Episode 19–Desiring Fat People: Preference or Fetish?

Hello! This is The Fat Lip. My name is Ash, and before we start this episode, I need to give you a little disclaimer. This episode is about people who desire fat partners. But the first thing I want to say is that whether or not anyone finds your body attractive does not matter. Do what you want with your body, and if you’re looking for a partner, look for one who supports whatever decisions you’ve made for yourself. And if you don’t want a partner, that’s cool, too. Do whatever you want.

Now that that’s out of the way, I don’t know if you know this, but I am not single. I have a partner of over two years now. His name is Travis. He’s a gorgeous man who happens to be thin. I am, on the other hand, very fat. And to most people we probably look pretty mismatched. Most people probably expect to see a guy like Travis with a thin, conventionally pretty girl because that is what we’re culturally conditioned to expect.

So the sight of a thin man with a very fat woman throws people. Some think he must have very low self esteem—he obviously doesn’t know that he can do better! Others think that he must just be such a nice guy that he sees through all of my (very large) flaws. And still others think that the only explanation for this—this extremely odd couple— is that this man has a fat fetish.

And all of those assumptions are pretty insulting in so many ways, but the last one, the one about how my partner must only be with me because he has a fat fetish, is the most dehumanizing. It is drenched in fatphobia. It says that the only reason that this man could be interested in someone so vile is that he is solely led by his deviant sexual urges. It is accusatory and it is an attempt to shame him for his unnatural desires.

And we talk about fat fetishists in the fat community itself, and not in positive terms. We tend to assign the “fetishist” label to everyone who prefers fat partners. But I am of the opinion that preferring a fat partner and having a fat fetish are separate things— just as I’d say that preferring a thin partner and having a thinness fetish are separate things.

I want to talk about these, about preference versus fetish, as fairly as I can, and I think it only makes sense to address them separately and then bring them together for discussion and comparison at the end.

So I’m going to start with the preference for fat partners. First, a couple of notes.

One, for decades we have called people who prefer fat partners FAs (fat admirers) and for a lot of those years we’ve argued about that designation. Fat Admirer kind of makes it sound like the person we’re describing is interested in disembodied fat parts and not actual fat people. And in a culture where fatness is the only thing we care to know about a fat person, the idea that we are being passively admired as fat objects is hard to come to terms with. But the FA acronym has persisted all of this time. It’s useful to have a label for people who prefer fat partners. It helps fat people identify them whether we are seeking them out or trying to avoid them. So I still use FA. A lot of people who identify this way still use it to describe themselves. But it has been in debate long enough that I think it’s better to try to move away from it if we can.

A few months ago, Substantia Jones of the Adipositivity project posted on her Facebook wall asking for input on a more appropriate label for FAs. Phew, that was a very contentious thread. And the debates that went on in that thread are a lot of the reason that I’m making this episode right now. More on that later. But regarding a new name for FAs, there was little consensus. The best option, in my opinion, came down to FPP for Fat Partner Preferred or Preferrer (And that is why we have acronyms…) (someone also suggested the alternative Fat People Person.) Neither are perfect—I don’t know if a perfect label can ever exist—but I think they address the disembodied fat vs. fat person issue well enough. So I’m going to try to use FPP today.

And for my second note before I really get into this, I’d also like to say that because I am a fat woman who encounters mostly men who prefer fat partners, my language often skews in that direction. I’m working on being more inclusive in my language on this show, but there will probably be times where I’m referring to fat women and male FPPs when I should be talking about fat people and FPPs of all genders. I’m working on it, but I apologize in advance for any slipping.

Okay, so now that we’ve laid that groundwork, let’s talk about body size preference. As we are all very aware, Western culture teaches us to value and venerate thin bodies. Our culture tells us that thin bodies are healthy and made for long life. It tells us that thin bodies are the most visually appealing, and it tells us that these are the bodies we should seek in our partners and strive to have ourselves. Some cross-cultural surveys suggest that other cultures tend toward attraction to fuller figures, but in the West, thinner bodies are the widely accepted standard of attraction for all of us regardless of sexual orientation.

