My first love went to art school, and early in our courtship he invited me to a student show of his photography. Haunting photographs hung on the walls, a ghostly kind of self-portrait of his changing body. He had started testosterone shortly before we met, and the double-exposed photos seemed to show his body as a specter as the hormones took root.
We lived two states away from each other and on the weekends would meet in the middle in Boston, spending long days together. He wrote me letters nearly every day, and I responded like clockwork. His love letters landed like a blow, knocking the wind out of me. I wrote back on thick paper, sometimes sprayed with perfume. He put the letters up around his bedroom mirror. You say such nice things about me. I figure if I keep looking at them, I’ll start to believe it.
Over time our Boston rendezvous turned into weekends at his apartment. We would lie together in his tiny bed and daydream of my postgraduation move to Boston. I started researching jobs, and he started looking for apartments.
But every time I imagined our future, I couldn’t imagine myself. This beautiful life belonged to someone else, and he deserved someone better. Someone easier, prettier, cooler, and, of course, someone thinner.
I have always been fat.
Not chubby or fluffy or husky or curvy — fat. As I write this, I weigh 342 pounds and wear a women’s size 26. My body mass index (BMI) describes my body as “super morbidly obese” or “extremely obese.” Although my body is not the fattest in existence, it is the fattest the BMI can fathom. Three years ago, I weighed just over 400 pounds and wore a size 30 or 32, depending on the cut of the clothing. At my high school graduation, I wore a red wrap top in the highest size I could find at the time—a women’s 24.
For me, the size of my body is a simple fact. I do not struggle with self-esteem or negative body image. I do not lie awake at night, longing for a thinner body or some life that lies 100 pounds out of reach. For me, my body isn’t good or bad; it just is.
But I had never seen a fat woman in love — not in life, not in the media. I had never seen fat women who dated. I had never seen fat women who asserted themselves, whose partners respected them. Because this was uncharted territory, I assumed it was also unexplored. My risk-taking resolution ebbed from my broad, soft body. How could he love me if it meant loving this?
Despite having what was described as a “very pretty face,” I was constantly reminded that my body was impossible to want. We were dating at the height of popularity of sites like Hot or Not and TV shows like The Swan. Everywhere I looked, bodies were openly critiqued and ranked, and mine steadily landed near the bottom of the scale — 2, 3, 4. His thinness alone earned him a much higher standing. In the cruel calculus of dating and relationships, our numbers didn’t match.
But it wasn’t just him. I had learned that I was undesirable to almost everyone. For years, my body took center stage in my dating life. Dates constantly commented on my size, a knee-jerk reaction to their discomfort with their own desire. Over time, I came to experience any attraction as untrustworthy, as if danger lurked nearby. In retrospect, I worried for my bodily safety, as if only violence could develop an appetite for a body as soft as mine. And I worried that I would become a sexual curio, more novel than loved.
Desire for a body like mine meant my partners were irrational, stupid, or resigned to settling for less than they wanted. In the years since my first breakup, I had struggled to accept interest where I found it. No matter how a potential partner looked, no matter how enthusiastic they were, I couldn’t trust their attraction. I shrank from their touch, recoiling from their hands like hot iron, believing their interest to be impossible or pathological. Any intimacy required vulnerability, and vulnerability inevitably led back to humiliation.
This is among the greatest triumphs of anti-fatness: It stops us before we start. Its greatest victory isn’t diet industry sales or lives postponed just until I lose a few more pounds. It’s the belief that our bodies make us so worthless that we aren’t deserving of love, or even touch.
As these little fissures opened into wounds, I dressed them by retelling the story of our relationship. It had always been impossible, too beautiful and tender to be true. Maybe he had taken pity on me, doing a charitable deed by showing affection to a pitiable fat girl. I told myself he didn’t want to be with me. I told myself he was too gentle to do what he knew needed to be done and dump me. I told myself the best thing I could do for him was leave. So I did.
I didn’t know how to be loved. I couldn’t see it happening. So I broke both of our hearts.
Later in my 20s, after briefly dating a friend of a friend, I decided to return to dating apps. I was on Bumble for less than a day when I matched with someone. I sent him a message — just a waving-hand emoji, to see how he’d respond. This was the informal first step of my screening process. He didn’t make it to the second.
I said hello. He said: I love my women fat. Big girl usually means a big mouth too. Even a nice handjob is better when there’s a chubby hand doing the work lol. Usually bigger girls are better at pleasing their men though.
Welcome to dating apps.
Like any woman, I’d come to expect explicit photos, unwanted advances, and, when I dared decline, epithets. But I also faced messages like these, tinged with entitlement to my fat body — a body that they expected was theirs for the taking simply because of the size of it. In their eyes, I wasn’t a new land to conquer. No, I would go willingly, grateful for their conquest.
But more than that, this message mirrored so many experiences I’d had before. It echoed fraternity brothers’ “hogging” competitions to bed fat women, their “pig roasts” to see who could sleep with the fattest woman, the endless barrage of fat jokes on TV. It echoed the man in a bar who asked me for my number, face kind and expectant, before retreating to his friends to report back on their dare: He’d gotten the fattest girl’s number. It echoed the formerly fat date who’d complimented me on my confidence, told me he “used to be like that, until I realized I wanted anyone to fuck me ever,” then asked me back to his place. It echoed the concerns from family and friends, dangling the promise of a loving, healthy relationship at a lower weight: I just want you to find someone.
