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Heart Searching: Plumping for partners on a large scale: Size isn't everything but big can be beautiful, says Barbara Lamb

WHILE most women are desperately dieting and exercising their bodies in the relentless pursuit of slimness, no doubt in many cases with men in mind, it comes as a surprise to learn that while thin may be in, there is a growing band of men who prefer the well-endowed, sometimes the plumper the better. While most of these men are slim, they hanker after rounded behinds, plump tummies and curvy hips.

Sandy Millington, a fattie herself, seems to have found a way of bringing plump women out of their shells. She receives around 20 phone calls a day, more than half from men who would not give a thin woman a second glance. It is 'Plump Partners' they are looking for, an apt name for the dating agency which she runs from her home in the small Welsh town of Holywell in Clwyd. She wants to encourage overweight women to come out of hiding and socialise, for many are apologetic or embarrassed by their size and afraid to be seen in a club or disco. Her fiance, 29-year-old Brian Poole, whom she met through Plump Partners, is a lean 6ft 1in. He loves her just as she is and says he would refuse to let her go on a diet even if she wanted to.

In spite of the best efforts of the slimming industry over the past decade to persuade us that thin is desirable, a number of women are unwilling or unable to conform. The proportion of overweight females has increased from 32 to 40 per cent and half of all men are overweight compared with 39 per cent in 1980.

Divorced and a single parent, and having tried the conventional ways of meeting people, Ms Millington enrolled with a dating agency describing herself as medium build. 'Everyone who rang up,' she says, 'wanted to talk about my weight. It was always what was my dress size, what my measurements were. Nobody wanted to know about me as a person - we never got beyond the size stage really.'

Today Sandy Millington, 35, is happy with her weight, a curvy 14 stone. She is 5ft 7in and a size 20, though it is well disguised in a long top over calf-length skirt. 'Finding trendy clothes to fit is the worst part,' she says, although she stresses to her women members the importance of making the best of themselves despite their inches. She has had around 3,000 members on her books since she set up Plump Partners in 1986, and the endless inquiries from men was a revelation to her. Membership is pounds 45 for six months or pounds 75 for the year.

Here the men who enrol know what they are looking for, and discussion about size and weight doesn't come into it; though rare, there's the occasional skinny woman in search of a large man. It is an agency where plump people can feel comfortable and know they belong without having to lose two stone. The emphasis, she makes clear, is on personality and common interests. No size is barred - members of both sexes are simply asked to fill in which weight category they prefer: 10 to 15 stone, 15 to 20 stone or over 20. Surprisingly, most men go for the middle one.

Many women join as a result of having been rejected by other agencies as too hard to place, and it is Ms Millington's job to build up their confidence. 'A good many people are very reluctant to admit that they're fat, and to actually own up to it or put it on a piece of paper is a major step.' She doubts that her agency would have been so successful had she herself not experienced what it was like to feel large and unwanted. Members are reassured when they learn of her statistics and can immediately identify. Ms Millington offers a very personal service, encouraging both men and women to give her feedback, and has become a sort of agony aunt to her members. Some women, however, still opt for a well-built partner, feeling too conspicuous in the company of a skinny man.

Ms Millington, who used to suffer from bulimia - the eating disorder highlighted by the Princess of Wales recently - says her weight has gone up and down over the years, once tipping the scales at 19 stone. She is convinced that as many as 20 per cent of men in the UK prefer big women, but is annoyed that being large often becomes a health issue. 'Largeness,' she maintains, 'doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with being unfit.'

John Honiball, 31, a computer analyst from Bristol, would not entirely agree. For while he joined Plump Partners looking for a woman who is 'nicely plump', he believes it becomes unhealthy to be too overweight just as it is to be too slim. A thin 5ft 10in, he says: 'I've always found myself attracted to larger ladies. It's off-putting for a woman to be on an endless diet.' His ideal looks? The comedienne Dawn French.

Ms Millington reaffirms that once these women realise they can be desirable, they become more content with the way they are and grow in confidence. Their dress sense improves, they start bothering with their hair, and it gives them a new lease of life. 'Like most people, many large women have other problems to cope with, emotional or financial, which they often mistakenly blame on their size. They believe that once they go on a diet and become thin everything is going to be wonderful, but this is rarely the case.'

Jane Summers, 35, a new member, bears this out. Deputy head of a special school in Guildford, Surrey, she is 17 stone, 5ft 7in and size 24. She went on a crash diet four years ago, managed to get down to 10 stone and fit into a size 12, and admits to being terribly unhappy. As a large woman she can be bubbly and extrovert, but thin, she found she was unable to converse, or form relationships. 'I felt so inhibited,' she says. 'I was no longer me, I withdrew and became very quiet and self-conscious.'

Robert Grant, 48, a scientist, 5ft 8in, 11-and-a-half stone and living in London, joined Plump Partners looking for someone who is big but doesn't mind. 'Most women I have taken out have had complexes about their size. It's not easy to boost a woman's confidence when over the years fashion and the media have tried to point her in the other direction.

'I know there are quite a few guys like me who actually prefer larger women. Men go for big bosoms, why shouldn't the rest of the body be in line with that?' His own preference is for the statuesque, 5ft 10in and around 14 stone.

Robert did try to meet his ideal woman through conventional agencies, but when he listed his preference for a well-built partner he did not get a single reply. 'That surprised me,' he says. 'Well I'm 48, presentable and solvent, there should have been a lot of women out there.' But he was told it was because he specified big build, and most tubbies are loath to admit it on the form. 'I don't think large women are necessarily happier. It's a great pity: they should be.'

Plump Partners: 0352 715909