Size Matters: At the Intersection of Hilarious and Obscene

Tasha Fierce
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Tasha Fierce is a Black feminist writer from Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter at @MissTashaFierce and read more of her work on her blog, Tastefully Ratchet.


Fat women's sexuality is often joked about, and when it's not being joked about, it's being vilified. As fat women we get the cultural messages that convince us no one would want us sexually in the state we're in; mass media reinforces these ideas by portraying fat women's sexuality in a mocking way or as distasteful and unappealing. The almost violent pushback against any positive image of fat female sexuality is at once disturbing and also understandable. Understandable because in a society that views fat women's bodies as disgusting and their selves unworthy of love, any media that challenges that deeply ingrained belief is dangerous and can be the source of much cognitive dissonance if the portrayal happens to stir some kind of sexual attraction in the consumer.

Movies such as Norbit (which, incidentally, in Japan is simply titled "Mad Fat Wife"), in which Eddie Murphy dons fat black female drag to play Rasputia, a "monstrous woman" who forced the hapless Norbit to be her boyfriend as a teen after protecting him from schoolyard bullies, and then again forced him to marry her as an adult. In the film she is portrayed as loud, disgusting, and her sexual desire for Norbit is fodder for joke after joke. She is the main obstacle between Norbit and his dream woman, played by Thandie Newton. Basically, this movie covers every negative stereotype about fat women's sexuality and fat women in general. We're loud, and our bodies are laughable until you get intimately close and then they're just nauseating. We have to force ourselves on partners, physically if necessary, and we are disposable once the partner can trade up for a better model. Other movies involving fat suits include the infamous Shallow Hal, where Gwyneth Paltrow had to don a fat suit to play Rosemary, the love interest for Hal. Hal had been cursed by self-help guru Anthony Robbins to see women's inner beauty as their external appearance, and thus does not realize that Rosemary is fat and by extension ugly, necessitating him being "rescued" by his friends until the curse wears off and he realizes his mistake. In this case, the familiar stereotype of the "pretty on the inside" fat girl is employed. At the end, Hal realizes he loves Rosemary for who she is, despite her fatness, and goes back to her. Because, of course, in order to be loved and valued as fat women, our partners have to look through our fat to see our inner beautiful woman.

As the plus-size fashion "revolution" has gained steam, more attention is being paid to the possibility of fat as sexy. But whereas the fat burlesque world that has experienced a resurgence in popularity over the past few years actively promotes participation in displays of overt sexuality by women of all sizes, the acceptance of plus-size women in fashion, at least in the mainstream media, is limited to certain types of fat bodies. Primarily those with comparatively small waists, large breasts and large hips. Yet so dangerous is even this limited fat female sexuality that ABC would not air an ad by plus-size lingerie retailer Cacique (a Lane Bryant brand) because it was too racy. Although, as has been pointed out numerous times, the network has no problem airing ads by retailer Victoria's Secret which are objectively more aimed to titillate than the Cacique ad. The reaction to this ad as "too sexy" is in contrast to the reaction to many fat burlesque shows featuring performers with significantly different body compositions, who have been labeled "grotesque" by some ignorant folk.

Clearly society is not all that clear on how it wants to treat fat female sexuality. On the whole, larger fat women are far more vilified than their smaller fat counterparts. It's murky as to whether or not acceptance will work its way up the scale anytime soon, but some progress is being made and women are carving out spaces for themselves to feel and act sexy, in venues like the previously mentioned fat burlesque world, in work like Leonard Nimoy's The Full Body Project (NSFW) and Fat Bottom Boudoir (also NSFW), which feature fat, primarily female-identified femmes in seductive poses. If society could see fat women through the lens of these artists, there would be no question as to the beauty of fat women's sexuality.

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40 Comments Have Been Posted

Just to be clear, and I in

Just to be clear, and I in no way mean this in a critical way, when you use the word "fat," do you mean simply all the women who would, say, be turned down if they applied to be runway models for most high-fashion companies? At what point, exactly, is someone "fat"? The bodies mentioned above are all very different (I am loath to include the fatsuit characters as "bodies," but they are representative, however problematically, of actual physical realities--I'll leave the horrid characterizations out of this), but they are still all considered under the umbrella term "fat"?

