Secret life and unstudied passion of men who like their women large
July 16, 1998
By Alfred Lubrano
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
They love the largeness, savor the feel of fat.
Fat is more feminine, they say. Fat is more fun.
For men known as fat admirers -- FAs, as they call themselves -- Cindy Crawford is a genetic joke, Nell Carter is a goddess, and guys who chase thin women are running down the wrong road.
"I'll take the vulgar teasing from people who wonder what planet I'm from," says Paul Delacroix, a slender Texan married to a woman he describes as "super-sized." "I'm not upwardly mobile, so I don't need a size 9 woman on my arm like some Fortune 500 guy.
"I like round bellies, large rears and big thighs. FA's like the same things all men do. Just more of it."
Unstudied and often misunderstood, FAs are thin and average-size men who prefer and pursue large women, many of whom weigh 250 pounds and more. Given the pervasive societal prejudice against fat people, FAs are often erroneously considered to be sick or perverted, psychologists say.
While FAs remain a "mysterious" group because they were never the subject of serious scholarship, they're certainly not dangerous fetishists to be shunned, says Kelly Brownell, a Yale University professor of psychology, epidemiology and public health, and a leading expert on obesity.
It's pretty simple, really: On a scale from waif model to 350-pound fat woman ("fat" being the term most preferred by NAAFA, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a civil-rights and social organization), most heterosexual men would date and marry average-size women, says Brownell. But you'll always have a few who go for the extremes: the very thin and the very fat.
"It's not deviant or abnormal," Brownell says. "It's part of the natural course of things. Fat admirers are small in number, but they still exist. Who knows what it means to love large bodies? There's not much scientific we can say."
Ask an FA to explain his preference, and he often can't. The inclination, he'll say, is innate.
"It's built into me," says Dave Teich, an average-size FA from Monmouth County, N.J., married 22 years to Bobbi, who is 5-foot-2 and describes herself as "very large."
For many men who prefer fat women, the experience is akin to being gay in a straight world, says Albert Stunkard, a noted University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist and obesity expert.
"Like gay people discovering their preferences, fat admirers learn at 14 or 15 that they like to be with fat women," Stunkard says. Men talk about being "in the closet" about their unpopular affinity until they "come out," he adds.
That's how Teich, 46, sees it. "You hear stories of gay people who grew up in isolated places where no one tolerates diversity," he says, "and you grow up feeling you're the only one like this. That's the way it was for me."
Cartoonist Ned Sonntag (46, 5-foot-10, 190 pounds), a Massachusetts FA married to 500-pound actress Katy Dierlam Sonntag, says he grew up in Indiana, then moved east, searching for something he couldn't get from "slender WASPs" whom he found unappealing.
"I wasn't happy until I went to Brooklyn, which was chock-full of chubby Russian Jewish girls who made life pleasant for me from then on."
As a child of the 1960s, Sonntag grew to embrace his propensities as part of an anti-establishment stance.
"If the powers that be say it's wrong, maybe you've discovered something," Sonntag says. "Certainly, being fat in society gives women a radical and eccentric point of view I enjoy." Beyond that, he adds, "I just love the rounded visual image, the babylike look, even the feel of fat."
That's just not a popular stance in a country of stomach-staplers, diet-pill gulpers and teenagers vomiting to maintain size 6.
So disgusted was FA Bob Sponaugle's family over his choice in women, they have refused to meet his wife, Linda.
"My parents don't want anything to do with her," says Sponaugle, 47, of Atco, N.J., a self-described "chubby, not overweight" man of 5-foot-9, around 200 pounds. "I was married once before to a fat woman, who my parents also never met. The best thing with my parents is a don't-ask/don't-tell type thing."
"Based on the fact that I'm fat," says Linda, 41, who does not want to reveal her weight, "his family discriminates against me. It hurts."
"Fat is more feminine," says Sponaugle, suffering because he's unable to bring the people he loves most into the same room. "Because I love women who are more than just a few pounds overweight, it makes things rough."