But some people don’t feel that way. Some people prefer fat partners exclusively—the FPPs I mentioned before. And no one really knows why this happens. Sociologists will argue (and have argued—some in that same Substantia thread) that what we understand of attraction is that it is learned. Sociologists believe that cultural conditioning determines the partners we prefer, and that makes total sense for conventional tastes. As we are conditioned to want to be thin, we are conditioned to want our partners to be thin.

But how, then, if everyone in Western society receives relatively the same kind of thin-is-better cultural conditioning, do some people grow to prefer fat people? Well, the simple answer is that we don’t know. Because there has never been a sociological study of FPPs.

I will tell you, though, that I know a lot of people who identify this way, and they will tell you that they’ve preferred fat people for as long as they can remember. A lot of FPPs will say that as very small children they were fascinated by fat people. They will say that during puberty, it was a fat person who gave them their first sexual stirrings. They will say that they think they were born with this preference.

This is controversial, of course. Mostly, I think, because this is not how we understand body size attraction. As I said, sociologists believe that attraction is learned. But honestly, for me, it doesn’t make sense that a small percentage of people, spread across continents, of all socio-economic backgrounds, of all sexual orientations, would develop, at very young ages, an attraction to bodies that is directly in conflict with everything that Western culture teaches us.

Some psychologists, then, believe that because these cases seem to be relatively isolated, they must be because of some early individual body or food-related trauma. Which, you know, sounds pretty familiar to how fat people tend to be psychologically diagnosed, and we know how problematic that can be. And again, there are no psychological studies of FPPs that can back this up anyway.

So my opinion has long been that until science can tell me differently, I’m going to believe the FPPs that I know who have lived with this attraction to fat bodies for their entire lives. Just as I believe in considering fat people reliable witnesses to their own psychological histories, I’m going to consider FPPs reliable witnesses to theirs.

And there are certain things that a lot of FPPs experience that solidifies my belief that this isn’t a choice that they have made. First, we fat people know firsthand that it is very difficult to be different, especially during puberty and our formative years. FPPs may not be outwardly different from their peers, but in junior high when everyones’ hormones are surging and kids are starting to pair off and “dating” becomes the thing that everyone you know is obsessing over, it must be really hard to have desires that are so different from your friends’. We know how cruel those teen years can be to fat people and how vicious kids can be about bodies. While an FPP may not experience the sharpest of these jabs, while it’s probably not as difficult as actually BEING a fat teen, it can’t be easy to hear from your peers that the people that you are attracted to are so undesirable.

I should pause here. Let’s step back for a second. I think that this is where empathy for FPPs starts to break down. Because we as fat people experience this vicious disdain for who we are firsthand. The last thing we ever want to hear is “well, it was hard for me too because I liked fat girls and my friends picked on me.” Because it’s not the same. There’s no comparison between being a fat person, living in a body that Western culture considers ugly and unhealthy, and being attracted to fat people. Because a thin, able-bodied FPP can just choose not to tell his peers that he likes fat women if he wants. He can exempt himself from anti-fat sentiment if he wants to. Many FPPs do. But fat people can’t do that. We wear these bodies every day. So it’s not the same.

But there are parts of being an FPP that are difficult. First, yes, an FPP can choose to not reveal their preference. But this is inauthentic at best, and downright damaging at worst. This serves neither the FPP who denies their natural predilections nor the fat people whose attractiveness is denied. The last thing fat people need is to be desired in secret. But this does happen. Some FPPs do keep their interest in fat people under wraps due to societal pressures, and no one benefits from this.

So many FPPs choose to be open about their preference. But that’s not an easy road either. Some FPPs find a complete lack of understanding from their peers. Some FPPs have lost friends. Some FPPs even experience a lot of turmoil within their own families because of their preference. I’ve spoken to several FAs (sorry, FPPs) whose parents are so disturbed by what they perceive as their son or daughter’s deviance that their relationships are permanently scarred.

