The XL Factor
Inside the secret erotic world of women who say fat is fabulous
In the past year or so Lucy* has gained one and a half stone. Since she has always been a 'big girl' -- 5ft 8in and 17st -- she's not absolutely sure her husband has noticed.
"He hasn't said anything," says Lucy. "Though if I'm 100% honest, I do think he finds me less attractive."
One thing is certain -- he'd be horrified if he knew the reason behind his wife's weight gain. Lucy (39) meets men on the website Fantasy Feeder, and, if she likes them, agrees to an online feeding session. About once a week, when she knows she'll be home alone, her children at after-school clubs and her husband at work, Lucy sets up her laptop in her bedroom or front room, and closes the curtains.
With her 'feeder' watching via webcam, she eats as much food as she wants or as much as he tells her. Sometimes she is fully clothed, sometimes barely. A typical blow-out session could involve a bag of supermarket doughnuts followed by a pint tub of Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
On another occasion Lucy devoured a whole chocolate cake in one sitting.
Even when she isn't being 'fed' Lucy is deliberately eating more food, bigger portions. "Essentially, I'm a foodie," she says, "but in the past I probably held back. Now if I want something I just eat it.
"I know this will sound completely alien, but I've always liked the fact that I was big -- and I'm turned on by men who feel the same.'
Lucy is a secondary school teacher and the mother of two girls, aged 12 and nine. Since the age of about 11, when she was only "slightly chubby", she has felt differently about body size to everyone around her.
"I've never had any interest in being slim," she says. "I know we're all supposed to aspire towards a size zero.
"I can honestly say that if by some miracle I woke up tomorrow having lost half my body weight I'd be devastated."
For most of her life Lucy kept her feelings to herself, until five years ago when googling brought her to Fantasy Feeder. Here, people swap high-fat recipes ('Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie, 500 cals a slice!'), post pictures of their naked flesh and compliment one another on their weight gain.
The site works as a dating agency and much of it is given over to the exchange of explicit fat fantasies.
At the same time the discussion forum boasts a section devoted to 'fat liberation' where there is heated debate about size politics. It was six months before Lucy dared join the site and another four years before she started posting.
"If it wasn't for the internet," she says, "I'd still think I was the only person in the world who felt differently about weight."
And who would blame her? Magazine covers and billboards tell us that female beauty comes in a size eight or under, and without cellulite or stretch marks.
For anyone overweight each day brings a new diet that will help them shed pounds. An obese woman may be mocked, despised or pitied. No one would imagine for a moment that she had eaten her way there by choice.
And yet some do just that. Although Fantasy Feeder is one of the better known, there are many more websites and blogs dedicated to weight gain. Some participants practise alone, while others are spurred on by 'feeders' -- mainly men -- who tell them what to eat and praise their expanding size.
Until recently the issue had remained underground, with most participants keeping their habit hidden from friends, family, even partners. The American gainer Donna Simpson has raised its profile by announcing her intention to reach just over 71st, which would make her the world's fattest woman (in March she weighed in at 43st).
Simpson, who met her partner/feeder on a plus-size dating site, represents the extreme end of gaining. Far more typical are women like Lucy who dip in and out the scene and live perfectly ordinary lives -- yet feel a secret thrill each time the scales register a rise or their clothes feel a bit too tight.
It isn't hard to find critics of gaining -- perhaps the most vocal are from the so-called size-acceptance community, grass-roots activists who grew out of the fat-pride movement of the late 1960s and fight discrimination against overweight people.
"It's dangerous and exploitative," says Fatima Parker, president of the Size Acceptance Association. "There's a difference between someone accepting you for who you are and someone trying to make you actively bigger."
Parker's view -- echoed by many -- is that most gainers are women with low self-esteem who have fallen prey to predatory men.
"I understand it," she says. "If you are big, you spend your life feeling unattractive, unloved, being ostracised, and then you find a man who tells you he finds you sexy and he wants you to eat more.
"You'd give your life for it. It's a way of feeling cherished and loved -- but the feeder isn't happy with you being a size 16; he wants you to be a size 32 or a 45. It's about power and control and it's a dangerous game."
Tracey Nelson, a healthcare consultant for plus-sized patients -- and plus-sized herself -- agrees. "As a fat woman you are denied the chance to enjoy food under any circumstances," she says.
"It must feel amazing to find a community that doesn't want you to lose weight, to be able to sit opposite someone -- whether it's in a restaurant or on a webcam -- who doesn't look at you and say, 'Do you really need dessert?'"
Lucy recognises some truth in this. "When I look at some of the other female members on Fantasy Feeder, I do think quite often there is a hint of desperation for attention," she says, "but it's not true for me. My size didn't stop me getting male attention when I was single and I was never seriously bullied because of my weight.
"I've been surprised how many good-looking, intelligent, 'ordinary' men are on this site, and I'm doing this for my own pleasure.
"I'd never dream of doing anything I wasn't totally comfortable with."
Lesley Terry, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, in Canada, has made a study of gainers and believes there is more to it than manipulation.
"As with any relationship, when taken to extremes it can become dark and abusive," she says.
"However, many women gain independently -- with no feeder in the picture. "If you look through history, fat used to be -- and still is in many cultures -- considered beautiful," Terry continues.
'The stick figures that walk down the runway wouldn't be considered capable of surviving a famine or sustaining a pregnancy. In certain African tribes and in parts of Nigeria girls still go to 'fat houses' to be fattened up before marriage.
"In our own society we have completely different images of beauty thrown in our faces every day -- but that doesn't mean that there aren't those who have different preferences."
But what of the health implications?
Few can be unaware we face an obesity epidemic, linked to diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
"Feeders and feedees would argue that there are many things people enjoy that aren't great for health," says Terry. "Smoking and drinking or extreme sports are a few examples."
Lucy is still cautious, however. "I do worry," she says. "I'm a fairly active person -- I do a lot of walking and swimming. If a doctor told me to lose weight I'd rethink, but I wouldn't be happy about it."
Until that day comes she admits that she is becoming addicted to what she calls her "double life".
"It's almost like it's my escape," she says. "It's harmless online fun, and I have no interest in eating my way towards immobility -- though to be honest I'd be lying if I didn't say that the attention can be quite addictive."
In fact, one of Lucy's online feeders lives close to her and they are thinking of meeting face to face. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before her gaining spills into her real life one way or another.
* Name changed