I think we had this conversation

I think we had this conversation in the comments of my second or third post here, so if you check that out and are still confused, come back and I'll try to explain it more clearly to you.


Okay, thank you. I've been remiss in keeping up with these blogs, so I guess I missed a few. It's been a while... But yes, my memory is sufficiently jogged.


Playtex also uses larger models for their ads but I guess they're fine because the message is comfort and practicality not sexiness.

I usually watch

I usually watch TV off my DVR or I Netflix so I fast forward through commercials. I haven't seen the Playtex ones so I can't comment on that.

The problem with Leonard

The problem with Leonard Nimoy's photo project is that he has said explicitly that he himself does not find these women attractive. To me it reads and feels like they are just props despite his artist's statement about exploring the cultural moorings of beauty.


I haven't looked too far into Leonard Nimoy's project (today is the first I heard of it) but regardless of the issues or his motivations I think that the "these women respect themselves and I hope that comes through in the work" ([paraphrase of end of artists statement) is pretty nice

I think his motivations or

I think his motivations or feelings about the project don't detract from the way the women are depicted, which appears to be with respect. They're still beautiful, regardless of whether or not he personally feels that way, they are pictured as such.

I think half the time it's

I think half the time it's simply important for fat men and women to be visible. If they are only shown in headless crowd shots to scare people of the "obesity epidemic" that's they only way fat people will ever be viewed. I think, regardless of his personal preferences - simply allowing them to be visible is so important. That's another reason I've actually become a supporter of the ABC Family show HUGE - having fat teens visible is SO vitally important to other fat teens. They know they aren't the only ones out there and these people who LOOK LIKE THEM are on tv.

Why does he have to find the

Why does he have to find the women in his photos sexually attractive in order for his project to be valid to you?

if he said he DID find them attractive, people would be saying that he's objectifying their bodies because he's sexually attracted to them and all they are to him are a piece of meat.

Either way, he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. We all have different sexual attractions, and I don't think anyone should be criticized either way, ya know?

Fat Sexuality

Way back in the day, Ms. Wendy Jo Sperber was the woman of a certain size in lust with young, thin, sort of cute Tom Hanks. Hanks love of a distant future was the ultra thin and very blond Donna Dixon - as a teen who was thin (110 lbs, at 5.6) and curvy, yet often told she was fat....I found the 'jokes' of Ms. Sperber's character and her lust for a 'normal' guy completely was confusing......She was beautiful, fun, intelligent and right there paying attention to him. Yet, he couldn't see her. While Ms. Dixon was selfish, flighty and couldn't see him. His lust however was seen as reasonable, while her's was obnoxious and unbelievable.

This was the first instance I noted of larger women allowing themselves to be the joke, I didn't get it then and still don't. Now at a size 18- I have a fabulous boyfriend that lusts after me and no wanting of 'attention' from men in general. I watched Norbit and didnt' laugh and refused to watch Shallow Hal- there wasn't anything funny - I still don't get it......Whats the joke?

I feel the same way about

I feel the same way about there not actually being a joke, but for people whose minds are set a certain way and aren't interested in challenging that, it's fuckin' hilarious.


ObGeek: Wendie Jo Sperber's character was in love with Peter Scolari's character, not Tom Hanks'. I remember because I identified with her and agreed with her choice, since I always go for the nerd.

Shallow Hal.

Can I just add something? In Shallow Hal, the movie ends with Hal saying how beautiful Rosemary is and then running away with her. I agree with your assessment of it as problematic, but it's not as bad as it could have been. I think Jason Alexander's charachter was the real problem in the movie.

Jason Alexander's character- yup

He was throughly disgusting.

