Fat Gay Men
Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma
To be fat in a thin-obsessed gay culture can be difficult. Despite affectionate in-group monikers for big gay men–chubs, bears, cubs–the anti-fat stigma that persists in American culture at large still haunts these individuals who often exist at the margins of gay communities. In Fat Gay Men, Jason Whitesel delves into the world of Girth & Mirth, a nationally known social club dedicated to big gay men, illuminating the ways in which these men form identities and community in the face of adversity. In existence for over forty years, the club has long been a refuge and ‘safe space’ for such men. Both a partial insider as a gay man and an outsider to Girth & Mirth, Whitesel offers an insider’s critique of the gay movement, questioning whether the social consequences of the failure to be height-weight proportionate should be so extreme in the gay community.
This book documents performances at club events and examines how participants use allusion and campy-queer behavior to reconfigure and reclaim their sullied body images, focusing on the numerous tensions of marginalization and dignity that big gay men experience and how they negotiate these tensions via their membership to a size-positive group. Based on ethnographic interviews and in-depth field notes from more than 100 events at bar nights, café klatches, restaurants, potlucks, holiday bashes, pool parties, movie nights, and weekend retreats, the book explores the woundedness that comes from being relegated to an inferior position in gay hierarchies, and yet celebrates how some gay men can reposition the shame of fat stigma through carnival, camp, and play. A compelling and rich narrative, Fat Gay Men provides a rare glimpse into an unexplored dimension of weight and body image in American culture.
"Jason Whitesel is a leading star in the new academic discipline of fat studies, a field of scholarship that critically examines societal attitudes about body weight and appearance, and that advocates equality for all people with respect to body size. There is surprisingly little research on weight-related stigma and weight preoccupation among gay men. For this book, Jason spent two years conducting an ethnographic study of the Girth & Mirth gay male social movement, attending over one hundred events. I recommend it highly."
—Esther Rothblum, co-editor of The Fat Studies Reader
"Fat Gay Men is fascinating look at the world of men who are doubly stigmatized by body size and sexuality. It captures the courage and humor by which they confront fat-phobia in gay culture as well as in larger society. An original, impressive contribution to LGBTQ, gender, body, and performance studies."
—Kathleen Blee, author of Democracy in the Making: How Activist Groups Form
"In his lively (and fabulously titled) Fat Gay Men, Jason Whitesel, a gender studies professor at Pace University, attempts to rescue these guys from the bottom of the homosexual heap."
"Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma captures the immediacy of the joyful and affirming performances that larger gay men use to challenge various aspects of fat stigma and the sometimes traumatizing life events that animate the resistance of ‘big men,’ while at the same time making all the necessary connections with the evolving theoretical literature. Ethnographers typically exhibit skill either in thick description or in theoretical interpretation. Jason Whitesel is the rare ethnographer who has clearly mastered both."
—Peter Hennen, author of Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine
"[Whitesel] presents his subjects with respect and affection, and delineates his own path through their reality with appropriate circumspection . . . In his account of big gay men reinscribing their desirability, Whitesel adds to the sociology of sexuality, class and embodiment. It is a welcome divergence from the many representations of gay men that reduce them to (often mindless) Adonis stereotypes, and it is warmly recommended to all would-be ethnographers.”
—Times Higher Education
"[T]o say the field is overwhelmingly concerned with fat female experience is something of an understatement. . . . [I]t has meant that studies of fat men and, more so, of gay fat men have, until now, been few and far between, making Whitesel's Fat Gay Men a welcome and much needed addition to the literature of the discipline."
—Journal of Gender Studies
“Fat Gay Men is one of the first sustained studies of the politics of fat, gay male embodiment in metropolitan Western culture. Although it is an academic monograph, Whitesel’s accessible, lively writing style – and command of the critical material – would also make it an excellent text for undergraduate teaching….Whitesel’s own emotional investment in the politics of this group is extremely engaging and infectious and so all readers, whether gay, straight, fat or thin, should feel they are not simply reading about the subcultural activities organized by Girth & Mirth but instead recognize and relate to this narrative of struggle on the road to acceptance.”
—Sociology of Health & Illness
"This examination of fat gay men, a marginalized and stigmatized group within the already marginalized and stigmatized group of homosexual men in general, is a critical missing piece in GLBTQ studies . . . [a] valuable contribution for those interested in fat studies as well as gay studies."
"Fat Gay Men is a well-written, insightful, and fascinating examination of how big gay men cope with fat stigma by using a variety of techniques to reconfigure their shame. It is unique in being the first book-length ethnographic study of fat men within the thin-preoccupied gay culture."
"Even though gay men have bear culture, Whitesel argues that fat men still exist at the margins of gay culture. . . . Whitesel uses his own insider/outsider status as a gay man to critique the gay rights movement, looking at the ways in which gay fat men are battling stigma, and questioning why the social consequences of being fat and gay are so extreme."
—Advocate.com, "18 Must Read Books We Missed Last Year"
“Whitesel is refreshingly self-reflexive about his role as a researcher, his ‘thin privilege’ and the methodological techniques he employs. A particular strength of the text lies in its ability to capture the highly personal experiences and narratives of participants with sensitivity and insight; this is a testament to Whitesel’s strengths as an ethnographer and his ability to access insider knowledge.”
—European Association of Social Anthropologists
"[A]n interesting look at how a doubly marginalized population negotiates and reconstructs stigma by coming together to perform ritualistic acts in order to regain a consciousness of normalcy in their lives. It’s an important source for understanding the subjective experience of being fat, suffering as an interactive experience, and the reactive comportment to size discrimination in gay society.”
—Communication Booknotes Quarterly
"Whitesel does the Girth and Mirth community justice by giving them a platform for voicing the pains and pleasures of being fat and gay in contemporary American culture."
—Journal of Homosexuality
“Whitesel gives good insight into an interesting subculture…Whitesel’s work is important, well written and helpful.”
—Sexuality and Culture
“[…] Fat Gay Men will undoubtedly prove to be a useful text for scholars across disciplines, particularly those interested in cultural sociology, ethnographic methods and methodology, fat studies, disability, gender, sexuality, and queer studies.”
“The language in this book is playful and erotic, while still offering readers observant insights into the lives of those skirted to the edge of the gay community. I recommend Fat Gay Men to anyone who is interested in reading a book about courage, stigma, pool parties and sex—this book has the potential to liberate peoples’ assumptions of what being a big, gay man means in society.”
—Queer Brown Voices
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