Is fat a fetish?
When does attraction to plus size people become fetishizing?
I had been on Bumble for less than a day when he messaged me.
I said hello. He said I love my women fat. Big girl usually means a big mouth too. Usually bigger girls are better at pleasing their men though. Even a nice h — j — is better when there’s a chubby hand doing the work lol.
Welcome back to dating apps.
Like any woman, I’d come to expect explicit photos, unwanted advances and, when I dared decline, epithets hurled too easily. 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, held no promise of the thrill of the hunt presented by thinner women. 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 the hogging, the pig roasts, the fat jokes on TV. The concerns from family and friends, dangling the promise of a loving, healthy relationship at a smaller 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.
This took place one year after I had quietly excused myself from dating apps. The whole exercise of online dating had been exhausting, as it is for so many. But online dating as a fat woman meant that every message was a minefield, poised to shred through my tender body. The only question was when the blast would come.
A few years earlier, I’d begun talking with someone who was cute, flirtatious, smart and warm. We began to arrange a dinner together when my prospective date interjected with a question. Why did you include that third pic? It seems to exist only to negate the cuteness of the first two.
The first two were pictures of my face. The third was my body.
We did not speak again.
Some months earlier, I’d gone on a first date with another promising person. During his first drink, he shared that he used to be fat himself. During his second, he announced, you know what I like about you? You’re all about fat pride. I used to feel that way, too, until I realized I wanted anyone to f — me ever.
I asked for the check. He asked if he could go home with me. There was no second date.
Over time these experiences left me deeply rattled, certain that any partner who would have me would be plagued with resentment for my body, deep insecurities over their own, or some more sinister pathology.
Later, I began dating a bodybuilder. M was direct, commanding, disarming and unusually forthright. I fell hopelessly in love, swept up in this unlikely partner’s intensity, vulnerability, drivenness, swagger and directness. We were abruptly thrown into the depths of each other’s lives, shedding one another’s light on the darkest corners of ourselves. It was so strange, so foreign to feel held so completely.
M’s thirst for my body was never slaked. For one year, our relationship was unlike any I’d had, supercharged with desire and longing, a steady and comforting pressure. But the times I felt furthest from this love of ours were when M complimented my body. I was unaccustomed to such intense attention, especially in a world that instructed partners of fat people to look past our bodies, as if our bodies were some external inconvenience. As if our souls could be separated from our skin. But M loved every part of mine, wanted to touch it all, wanted it forever.
Over time, acquaintances would cautiously ask about M. Have you talked about what you see in each other? Like, what does M see in you? One friend confided that she found the fact of our dating unsettling and untrustworthy. When I asked her why, she chose her words carefully. Doesn’t it seem kind of opportunistic? Then, after a moment of silence, is it a fat fetish thing?
Their gingerly posed questions underscored my own quiet uncertainties and insecurities. Like them, I had learned that bodies like mine were impossible to want. The only way for any of us to conceive of my body as being desirable was if that desire was pathological. M couldn’t just love me, couldn’t just want me. That want had to be a darker turn, something murky, unsettling, unsafe.
Like my friends, I couldn’t separate predatory attitudes from garden variety attraction to a body like mine. Any desire for my body had to be like, a fat fetish thing.
When attraction to fat people is discussed, fetishism is never far behind. To be clear, fetishism isn’t 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 attractions, it always seems to bring a cloud over the conversation. Everything darkens. Fetishism becomes an indictment of both the body and its beholder.
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 tangled together. 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 relationships were kept secret by their partners. Worse still, some tell stories about working up the courage to share their experiences of sexual assault, only to be categorically disbelieved.
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. Attraction becomes a minefield: an untrustworthy place that holds too much danger to be worth the risk.
And we live in a culture that proves us right at every turn. Fat women with sexual appetites are made punchlines again and again and again. Fat people who sleep with thin or muscular people are publicly ridiculed at a staggering scale.
But when fat sex and dating are discussed, there’s rarely room for simple attraction. After all, thin people are frequently attracted to other thin people without garnering suspicion of fetishism. They may find themselves drawn to brown-haired people, musclebound 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.
There’s no question that fat sexuality can be riddled with power imbalances and predatory behavior. But why is a healthy, natural attraction to fat bodies so difficult for us collectively to believe? Can fat bodies simply be a type?
Where is the line between fetishism and attraction? Can attraction to fat people operate in the same ways it does for smaller bodies? Why do we so readily accept that thin bodies are universally desired and lovable, while so certainly rejecting the same prospect for fat bodies? Is there room to love the look of fat bodies without dropping into the sinister territory implied by a fat fetish? Can fat bodies be desired without power imbalances or pathologies? Where does an otherwise benign type become a fetish?
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.
In a world so insistent that fat attraction is impossible, fat folks can end up experiencing all attraction as fetishism. And the culture around us reinforces that at every turn. The few fat love stories we see are fat people dating other fat people, usually in shared weight loss or food addiction programs, as with Mike & Molly or This is Us. Fat people aren’t just surrounded by pathology, our bodies are seen as manifestations of it.
So we assume most — if not all — fat attraction is pathological. Even some of us with deep commitments to body positivity and fat acceptance speak in hushed tones about fat fetishism and the shame of realizing we’re dating a chaser, a feeder, or a fat admirer.
But when we do that, we imply that only thin people are worthy of genuine attraction — that, like health, happiness and success, love can only be earned by thinness. Our inability to distinguish predatory sexual appetites from everyday desire ends up reinforcing the idea that thin people lead fuller lives, deserve more, are more loved and more desirable.
But I don’t choose to believe that.
I choose to believe that fat people can be genuinely attractive, truly loved, actually lovable, sincerely wanted.
I choose to believe that my fat friends and family members who are in love are loved fully, are fulfilled in those relationships, and that their partners are not somehow damaged for wanting them. I believe that my past loves with fat partners weren’t some symptom of a sinister sickness for either of us, but something real and worthwhile.
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: love the love M gave it, and the electric warmth of my first real love.
I want to be loved in my body, not in spite of it. My body is not an inconvenience, a shameful fact, or an unfortunate truth. Wanting my body is not a pathological act. I choose love that wants all of me. I choose love that can embrace my depth and breadth alike. I choose people who can love all of me. Take all of me or none at all.