Sponaugle's family is not atypical. People don't like seeing thin men with very large women, Bobbi Teich contends. It offends them. "Certainly, any outward public show of affection brings reaction," she says. "If a large person has a mate, it just skews whatever rules people have in their heads. Fat is bad, so you shouldn't [ be living with ] an average person, who's seen as a good guy."
No one knows how many FAs there are, Brownell and Stunkard say. Interestingly, half the 1,750 men who belong to NAAFA are thin or average-size, says Sally Smith, executive director of the 5,000-person organization. They need a place to pursue their preferences in peace, says Smith.
Thin women who prefer fat men exist, of course, but because many women don't place as high a premium on the appearance of their companions as men do, female FAs have little trouble finding guys, psychologists say. And anyway, Smith says, society doesn't condemn thin women for being with fat men.
One guess is that 10 percent of American men are FAs, but that's just a rough estimate based on surveys taken by Dimensions magazine, a national publication out of Sacramento for FAs and the women they love.
Dimensions associate editor Ruby Blickenstorfer, who weighs about 350 pounds, is herself married to an FA, the 6-foot, 165-pound, "very elegant" Conrad.
"He was married once before to a beautiful Italian girl who did not want to gain weight," says Blickenstorfer, 52. "He said when he was with her that something was missing.
"I said, 'Yeah, about 200 pounds.' "
Blickenstorfer laughs sometimes about the FA/fat woman connection, but acknowledges the complexities of such pairings.
Often, FAs will write to the magazine saying things like, "I love my wife, but she wants to diet. What should I do?"
"I say let her diet," Blickenstorfer says. "Ninety-nine percent of diets fail anyway, and women always gain back the weight, plus more."
One of the most hurtful tags hung on FAs is the term feeders -- fat "enablers" who like their women to be fat, even when the women don't want to be, even when doctors say it's unhealthy to be obese, defined by the World Health Organization as anyone 30 to 40 percent over ideal body weight, Brownell says.
All their lives, fat women have been told they're worthless by family, friends and a culture that demands thinness. If a man likes her, they figure, there must be something wrong with him. "Why does he love me when I'm disgusting?" Blickenstorfer says. "Well, until these women can learn to love themselves, they can't see how others can love them."
Women tell their FA partners that they want to be loved for who they are, not simply because they have fat bodies. "But I tell women that admirers can't help it if they love your fat body," Blickenstorfer says. "You're casting aspersions against their taste."
Some see an inherent hypocrisy in the FA/fat woman linkage. "It aggravates me when I hear fat women say they only date thin guys," Linda Sponaugle says. "When you're discriminated against, and most men won't talk to you because you're not a size 8, I don't think you can turn around and do that yourself."
Many fat women say they've never been out with a fat man in their lives, notes Kathleen Noon, chairwoman of NAAFA's Philadelphia chapter. Such women, she says, are subject to the same stereotypes as others: Skinny Brad Pitt is worth more in the sexual marketplace than corpulent Luciano Pavarotti.
And, Noon adds, that reality isn't bound to change soon. "NAAFA people don't criticize women for wanting thin men because, unfortunately, they're the majority in the group," Noon asserts.
As long as fat women exist, they'll find men who want them.
Of course, there are caddish FAs with one thing on their minds, Noon says. Those who show up just for sex lose interest in women if they lose weight, she says. And many FAs lack the courage to appear in public with their big women, Bob Sponaugle contends: "They'll have a thin girlfriend to show off and the one they like better" waiting in her home.
NAAFA's Sally Smith says she'd love for all members of the FA "subculture" to feel free to express their preferences. But, as long as Americans believe it's safe to discriminate against fat people, that may not happen soon.
"Fat women are told that if they don't conform to conventional beauty, we are worthless," says Smith, who's planning a "Million Pound March" in August in Santa Monica, Calif., to celebrate the vitality of fat people in the face of adversity. "That's why it takes a lot for a man to come out of the closet and say fat women are what he likes."