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.