I often identify myself, with some pleasure, as fat. Just as often, there's a flurry of anxiety around my use of the word, as if I am judging myself harshly in some fashion.
‘Fat’ is an insult here in the US, where I've come of age, and I rarely hear it without some commentary on a perceived lack of hygiene or intelligence. Ever since I started calling myself ‘fat’ as a way of combating my own prejudices about the term, I have been constantly corrected, told that I’m a Big Beautiful Woman, I’m just curvy, I’m pretty, not fat...like there is some contradiction. But I actually like the word ‘fat.’ ‘Fat’ implies something more juicy...fruitfulness, and richness. It’s succinct. I feel like the term “BBW” fetishizes my fleshiness, makes my body about my perceived beauty and therefore sexual value to others, while “fat” allows me to take up space for myself. I feel less and less like apologizing for the term -- not to my family, not to my friends, and certainly not to my clients.
My body's attractiveness has been vital to my work since I started seriously pursuing the adult industry at twenty, spanning various areas from professional domination to escorting, from pornography to live sex shows. I have been (dare I say consciously) working in sex for most of my adult life. Because I’m employed within an industry where certain specific beauty standards are considered to reign supreme, many expect that I would have to mold myself into a Stepford heteronormative sex worker of sorts. I often hear shock when I come out. “Really?” they gasp, “but you don’t LOOK like a Boston escort!”
The implications of that statement are not unfamiliar to me. I’m not the depiction of "escort" the male gaze markets on television, nor am I a sob story or a capitalistic fantasy. Hell, I’m not the standard of attractive they’re marketing to you either. I’m 260 lbs, with often multicoloured streaked hair, tattoos, in jeans and sneakers as often as I present high femme. When I walk down the street, my fatness is impossible to hide, and makes me vulnerable, particularly to sexualized, and often violent, attention. Ignoring or rebelling against catcalling often leads to threats intermingled with statements about how grateful I should be for the sexual harassment. The implication being that as a fat girl, of course, I’m lucky to be thought of as desire-worthy at all, even if that desire is violent or unwanted. This view tends to render the idea of someone paying me for adult entertainment mind boggling. My refusal to see a client has often led to being insulted and physically threatened for my fatness, again feeding off the idea that I am ungrateful for not taking all opportunities given. I am lucky to have privilege and not have to see such people anyway, despite their attitudes. I know not all sex workers are as privileged.
Publicly, I may be ridiculed, threatened with rape, given unsolicited suggestions on diet or exercise, or asked about pregnancy. Privately, however, I am sought out. The first break I got was when I started using the term ‘Big Beautiful Woman’ on my ads and site. Before then, I used ‘curvy’ or some other euphemistic term. When I stopped and used ‘BBW’ instead (in the interest of using a term I saw more women my size embracing), I got more queries, more excitement, more...letching.
The thing I realized is that I was attracting men who were more interested in fetishizing my body than relating to me as a person. I could feel myself being assessed and categorized by their gaze and it made me feel disassociated and strange. When I related my experience to other sex workers I know, I found that some trans* women empathized in particular - the terminology of fetishism, specifically when focused on ones own body, feels uncomfortable at best and deeply traumatic at worst. Even if a person thinks you’re a “goddess” because of your body, being put on a pedestal is still just another form of objectification, and that's just not my kink.
But many of the clients that I see are too embarrassed by their attraction to a fat woman to date one, or even to be seen with me in public. When fat people are ridiculed publicly, those who desire them stay silent for fear of being dragged down as well. It’s like any other form of bullying. There is a shame for us both -- for him in being interested in my thick thighs, my soft belly, my large breasts, and for me in possessing a body made of these during a declared “war against obesity.” My flesh is resistance to a medical establishment that demands that I lose weight before they investigate my symptoms, a humiliation scene I did not consent to and yet somehow pay for as much as it is a stand against homogenized standards of beauty.
And it is not just the clients who are supposed to hide their desires. There is an expectation, if you’re queer and in the sex industry (particularly professional domination or prostitution), that you will likely feign heterosexuality in order to make your clients feel comfortable. Many sex workers create a whole persona that they slip into along with their sex work drag when they go to work. As a fat sex worker, I found myself facing a choice: I could do the same and potentially see clients who, in their shame about desiring me, might shame me as well or act violently towards me. Alternatively, I could take my fatness and my inability to hide it as a cue and refuse to deny my queerness in my work either, to embrace that side of me in my sessions.
