Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 5, Jan. 15, 2002



Lilka Woodward Areton

Chapter 6

Partners, Sexuality, and Obesity

An extensive search for scientific studies and literature regarding the sexual partners of obese women, for sexual information for obese couples, and for images of erotica that include obese women yielded meager results.

Before the emergence of The National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance, the idea that a man could be attracted to a fat woman was almost inconceivable to most obese women, and to most researchers. There were many myths about such men, most of them uncomplimentary: they had to be fat themselves, weak, uneducated, lacking in professional skills, and sexual misfits. In 1989, Blickenstorfer, himself a fat admirer, surveyed the readers of his magazine, Dimensions, to gather information about men who call themselves Fat Admirers (FA's). Fifty-four percent of the FA's were 30-39 years of age. The average FA is between 5'9" and 5'11" tall and weighs between 175 and 199 pounds. Forty-one percent of all the respondents were single and 40% were married. Only 11% were divorced. Eighty-nine percent of the respondents had a least some college, 58% were college graduates and 26% had advanced degrees. The average weight of the FA's partner was 260 pounds (p. 75). In reviewing how FA's feel about their partners, Blickendorfer writes, "Obviously they are attractive to us.… (Most of us) have spent hours and hours trying to convince a fat girlfriend that she is indeed sexy and attractive. We know how difficult it is to get through with this message" (p. 74). Seventy-nine percent of all FA's agreed that fat women are reluctant to show their nude bodies to their lovers. Virtually every FA wants his fat partner to feel happy with her size and 68% of all respondents agreed with the statement "When it comes to size, the bigger, the better" (p. 75).

We receive a very different view of the men married to obese women who are trying to lose weight from Stuart and Jacobson (1987). This study, reviewed in part in Chapter 3, was based on 9,000 responses to a questionnaire about weight and sex. Stuart and Jacobson include few percentages or other numerical measurements in their book. They summarized and reported what they believed were the most prevalent comments from the questionnaire responses. Regarding partners, they reported that many of the husbands were insecure and became jealous as their wives became thinner. Some husbands used their wives' weight as an excuse to have affairs. These husbands regarded their behavior as a perfectly legitimate reaction to wives they considered too fat. If the husband neglected his wife, she often believed that she deserved the neglect. Stuart and Jacobson found that weight issues distracted attention from other marital and sexual problems. A husband could attribute his lack of interest or inability to perform sexually to his wife's excess weight (pp. 75-77).

Although not directly a study of obese sexuality, in a holocultural study, Patrick Gray (1984) tested how the dominance and assertiveness in relations between partners affected sexual behaviors and attitudes. The results suggest that high levels of female power and assertiveness within a marriage do not have an adverse affect on male sexual functioning and that the more assertive women are in their marriages, the healthier the marriage becomes. There is more discussion of sexual matters, more foreplay, more permission for women to initiate sexual activity, less male fear of impotence and less sex anxiety. There was a lower divorce rate. Studies on the sexuality of obese women have shown that these women reduce assertiveness in their sexual relationships when their body-esteem is low (Faith and Schare, 1993; Shapiro, 1980; Spiegel, 1988) and increase assertiveness when it rises (Burcell, 1975).

The National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the sexual relationships of large people. In 1969, large people had little chance of meeting with Fat Admirers (FA's). Most large women felt that they were too unattractive to appeal to anyone. There were no images of obese couples in the media. There were no dances for fat women and men and for those who enjoyed or preferred them. There was no defense of the feelings or even the rights of people of size. The development of these phenomena was the result of the work of the founder of NAAFA, Bill Fabrey, who was and is attracted to large women. He began NAAFA with his wife in 1969. A few people joined. In 1970, the New York Times published a half page article on NAAFA and after that the membership grew significantly. Meetings and conventions sponsored by NAAFA provided many people with their very first social opportunities and were widely imitated by profit-making social clubs and dating services in the 1980's and 1990's. It became possible for many larger persons, especially women, to have choices in their social lives (Fabrey, 1993, Summer)

Thirty years of NAAFA Newsletters reveal some interesting information about FA's, dating practices between FA's and fat women, and developments over the years as the organization matured. In 1970, when the organization was in its infancy, a small note mentions that men and women of all ages are asking for a computer dating service tailored to NAAFA members. In 1972, Bill Fabrey wrote a long column entitled "NAAFA men: Who are they, and why aren't there more of them?"

"Some of our female members have come to accept the fact that there are men who find them attractive--although many is the new member who is still incredulous at the idea! One longtime member tells me that she has gone from one bad situation to another; before hearing of NAAFA, the few men she knew liked her despite her figure, which they disliked. After joining NAAFA, most of her dates like her only because of her figure. Many (men) perhaps most, are painfully shy about their preference, and writing or joining NAAFA is often their 'moment of truth'. It is very difficult, more difficult than the female reader will ever believe, to find a permanent satisfying relationship, especially outside our organization. The rule is that the majority of the plump public are so hung up about their weight so as to make satisfying relationships hard to find. Some men are playboys, and most are unlikely to change in this respect. If they join NAAFA, they are exposed to a large number of available, beautiful and abundantly endowed femmes. Some, a few, are "cheaters" to use a common phrase who seek variety from their marriage. The causes of such marital "wanderings" are many. There is sometimes the sudden discovery by the husband that cultural factors which led him to choose a thin wife have played a dirty trick on him; he really digs the fat figure all along. There are other men who marry thin wives for business and social reasons, knowing in the back of their minds that they really prefer, and will later obtain, a mistress built along more generous lines. What is beautiful, in the end, all depends on your point of view." (Fabrey, 1972, August, p. 3)

