I’ve been thinking about this post for a while. There are 100s of little moments, happening all the time, that make me want to sit down and think about this, write about it, even rage about it. The most recent one? A post about Sam Smith, whose song “Stay With Me” sounds like sex and heartbreak all rolled up in one. Turns out that in addition to having a voice that could melt butter he’s also a fella who happens to like the fellas. Swoon. What I appreciated most about the post was the way that it talked about the way that gay men’s culture is downright vicious in terms a body image (If you’d like to read that post, I’ve linked it HERE).
There is a lot of negativity about bodies in mainstream culture already, but for gay men the messages are especially brutal, and especially unrealistic. I mean, as much as I’d love to claim Sam Smith as “one of us,” he’s just a normal guy. He’s not gym-ripped, but he’s certainly not ginormous. And that’s what the article points out: if Sam Smith were straight, he’d be just another random “guy next door.” But because he’s gay, suddenly he’s huge. The stereotype that gay men all have perfect bodies lingers, and there aren’t a lot of messages out there to contradict it, or to question it. So instead of thinking about how ridiculous the whole situation is, people just go on Twitter and say nasty things and try to keep gay men, and especially larger gay men, in their place. But more about gay culture later; right now, I want to get a little closer to home.
The world, is not very nice to large people. We’re constantly being told that we’re not skinny enough, we’re lazy, we’re unattractive, we must be terribly unhealthy, we can’t possibly expect to be loved the way we are, and that there is something fundamentally wrong with us because of the size we wear or the numbers we see when we step on a scale. This barrage of media images and commentary isn’t anything new, and people are aware of it. At least they say they are. But if you really look at how people talk about bodies and fat, even people who claim to “get it” often don’t recognize the mixed messages they are sending out. I see it all the time in the people around me, people who I love dearly but who sometimes, usually unconsciously and usually without even thinking about it, say some rather hateful shit.
One way that people often deal with the discomfort that comes with talking about fat is to just ignore it. If I’m talking about how I’m feeling about my body, or the challenges I face, they act like this is strange information they don’t know how to process. “But you’re amazing/wonderful/fabulous/etc. just the way you are!” which is usually followed by something like “Ugh, I have to get to the gym this week, I’m really letting myself go!” or “I would love to order dessert but I’m I already feel like a fat pig after that dinner!”
So basically, they start by deflecting and invalidating how I’m feeling, and they act as if I don’t know that I’m fat. Like maybe it’s a secret, and they feel like they can protect me from it. Or it makes them uncomfortable, so they just don’t want to talk about it. Either way, I am aware of my size. I am also aware that I am amazing, wonderful, fabulous, or whatever vague, non-specific adjective you chose. But I’m also fat, and sometimes I want to talk about how I’m feeling, or about how the world tells me I should feel. And frankly, when you try to avoid the topic, it just makes it that much easier to believe that those messages I’m getting from culture might have some truth to them. It’s hard enough to battle all of the messages we get from the media, but when the messages also get repeated by the people around us who we love and care about, it’s just that much more exhausting. Sometimes I don’t want to fight the hegemony; sometimes I just want to eat my fucking pancakes.
And don’t get me started with the people half my size or less who bemoan the fact that they’ve gained a pound or two. As your friend, I want to support you in your body image struggles, but you’re making it really hard when you complain about how fat you feel or how you’re “letting yourself go” or make disparaging remarks about large people, as if I’m not sitting right there. But I guess I’m supposed to realize that I’m not like those fat people, the nameless, undifferentiated idea of what it means (to you) to be a larger person. I’m special somehow. But guess what: I am just like those fat people. I’m a complex person with a whole developed personality, but most of the world just reduces me down to my size. All of those other people, the ones you silently judge when you’re out in public or who are lurking in your mind every time you reach for that doughnut as an object of fear, are all whole people with real lives and real challenges. When you reduce one of us down to just being a symbol of something you fear or that disgusts you, you reduce us all down to that.
And then there are the well-intentioned cheerleaders, the ones I see on the way into the gym who say, “Oh, so great to see you here!” and “Have a great workout!” and “I’m so proud of you!” They mean well, which is why I’m usually able to resist the urge to punch them in the throat to get them to quit talking. But they don’t seem to understand how patronizing and infuriating their message is. First, there’s the assumption that fat people can’t also physically active people. Isn’t it great that we’ve hauled our great bulk up off of our couches! Second, there’s the lingering subtext that we are there because we’ve finally come around to the “truth” that being a fat person makes us somehow “less than,” that we’ve realized the error of our ways and are ready to get on board with what culture tells us we should be. Obviously they don’t mean it like that when they say it, but most of the people who go out of their way to congratulate me on my trips to the gym don’t extend this enthusiasm to everyone the know. If a skinny person goes to the gym, they’re just playing the game the way they’re “supposed” to; no congratulations needed. But when I walk through the door, it’s a cause for celebration: me doing my part to rid the world of a terrible eyesore.
