When Elisabeth, a 34-year-old lawyer, first signed up for OkCupid back in May 2014, she didn’t have high hopes. Online dating can be hard for anyone. And for fat women, it’s often downright unforgiving. But when one of her law school friends — who was starting to date again after a divorce — asked three of her former bridesmaids, including Elisabeth, to sign up in solidarity, she figured she would create “the single most obnoxious version” of herself for her profile. She had tried online dating off and on for years, carefully curating the most polished version of herself — to no avail. So, her “obnoxious version” of a profile prominently featured photos of her with her cat. She was upfront about her flaws and sticking points. She was also unapologetic about the fact that she’s fat. She wears between an XL and a 2XL in dresses and between a size 16 and 20 in pants. “When you’re a fat woman online dating, there’s this mind trap you have to fall into with photos — because if you take a photo with a good angle and good lighting and with the right makeup and clothing, you can shave off a pretty good amount of weight,” she told me in an interview in December. “But you don’t get all of those factors when you sit down at the first date and meet them in person.” (Throughout this story, last names are withheld for privacy reasons).
Though Elizabeth took a laissez-faire approach to romance and relationships while in school, as she got older, she began to wonder if she was emotionally “making the excuse not to date and not have to take a look at how I was being perceived by people I was interested in.” Stepping out of that mindset meant approaching prospective dates with candor — while also protecting herself emotionally. “When you really say, ‘Yes, I’m fat,’ when you meet me, ‘you’re going to see a fat person’ — that cuts out a whole swath of people,” she explained.
Fortunately, Chris, 39, an administrative assistant, wasn’t one of those people. When he came upon Elisabeth’s profile, he was taken with her photos: “My thought was, Oh, what a cute kitty. And then I thought, Oh, she’s cute, too,” he told me. “She had a great smile and fantastic blue eyes.” The two of them quickly bonded over cats and Stephen King books and they shared a similar sense of humor.
Chris said he grew up with parents who believe “pregnancy is the only reason a woman is allowed to be overweight, and even then, when she comes out of the hospital afterward, she better be back to her ideal weight.” He said he “ran screaming” from their prejudices.
“There are so many people who aren’t within what the BMI chart says,” he said. “Why are we going to make that one aspect of a person to be elemental?”
“When you really say, ‘Yes, I’m fat,’ when you meet me, ‘you’re going to see a fat person’ — that cuts out a whole swath of people.”
When he came across Elisabeth’s profile, “I knew she wasn’t 120 pounds — which isn’t my type,” Chris said. “I didn’t really have a type when I got on OkCupid. I hadn’t dated in more than a decade. All of this was very new to me because I had just started transitioning. When I met Elisabeth, I had just legally changed my name; I just started with all male pronouns.” Like Elisabeth, he also didn’t anticipate meeting someone; mostly, he wanted to approach dating with a sense of possibility. A relationship that was founded on a shared passion for horror novels and Irish comedy series has blossomed into a five and a half year marriage. They’ve built a life together in Louisville, Kentucky. During that time, Chris gained weight; he started out wearing a medium T-shirt and 32x32 pants, and he’s now a 2XL in shirts and 40x32 pants. It hasn’t changed his relationship at all: “We don’t get enough chances for happiness,” he said. “If you find someone and you think you maybe have that chance to be happy together, go for it.”
Elisabeth and Chris aren’t just another online dating success story; their courtship also reveals an important truth: Fat people can have healthy, satisfying romantic relationships. They can also have great sex, despite media depictions of fat people as the wisecracking yet wistful single sidekicks to the thin leads in many a romantic comedy, a multibillion-dollar weight-loss industry that equates having a slimmer body with greater personal and sexual fulfillment, and ads for dating apps that only feature thin, model-perfect people.
As Kimberly Dark, a sociologist at California State University, San Marcos, and the author of 2019’s Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old, sees it, this social stigma around fat bodies has cosseted our views about who is considered desirable. “We live in a culture that tells us fat people are lazy and stupid and disgusting and gluttonous and unhealthy,” she explained. “A lot of our unconscious bias makes it hard for slender people to consider fat people attractive, and it also makes it hard for fat people to find fat people attractive — including themselves.” This internalized self-loathing is particularly devastating because it affects a person’s ability to believe in their own desirability. “If you don’t find yourself attractive, then it’s a barrier to intimacy,” Dark said. “It’s hard to understand why someone wants to love and be intimate with you if you don’t conceive of yourself as being totally hot.”
In his role as an education director for Good Vibrations, an adult boutique focused on sexual health and wellness, Andy Duran, 36, an Oakland resident, sees how these barriers have blocked some fat people from fully enjoying themselves sexually. “[There are people] who are trying to hide their fat from their partner,” he explained. “What I try to do in those situations is just remind people that their body is completely deserving of pleasure,” he said. “You can actually find situations when you feel completely and authentically sexually seen for who you are.” Andy, who described himself as living “between the large fat and super fat ranges,” said this message is highly personal. “As a person of color, as a person of size, as a queer and trans person, I’m used to not fitting in, which has pushed me to have to get comfortable really quickly with who I am.”
