the goals of fat activism and body acceptance?  One of BHB’s sister sites, supersizedbombshells.com, features a woman who was in the news recently for declaring her desire to be 1000 lbs and immobile.  Her admirers send her gift certificates for food, and she takes pictures and videos of herself eating and growing.  The media responded predictably: disgusted, they (albeit briefly) made her the new poster child for the American “obesity epidemic,” giving fat haters even more ammunition, reinforcing fatness as a spectacle for all to perversely enjoy.

I’m still not entirely sure what to take away from this experience.  Jessica and I were (however briefly) invited into this little corner of the world, and were left with many mixed feelings and even more questions.

edited to ask:

What do you all think about the term BBW?  Do you think there’s a line between a preference for fat women and a fetish for them?  If you are a fat woman, do you feel that BBW porn represents your sexuality or how you would like to portray your sexuality?  Do you think the BBW subculture is empowering or marginalizing?  And, lastly, do you think any of this impacts the goals of FA?  If so, how?

Sara Rue hosts new CW weight loss show; continues to make me sad

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

So I was watching television this morning and Sara Rue’s latest Jenny Craig commercial came on.

I shouldn’t feel so personally affected by Sara Rue’s life choices.  I’m not the body police, I don’t get to say how people (especially celebrities living under immense pressure to be thin) should live their lives.  But Sara Rue is different.  Sara Rue is my homegirl.

I’m not old enough to really remember Roseanne, and the amazing things that show did for normalizing fat bodies, fat love, and working-class people in general.  I was under 10 during the show’s heyday, and spent most of my TV-watching time with The Animaniacs and Are You Afraid of the Dark?.  I wasn’t even really old enough to realize that I was fat, or that I needed fat people on TV to identify with.  But then I hit 6th grade, and the size of my body and my experiences within it really started to shape how I viewed the world.  In the fall of 1999, my last year of middle school, the show Popular debuted on The WB.  Pretty much any fat girl my age in the U.S. knows why this was a big deal: Carmen Ferrara (Sara Rue), best friend to lead character Sam McPherson (Carly Pope), was fatPopular, not Roseanne, was really my first introduction to bodies like mine on television.

Of course Carmen had a lot of body issues, and much of her character development had her succeeding in spite of her fatness (i.e. getting on the cheer squad, dating the hot jock, etc.), which was all sorts of problematic… but at the time, for 14-year-old me, it was downright revolutionary.  (Not to mention that Sara Rue was—and still is—all sorts of hot, which totally blew my mind: fat girls could be sexy!)

Anyway, I was watching the new Jenny Craig commercial, where Sara gushes about how happy she is that she’s lost 50 lbs. and Joe could hear my grumbles from across the room. “Is that a commercial for her new weight loss show?” he asked.

“Her what?!”

Really, I don’t know why I was so surprised.  Naturally, I hopped on good ol’ google and discovered that Joe was right: Sara Rue will be hosting her own CW reality show in the fall.  “Shedding for the Wedding” is a biggest-loser style show for engaged couples, who must lose weight in order to win the wedding of their dreams.

UGH.

GAG ME WITH A SPOON.

I know it shouldn’t affect me, but “losing” Sara Rue to this bullshit is kind of deflating, if only momentarily so.  I guess it’s just yet another reminder to keep on fighting the good fight.

BRB, gonna go outside and be fat and happy in public.

I don’t have to explain my fat to you

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

When I was 21 I studied abroad in Rome for three months as part of my university’s Italian language studies program.  Because I was studying Italian language and culture, I was assigned to live with a host family (instead of in campus housing), which in my case meant a cantankerous little old lady named Paola who spoke almost no English… which would have been fine (I was there to learn Italian, after all!), except that Paola thought she was SUPER FANTASTIC at speaking English, which usually meant that all of our conversations ended in her screaming at me (in Italian) that I didn’t understand anything.

But Paola is a story for another time.  This is about my fat.

When I first arrived at Termini train station, I met up with the rest of my cohort and, one-by-one, we were picked up by our families.  When Paola laid eyes on me, she smiled big (or was it a grimace?  I can hardly remember) and said “Ciao Margitte!  Come stai?” (hello, how are you?) and then immediately said about five other things that were well above my Italian 101 knowledge.  She helped me cram my (laughably oversized) bags into her teensy car, and we zipped off to her apartment in San Giovanni.  After a traumatizing experience with her elevator (it wouldn’t fit the two of us with my luggage), she showed me to my room and I took a nap.

I awoke three hours later to the smell of delicious Italian cooking.  Paola excitedly ushered me into her itsy-bitsy kitchen and sat me on a rickety chair in front of my dinner.

Which consisted of three plates of food.

THREE plates of food.

