"My Tummy Returned To Its Former Glory:" The Controversial World Of Gaining

In the wake of Donna Simpson's pledge to become the fattest woman on earth, people who intentionally gain weight are getting more attention. And their politics are problematic to say the least.

The Guardian's Lynda Cowell spoke with university professor Emma Allen, and a number of other "gainers" who didn't give their full names. As Cowell notes, their lifestyle reverses the mainstream dieting script — says one woman of her weight gain, "Those three months were the most liberating of my life; I could feel the fat going back on. My tummy returned to its former glory – fat, soft and flabby, just how it should be." Cowell explains that another gainer, Helen Gibson, "has a picture in her head, she says, of what she will look like when she is fat." Gibson adds, "With each mouthful, calorie and year, I am on my way to achieving it." Like many who strive for thinness, Gibson has a mental image of a perfect body. But her image requires her to eat, not diet, and rather than subscribing to the all-too-common "nothing tastes as good as thin feels" ethos, she appears to view fatness as the welcome result of dietary hedonism.

For many of the gainers Cowell interviews, fatness is at least in part a sexual choice, and Cowell notes that this may provoke comparisons to feederism, portrayed in a 2003 documentary as "relationships between men and the overweight, vulnerable women they chose to fatten to immobility and beyond." Though the women Cowell spoke with "seek to gain weight of their own volition," any association between fat and sexuality tends to lead to charges of fetishism, as a guest blogger on Shapely Prose who "think(s) fat women are sexy" once attested. Even more controversial than the sex angle, though, may be the connection women draw between gaining and fat acceptance. Allen's description of her pregnancy sounds familiar:

It was like a religious epiphany. I remember having this incredible feeling that I could think about what was good for me, instead of calories. The possibility of thinking about food differently was a big turning point.

Her words sound like an endorsement of intuitive eating, of health and healthy body image, all relatively basic tenets of fat acceptance. Like many in the FA and Health At Every Size communities, she's also been an activist, fighting against size discrimination. Yet Allen has also gone one step beyond acceptance, actually seeking out weight gain. And here some fat acceptance advocates may part ways with her.

A cornerstone of FA is the notion that diets don't work, and that many people naturally have fat bodies even if they eat as little, and exercise as much, as others who are thin. By consciously overeating to become fatter, gainers turn this idea on its head. Though they're probably a tiny percentage of all fat people (and, as Allen notes, some thin people too are aspiring gainers), they may increase fat stigma by convincing the public that fat is, in some cases, a choice. Cowell notes that the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance "dismiss(es) gaining on health grounds" — it wouldn't be surprising if it dismissed the practice on political grounds as well.

But would it be right? Many claim that losing weight makes women "feel sexier" — is it any more unnatural if gaining weight makes some women feel sexy too? Arguments against size discrimination often state that there's "nothing wrong" with being fat — but what of those who find fatness desirable, even preferable? Of course, Donna Simpson's 12,000 calorie/day diet plan (that's her above) is surely unhealthy, and while Allen says she eats a healthy variety of foods, consciously putting on large amounts of weight must often require some inadvisable excesses. Then, too, there's the question of mobility — Simpson's bound to put hers at risk, and it's not clear how often gainers are willing to sacrifice exercise to achieve their desired shape. While gaining may not be wise from a medical perspective, it makes a bold statement: that fat should be celebrated, not merely tolerated. This statement may be problematic if it leads to sexual exploitation. But for those who see their own fat bodies as sexual and sexy, gainers or not, it may also be revolutionary.

The Women Who Want To Be Obese [Guardian]

Earlier: Living Large

Related: Guest Blogger BStu: "Differently Straight" [Shapely Prose]