When Is It a (Fat) Fetish?
We know love is love. But when it comes to sex, attraction and turnons, likes and dislikes are more subjective. Society tends to use "fetish" as an all-encompassing but confusing descriptor, which can mean anything from a preference to a perversion. Toss in body size and the dialogue gets even more complicated.
So, what's the difference between appreciating a fat body and objectifying it?
Heather Powers, M.S., is a sex-positive psychotherapist who works with nontraditional families and couples. She began advocating for positive portrayals of plus bodies in the mid-'90s.
"People hear the word 'fetish' and they think that it means something is bad, and it doesn't," Powers said.
She further distinguished a fetish from a fetishistic disorder, which, Powers said, occurs when you're "into something so much that you've felt bad about it for at least six months, and it's really, really causing you problems.
"If it's not getting in the way of your life, it's a preference," she continued.
Fat fetish vs. fat positivity
We're more likely today than, say, 20 years ago, to see fat characters who are more than a punch line or to find trendy clothing options for sizes above the single digits. But that doesn't mean that the challenges and prejudices facing fat people have been completely overcome. How do fat fetishes align with the mission to destigmatize fat bodies?
"If someone said to you, 'I only date girls with tattoos,' you would go, 'Oh,'" Powers said. "You would make assumptions, maybe, but you wouldn't say that means there's something wrong with them. It would just be considered something they liked. But because fat has been considered bad for so long, it automatically goes to that place, when really it's just another preference...like anything else."
Maybe it's not too huge of a deal if someone's just into bigger people. But even that can only go so far.
Powers continued, "We all have things that are in our psyche that come from a mixture of who we grew up with, and stories we've been told, and experiences we've had that made us the complete person that we are. And people who are into fat, it's just one variation of all those. And there are different things people can like about fat, too. Some people really like the warmth of a belly. And some people are into food and feeding. There are all sorts of different aspects of fat you can get at, that are different. And some people just like fluffy girls. They like the way it bounces. They think it's sexy. Fat people are a part of life and we're out there. And there's nothing wrong with people thinking we're hot."
So, maybe it's not too huge of a deal if someone's just into bigger people. But even that can only go so far. Powers clarified the point at which attraction turns unhealthy.
"If you feel fetishized, then you need to talk to your partner about it and be like, 'Hey, maybe spread it out a little more,'" Powers said. "If you're with someone who literally is just about your body part, then you've got to make that decision about whether you're comfortable feeling fetishized. If they're doing it without your consent…then that is a disorder, because that's crossing that line."
Not just women
The fetish conversation has generally been concentrated on the female experience and the male gaze perspective, an approach that might not be for the best. Jason Whitesel, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and gender studies, and author of numerous articles related to the intersectionality of interlocking identities. Much of his work focuses on the experience of fat gay men.
Whitesel approached his definition of fetish from an anthropological aspect. He noted the French origin of the word "fetish," which translates to terms such as "magical charm," "mystique" and "taboo." He added that fetish has many categories, and gives an example of finding a particular body part— such as thighs, bellies and buttocks—sexy.
"This is tricky, because I wrote about fat gay men who like, in some cases, to be objectified or objectify other people, and feminism has always argued that sexual objectification is not good, and a bad thing," Whitesel said. "But, I think that some people have felt themselves to be outside of the system and it might be quite liberating to feel that other people find your body desirable, with all the lumps and wiggles. So, fetish is tricky."
'If you feel fetishized, then you need to talk to your partner about it.'
Other problematic aspects of fat fetishizing exist. Whitesel noted that in his studies, he has heard of "chasers" or "belt-notchers"—individuals who embark on a mission of sleeping with as many fat men as they can.
He noted a similar trend in the straight community: "hogging." A variation of the practice, called Pig Contests, gained awareness on college campuses after a particularly high-profile situation at a Cornell University fraternity. In short, it involves males who seek out fat women to sleep with who are presumed to be "easy" or grateful for sexual attention. The victims are not informed of the contest.
"If your self-worth is somehow rooted in the approval of men, that's always problematic," Whitesel added.
People are not objects
Whitesel echoed many of Powers' ideas about the misguided concept of fat fetishes, and fetishes in general, being "bad."
"Fetish is connected with the idea of social deviance," he said. "It's connected with the idea of shame and taboo, and that's part of why it's sexy—that's the whole point. To engage in something that is seen as socially taboo adds to the rise you get out of it. A lot of this is fantasy or things we construct in our minds. And sometimes there are fantasies we don't want to live out—the reality is that they're a bit disappointing."
If you find yourself seeing these fantasies pop up in your life, either internally or from a partner, Whitesel has advice on managing fetishes and relationships.
"As in any type of sexuality, consider your intentions," he said. "Be clear about your intentions, and just because you're engaging in fetish, don't approach somebody as an object. You want to know what feels good to them and what feels good to you. Communicate, check in all the time."