Now I had learned that it was customary in Italy to eat a lot of food at dinner, but Paola herself only had one plate.  Not wanting to be rude, I smiled, said “Grazie,” and proceeded to try and eat as much of the food as possible.  At a plate and a half in, I just couldn’t eat anymore.  “Mi dispiace, ma non ho fame.”  My Italian was pretty shaky, but I basically said that I was sorry but I wasn’t hungry.

“Mangia!” (eat!), she insisted.  But I couldn’t, and Paola was shocked.

“Ma… come mai sei cosi grassata*?”

“Grassata” was not yet in my vocabulary, so I couldn’t answer.  She just kept asking, over and over, “but how come you are so….?”, growing increasingly aggravated with my puzzled looks.

Then came the hand motions.  “GRASSATA!!!” She exclaimed, making a curvy shape with her hands while giving herself a double-chin and sucking in air to make her face look bloated.  She then grabbed her chunk of her belly.  “Grassata!”

I finally realized what she was asking, but went to get my dictionary just in case I was imagining things.  Horrified, I found out that I was right—she really had decided that asking me why I was fat was an appropriate topic of conversation (*the actual Italian word for fat is “grassa”… “grassata” literally means “greased” but is often used to describe fat people, from what I understand).  I shrugged and said “Non lo so” (I don’t know) and tried to leave it at that.

Over the next few days, Paola badgered me about why I was so fat, growing more and more frustrated when she realized I didn’t eat a whole lot and that I was fairly active.

One night during that first week, I had a friend (who just so happened to be vacationing in Rome at the time) over for dinner.  This time, Paola decided to ask Lauren why I was so fat.  Was I lying about my eating habits?  Did I really exercise?  Lauren and I were, I think, equally horrified at this line of questioning.  Then Lauren had the bright idea to take out the dictionary and look for the word “thyroid”.

“Tiroide!” I exclaimed, pointing to it in the dictionary.

Amazingly and suddenly, Paola was satisfied.  All was right in the world, because it finally made sense to her WHY my fat body was so fat—because I had a bad thyroid.  (In later years I would come to find out that I did not actually have said problem with my thyroid, but that is also another story.)

~

I’m not sure how often other fat people are asked by others about the how’s and why’s of their particular fatness, but I do know how often I’ve felt compelled to explain it to people even when they haven’t asked.  Fat hate being as rampant as it is, we fatties often find ourselves in the position of defending ourselves against the stereotype.  You know the one—the one that goes “fat people are ‘x’” and here ‘x’ can be anything as long as it’s negative (lazy, stupid, smelly, slow, unkempt, compulsive, weak-willed, gluttonous, unhealthy, etc.); indeed ‘x’ is often all of these things and more.  Prior to coming to body acceptance, it is usually a fat person’s only way to be okay with him or herself: “Yes I’m fat but at least I’m not ‘x’.”

Generally, we are vindicated (or at least feel “safer”) if we can “prove” our fatness is the result of something outside of our control (i.e. genetic predisposition toward a certain body type or a certain amount of adipose tissue, or a non-“obesity”-related disease or illness that causes fatness).  If we can prove that our fatness is not because of ‘x’, we can at least be “good” in our fatness.

There are many reasons why this type of thinking is poisonous, not only for our own bodies but for the bodies of other fat people, as well.  The painful divisiveness of the good fatty/bad fatty dichotomy is discussed very frequently within FA, and not nearly enough in the general public sphere.

Last Spring I was waiting for the bus with a friend from my grad program.  We were talking about fat.  He (a thin athlete and vegan) came to the conversation with all sorts of assumptions about fat bodies and health; similarly, I came to the conversation with all sorts of assumptions about his assumptions based on my knowledge of his lifestyle choices.  That being said, we had an interesting conversation, which ended with me explaining that I often feel pressured to be a “good” fat in order to be taken seriously within an academic context.

“It does lend you a certain credibility,” he admitted.

I didn’t like the implication of this statement, in part because it confirmed my fears and because it even implied that he might not take me seriously if I exhibited stereotypically “fat” behaviors or if I were to become ill with some sort of “obesity”-related disease.  If I had type II diabetes, for example, would the importance of my work in fat studies be any less important?  Would my claims of discrimination and call for better representations of fat bodies in popular culture be less legitimate if I sat around and ate Cheetos all day?

According to him, it seemed the answer might be yes.

UGH.

How is it okay to say that only “healthy” fat people who exercise and eat “right” deserve to be respected?  To see better images of themselves reflected in the media?  To have equal access to health care?  To sit in a damn seat on an airplane and not have to worry about the arm digging into their sides so much it makes them want to cry (this is of course from personal experience) or that they’ll be asked to leave the plane or buy an extra seat for “safety” precautions (the experience of Kevin Smith and many others)?  The answer is that it’s not.