As a fat person, it’s hard to hear these things. It’s harder to believe it. We don’t talk about what it’s like for FPPs. We don’t want to hear it. And I think a lot of FPPs are afraid to talk about any of this. They understand that the things they struggle with for desiring fat people are not as pervasive as what fat people deal with themselves. So they internalize these things. And they suffer for it.

And I’m not saying that we should make space in our fat safe spaces for FPPs. Not at all. I’m not saying that FPPs deserve any awards for bravery. I’m not saying that we should applaud them for liking fat women against the odds. And I’m certainly not saying they should get a pass when they do shitty things. There are certainly a lot of shitty FPPs out there who deserve none of our time or care.

But I am saying that by not acknowledging that FPPs do experience some hard shit, we’re not encouraging them to face those challenges. We’re not encouraging them to overcome issues with their families or to drop the friends who won’t stop insulting the people they date. And by not encouraging FPPs to do better and to become better partners, we are doing our peers, the fat people that FPPs date and have sex with, a disservice.

Now let’s talk about fetish and why I think that this is a separate issue.

You’re going to hate this, but I’m going to give you the dictionary definitions of fetish that apply here and then discuss them.

The first directly implies sexual intent, which from the start is a problem. It’s no one’s business what goes on in anyone else’s bedroom. So it’s just WEIRD to look at a couple, one fat and one thin, and think “oh, he must have a fat fetish.” Because you don’t know what they are doing in the bedroom. So the sexual definition of fetish is as follows:

Fetish: Something, such as a material object or a nonsexual part of the body, that arouses sexual desire and may become necessary for sexual gratification.

Now, the quote “nonsexual part of the body” element of this is weird because that’s entirely subjective. But I don’t think this definition really holds up because I can be very sexually aroused by someone’s muscle-y arms—generally considered a nonsexual part—and still not have an arm fetish. The second part makes more sense. If the muscled arm was necessary for sexual gratification, then maybe. But if the arm just needs to be there and I’m not performing explicit sexual acts on the arm itself, I’m still not sure this qualifies as an arm fetish. So let’s apply this logic to fat parts as well. A partner can like your belly, they can think it’s cute or sexy, but this doesn’t make them a belly fetishist. Just like thinking your boobs are sexy doesn’t make someone a boob fetishist or thinking your arms are sexy doesn’t make them an arm fetishist. So logically I can be sexually aroused by fat parts of a body, and I may need them to be present for sexual gratification, but if I’m not performing explicit sexual acts on the fat parts, it doesn’t make sense to call this a fetish.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with two consenting parties performing explicit sexual acts on fat parts.

(SIGH) Man, I’m SO GLAD my mom listens to this podcast. Except not. Sorry mom.

So again, there’s nothing wrong with consenting adults performing explicit sexual acts on fat parts. Because you can do whatever you want to do in your bedroom with a willing party.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a fetish or participating in fetish activities.

But dating or partnering a fat person, desiring a fat person, does not automatically mean that you’re engaging in these activities. Can you be an FPP who does? Yes. Can you be an FPP who has regular, normcore vanilla sex but just prefers to do it with a fat person? YES. So the explicitly sexual definition of fat fetish is not equal to preferring a fat partner.

Okay, now I have a second definition of fetish for you. Less sexual this time. Thank god.

Definition 2. Fetish: an object of unreasonably excessive attention or reverence.

So here is where we find my second argument. First, fat people are not objects. And a person who considers a fat person an OBJECT of desire does not qualify as an FPP. A person who is attracted to the fat but not to the person to which the fat is attached is a fat fetishist.  I’ve known and dated some of these.

An FPP is a person who is attracted to a fat person, who wants to learn about a potential fat partner, who wants to spend non-sexual time with a fat person, who wants to spend their lives with a fat person. That doesn’t mean that all FPPs are great people. There are plenty of FPPs that have done shitty things to fat people. It just means that an FPP’s intent is not solely sexual.

