By Marléna Ahearn
When reading Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture by Amy Erdman Farrell I couldn’t let go of the brief discussion of about “fat admirers.” Fat admirers, or “FA’s” as a concept, is introduced by a fat woman’s companion and is problematically depicted as “being out” as a FA. In this chapter, E. Smith (the self-described FA) explains how his affinity for fat women came from his time in the military when he would read fat-accepting magazines with nude and semi-nude photos of fat women and fat-positive articles. He found that other men also appreciated nude fat women, but there was shame in that appreciation. Men didn’t want other men to know that they could possibly be attracted to fat women. It’s also discussed that these FA’s often target fat women and abuse them or insist that women in their lives gain more weight for their own fascination. So, while fat women surely deserve love and appreciation, the concept of fat admirers makes me incredibly uneasy.
The idea of fat admirers and fat fetishes as a result of exposure to fat nudity is troubling. On the one hand fat women should indeed be represented as beautiful, sexy, acceptable, civilized, and normally—not as a “brave” action. Unfortunately, the media panopticon that reinforces thin as beautiful, sexy, and ideal, and the medical and diet industries, are hell-bent on distributing the message (and the various “remedies” for): fat is bad, unhealthy, and ugly. With these two defining ideals in our society, I feel very strongly that representation of fat women is incredibly necessary—and portraying women of all weights, heights, races, and identities as acceptable and sexy can only help heal the psyches of women who have been beaten down and told their bodies aren’t good enough. Feeling comfortable, happy, and sexy in one’s own body shouldn’t be a thin privilege. All women should feel good in their bodies and feel respected, no matter what body they materialize in. Fat fetishization is not the answer.
Unfortunately, because we also live in a culture that sexualizes women, no matter who they are or what they look like, the fetishization of non-white, non-thin, not conventionally beautiful women occurs. Fetishization has a fear/shame/dirty component to it that increases the appeal for men and women and further dehumanizes fat bodies. For that reason, I can’t accept the idea that at least some people appreciate and find fat sexy. We’ve talked several times about Sara Baartman, whose genitalia were removed from her body after she was studied and fetishized her whole life. In popular culture, we celebrate black women with big butts, the “slim-thick” physique of Instagram models, even the Kardashians. But I don’t believe that we actually value these people and their bodies. They are fetishized and dehumanized to a point that everyone views them through the lens of the male gaze and we worship them. Well, we worship their bodies. So the fat admirers and BBW-fetishizers are not doing a service to fat women by loving them or finding them attractive—they are further perpetuating fat as sub-human, uncivilized, taboo, and wrong.
Another facet to the idea of the apparent fat admirer culture is abuse. Certainly, I don’t mean to suggest all men and women who find fat women attractive are abusers. Farrell briefly discusses how there are fat admirers who treat their companions like they should be grateful that anyone finds them attractive at all. There is also a thread of FA’s physically, mentally, and/or emotionally abusing fat women because they consider them easy targets. In The Fat Studies Reader, Tracy Royce talks about violence against women and how batterers exercise fat phobia through domestic violence on their fat partners. In the same collection, Ariane Prohaska and Jeannine Gailey discuss the concept of “hogging” and fat women as easy targets. Hogging, is the practice where men prey on fat or unattractive women for sexual favors, often making a game of it with their friends. Truly repulsive.
From my experience, I’ve come to understand that when someone’s self-esteem is low or they have previously been exposed to abuse (abuse by mainstream media or society included) they are more vulnerable and drawn into abusive relationships. To be very clear, not all fat women have low self-esteem or are in unhealthy relationships. But, the apparent trend of abusers in FA culture is disheartening and repulsive. Targeting fat women, sexually or otherwise, because they are presumably desperate for attention and love is unacceptable.
I’ve witnessed and experienced both of these strange behaviors. On dating apps men have been far more sexually aggressive in their communication in comparison to the messages my thin friends receive. Because these dating apps go strictly off looks and the pictures you post, the only explanation is the weird sexualization and fetishization of fat women. In relationships, I’ve seen men experience embarrassment for dating someone fatter than what they deem acceptable. Even in high school, when I was not exactly fat, but labelled “curvier” than most, I experienced boys more interested in pursuing sex than relationships. This trend has trickled into my early twenties with men on dating apps and in person treating me as a sexual object, rather than a person. Objectification is a serious and very real problem for all women, but it is particularly troubling for fat women because of the added shame/fetish trope.
Attention, love, and sexuality should not be a rare prize for fat women, and FA culture seems to perpetuate that. However well-meaning or honest some FA’s might be in their appreciation of or lust for fat women there is an underlying inequality that can damage the relationship from the beginning. Fetishization in any form is not a basis for a healthy sexual/intimate relationship. Instead of a small FA culture of men, a shift needs to happen so fat is not seen as mutually exclusive from sexy and beautiful. In understanding how fat and health aren’t a causal relationship and in showing fat bodies in empowering, sexy—not sexualized and objectified—in mainstream media, I think we could start to change how fat women are viewed. Fat women deserve respect and value as much as any other person, but FA’s aren’t the answer.