So I implore you—you, me, fat people everywhere (and especially those beautiful girls posting over at FYCB—to resist the urge to “explain” your fatness.  Not only because these questions further divide us, but because they are, in and of themselves, incredibly problematic, embedded in a notion that we somehow can (and should) rid the world of fat bodies.

Every time you feel compelled to explain your fatness, you are participating (whether consciously or not) in a socially-sanctioned conversation about your fat body that is ultimately about “obesity” researchers’ bottom line: eradicating fatness.

I know that seems a bit harsh, but stay with me for a moment while I appeal to work by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (herself a fat woman) about a different oppressed group: the gay community.

In “Axiomatic,” Sedgwick argues that conversations about the “origins” of gayness—essentially the nature vs. nurture debate—are very problematic because the desire to know how or why people are gay is really about the desire to “cure” gayness.  If, for example, people are gay because they “choose” to be, the cure is super simple: just decide not to be gay.  Gay-hatin’ straights can do their part to encourage this by making the world a super inhospitable place for people who choose to be gay (yay discrimination and hate crimes.  Not.).  If we decide that gayness is “caused” by certain childhood experiences or certain child-rearing practices, we can just work to ensure those environmental factors (“nurture”) don’t happen.  If most gay people are themselves correct, and they are actually born this way, then by golly the “cure” is a lot harder but researchers sure are working their asses off trying to find the “gay gene”.  Can you imagine what might happen when and if they find this rainbow-magic gene?  Can you guess?  Because I bet it ends with preventing gay children from being born.

A similar line of thinking happens in conversations about the origins of fatness.  If we are fat because of our own behavior, just change the behavior (so says the multi-billion-dollar diet & exercise industry).  Choose to be thin.  If we are fat because of some other environmental experiences (childhood trauma, “bad” parenting, school lunches and vending machines, bullying, etc. and so on), then stop those things from happening.  If it’s genetic, spend billions and billons of dollars to find the fat gene, or some sort of drug that will alter our biology in order to make us thin.  In the end, it really is all about making fat people thin people…  which is really just about getting rid of fat people.  End of story.  Can you imagine what happens if they find “the fat gene” (as if there is only one)?  Because I bet it ends with preventing fat children from being born.

Every time you feel the need to explain your fatness, you buy into this system.

But it’s so damn hard not to.  I get that.  Part of the reason is because, within the genetic argument, non-normative bodies are begrudgingly granted basic human rights provided that they are the way they are because they can’t “help” it.  If it’s not our fault, then others have to at least tolerate our existence.  Indeed, this is sometimes the only way for oppressed groups to be included in laws that protect them from discrimination.

Implicit in this is the assumption, first of all, that if we could, we would naturally choose to be “normal” (aka thin, or straight, or white, or whatever).  When we have to “explain” our non-normativity, there is no room for us to make the powerful statement that we want to be this way.

Why am I not allowed to want to be fat?

~

Someone once asked me what I would say if given the chance to tell the whole world just one thing I wanted them to know about fatness.  At the time, I said that I wished that everyone knew that fat does NOT equal “unhealthy”.  While I still think this is incredibly important for people to know, in part because it has the potential to radically alter not only the medical community or the diet & exercise industry, but also the individual lives of people who have body fat (so… everyone), I don’t know that this is what I would say now if given the chance.

What I’m doing with my activism, and what I’m accomplishing in my grad work, cannot just be a fight to be seen as “healthy” or “good” or “genetically predisposed”.  It has to be a fight for all fat people, regardless of how or why they are fat, to be seen as people, period.  A fight for fatties to be acknowledged as having a multiplicity of identities, medical histories, eating habits, behaviors, childhoods, personal tastes and preferences, and life experiences.  A fight to obliterate any notion of the fat experience as any one particular thing, to end the need to justify our existence or prove that we are not “stereotypically fat”.  Rather than dividing us into groups of “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”, “genetically fat” or “behaviorally fat”, we need to be understood as people who are just fat, end of discussion.

There are so many people who can be on board with FA or other fat-positive principles, provided the fat person in question is healthy, or “tries not to be fat,” or is conventionally attractive (and thus curvy or voluptuous or even “chubby not fat”).  Fuck that.

I’m done with trying to please these people.  And you should be, too.

For more information on divisive identity politics, eliminating “health” from the discussion of fatness, and other things I’ve talked about here, check out these fantastic blog posts:

Tasha Fierce’s “Fat As I Wanna Be”, Snarky’s Machine’s “You Are My Sisters”, The Rotund’s “Second Verse, Same as the First; Fat Acceptance is for Everyone” and Fatshionista’s “Q&A: On dressing femme, being a ‘bad fat’, and changing the FA blogosphere