And again, it is entirely possible to be an FPP who pays an unreasonably excessive level of attention or reverence to fat body parts. But that makes you and FPP who is participating in a fat fetish. These are separate designations. One can be either or both.

And again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a fat fetish. If a consenting fat person’s partner wants to jiggle them or squish their arms or pay excessive levels of attention to their double chin, that’s totally okay! Because all consensual sexual acts between adults are okay and normal.

Ultimately, you have to decide what kind of relationship satisfies you in this moment. Maybe you are totally content to have a purely sexual relationship with a partner who fetishizes you. Have that. Maybe you want to date someone who loves your body AND who fetishizes your belly. Have that. 

And if you are a fat person who is not okay with that kind of excessive attention to your fat parts, that is totally okay, too. We all get to decide for ourselves.

And we all get to decide for ourselves whether we’d like to date someone who identifies themselves as an FA or an FPP.

I have seen more than a few times where fellow fat activists have discouraged peers from dating fetishists, and that’s fine. But I also want to say that, as a very fat woman, I find this suggestion 1) misguided because it innately conflates the preference for fat partners with a fetish and 2) wrapped in privilege.

For one thing, it is not uncommon at all for people who claim no body size preference to date smaller fats. I have known many smaller fat women who have told me that their partners do not prefer fat women.

For me, though, and for other women my size, it is a lot harder to find a heterosexual man who does not prefer fat women but who will date me. And that can be for a lot of reasons—lifestyles, goals, etc.— but suggesting that a 500 pound woman shouldn’t be dating FPPs and should instead be seeking a partner who is attracted to all bodies is annoying. Is it impossible for a 500 pound person to date a person who does not have a preference for very fat people? No. But why shouldn’t a 500 pound person seek out the people they know are looking for them? And why shouldn’t a 500 pound person experience having a partner who fully desires them, body and all?

The other element here is that I think a lot of fat people are reluctant to acknowledge that their partner might be an FA (I’m sorry, FPP.) As we can see here, FPPs are a controversial subject, and I think the perception of FPPs is that their attraction to fat bodies is so critical that any slight deviation in body size could derail their attraction. And for some FPPs, that might be true, but certainly not for all. And that is just as likely to be true for a person that prefers an average-size person or a thin person. So I would respectfully suggest that you have frank discussions with potential partners about what happens to their attraction if you get fatter or thinner and decide whether their answer is something you can live with.

Now some fat activists have suggested that we should all, regardless of body size preference, critically examine our attractions that are based on body size. And I think that this is a fine suggestion, and maybe in a perfect world that would work.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. And working on making attraction more body-size neutral is a noble pursuit, but it is entirely separate from reacting to and figuring out how to exist in our imperfect world where body size attraction exists.

And so you have to choose for yourself. Maybe you aren’t comfortable with partnering with someone who has a preference for fat bodies. That’s okay. Seek out those whose attraction isn’t body size dependent.

But if you do decide that you’re okay with dating an FPP, keep in mind that there are many of them out there. It think a lot of fat people assume that FPPs are elusive creatures or that there are only a few. I don’t have any statistics on how many people there are in this world who desire fat people, but I believe it’s more than you think. Which is good news! It means you don’t have to settle for the first one that you see. It means that FPPs all have different personalities and interests. It means that some of them, unfortunately, are huge jerks. They are, from what I can tell, a subset of humans that are pretty representative of all races, sizes, socioeconomic backgrounds and abilities.

My goal with this episode was to address the existence of FAs or FPPs and my thoughts on them so that, moving forward with the show, we can talk about particularly good ones and particularly bad ones and things that some of them do that are annoying and things that some of them do that are awful. But mostly I want to make it clear that, just as it’s okay and normal to be a fat person, it is okay and normal to desire a fat person.

As always, thank you to Starcrusher for the music on today’s show. Hear more at cstarcrusher.bandcamp.com

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