Here's a theory: Not all men are like this- or attracted to the skinny I can count your ribs gals. And this is fine. Persoanlly, I don't find blonde men attractive. Nothing persoanl. Just how I am. But, media representation is a problem- I wonder - is it just a certain kind of guy who is attracted to the uber-thin, usually portrayed (I say portrayed cause c'mon guys- these models are working) as slutty, the guy who likes this, I'm guessing 18-25 ish, middle america, does he spend more money? Does our every day run of the mill casual gent a bit tighter with his wallet? I wonder...

As a side note, in the last 3 years or so, I've dropped approx. 50-60 lbs., half by choice, half medical reasons. I was a "thick" girl before, and any of you ladies who listen to any kind of rap music know what this means. I was bigger, but I guess it was mostly in the right places. Mostly. Yes, I was called fat on a daily basis, but I was also hit on by BOTH sexes SO much more back then. Now I'm a size 4 or 6, and man I so miss my jiggle. So very much. (dramatic sigh here).... No accounting for people's taste. Media says lose, society says you were fine. Or at least they hit on you more back then.

I think Jason Alexander's

<em>I think Jason Alexander's charachter was the real problem in the movie.</em>

To me the whole movie is the real problem because it was chock full of cheap fat jokes at Rosemary's expense to demonstrate the lack of awareness of her size that Jack Black had. I'm sorry, but tacking a wack "oh you're beautiful after all" ending on to a long string of fat jokes just doesn't erase the rest of the film.

Why is the model for this

Why is the model for this story big-busted and curvy, and not just plain fat? Gives a mixed message, imho.

To illustrate the point...

I think Tasha used this photo to illustrate her point that "the acceptance of plus-size women in fashion, at least in the mainstream media, is limited to certain types of fat bodies. Primarily those with comparatively small waists, large breasts and large hips."

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Because of what Kelsey said,

Because of what Kelsey said, but also because that's the girl in the Lane Bryant ad I referenced.

Right, I was just going to

Right, I was just going to say, the image was pulled from the Lane Byrant campaign, illustrating the point at which a body becomes too threatening for prime time.

From the ad

The pic is a shot from the Lane Bryant ad mentioned in the post

The photo is a screencap

The photo is a screencap from the Cacique commercial that ABC refused to run. The woman is Ashley Graham, one of Lane Bryant's regularly appearing plus-size models, who was the subject of the advertisement.

"Clearly society is not all

<i>"Clearly society is not all that clear on how it wants to treat fat female sexuality. "</i>

Actually, society seems emphatically clear about where it draws the line between "sexy" and "grotesque" on a woman of size. An all-around waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.7 is strongly preferred by men all around the world. Dominant paradigms further influence how this ratio is "supposed" to look on a body (i.e. distribution between butt, thighs, hips). A waist-to-hip ratio of larger than 1.0 is generally construed as unhealthy (reasonably so; abdominal-obesity correlates with higher rates of coronary disease).

Much as I dislike evolutionary psychology, this particular facet does explain a big part of our cultural response to fat women in media, and why we seem to prefer pear-shaped ladies over apple-shaped ladies.

Evolution made me do it

Well there you go.


Thank you for this piece, especially the Fat Bottom Boudoir link; those photos are gorgeous!


I need to get to Seattle (with $400+...) as soon as possible. The manfriend has a birthday coming up, hehe.

What really bothers me too

What really bothers me too is how men who love fat women are treated (and how the women are treated in turn). For example, Pierce Brosnan is married to a beautiful woman who is also fat (I still don't like using that word, but for the context of this article, I'm using it). And here's this gem:

Anyways, it's their relationship and it really bothers me to hear people talking about what a problem her weight must be in their relationship. It's none of their business.

And the thing is, are women who love fat men criticized? Hardly. Yet Brosnan has been criticized repeatedly and for what? Because his wife doesn't look like a supermodel? Different strokes for different folks, y'all!

Hi If anyone can't find the


If anyone can't find the experiences of women being criticized for dating fat men, it may because they were not looking hard enough or looking at all. Stereotyping fat men as living a "charmed" life does not help bring fat people together to fight fat bias.

