Desire, discipline, disgust and that dreaded three-letter word

XXX meets XXL: Matthew Reisz on researchers getting the measure of sexuality and body size

November 1, 2012

Two early career researchers from Middlesex University are putting together an edited volume on "sex and the fat body" that is likely to include papers on everything from "feederism" and the fetishisation of the corset to subcultures of "fat, gay, hairy men".

The book is being assembled by Helen Hester, senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Middlesex's Mauritius campus, and Caroline Walters, visiting lecturer in media and cultural studies at Middlesex's UK campus.

Both teach courses on body and identity. Dr Walters completed a PhD on female masochism in April and has also been involved in "fat activism", such as the Health at Every Size campaign and the Big Bum Jumble, a clothes swap for sizes XL and up.

Assumptions about "what you should and shouldn't wear, how you should and shouldn't behave, depending on your size", in her view, remain ubiquitous and largely unexamined.

Dr Walters said that when she shows her students pictures of, in the phrase coined by campaigner Charlotte Cooper, "headless fatties" - photographs of fat people without faces, used without their consent as a dire warning in articles about obesity - "they have no problem telling me how disgusting and abhorrent they take them to be. It is almost an acceptable prejudice, partly because of the 'obesity epidemic' arguments."

Even academics working in the field can find it difficult to look at the issue properly. "In feminist and queer studies," Dr Walters explained, "there has been a lot of discussion about thinness and eating disorders, and the impact of those on gender identity, but there's been much less consideration about fatness and other body types."

She added that those wanting to celebrate different body types "don't talk about fatness; it's always 'voluptuousness' or 'the big body beautiful', deliberately passing around the word 'fat', because it has rather an abrasive quality".

Dr Walters said using the word "fat" was "like reappropriating the word 'queer', because it triggers so many emotions".

These interests came together with her research on masochism, when she was asked to deliver a paper on fat and BDSM (bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism).

"If you go to a lot of [BDSM] clubs," she said, "there's quite a preponderance of fatter women and often very thin men. But when I looked at professional pornography websites, most of the 'kink' ones only featured women who weighed 110 pounds or less.

"I also found a site that had been started by the porn star Kelly Shibari [who takes her name from shibari, a form of Japanese rope bondage] called, although even she deliberately avoided the word 'fat'."

This led Dr Walters to look for other writing on such themes, but she found only one journal article and a single (out-of-print) book titled Big Big Love: A Sourcebook on Sex for People of Size and Those who Love Them (2000).

She said she began to question "why this specific area is often overlooked. I want a bit of a conversation about the relationship between fat and sexuality, just because it isn't talked about."

The call for papers has attracted so many proposals from around the world that she hopes there will be "enough material for a special issue of a journal as well as a book".

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