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Love comes in all sizes: An exploration of fat sexuality, part I

Posted by Alex Pearlman  February 25, 2012 05:35 PM

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couple kissing adipositivity.jpgBy Janssen McCormick

“Nothing will give you a soft-on faster than body shame,” said Substantia Jones, a photographer and the mind behind The Adipositivity Project, her voice flowing out of my phone's speaker as we discuss fat sexuality. “Over 60 billion is spent in the U.S. every year creating and re-enforcing body shame. In effect, a big hunk of Corporate America is trying to keep you from getting laid.”

Think she's not on point? Try to remember the last time you saw a fat person presented as the object of desire in any media (Lulu Diamonds doesn't count). And if you are fat, like the majority of Americans, or have a preference for a fat partner (spoiler alert: I'm one of those people), it sucks to not see bodies like yours or your type in media unless they're being denigrated.

A preference for a fat partner or being fat is no more a fetish than wanting yourself or a partner to have blonde hair or Ryan Gosling's everything. It's a common statement for most fat people or people who prefer fat partners that their sexuality is no different from someone who prefers thin partners. Self-styled “fierce fat girl” Virgie Tovar -- also an award-winning writer with a master’s in human sexuality -- recognizes that it's difficult to separate fat sexuality from sexuality full-stop. “[Fat]'s not something I pull out from my sexuality,” she said.

“There's a sense in our mainstream culture that sex is a reward you get for doing it right,” said author Hanne Blank. But because fatness is perceived as failure in mainstream culture, there's a “cognitive disconnect between the way our culture regards sex as something you have to earn and deserve and the fat body,” she said.

Tovar, on the other hand, believes our culture casts fat as a moral issue. "It goes back to the WASP ideal that is both aesthetic and cultural and still prevalent today,” she said. “A city like San Francisco is known for being progressive and less religious but is pretty religious about body size."

That ideal helps explain why, despite fat being the norm for so many Americans, the body type is virtually absent from media, and the aforementioned disconnect is something Blank has addressed for two decades, beginning with her editorship at fat-positive 'zine Zaftig in the mid-'90s. At Zaftig, Blank laid the groundwork for her landmark sex guide for people of size, recently re-issued as Big Big Love Revised: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them), in which she tackles issues ranging from the bedroom to the physicians table with considerable verve and takes down a slate of fat myths.

“There’s this whole mythos about the fat body that it's uniformly unattractive, that nobody wants to be around or have these bodies,” Blank said, “and it's simply not true.”

Of course, it's not all positive in a world where women's bodies, especially fat women's bodies, are often treated as public domain. On the advice blog Ask a Guy who likes Fat Chicks, most of the questions are from people wondering where to meet people who'll unconditionally like their bodies and how to deal with body image issues.

Somerville resident Sophie Luke-Hall, 26, is still working through the body issues she's accumulated over the years. Describing her high school as “super-duper white bread,” Luke-Hall said that “the ‘popular’ guys would either get their friends to ask me out or ask me out themselves, ask me to dances, or just try to flat-out hook up with me.” But those same guys hitting on her outside of school would turn around and insult her body in the hallways. “There was a very clear difference in how they actually felt about how I looked versus how they thought they ‘should’ treat me in public,” Luke-Hall said.

Her story speaks to a painfully common type of guy on the fringes of the fat community: Browse a page or two of the Ask a Guy blog, and you'll find the term “closeted” thrown around quite a bit. Some people with a preference for fat partners -- according to Blank, the concept is almost exclusively the domain of heterosexual white males guarding the privilege their “normalcy” gives them (think Larry Craig or Paul Babeu) -- respond to fat-hate by hiding their attraction from friends and family. It’s pathetic, sure, but it’s especially irksome when people in the closet hurt the people they desire by acting on their desires, then hiding the person from their friends.

For Luke-Hall, the near-constant harassment led to severe body image issues and an eating disorder that landed her in the hospital. Tovar, too, spoke of a similar struggle: “I've had about two or three bouts of near-starvation, one of which resulted in me getting scurvy, if you can believe that,” she said. Both women were surprised to discover after their weight loss that, as Tovar said, “there was not a noticeable difference in terms of the number of people who were interested.”

Tovar’s observation underscores an important point: “You attract what you want,” she said. “When a person does not feel like they deserve a voice, they will consistently attract [liars and bad people], regardless of their size.”

And the idea of voice speaks to factors too often ignored in discussions of fatness and health, namely mental and sexual health. When fat women are made to feel they must live in the future, that they must conform to an ideal before they can have a voice in everyday life and the bedroom, they experience a sense of disembodiment.

“If a person enters a sexual situation where they feel they're at a disadvantage,” Tovar said -- and studies of condom negotiation among low-income women back her statement up -- “they're less likely to negotiate their needs in terms of pleasure and health.”

Weight is not indicative of physical health; research shows that bodies have different set points. Health at every size is more valid than fatphobia, which “doesn't do anything but make people less healthy,” Tovar said, in every aspect of life. A healthy sex life is a right, not a privilege earned once your body meets someone else’s standards.

“If you're putting off having the kind of sex you desire until you've attained the unattainable, you're cheating yourself,” Jones said. “A happy, fulfilling sex life is a vital element in anyone's health and well-being. It makes me sad when people think they don't deserve it.”

Want to know more about fat sexuality? Part II will be posted tomorrow afternoon.

Welcome to TNGG’s third annual Sex Week! Check back to TNGG Boston all week for more stories about sex, love, relationships, and dating in Boston, and visit our main site for more material from the rest of our community.

Photo courtesy of The Adipositivity Project

About Janssen -- I'm a public school teacher and music critic. I also teach adult ESL classes through a volunteer organization in Boston's Chinatown. So right off the bat you can guess my progressive bent in areas of education and immigration policy. Beyond the political, I've been attending DIY shows since I was 14 or so, getting heavily involved in Boston's metal scene. I've also been a subject of a 'Village Voice' cover story, which was sort of fun in a "through the looking glass" sort of way.

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