LIVING IT LARGE

Fat girls just want to have fun - luckily, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance is there to give them some help
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The Independent Culture
I AM a thin man. I'm sitting in a conference room on the third floor of a Los Angeles airport hotel with 25 of the fattest ladies I've ever seen in my life. We are seated in a big circle, like elephants in a circus. Another fat lady - a late-comer - motors into the room on an electric cart. With much shuffling and barging and trumpeting, we extend the circle to make room for her.

We are about to begin a workshop called Your Self-Esteem is Showing. It is designed to help us overcome our feelings of self- disgust. To put a stop to the negative commentary that is constantly going on in our minds. To help us start to love and cherish ourselves because we are all special and beautiful in our own special way. Every 45 seconds, another jumbo jet rumbles past the window with its undercarriage lowered.

Sparkle, the head elephant, says she would like us to introduce ourselves in turn to the group, then say a few words about why we had chosen to come to this particular workshop. To show us what she means, she starts us off. "Hi everybody! My name is Sparkle. I'm from Chicago, Illinois. I've been a Naafa member for five years, and right now my self-esteem could use a little booster," she says, beaming radiantly and waving to us with both hands. Even when crippled with low self-esteem, it is clear that your average unbelievably fat American thinks much more highly of themself than the slimmest, most euphoric English person.

Naafa stands for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. It is a 30-year-old association of fat activists who want to improve "the physical and emotional health of fat people through personal and social change". In practical terms this means rebuilding members' self-confidence by countering the relentless diet-industry propaganda with fat-friendly health literature, by introducing fat men and women to one another, and by equipping them to defend themselves against rudeness and institutionalised discrimination. As a relatively small, underfunded organisation fighting the corner of the only people left on earth whom our post-modern liberal- democratic-humanist New Enlightenment project says it is okay to laugh at, Naafa has got a big job on its hands.

A shiny blue star on my name-tag signifies that this is my first Naafa convention and people should be extra nice to me. These conventions are six-day festivals of fatness, where fat people from all walks of life meet together in a hotel and celebrate being big. Members from regional Naafa chapters fly in from all over the United States - some having to book double seats on the airline - to network, learn and party in a supportive and sympathetic atmosphere. It's an annual summer anodyne to palliate the abuse and discrimination they suffer the rest of the year. One hundred and sixty Naafans have checked in on this, the first day. More are expected later in the week. Studying my programme after signing in at the welcome desk, I see that there are going to be lunches, pool parties, workshops, fashion shows, lunches, pool aerobic classes, room parties, lunches, a talent night, a fancy-dress party, an awards lunch, and on Saturday night, a grand dinner and ball.

While not explicitly stated, sex appears to be quite high on the agenda too. Scheduled for Wednesday is a workshop called Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. On Thursday there is one called The Fine Art of Flirting. And rifling through my welcome pack I find a generous selection of ribbed, flavoured and multi-coloured condoms, a tube of non-petroleum- based lubrication, a question-and-answer scratchcard about anal sex, and a car sticker advertising a free-phone HIV help-line number.

I query this with Grace, a super-size lady from Texas. She looks about 42, but there again all fat people look about 42. "Just because we're fat don't mean we don't like it any more!" she exclaims. "Hey! if I catch you at one of the pool parties, I'll prove it too." Grace tells me that Naafa conventions are renowned as the place for fat ladies to let their hair down, and maybe have sex with one of the FAs.

One of the FAs? Does she mean one of the Football Associations?

No, no, she says FA stands for Fat Admirer.

Grace then gives me the lowdown on FAs. Had I not noticed the thin men wearing Naafa badges going round the hotel with their eyes out on stalks? These are the fat admirers, or FAs. Hold a Naafa convention anywhere in the United States and they turn up in droves.

Irreverently known as chubby chasers or cellulite surfers, FAs are thin men who are sexually attracted to fat women and don't care who knows it. Of Naafa's 4,000 members, 1,400 are men, and of these approximately half are dedicated FAs. They are very active members.

They hold their own meetings under the Naafa umbrella, and there are special interest magazines available to them, like Plumpers (a soft-core porn mag featuring obese women ) and Dimensions ( a glossy contact magazine) catering exclusively for their needs. The latest edition of Dimensions is included in my welcome pack. Here is an FA advertising for a partner:

"German man, 38, 6', 190 lbs, looking for a very fat woman, minimum 600 lbs and 100-inch hips or more, 5'5" to 6'4". Financially secure and willing to relocate for you. My English is not so good."

There is also a small, esoteric group of FAs known as "feeders" or "encouragers". These are FAs who get turned on by seeing their partners' bodies expanding to morbid obesity, and to this end they spoon-feed them continuously like foie gras farmers. Here's a typical encourager's ad:

"Hi: looking for a young woman (25-35) who wants to go from chubby to plump, plump to fat, fat to fatter, and fatter to obese. This handsome, romantic and loyal feeder will help you reach each milestone and be there through thick and thin, spiritually, emotionally and physically. So - stop the diet yo-yo, eat everything you want, and get as fat as you can with the adoring support of a 'good man'. Your picture gets mine."

Dimensions also carries an advert for Mark's Scrap Book: "a video slide- show of 200 pictures taken during my massive weight-gain. Watch me grow from 450 to over 750 lbs [53 stone] (contains nudity)".