This is the point where, if you haven’t already, you roll your eyes and decide that I’m reading way to much into the things the people around me say. And maybe I am. As I’ve noted above, I don’t think any of my friends set out with any sort of malicious intent when they say those things (and if they are, I probably need to stop writing this and go out to find better friends!). But that’s the thing about swimming with sharks: they’ll probably try to eat you. Not because they’re vicious or because they have a burning desire to destroy you, despite what Hollywood schlockfests like Jaws and Shark Night would have you believe, but because they’re fucking sharks. It’s what they do. The people around us don’t set out to damage our self-image or make us feel bad about ourselves, but they’re part of a culture that devalues people of size across the board. We larger people aren’t immune to it either; it’s easy for us to turn on each other and repeat these damaging messages to each other instead of trying to create spaces for healing and nurturing.
These spaces are especially hard to find if you’re a gay man. One of the many reasons I stopped using the word “gay” and moved to “queer” to describe my identity is how superficial gay men’s culture is regarding body image. The rate of eating disorders among gay men is ridiculous: according to this Slate article, among men who are diagnosed with eating disorders, 42% identify as gay, which, for a group of people who along with lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and all other manner of queer folk are only supposed to make up about 10% of the population (if not less), that’s pretty fucking significant.
For women, there is the same pressure to look a certain way, but at least there are alternative messages. There are magazines devoted to plus size women and their experiences, shows like Drop Dead Diva engage with our culture’s stick-thin-sensibilities (albeit, sometimes problematically), and there are a growing number of stores that feature plus size sections or are dedicated exclusively to plus size clothing, for women, that actually try to stay up to date with trends and creating a sense of style for their larger customers. For men, the options are much more limited. There are a few specialty retailers, and some extended size runs in chain stores, but there is very little thought put into creating any sense of style. And why should there be? If you’re a large man you’re either the funny buffoon or you disappear entirely. You’re not supposed to care about style or dare to think that you might be sexy. No one is making gorgeous images like these to help you feel empowered or to help you love your body; no quirky alterna-pop stars like Mika are singing songs about how beautiful you are. And if you’re a large gay man, well, good luck. The sharks are particularly vicious in your little section of the water. Just ask Sam Smith, and his Twitter followers.
We’re getting to the part of the post where you’re probably expecting me to have some solution to this problem. Sorry to disappoint. I wish I had “Janessa’s 10 Step Plan To Fix Our Fucked Up Culture And Let People Focus On The Things That Are Actually Important For Finding Lasting Health And Happiness,” but I don’t. I don’t have an easy answer to how you can stop listening to all the crap that’s out there and just give yourself an instant boost of awesome. I’m caught up in the middle of this body-hating, fat-shaming culture with the rest of you. If someone finds the exit, please let me know.
Reframing culture isn’t easy. These thoughts and ideas get so firmly entrenched in our heads and our psyches, that it’s hard to see our way out of them. I remember the first time I met a man who was a self-described “chubby chaser.” He used to hit on me relentlessly at drag shows, and I just couldn’t figure him out. He always called me “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “sexy,” all of those things I’d never been allowed to really think about myself. I was fascinated; at the time, I had no idea that there was a little subculture of people who were not only open to larger people but who were genuinely turned on by them. It was quite an education for me. And it’s quite enticing: I ended up letting myself get seduced by that man, and it was a completely different sexual experience than any I’d had before. But I’m saving that juicy little story for my memoirs.
Regarding this whole “chubby chaser” subculture, I’m surprised by how negatively most people (at least, most of the people I’ve talked to about it) react. “Doesn’t it upset you that you’re just being fetishized for your weight?” “Aren’t you offended that they’re only into you because of your size?” These are such strange questions to me. First of all, I don’t think I would ever get upset or offended by anyone who wants to tell me that I’m beautiful, sexy, and desirable not in spite of my size, but because of it. Second, why is it that if someone is attracted to a larger person it has to be a fetish (with the obvious connotations of mental illness or perversion), but if someone is attracted to washboard abs or big boobs or something else that feeds into our cultural expectations of what bodies “should” look like, then it’s just someone having a “type”? Maybe all of our sexual attractions are just fetishes. And if your fetish is the body ideal presented by mainstream culture, then that just means that your fetish is fairly common, and we need to remember that “common” and “normal” are not the same thing.
All of this body stuff is complicated, and it carries with it a great deal of baggage. Like I said, I don’t have a lot of easy answers. I can’t just give you a self-help-y list of 5 things to do to revolutionize how the world thinks about weight, health, and body image. What I can say is that language matters. Every time you say something about weight or size, whether someone else’s or your own, think about where those sentiments are coming from, and think about what it might mean to the people around you. We don’t have to set out with the idea of changing the entire world. We just have to think a little harder about the messages we put out there, and as we do that I think we might start to think a little more about the messages we let it. And changing the messages is the first step toward a place filled with a lot more swimming, and a lot less teeth.
Tags: Annie Sprinkle, Bi, Big Girl, Big Girl You Are Beautiful, Big Is Beautiful, bisexual, Body Acceptance, Body Dismorphic Disorder, body image, Chubby Chaser, Eating Disorder, Fat, Fat Acceptance, gay, gay culture, Gay Men's Culture, GLBT, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Kinsey, Kinsey Report, lesbian, LGBT, Mika, Miss Jaye, Obesity, Predators, Queen Culture, Sam Smith, Sam Smith featuring Mary J. Blije, Sharks, Stay With Me, Swimming, Swimming With Dolphins, Swimming With Sharks, trans, transgender, World of Champagne