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I spent my whole life not being noticed — so when I finally was, I didn't know how to feel.
As an obese woman, I’m used to being the butt of jokes. "Nice ass!" I’ll hear walking down the street in my neighborhood, but when I turn around , I see a saucy teenager, surrounded by his guffawing friends, pointing to my posterior.
In college, frat boys asked for my phone number as their friends roared with laughter in the corner. Once, some kids even shot me with a pellet gun, right in the rear — and drew blood. After every one of these verbal or physical assaults, I’d shrink a little inside (if not on the outside).
Most people get to escape the torments of middle school once they outgrow it. For those of us who are heavy, the torments continue, often for life. Which is why, when the compliments finally started coming, I couldn’t quite believe them.
"I think you are beautiful. You are not too fat."
I replayed the breathy voicemail, not sure whether to be flattered — or appalled.
It was from a man who said his name was Stephane, and apparently, he’d come across my YouTube series with videos of me training for a Kilimanjaro trek — and liked what he saw. "Fly with me to Gabon and be my wife," he said in another. "My girlfriend won’t mind."
And the simple: "You’re a big woman. I love that."
"Just stop calling," I said, finally, swiping my screen to turn off my phone, wishing I had been more careful about posting my number (meant for people to reach me about speaking engagements) on my website. In addition to Stephane’s calls, there were emails and comments from several other men wanting some big love.
These men had seen enough to know they wanted to meet me — all 300 pounds of me.
Maybe it was my fault.
I’d produced a series of YouTube videos meant to get other plus-sized people to be more physically active. But my inspirational spots had seemingly found another following: a group known as Chubby Chasers, men who prefer their women big, and for whom the sight of my butt, as wide as a redwood, was a major turn-on.
My clips are not what you’d call sexy. In every one, I’m dressed in a t-shirt that barely fits over my hips and XXXL sweatpants that nevertheless tug at my thighs, my hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Typically, I’m sweating through burpees and bench dips, my excess folds flopping all the way.
But to this group of flab aficionados, I was just the right size.
For the first time in my life, people wanted me for my body, and I wanted to crawl out of my skin.
I never set out to attract men who like big women. I’m happily married (to a normal-sized guy) for one thing. But somehow, a link to my videos ended up on a sex website for Chubby Chasers and suddenly, dozens of guys of that persuasion were mine for the choosing. To keep my YouTube channel clean, I had to scour the comments, deleting the perverse, though I’ll admit, I was tempted to keep "I’d like to offer you in marriage to my brother" and"I love your booty."
Love my booty? My booty is so big that I sometimes worry that if I sit too hard, I’ll smash a chair. Fittingly, "Amazing ass" was the first comment on my website.
When I noticed it, I got giddy, the same way I might have if a cute guy had a crush on me in high school. Except no one did. I was the fattest kid in my class. So I had to conclude that the complimentary comment — and the others that followed — were just another in a long line of jokes about my body.
But the comments, kept coming, telling me how beautiful I was, how desirable. I wanted to be delighted with them, to think I was all that, but my mind wouldn’t let me. Instead, I worried that my husband, a fit marathon-runner, walk one day walk out on me because of my weight, despite the fact that when we met, 15 years earlier, I weighed 360 pounds.
Despite his love, I assumed men would despise my body.
Now, apparently, I am a fetish. How can it be possible that people desire me?
My body is the shape of a bottom-heavy pear. From the waist up, it’s hard to tell that I’m plus-sized. My rump and hips, on the other hand, barely fit in the largest plus-size clothing. On airplanes and trains, I take up a seat and a half.
It’s true that asses of my size have been mythologized in our culture — Sir Mix-A-Lot’s "Baby Got Back" and Queen’s "Fat Bottom Girls" come to mind — but I’ve never managed to muster up the same appreciation for my girth. I’ve been trying my best not to be sexy, one bite at a time, since I was 12 years old. That’s when my brother’s nearly adult friend sexually assaulted me. He did this three times before I mustered the guts to tell my mother, who called the police. He went on to a juvenile center; I went on to gain 40 pounds that summer.
By the end of high school, I weighed more than 200 pounds; in college, I topped out at 300. Over the ensuing years, I gained and lost as many as 120 pounds, my mounds and ripples of cellulite compounded by birthing two beautiful daughters.
For me, food — and the extra layer of fat it created — offered protection against unwanted advances of men, as well as comfort in good times and bad.
Yet with each pound I gained, I loved myself less. The ironic thing is that I’d found a partner who really did love me — who even seemed to appreciate my body — and not because he had a fetish.
Chris’ love surprised and delighted me. We started out as friends, but after several years of being there for each other, we realized that we were in love. When I was on the brink of moving to California for my first job as a newspaper reporter, we kissed at my going away party. He stayed over that night, along with a few other straggling guests, and in the morning, he serenaded me with The Cars’ "Who’s Going to Drive You Home?" on the karaoke machine I had rented for the occasion. His voice was beautiful coming out of the scratchy speaker, but I couldn’t help thinking, "I can’t believe he’s singing to me in front of all these people — even my brother."
After I left, he sent mix tapes — Van Morrison, REM, Enigma, Dave Matthews. Each track made me long for him. Within a year (and thousands of frequent flyer miles), I moved back.
Despite the tapes and the serenade, my husband isn’t one to dote.
He doesn’t bring home flowers for no reason, but he does clip newspaper stories he thinks I’ll like and never fails to bring me a cup of coffee when I wake up. And when the calls started coming, he was as concerned as I was. As we contemplated calling the Consulate of Gabon to stop Stephane from contacting me, I asked Chris if my size was a turn on for him, or just a matter of fact.
"Let me put it this way," he replied. "Before I met you, I didn’t go visiting websites for guys who like fat girls and I still don’t."
His answer didn’t surprise me. I’d always assumed that Chris loved me in spite of my too-ample body, not because of it.
Still, I had to ask the question: "How could you love me when I’m so fat?"
"I love all of you," he said, snuggling me in to safety.
I appreciated the reassuring words, but it’s tough to believe that he loves my ripples and curves and cellulite and arm flab. When we make love, or whenever I’m naked, I insist on lights off. And yet, he keeps coming back for more.
All my life, I’ve dreamed of dropping pounds, signing up for one diet program after another, from delivered meals to Weight Watchers. Usually, I’d end up choosing the sweets instead of following the regimen, which made me feel like a failure in life, despite my success as a writer, a speaker, a friend, wife and mother.
Perhaps for a moment, in Chris’ embrace, I could finally feel grateful for all my body had done for me.
I hiked Kilimanjaro three times.
I birthed two children.
Each day, I am able to walk with strength and power.
For a moment, I could close my eyes and believe that I was an attractive woman, that I was loved fully, a love as full as my round, yet strong, supple body, for the woman I am.
I decided I would turn off the comments from the YouTube channel. The comments were not helping me in my quest for self-love. They just freaked me out.
Just then, my phone buzzed again.
"Is that your stalker?" Chris asked.
"You better watch out," I said. "I’m a hot mama."
Kara Richardson Whitely has hiked Mount Kilimanjaro three times while weighing as much as 300 pounds. Why three times? Because sometimes that’s what it takes to get over something. She finishedGorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds (Seal Press), her inspiring and empowering book about the experience, while working with Cheryl Strayed in the French Alps.
Kara, who is also a motivational public speaker, has written for Self, Everyday with Rachael Ray, and Runner’s World magazines. She was recently featured on Oprah’s Lifeclass, was one of Outside magazine's 127 Defining Moments finalists, and has been written about in Redbook and American Hiker magazine. She lives in Summit, New Jersey, with her husband, Chris, and two daughters.