"FAs are always in demand at Naafa conventions," says Grace, looking me up and down, "because given the choice most fat women will always prefer a thin man. But we have a problem here. As most fat women are deeply ashamed of their bodies, even the most ardent FA will have difficulty convincing his super-size lady that he finds her rolls of fat sexually attractive, and that he isn't some kind of a nut. Not a problem for a one-night stand at a Naafa convention, I know, but a real dilemma for a FA who wants a serious relationship with a BBW."

"BBW?"

"Big Beautiful Woman. Don't you Brits know anything?"

I ask Grace if she has ever tried dieting.

"Have I ever tried dieting! My God!" she says. "Have I ever tried dieting? My Mom had me on diets from four years old! Before I joined Naafa, I was on a diet for three decades. If dieting ever did anyone any good I ought to be hanging from a charm bracelet by now. All dieting ever did for me was make me put on weight." I laugh.

"I'm serious! Anyone can starve themselves and get a little weight off, but you try keeping it off. You've seen those before-and-after photos in dieting ads? You know about dieting in England, right? One minute this lady is standing there wearing a dust-sheet for a grand piano. She has a face like she's just had the trailer repossessed. And 30 days later, whoopee! she's all smiles and looks like a well-dressed thermometer. Well, take another photo in five years' time and you can bet your life she'll weigh even more than she did in the first place. Unless you are prepared to starve yourself all your life, once you get on the diet treadmill you are going to put weight on instead of lose it. Ask anyone here. You think we haven't tried it? You think we're all like this because we've eaten too many triple-bacon cheeseburgers? The US diet industry is just a $44- billion-a-year scam. Period."

"I see," I said.

"Which workshop are you going to go to this afternoon?" she says.

"Er, I think I'll try the Self-Esteem one."

"Nice choice," says Grace.

So now it's my turn to introduce myself to the gang at the Your Self- Esteem is Showing workshop. "Hello," I say. "I'm Jeremy. I'm a fat admirer from Devon, England and I've been a bit depressed lately."

I've got to say I'm a fat admirer because what else is a thin man doing at a fat convention? In any case, I did once go through a stage of dating larger ladies, during which time the blokes down the pub called me Captain Ahab. And I really was a bit down in the dumps, actually. I'd been to see the quack about it and he'd put me on Prozac. It was just kicking in as the convention started. Some of the ladies I was seeing were so large I thought I was hallucinating.

(Mention Prozac in conversation in Los Angeles, by the way, and it turns out that all your interlocutors are on it as well, and have been for donkeys' years. "Welcome to the par-dee!" they chorus. Naaf- ans swear by it as an appetite-suppressant as well as a happy pill.)

After we have gone round the group and introduced ourselves, Sparkle says: "I have a great idea. Why don't we go around and tell the group which part of our body we like the most, then let's turn to the person on our right, look them right in the eye, and tell them which part of their body we like the most."

The elephants all wave their trunks in assent and off we go.

A big lady on the far side of the circle says the thing she likes most about her own body is her hair (applause, yelping, all rights). Turning to face the super-size lady who is straddling two armless chairs beside her, the lady with the nice hair thinks for a moment then says the thing she loves most about her neighbour is her personality.

"Sorreee," interrupts Sparkle. "We all know that we ladies of size are noted for our great personalities - but that's a cop-out, honey. So which part of Joy's body do you like the most?"

I steal a sideways glance at the 30-stone bearded giantess slumped on the chair beside me. She looks like Giant Haystacks. Desperate to seize on some part of her vast anatomy that I can laud to the rest of the group with some degree of sincerity, I'm scanning her up and down, but it's all totally hideous. Come on, I tell myself. There must be something. What about her hands? I'm straining my eyeballs trying to look at them from the side without moving my head, so she doesn't know I'm looking at her. Her hands are resting on her huge belly. Her fingers are locked together like a couple of newly opened packs of Boyers pork sausages. Strewth.

I'm beginning to panic now. This is going to be highly embarrasing. This is the last time I put myself down for a fat-women's psychology workshop. What about her feet? She might have nice feet. I look down. I can't see them. She hasn't got any. They've gone. Oh there they are, underneath, jammed in a pair of trainers. Any second now it's going to be my turn to speak. Oh God. Oh God. What am I going to say? Oh please God, open my eyes that I might discover a part of this lady (this lady whom Thou hast created) that isn't horrible.

The lady sitting next to me on the other side tells me she likes my legs. I thank her. I tell the group that the thing I like most about my body is my teeth. Some of them generously affirm that I really do have nice teeth. Then, with my heart pounding so hard and fast it feels like it's about to burst out of my chest, I turn to look at my neighbour. She is staring at the floor with an expression of ineffable sadness on her face. Her name tag says she is Mae from Oregon. She also has a shiny blue star. Her face is so sad, she strikes me as being beautiful. And as I'm looking at her, her huge round face crumples into tears, and she mews and quietly cries, with her hands resting lightly on her belly. Her shoulders are shaking with her sobbing. No one moves to comfort her. We just sit there and watch her cry. Then she gets up and surges out of the room with curiously short, quick little steps.

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