Then, on top of all that, messages like these. Messages that received my body like tissue: plentiful, accessible, disposable, trash. Fat people aren’t the only ones who live with the repercussions of anti-fatness in our relationships. Those messages also land hard with people who date us, love us, marry us, sleep with us. They get trapped, too. After all, in our cultural scripts, a fat partner is a failure at best, a shameful, pathological fetish at worst. Desiring fat people is something deviant to be hidden, to find shame in, to closet.
But the data and research around sexuality paint a wholly different picture. In A Billion Wicked Thoughts, computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam analyzed history’s largest data bank on pornography viewers. They found that regardless of gender and sexual orientation, porn searches for fat bodies significantly outpaced searches for thin bodies. In fact, fat porn was the 16th most popular category, outranking categories like “anal sex” (18), “group sex” (24), “fellatio” (28), and “skinny” (30).
“For every search for a ‘skinny’ girl,” they wrote, “there are almost three searches for a ‘fat’ girl.”
Despite being surrounded by women of all sizes, viewers opted instead to drive their desire into safe, siloed, and one-sided experiences, away from the prying eyes of the world around them.
While Ogas and Gaddam’s research speaks only to sexual desire (not romantic attraction or aspirations), it certainly indicates that our cultural scripts around size and desire — that is, that thin people are inherently desirable and fat people are categorically undesirable — are rooted more in perception than in research. The findings in A Billion Wicked Thoughts point to the idea that fat bodies may be among the most widely desired, but that desire may be repressed, possibly due to pervasive stigma.
Many men who are attracted to fat women find ways to express that desire while sheltering themselves from judgment and stigma including secret sexual relationships with fat women, too afraid or disgusted to elevate those encounters to full-fledged relationships. In “Secret Relationships With Fat Women,” Virgie Tovar recounted the patterns of one such relationship of her own. “Everything was intimate and magical when we were alone, and then all of a sudden it would stop being that. I would go from being a charmingly eccentric bohemian to being a monstrously crass bother.”
When attraction to fat people is discussed, fetishism is never far behind. Fetishism isn’t in itself necessarily pathological; fetishes can be as simple as consensual kinks, particularly intense attractions, or simple preferences. But when fetishism is brought up with respect to fat attraction, it gathers like a storm cloud.
To be clear, there are attractions to fatness that take such specific forms that they are undeniably fetishistic. Feeders, for example, long to feed their “feedees,” deriving pleasure from watching their fat partner eat and, in some cases, from watching them gain more and more weight. Squash fetishes, on the other hand, indicate a desire to be sat on or pinned beneath their partner’s body.
Some fat people happily engage with these fetishes and find fulfillment (or paid work) in their role. Some do not. But many fat people have felt fetishism thrust upon them without their consent.
Fat fetishism has deep roots for many fat people, especially fat women. For some, size, desire, shame, and sex are a rat’s nest, hopelessly entangled. People who internalize anti-fat stereotypes — including the pervasive cultural belief that fat people are categorically unattractive or unlovable — are more likely to binge eat, as are survivors of sexual assault. Fat acceptance spaces frequently include heartbreaking stories of people whose partners kept their relationships secret. Worse still, some tell stories about working up the courage to share their experiences of sexual assault only to be categorically disbelieved. Given the pervasiveness of their experiences, is it any wonder that some fat people come to experience anyone else’s desire for them as predatory?
Of course, not all fat people have lived these sex and relationship horror stories. But many of us have become so acculturated to them that we come to describe the vast majority of fat attraction as fat fetishism. When fat sex and dating are discussed, there’s rarely room for simple attraction. But thin people are frequently attracted to other thin people without garnering suspicion of fetishism. They may find themselves drawn to brown-haired people, muscle-bound bodies, or tall partners. They can speak freely of the physical characteristics they like best: chiseled jawlines, long hair, slim legs. In the world of thin people, these are types, a physical attraction so universal that it is neutral.
Everyone, we are told, has a type. But if a thin person is reliably attracted to fat people, that type curdles and becomes something less trustworthy: a fetish. Fat people are so categorically undesirable, we’re told, that any attraction to us must speak to a darker urge or some unchecked appetite.
I reject the notion that fat attraction is necessarily a fetish: something deviant, tawdry, vulgar, or dangerous. I choose to believe that my body is worthy of love — the electric warmth of real, full love. In many ways, it’s not that simple. But in some ways, it is. I choose to believe that I am lovable, as is my body, just as both are today.
I believe that I deserve to be loved in my body, not in spite of it. My body is not an inconvenience, a shameful fact, or an unfortunate truth. Desiring my body is not a pathological act. And I’m not alone. Despite the never-ending headwinds, fat people around the world find and forge the relationships they want. There is no road map, so we become cartographers, charting some new land for ourselves.
We live extraordinary lives, beloved by our families, partners, communities. Fat people fall wildly in love. Fat people get married. Fat people have phenomenal sex. Fat people are impossibly happy. Those fat people live in defiance of the expectations set forth for them. Their fat lives are glorious and beautiful things, vibrant and beyond the reach of what the rest of us have been trained to imagine. Let’s imagine more.
Aubrey Gordon wrote under the pseudonym Your Fat Friend. Her work has also been featured in Self, Health magazine, and Gay Mag, among others. This essay has been excerpted from her new book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.