It's just not in mainstream

It's just not in mainstream media. However, if you look at television sitcoms, there are countless examples of thin, gorgeous women who are married to fat men who are balding, etc. And it's never an issue on the show.

I just honestly haven't personally encountered it. That's not to say it doesn't happen, but it's not as highlighted as much.

I know my experience is just

I know my experience is just that: my experience. But I gotta tell you, I have never encountered a person who didn't cosign my, "OMG JOHN GOODMAN IS SO FREAKING HOT." and I've gushed about Mr. Goodman to a <em>lot</em> of people. Perhaps, I just run in more progressive circles, but I'm not entirely convinced of that. That said, Mr. Goodman benefits from class, race, height (He's 6'0ish) and that <em>voice</em>, nevertheless, regardless of what kind of roles he plays, he seems to enjoy unconditional positioning as "sexy", which usually doesn't result in someone saying he'd be foxier if he dropped some weight. I don't seem to recall the same benefit afforded to his co-star Rosanne, who personally, I always thought was really pretty and who seems to get more attractive each year (to me, anyway).
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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Vonnegut.

Perhaps people could look at

Perhaps people could look at all the commentary he's getting about his weight now that he's lost a hundred pounds. It's nasty, typical, fat-hating nonsense. It gets old being everybody's clown, goofball, teddybear, over/under sexed, neanderthal, joke (which is typically the acceptable range of possibilities for FAT men in this society, even while not dealing with sexism on top of it--unless they are trans men who, depending on how well they "pass" in this ridiculously cissexist society (oh, intersections!), deal with a particular brand of nasty cissexist failsauce that cis people rarely have to even touch, can't even scrape the surface of). Believe me, while it is critical to recognize/understand how sexism intersects with fatphobia, there is simply nothing empowering about the way fat men are treated in a fatphobic society.
It's obviously not necessary or likely that that will get explored on this or most blogs, but those are the kinds of conversations that are happening out there in some of our circles.

Probably not the response you were looking for...

but instead of hitting the link in your comment I just looked up pictures of Brosnan's wife and:Woo-Hoo! freaking gorgeous... in a bikini I might add. And I don't think I'm being all "everyone is beautiful / free to be you and me" about this. It looks to me like she would fit the "preferred" proportions from the "Anonymous" post above very nicely: "An all-around waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.7 is strongly preferred."

Which is all just to say (after I stop drooling) how outrageous it is to try to shame her and her husband and family. It doesn't matter how "perfectly" or "beautifully" fat you are (just trying to extrapolate "society's standards") you are still unworthy of being the loved wife of a famously handsome man.

Crap to that, I say!

I will second this...

outside of the celebrity world, when I was packing on 50-60 more pounds and was quite a bigger gal (was around 180, 5''7'- now around 120, same height obvi.) my boyfriend of 10 years got quite a bit of flack for it from a few of his close buddies and actually his dad, who is quite the womanizer. There's also the added bonus of women everywhere talking behind their hands about us, and then slink up and try to chat him up. Beauty and the Beast. My boyfriend (now fiance) is, well to put into simple terms, is breath-taking-ly gorgeous by most people's standards- he's 6''7, 200 lbs, and has olive skin and one of those rugged manly faces that belongs in a Calvin Klein ad- long long hair and stubble. He looks like a model or a modern day Jesus (not to offend, he just does). I love that my guy really does not understand the fuss over his beautiful face, and I never worry about the girls throwing themselves at him b/c he doesn't even notice the pickup lines. Nonetheless, him dating this plain rolly poly of a gal rubbed a couple of his friends the wrong way, and his dad was livid- and let me know. Apparently how awesome I am didn't matter. The friends my guy just kinda made clear- "you are an idiot, so shut the hell up or get out" so we don't see much of them any more- but dad is a whole diff story. Lucky me though- apparently I'm "ok" now that I've dropped the weight, now if I could just get rid of my disability & sarcastic tendacies - he'd be ok with me =) he still slips his son phone numbers of girls he thinks he might like though.

