Can an evolving body-positive movement, from porn to crotchless Lane Bryant panties, change our mainstream ideas of beauty and sexuality?
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One of the tweets that landed Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show replacement, in hot water was a fat “joke.” “‘Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!’ – fat chicks everywhere.” I’m not so much offended by it—it’s not funny enough to qualify as an actual joke in my book—as I am aware of just how outdated that viewpoint is. Do many people still think fat girls are laughable? Probably. But loud, proud, and in-your-face artists, writers, and porn stars are counteracting these negative images and jokes with work that sends the very clear message that sex appeal isn’t exclusively owned by the skinny.
Porn star April Flores and indie porn director Courtney Trouble are about to launch their site Fat Girl Fantasies this spring (needless to say, that link is NSFW). Flores comes to the site with a body of work as a porn star of nearly a decade, and the subject of the 2013 photo book Fat Girl, shot by her late husband and long-time collaborator, Carlos Batts.
While most of Flores’s work falls into the BBW (“Big Beautiful Women”) porn genre, for which she’s won two consecutive BBW Performer of the Year Awards from AVN (Adult Video News), the porn star–turned-producer wants to see the underrepresented genre expand. “There’s only a handful of people doing it, and a smaller handful of people doing it well,” she says. Her new site will feature “work that is thoughtful and inclusive, meaning that all body sizes and all gender identities and sexual orientations [are represented]. I want to show my peers and people who I think should be showcased in a way that turns me on artistically and visually, and as a person who’s trying to express myself.” Who does she envision as her fan base? “I think that some of the audience will absolutely be women who look like the women on the site because I think people like to see themselves represented in media.”
In a different but equally boundary-pushing way, Substantia Jones has been showcasing naked fat women with her website The Adipositivity Project, a mix of art and activism. “The hope is to broaden definitions of physical beauty. Literally,” she writes on the site’s “about” page. Each February, the New York–based photographer releases photos of fat couples in the buff as part of the Valentine series. While the rest of her site features only fat women, the Valentine images show naked fat people and their partners hugging, kissing, caressing, and simply existing in a way that’s both rare and intimate. “The idea to shoot fat people with their partners came from musician and SPIN magazine associate editor Dan Weiss,” explains Jones. “While accompanying a woman he was dating to an Adipositivity shoot, he laid the couples idea on me. Being that one of the more tightly held misconceptions about fat people is that they aren’t sexual beings worthy of romantic love, I thought it sounded like a delightfully naked way to challenge the hackneyed old ‘sad fatty’ platitude. I told Dan to drop trou. Moments later he became the first male Adiposer, and half of the first ever couple. Thus began the annual Valentine series.”
While her images don’t have the same intention to arouse viewers as a porn site such as Flores’s, what the two do share is a desire to present fat women as subjects first, rather than simply objects, to give them agency and power, rather than reduce them solely to the viewer’s gaze. Asked why women want to pose for her, Jones responds, “Some want to show the world they’ve achieved body love. Some are using the shoot to help them get to that place of self-acceptance. Others just want to say ‘Fuck you’ to a culture dominated by sizeist propaganda. In the case of couples, there’s that element of romantic love that manifests as a need to shout it from the rooftops.”
I see an element of this same impulse, albeit with a corporate spin, in Lane Bryant’s new #ImNoAngel promotional campaign for their plus-size lingerie line Cacique. Yes, they have a product to push, but it’s a step in the right direction that they’re marketing a “seriously sexy lingerie” line featuring corsets and crotchless panties to women in sizes 14 to 28. Maybe it’s utopian, but if we grew up seeing women in those sizes dressed to seduce in pop culture, I think we’d have fewer “fat chick” jokes. In all three cases above, rather than just saying women can be sexy at any size, Flores, Jones, and Lane Bryant are showing examples of women doing just that.
Susie Orbach’s book Fat Is a Feminist Issue came out in 1978, and I think it’s safe to say the spirit of that title still holds true in 2015, all the more so when it comes to fatness and sex. We have fatkinis, but we also have book titles like Goodbye Fatness, Hello Gorgeous!The idea that we should, at the very least, be striving for thinness in order to be seen as “sexy,” and to see ourselves as sexual, is alive and well.
Freelance writer Kitty Stryker, who wrote a popular “hot guide to fat sex” on her site, believes things aren’t getting all that much better in terms of how we treat fat women. “There are a small handful of fat women considered beautiful, but they’re often asked about their weight loss plans,” says Stryker. “People are still in shock when a modeling agency uses size-10 models, who aren’t exactly fat (and are, in fact, smaller than the average American). If anything, I think it’s gotten a bit worse, with fat people still being segmented off as being ‘funny’ rather than genuinely sexy, smart, or talented.” Flores agrees that while there’s some awareness, “not much has changed” in the past decade in terms of how fat women are treated in mainstream culture. “We have to keep in mind that there’s a whole industry based on making us feel not good enough.”
Stryker says pushing back against a culture that tells fat women to lose weight “takes a certain amount of defiance. Fat people aren’t valued, or treated like people. The second article that comes up when you look up fat sex guide is a cruel ‘satire’ piece making fun of big beautiful women and those who love them. Finding community is super important; I’ve found great Facebook groups that are private, fat positive, and incredibly reassuring.”
It’s not just single women who are up against body-image issues, of course. Blogger Brittany Gibbons writes in her forthcoming memoir, Fat Girl Walking, that she was “horrible at intimacy” with her husband for a long time before coming to terms with loving her body. “Because I wasn’t able to shut off my insecurities about my body and weight, sex had become a really anxiety-inducing experience,” she writes. It caused her to use excuses to avoid having sex or feel self-conscious when she was having it, unable to be fully naked unless the lights were off. Her solution? Go big at home, by having sex with her husband every day for one year, which she detailed in a piece for the Huffington Post. Will her solution work for everyone? No, but the point is, she recognized that the problem wasn’t just outside of her, but inside her mind, and she set about changing it. I’m not suggesting it’s a simple process, but we do each get to wake up every day and decide how to think about our bodies. Will it be “fat talk” that leaves us feeling worse about ourselves, or something far more supportive? If you think this doesn’t affect how we act in the bedroom, read Gibbons’s account of hating her body, even when her husband told her how beautiful she was.
Critiquing unrealistic body standards is one way of combatting them, but so is offering up representations, fictional and real, of fat women who both defy those rigid standards and are absolutely unapologetic about it. Asked what she hopes fat women will take away from her new site, Flores says, “I want them to feel good about themselves. I want them to not let the word ‘fat’ be something negative or damaging. I want them to feel worthy of love and sexuality and being a person in control of their lives and sexuality when they’re fat, and not postpone it until when they lose weight.”
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