By 1976, more FA's were revealing themselves: "FA's are forced into a lonely pursuit of their preference. The constant effort to hide their preference leads to frequently intense feelings of shame, and the logical reluctance to share their true feelings with others. Banding together, teenagers try to acquire confidence in dating skills. Moving in packs from fear and ignorance, the youths judge the other boys and girls by their tenuous standards. Those who do not fit are constantly ridiculed forcing the fat admirer to feel different. As it is socially 'out' to seek a fat partner, most fat admirers are forced into covert behavior, which scars them psychologically. Fat women too, are scarred by the ridicule and are discouraged from perceiving themselves sexually and therefore do not learn to present themselves sexually through their dress, movements and other forms of expression of their sexuality. I prefer the soft feel of a fat woman. Psychologically, I enjoy the hedonistic nature of many fat people, which is in the ideal expressed in sex, eating, and social gregariousness." (Wachtel, 1976, March, p. 1)

In 1980, The Singles Scene column included a lecture to women: "Women: Please don't lower your standards because you are fat…some of you wrote that you now enjoy being regarded as sex objects for a change… All I am saying is -- it's a shame. Please try to avoid being either a victim or an exploiter and be aware of the fact that NAAFA is no better or worse in its social arena than the singles world out there, except that in NAAFA, being fat is a social asset instead of a liability." (Fabrey, 1980, March, p. 5)

In 1982, in the column Sex at Conventions: "It has been said that NAAFA tries to promote dignity and self-respect for fat people, yet much of the social environment provided at conventions seems to be a "meat market" with much competitiveness between those searching for sexual partners, and an occasional "wild party" becoming legendary in its own time." (Fabrey, 1982, Jan-April, p. 13)

NAAFA had developed into a strong community of people who fought for their rights, supported one another, found that there were others that could love them, and began to suffer the same kinds of problems that couples from all walks of life suffer.

It is not common to find images of obese couples, or personal ads for obese women in mainstream newspapers and magazines, nor is it easy to find information for obese couples on the issues that concern them. It is not common to hear about those who admire women who are fat or to see an obese couple in a movie unless she or they play character roles. Adult erotic movies usually show women that are under a BMI of 25. Some notable exceptions follow.

In The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort (1972) gave cursory suggestions for a few positions but he advised, "Fatness in our culture is unlovely. If you are grossly overweight, set about losing it, whether you value your sex life or only your life" (p. 245). Although 30 million Americans were overweight by 1974, in More Joy, he chastised, "Meanwhile, do something about the overweight, in the interests both of sex and of general health. It's ridiculous and dangerous to carry a permanent 50 pound girdle" (Comfort, 1974, p. 218). Dr. Comfort's attitudes were common for that time.

In 1974, Dr. Abraham Friedman wrote the first popular book that claimed, albeit tentatively, that Fat Can Be Beautiful. This book was written at a time when the prevailing societal belief was that dieting was the only answer to obesity. Dr. Friedman had specialized in treating obesity and metabolic diseases for over 25 years. He theorized that some people were "born to be fat" (p. 11) and should make the most of it. In Chapter 17, "Sex for the Obese," Friedman described in detail sexual positions for couples in which one or both are obese.

Images of large women in erotica can be found if one searches below the surface. Dimensions, Plumpers and Big Women, Big Butt Magazine, Belly: Where Fat Chicks are Cool, and Zaftig represent at present some images with erotic intent. Vendredi Enterprises which is affiliated with Dimensions magazine has a large selection of Big Beautiful Women (BBW) in erotica, videos, and other adult materials. Erotic images of large women in heterosexual videos that are educational in nature are rare. Some are available in Lesbian and Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism (BDSM) videos.

On the Internet, the Fat_Sex Website (Yohannon, 1996) is a creative list that receives questions and gives advice to large persons interested in all forms of sexuality for large people. Yohannon has a link that describes sexual positions for large lovers. Yohannon writes, "The Mythology of Obesity tells us that sex with a fat partner is either fruitless or impossible. It's a prejudice that crosses all boundaries of race, class, education, and physique: you're as likely to encounter it in a gynecologist's office as in the pages of The National Lampoon…. In the real world, sex is more likely to be impeded by anxiety than adiposity. Fear of rejection, fear of not meeting the partner's expectations, and fear of not being able to perform are among the most common emotional barriers to intercourse." (p. 1)

The most recent and most complete sourcebook for obese couples, published only this year, is Big, Big Love by Hanna Blank (2000), who also published Zaftig, Sex for the Well Rounded.  Big, Big Love describes many ways of being sexual for large people, how to meet others, information on social skills, health, sexual positions, ways of using fat to eroticize sex, and includes a resource guide, all for large size people and specifically designed for large lovers.

In discussing the lack of information on Fat Admirers, Mayer (1993) attempted to explain the many forces in our society that keep men fearful of allowing themselves to be attracted or to admit that they enjoy larger women: "In this highly technological and complicated world, most men are feeling incompetent and scared. And women are paying the price. Amidst their agony, men have made women, their one potential ally, their enemies. Men are also going through a major crisis of sexual identity. The last thing they need is any challenges to their masculinity. Trying to keep women physically small and feeble, uncertain about their own sexual identity, and preoccupied with their body image is just what the doctor ordered (literally). One way that women might reclaim their bodies from the tyranny of male whim and social propriety is to free themselves of the chains of dieting. Becoming bigger and stronger violates taboos, but these taboos are patrolled by men and the financial interests of the fashion industry, not by the health and well-being of women. How could we have traveled so far down the wrong road? This is not a health issue. It never was. Our physically-endowed women are labeled obese, sick, while being told to idolize shriveled creatures comprised of only skin, hair, bones and an attitude, who actually are medically the sick ones." (p. 118)

Go to Chapter 7