The other thing notable

The other thing notable regarding Brosnan's wife - the lovely Ms. Keely - is how much of the criticism centers around the fact she <em>used</em> to be smaller and should focus her efforts on returning to her former size (without any analysis as to what it might have required for her to maintain that size) rather than celebrating the fact that she has been a loving and supportive partner and co-parent to person whose previous partner DIED of cancer! I find the attacks on Brosnan so vulgar. My goodness, his first (and he seemed to assumed would be his only) wife freaking died. He's now partnered with someone he cares for deeply. If he finds her sexy in a bikini (and she looked lovely and HAPPY to me) why would anyone (not saying Bitchies are doing this) assume he cares what folks think about his wife's size?


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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Vonnegut

Exactly, like there was

Exactly, like there was something WRONG with her for gaining weight in the first place, and that there's something wrong with Brosnan for being with her and not forcing her to lose weight, and how he gushes about how much he loves her and loves her body and thinks she's the sexist woman alive.

I really, really have to admit.... reading his comments about how much he loves her and thinks how sexy she is made him that much more of an awesome man, and it made me feel better about myself. I used to just hate my body and now, I'm fine with it (but still have to lose weight because of medical reasons).

And to hear people criticize him (and her) just pissed me off. Let the man love his wife!

Thank You for Not Making Conclusions

While I was reading the post, I was starting to get anxious that your ending would have some great big conclusion about how all media and all society treats all fat women, but was really glad to see you accurately describe an all-over-the-map message. There are places that I can find fat women not being treated like Rosemary on Shallow Hal or Norbit (you can add the Nutty Professor movies too). Maybe not many places, but they exist.

And thank you for making a distinction between our views of larger fat women and smaller fat women because unfortunately, I have been conditioned to judge larger fat women under the guise of health issues while really it's just unacceptance.

The funny thing about all this fat hating is, who is it intended to protect? What is the intended purpose of making fat women out to be hilarious and disgusting? One of the moderators on this show ( talked about it serves the greater purpose of maintaining class lines, but I wonder what will happen when the wealthier classes get fatter, as is currently happening (ie. have you seen price tags at Lane Bryant?).

P.S. Did anyone see the fat woman/en in the indie movie City Island? Spoiler Alert - The young man in the movie has a fetish of watching fat women eat and definitely not in a degrading disgusting way, but in a loving way. While the initial reaction of the audience, was "no way, gross" the movie later shows him sharing a huge meal with his new young girlfriend and the fat lady next door that does cooking porn. It played as very sweet (kinky, but "normal"). While I think it may misrepresent the eating habits of fat people - I don't eat huge meals like that every day - I thought it was interesting that this kid was considered a fetishist for simply loving to see a woman pleased with food.

too gross AND too sexy

I wrote about this back in April when the "controversy" first happened. When fat female sexuality is portrayed, it is disgustingly excessive, which can be either humorous or disgusting, and often both. A fat woman is only okay when she fills an asexual, maternal role. It is impossible for her sexuality to be normal. Women who are physically larger than the ideal, while still fitting the "correct" proportions (like the model in the ad), are automatically assumed to be hypersexual because of the size of their secondary sexual characteristics.

More here: <a></a>

Thank you!

Hey, Tasha! Thanks for the shout-out! I'm really happy to be doing my part to make the world sit up and take NOTICE that fat women are here, sexy, and not ashamed to show our skin. :)

BBW sexuality

At one point I was a webmistress for an adult site. There was one video which featured a plus size woman, an average size woman, and a very skinny woman all involved in various sexual activities. Viewing the plus size and average size woman behaving sexually was not disconcerting, but watching the skinny woman was because although her face was that of an adult, her body looked like it belonged to a pre-pubescent girl. I couldn't understand how any man (or woman) could find this erotic. The other two women were built like women rather than young girls.
I'm not saying that skinny women can't be sexual either. It's just that when one thinks of an adult woman, one usually imagines curves.

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