Even as I found my own stride, I struggled to get recognition from others within the queer sex work community, particularly in the area of pornography. It’s hard enough to market the non-male gaze oriented queer erotic on its own - with every identity you add (person of colour, trans*, non-binary gender, fat, disabled) a sex worker can see their work possibilities get fewer and further between. While some queer sites enjoyed working with me, others would consider me less marketable than slimmer, more fit queer performers and would decline in the interest of more success. Just as the outliers of the queer community found to be true of the greater Lesbian/Gay movement, sometimes your own community will employ the same “acceptability” policing techniques as society in the name of “the greater message.” “We’ll come back for you,” they say, to the trans* people fighting for gay rights, to the fat sex workers asking to work in queer porn. “When we succeed, we’ll come back for you.”
History shows that to be unlikely.
The experience of being fat, queer, and a sex worker crash together often and sometimes unexpectedly. One such example is my style when I see a client: Many fat sex workers (including Dallas escorts), or alternative looking queer ones, suggest that a female-identified person starting out in the adult industry play up a high femme look in order to succeed. I worked initially with one professional domination house (a sort of kink-focused, non-sexual “brothel” for dominatrices) who insisted I wear black lingerie, stockings, and black pumps, even though it wasn’t flattering on my figure and I was not particularly feminine at the time. Instead of looking graceful and elegant, I looked awkward, teetering in heels that fit uncomfortably and wiggled when I walked. Rather than commanding authority in session, this attempt to submit my fatness and my queerness to this particular male gaze fantasy woman ended in many twisted ankles. It took a month before I went independent and found my power in queer femme, with buckled boots and ‘90s era flowered minidresses mixed with leather collars and studded bracelets.
What I have discovered in my years of work is that though, by using the term “fat” unapologetically, I may get less work than sex workers who more closely follow the media-created ideals of sensual femininity or fetishize their non-media-normalized bodies, my clients also tend to be more interested in me as a person. They are forced to acknowledge my opinions and my politics by engaging with me, and it’s on my terms. Talking to other sex workers has given me similar stories; high femme (or high butch for male sex workers) may be more marketable, but also more exhausting and more expensive to maintain, while being genuine to a personal truth is less time consuming but can take a toll on client numbers and emotional state. It can become harder to separate sex work from recreational sex, and harder to “turn off” the need for strict emotional boundaries. It’s a tough trade off to make, and each provider decides on a balance that feels comfortable and manageable for them.
The divergence between what one publicly claims to desire (generally based on what is socially acceptable) and what one privately seeks brings to mind the multiple examples of anti-gay politicians or religious leaders who are later discovered in bathrooms on their knees. Hypocrisy is so common it has become a joke rather than a surprise. Some men who want to sleep with men are still afraid to admit their desire when male bisexuality is still seen as dangerous and risky, never mind if you have a faith that calls it sinful.
While I was thinking about this piece, multiple blog posts came to my attention that used the logical technique “reductio ad absurdum” to support gay marriage by showing how ridiculous it would be to forbid another group from getting married based on claims of disgust from people outside that group. Over and over, the group chosen for this analogy is fat people, resting on the unchecked assumption, and perpetuating the dehumanizing idea, that disgust is an acceptable and appropriate reaction to fat people. Jon Stewart and Dan Savage are two gay marriage supporters who have used this tactic. Libertarian blogger, Judd Weiss, took it a step into more graphic territory, similarly expressing his blatant fatphobia under the guise of humour and activism. You can find these quotes by looking up "ban fat marriage" and their names; I don't want to add to their page views.
These attitudes painfully reminded me of how some sex workers create hierarchies among their ranks, putting respect and rights for Chicago escorts above those engaging in street prostitution, or wanting to draw a line between sex work that involves physical sexual contact and is therefore illegal and stripping, or professional domination. I see the way that in our scrabble for rights, we throw each other under the bus, hoping to gain favour and forward momentum. I also see how it pulls us all back, and prevents us from working together, from bonding and becoming more powerful. By denying these intersections and silencing the voices of the marginalized between movements, I can’t help but feel that we are harming ourselves. This concern is particularly salient when taking into account the tension between what people privately seek as opposed to what they publicly claim to desire discussed above. Certain groups are left behind because it is assumed that their inclusion would make progress more difficult, but this assumption could be, and probably is, wrong. What is acceptable is inextricably tied to what is believed to be acceptable.
I am a fat, queer sex worker. It is as political a statement as my existence in a body, as political as my desire -- which is to say, completely, and equally not at all. What I mean by that is it can feel incredibly difficult to separate my body from a political sphere, when simply existing as a fierce fat femme is considered a middle finger to the status quo, even when I simply want to walk down the street to meet a friend, or perform on stage for the joy of it, or have sex on film because it’s sexy to me. My unapologetic success in what is considered a heterosexist, heteronormative, body-policing market suggests that perhaps the “erotic ideal” constructed by the male gaze is not truly the ideal at all. There is power in recognizing and embracing the places of our intertwined marginalizations and areas of privilege, and perhaps, with that, there is r/evolution.