Getting comfortable with himself has compelled him to examine his own internalized fatphobia. As a teenager, he realized he was attracted to other fat teens — which filled him with an unexpected anxiety and sense of exhaustion: “It was like, Oh, I’m going to have to convince someone that I’m worthy of dating and loving. I don’t have space for that times two. But being outside of conventional heteronormative spaces helped him embrace this attraction, and his own fatness. “Queer sexuality has often had to be more discovery-based — and when it’s explorative and discovery-based, it tends to be more pleasure-based,” he said. “There is more variance and understanding, and I think that’s very true for a lot of different types of sex and sexuality.”
Healing some of the collective wounds around fatness, sexuality, and self-worth means diversifying who we see speaking about sex and dating. After one workshop, Andy remembered, “A younger, larger Black man came up to me and said, ‘Thanks for representing the big guys.’ It really meant a lot to me.” The drive to broaden our conversations about dating and desire has also animated Carly, 33, a pleasure educator, blogger, and Bronx native. Carly, who wears a size 18 to 20, said “I’ve always known fat people could be desirable, even if folks don’t want to publicly admit it.” This was her advice to other fat people who are working up their confidence to date: “Remember this: The person there with you in the room — they want to be there. Don’t question someone's intentions if they’re sharing pleasure with you. Unless you think they’re using you, just focus on shared pleasure.” Using moments of intimacy — whether we’re with a partner or on our own — to pamper and explore the parts of our bodies that we might normally feel ashamed of can feel redemptive and cathartic. Carly suggested trying actions like “rubbing your belly with luxurious oils, or your thighs with soft feathers.”
Being fat doesn’t have to mean feeling lonely and self-pitying — though as a child, Laura, 35, a teacher in the DC metro area, believed she was doomed by the numbers on her scale. She received a clear message from pop culture and her family that being fat made her ugly. They told her, “You will only be able to be with other fat people.” Her grandmother told her that lesbians made themselves fat to make themselves unattractive to men. Laura remembered desperately flipping through the wedding announcements in the newspaper to see the newlyweds’ body sizes, finding only thin couples or partners who were both fat. For years, she struggled with “feeling like shit” because she was never able to get thin.
“I’ve always known fat people could be desirable, even if folks don’t want to publicly admit it.”
Time, therapy and coming out helped her heal. When she started dating women at age 17, she had an epiphany: Oh, I’m not a hideous creature, I can pursue someone and be successful. As she became more at ease with her own attractiveness, Laura, who said she is “medium fat,” started dating women of varying body types, including those who were thinner, the same size, and bigger. She realized that the negativity she’d internalized was “bullshit.”
“Even if I did end up with someone fat, that’s not a bad thing,” she said. “I had a series of experiences that blew up old ideas.” When she came across the OkCupid profile of her now-wife, Sandi, she was instantly smitten.
Though Sandi, a 36-year-old editor, is also fat and inherited the same cultural and familial narratives about size and attractiveness, she didn’t believe them herself. She attributed her ability to shuck off these stories to a friend who exposed her to body- and fat-positive messaging. That confidence enabled her to take any rejection in stride. “If someone didn’t want me, it feels like they lost out,” she said.
Laura certainly didn’t lose out. The two began dating in 2013, and they married in 2017. But confidence, like all things in life, is never perfect; over the course of their seven years together, Sandi gained some weight. She’s not sure exactly how much, since she doesn’t weigh herself but thinks it was in the range of “a couple of pant sizes.” She became anxious about her relationship. “When we got together, I was one size and now I’m another,” she said. She wondered, Will that be okay? Is that not what Laura signed up for? Is that still cool? “I definitely asked for reassurance and received it,” she said. “That is a way that societal crap still manifests in me and therefore in our relationship.”
Hannah, 27, an administrative assistant and freelance musician, has had to work to get rid of thoughts that she needed to be skinny to be desirable, but being cherished by a loving partner helped. Before she met her boyfriend, Dan, on Hinge back in May 2019, the Hartford, Connecticut, resident consistently messaged with men on the app, only for the connection to falter before it was time to meet in person, which she suspected was related to her size. “It felt like guys were waiting for the next best thing, so they were entertaining themselves with me,” she told me. Sometimes the cruelty was more overt: “One guy was like, ‘I’d date you if you stopped smoking and lost weight.’ Like, straight to my face.” These experiences were markedly different from the dating life she knew in college, when she was thin. Before she gained weight, she said, “It was like every guy was messaging me, hitting me up.”
