On the fringe: Fat countercultures and a BBW club

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

This is a follow-up post to my other post about BBW culture, and Jessica’s latest about our experience at a San Diego BBW night club.  For those with no time to re-read, here’s the long story short: Jessica and I wrote about our negative experience at what ended up being a recruitment event for BBW porn.  The women involved in “The Community” (as it is called by them) ended up reading both of our blog posts, and there were some hurt feelings.  Nevertheless, we were invited out to one of their club nights in San Diego (I know, I know, cue the pig’s blood, right?)—with some reservations, I went with Jessica, and… we ended up having a fantastic time.

Previously, I wrote that:

[…] most of the women [at the porn site recruitment event] 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.

After being invited to the BBW club and experiencing a super fun night of dancing with a bunch of beautiful fat chicks, my stance remains relatively unchanged. After talking to a few of the women there on Sunday night, I deduced the following:

  1. While the word “fat” is not totally unacceptable, it is certainly not embraced.  It still holds a lot of negative power over people here, which is why they prefer being called “big” (as in Big Beautiful Women) to fat.  Marianne Kirby recently wrote an amazeballs post about the importance of using fat over other euphemisms, which sums up my opinion on the matter perfectly.
  2. If there is an “us vs. them” mentality here, it’s most likely unintentional.  I didn’t hear anyone dissing on skinny chicks, nor did I hear any weird platitudes about “real women”… but this doesn’t change the fact that this kind of language is used on their flyers (“where skinny jeans aren’t allowed”).  I’m not inclined to say that JUST because a safe space exists for fat people and fat people alone (give or take a few thin “fat admirers”) it MUST be divisive.  Again, “safe” spaces are super important, especially when someone lives in a culture that constantly devalues their existence.  Many other oppressed groups turn to similar kinds of “safe” or private spaces for support and community building.  I get that.  I just don’t think the process of turning to these spaces for support should reinforce an “us against the world” mentality—THAT does not help anything, does not foster understanding between groups, does not lead to a world where we can coexist happily and peacefully.
  3. While the BBW porn site certainly caters to those who fetishize and objectify fatness, the club itself DEFINITELY caters to fat women who just want to have a good, sexy time.  That’s awesome.  YES there are some self-described “fat admirers” there, but that doesn’t take away from the amazingness that is walking into a room full of fat bodies having a great time and loving life.  THAT was overwhelming (in a good way), and I’d give my left tit to have something like that available to me that isn’t associated with the BBW “lifestyle”.
  4. Some people are really, really mad at us for expressing our opinions and criticisms about the website and BBW culture at large.  Many people’s feelings were hurt.  It was kinda like being back in high school—you know all those scenes in the movies where the girl that everyone hates (for whatever reason) shows up at the big dance anyway and people look at her like “WHAT IS SHE DOING HERE, OMG”?  It was like that.

Despite all of this, I had fun.  Jess and I danced, drank super cheap drinks, and *someone* (not naming names) may have walked away with a phone number or two.  Some of the women there (including the owner of the club) were super nice, and even seemed to agree with some of our criticisms.  But they were all super protective of the porn site, perhaps because many of them modeled for it.

People accused us of “looking down” on them, for trying to force body acceptance on them.  Dude, it’s totally true that a woman of any size can do porn and still hate herself, for whatever reason.  It happens often.  I don’t “look down” on women who are made to feel bad about themselves, I feel sad.  Not pity, just sadness.  Because I’ve been that girl before.  I haven’t done porn, but I’ve done stupid shit to get people to like me (to get guys to like me).  I’ve projected a self-confident facade when inside all I wanted was to be someone else.  What bothers me about a lot of BBW porn is that it actively plays on the insecurities of fat women, often portraying (and playing into) the worst stereotypes about what it means to be fat.  As Jessica pointed out, this particular site and its sister sites have videos you can pay to watch like “BBW attempting to walk upstairs”—this video (at least what is insinuated by the title) is intended to titillate the type of person who gets off on a fat person’s inability to perform what is considered a “normal” task.  If that is not dehumanizing, I don’t know what it.

I am not mad at the woman in the video.  I am mad at a culture that fosters this kind of attitude toward fat bodies.  I am mad at whatever societal forces pushed these women toward this kind of fat performance.  A response from one of the models to these objections?  “But that’s what the viewers want to see.”  Not “but I LIKE doing this” or “doing this gets me off”—the excuse was “but that’s what people want me to do”.  And that makes me SO SAD.  AND MAD.

~

Recently I read an article by communication scholar Catherine Squires titled “Rethinking the Black Public Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary for Multiple Public Spheres”.  In it, Squires uses examples from the African-American public sphere(s) to explore the various forms oppressed groups’ spaces take and the various conditions under which these specific types of groups form.  The three types of groups she names—the enclave, the counter-public, and the satellite—perfectly map onto what is happening today in fat-positive counterculture.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll include the helpful diagrams from the text and say this: FA (what I do: fat activism, body acceptance for all, fat rights work, etc.) is sometimes an enclave, and sometimes a counter-public.  BBW culture (much like the Amish, or Black Separatists in Liberia) is much closer to a satellite group.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in theory, it’s just not for me.  And, just like religious extremists can give well-meaning religious folks a bad name, BBW culture can (but certainly does not always) negatively affect FA’s fight to be taken seriously, to be considered equals, to be treated fairly.

Enclave Publics (Squires, 2002, p. 458):

Counterpublics (Squires, 2002, p. 460):

Satellite Publics (Squires, 2002, p. 464):

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?