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Research: Body Image Subculture

News Story

Dyson Assistant Professor at Pace University, Jason Whitesel, PhD, shares his ethnographic study on the lives and interactions of fat men within the gay community.

“I started my research as part of my dissertation,” explains Dyson Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University, Jason Whitesel, PhD. “I was always interested in gay men’s body image and the community hierarchy that comes with it.” But it wasn’t just body image that interested Whitesel; it was also fatphobia (i.e., the systematic oppression and devaluing of people based on their weight and body shape and size).

While in grad school, Whitesel got in contact with a local chapter of Girth & Mirth, an international social club for large, gay men. This niche organization works to foster a fun community where its members can meet and mingle for potlucks, nights out, game and movie nights, and weekend retreats. Additionally, the organization strives to create positive perceptions of fatness both in- and outside the gay community.

“They’re a group of big, gay men who’ve created a nurturing society for themselves, albeit in the margins of the gay community,” says Whitesel.

After gaining entrée into a Midwestern chapter of the organization, Whitesel was able to start attending meetings and gatherings, thus launching his ethnographic study through field notes and conducting in-depth interviews with members. Through his research, he was able to write Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014), an in-depth examination about what it means to be fat in a thin-obsessed world.

At Pace, Whitesel is teaching the students in his Queer Theory course about reclaiming insulting language—words like “queer” or in this case “fat”—and while the reclamation is powerful and transformative, it is important to remember that these words are steeped in a history of shame.  Fat shame, Whitesel believes, will never go away, but the men of Girth & Mirth do things to reduce it by reacting to the shame creatively and actively.

“There was one Girth & Mirther who used to make a big deal of celebrating birthdays,” Whitesel recalls. “If you were the lucky—or unlucky—birthday boy, you were treated to a campy and queer parody performance of Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President.’ It wasn’t exactly drag, but it was a playful sort of subjectivity, and that’s what Girth & Mirthers do, they nurture one another’s joy.”

The concept of one particular, idealized body type within the gay community is also routinely challenged by the mere presence of the big men in Girth & Mirth. When they march in Pride parades, for instance, they are often met with derision of the ‘Here-comes-fatty’ variety, or they are applauded and cheered with ‘Here come the big daddies’ for offering an alternative to the stereotypically ideal gay male body.

“When I first started my study, I was very anxious and worried that I was going to come away empty-handed in terms of data and research. I thought I had a failed project because everything seemed so ordinary,” says Whitesel.

Instead, what he learned over time was that what he had anticipated being a group reaction to body fascism, was actually just a group of men who were struggling to carve out an ordinary place for themselves.

“There’s real joy in the group, there’s mirth in Girth & Mirth,” he says. “A lot of the time, people focus on the trauma or social injury these big men feel for being pushed to the margins of the gay community, but it is important to note that that injury or trauma is what animates the community. It is what animates their joyful disregard of shame.”