As Hannah’s body changed, she noticed that men’s interest waned. This behavior aligned with messages she got about her body shape and weight from her family, which was preoccupied with fitness and diet and exercise, and from a culture that gave her the perception that she needed to be tall, skinny, with a symmetrical face and long hair, “like your typical model.” When she met Dan, she weighed 220 pounds; however, an illness caused by gallstones (she said she was scheduled for surgery in March 2020, which was delayed by the pandemic), prompted a sudden 60-pound weight loss in six months. “You better believe it was celebrated by my doctors, though,” she said, “because any weight loss for a fat person, even achieved through starving, is good weight loss.” Hannah said her relationship with Dan has been very healing and helped her love herself.
Dan, 28, an engineer, is a self-described “tall, skinny guy” who likewise grew up with those cultural messages about desirability. “In guy circles or locker-room talk, there’s definitely stereotypes around body type or body image where it’s like, [if] she’s fat, it’s automatically like she’s undateable,” he said. “I always thought that was dumb.” He also found his time on dating apps to be lackluster, in part because they emphasize appearances above all. His top priority on the apps was to find a partner who could also be a best friend, someone he could have real conversations with. He thinks he’s been able to resist the cultural mandate to have a thin partner.“I’m a very devil’s advocate person, so I like to argue,” he said. “I don’t like to follow that norm.”
“I feel called to be trans, queer, fat-attracted, and have a fat partner and to advocate for trans, queer, and fat people. … I get that fat attraction would look very different in a society that loved fat people.”
Still, that “locker-room talk” also characterizes anyone who dates a fat person as a weirdo — a “chubby chaser” and malevolent fetishist who’s out to take advantage of someone’s perceived loneliness and vulnerability. As a sex therapist and fat woman herself, Tamara Pincus, 44, is well acquainted with these stereotypes. The Northern Virginia resident said there are differences between those who find fat people sexually desirable, “people who have a broader sexuality and fatness is hot for them,” and people who “just want to fuck and leave, and they want somebody who’s fat to do that with — and sometimes that comes with an aspect of degradation about it.” Pincus, who is polyamorous, explained, “All of my partners are into fat women in the sense that they are into me, but one of them really enjoys being small next to me. That size differential really turns him on. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have an emotional relationship. That’s just part of what’s sexy for him.”
Pincus advises any fat person who wonders whether their current partner is genuinely into them or just momentarily indulging in a furtive desire to ask themselves the following: Would this person be willing to be seen in public with me? Would they stand up to friends who start fat-shaming or getting into diet talk? Are they invested in fighting discrimination against fat people? These questions can be an ethical and emotional foundation for a relationship between people of different sizes.
For someone like Mycroft, a self-described faith leader, caregiver, and part-time transcriptionist, being a thin person who is attracted to fat people means confronting the stigma as a social justice issue. “I personally don’t believe that you can be ethically attracted to a group and not do advocacy for them,” Mycroft, who is 44, told me. “I feel called to be trans, queer, fat-attracted, and have a fat partner and to advocate for trans, queer, and fat people. … I get that fat attraction would look very different in a society that loved fat people.”
Mycroft (who wears a women’s size small or medium) met their spouse, Julia, (a men’s size 4X or 5X) through an online forum for fat people and allies. Though they have been together for over 10 years, many days still present challenges, most of which revolve around other people’s prejudices. “When we’re out in public, the likelihood that people recognize us as a couple is not very high,” Julia, 50, explained. “We don’t align with what people perceive as romantic coupledom because I’m a masculine-presenting woman and I’m fat, and Mycroft’s not.” People at the Maryland grocery store that she and Mycroft frequent think they’re siblings. They’ve also been mistaken for roommates or platonic friends. “We’ve been on the train and we’ve started to be romantic, and people look over at us like, ‘What’s going on over there?’” Mycroft added. “‘Are those two mismatched weirdos actually a couple?’ Why, yes. Yes, we are. And just wait until you see all the other couples your sheltered self has been missing.”
Even spaces that should, on the surface, seem safe haven’t been as welcoming. “When we go out into the fat community or the queer community, people still struggle,” Mycroft said. Some so-called fat-positive communities value more conventionally feminine-presenting large bodies, and some LGBTQ spaces value thinner bodies. And both groups have their own unfortunate shares of sizeism and ableism. Still, the biases of others haven’t deterred Julia’s belief that she is worthy of love.
In late adolescence, she realized that there were people out there who would be into her; as she got older, she had asked herself whether she would reciprocate that desire. By the time she’d met Mycroft, she was in grad school, focusing on fat studies. She found a group of scholars, artists, and activists who had found romantic and sexual partners. Seeing that fat people can enjoy all the treasures of love and the joy of good sex, that they can be desired and show desire without judgment or recrimination was crucial to her growth. “It wasn’t like I didn’t live in a world with a fat-positive community that could show me successful relationships and successful ways to have sex and pleasure in a fat body.” ●