What Does BBW Mean? One Take On This Divisive Term

BBW isn't a particularly difficult term to define. As Urban Dictionary will tell you, it stands for "big, beautiful woman." In other words, it's just another euphemism for "fat." And like all euphemisms for fat — be it curvy, voluptuous, plus size, queen size, husky, fuller-figured, plump, rotund, etc. — it comes with its fair share of divisiveness. Some folks find heaps of empowerment from the three-letter acronym, while others chastise its link to pornography, and thus to its role in the sexualization of women. Here's the thing, though: "BBW" is tied to the world of porn, and subsequently to the aforementioned sexualization of females and feminine humans. But the key thing to note here is that it's principally about the sexualization of fat women. Or in other words, to the women who, for the most part, grow up hearing all about just how undesirable their fat bodies are.

With the exception of Gabourey Sidibe's sex scene on Empire last month, I've never seen a fat babe (let alone a fat babe of color) getting jiggy with it on my TV screen. Sex in the media has been predominantly about thin, cis women and thin, cis men. For all its steamy yet teen-friendly sex scenes, the CW has never presented me with a fat vampire in Ian Somerhalder's bed or a plus sizer getting laid in some corner of the 90201. There is rarely fat sex in movies. So the idea that people can actually be sexually attracted to fat bodies, well, it must be a myth, right?

Well, it's not a myth; and that's precisely why I've always felt particularly drawn to the BBW descriptor. Despite its ability to polarize faster than a debate about the deliciousness of bubble tea, BBW, to me, has always been an admission. It's confirmation that fat people are having sex; that fat people can feel sexually empowered in their bodies; and that folks can be attracted to the fat bodies of others.

In conversation with fellow body positive activists or proponents, something I often come across is the argument that "BBW" is too interconnected with the fat fetish community to ever be empowering to women. And as Wikipedia will confirm, "It's frequently used in the context of fat fetishism," whereby "fat fetishism" can translate to "feederism or gaining, where sexual gratification is obtained not [only] from the fat itself but from the process of gaining, or helping others gain, body fat. Fat fetishism also incorporates stuffing and padding, whereas the focus of arousal is on the sensations and properties of a real or simulated gain."

Feedism is a sexuality typically rooted in feeder/feedee dynamics, where the feeder is a person who finds sexual gratification in helping a partner gain weight, while a feedee is a person who finds sexual gratification in gaining weight themselves. Independent gainers often identify as "feedees," and will gain weight for their pleasure even without the assistance of a partner, while mutual gainers partake in gaining together. But as an anonymous writer for xoJane noted, most public conversations about feedism "frame it as though the feedee is some kind of helpless victim who is being bullied into eating," adding, "It rings pretty misogynistic to me to assume that a woman (feedees are typically, though not always, women) who might be into eating a lot of food and getting fat must be being 'tricked' into it." Despite the arguable misogyny of assuming that all women who identify with an alternative sexuality must be manipulated into it, I'm willing to bet it's this fear that inspires people's distaste for the BBW label. After all, it's a label often used in porn, which means it's often used in fat porn, which means it's often used in feedism porn, which means it must be tied to the abuse of women.

I totally understand not wanting to be thought of solely in terms of one's body, so the "I Am Not A Fetish" mantra I see on social media hashtags makes complete sense in that respect. But I cannot support the fact that fetishes are so often seem deemed OK when they're being presented to us in terms of traditionally beautiful celebrities, while they're deemed worthy of vilification when presented to us in terms of bodies far from the beauty standards set by the mainstream. Sexuality, like gender, is such a fluid thing. We all have preferences and kinks and things we like and dislike in a partner. Yet when it comes to expressing fat sexuality, it's like we've built ourselves a nice little wall behind which we can pretend that fat people don't get laid, or want to get laid, or think about being laid.

"Fetishism," like "BBW" itself, doesn't have to be a treacherous word, though. As with any sexuality, there will be seedy people who subscribe to it. But those people shouldn't be representative of an entire community at large. Those people shouldn't be representative of the BBW models autonomously fighting for their right to sexuality. Or of the fat admirers who want to be honest about their preferences without being called perverse for it. As Bustle's Courtney Mina wrote on embracing the term BBW, "The 'fetish' community [...] gave me a safe space for exploration. When I finally felt the freedom to feel sexy, I was able to begin building my confidence up in all other aspects of my life as well. I felt stronger as a woman, more powerful, and certainly more sure of myself after embracing myself as a BBW."

We live in a culture in which things like, "Fat isn't sexy," or, "No fat chicks allowed," or, "Fat is disgusting," are things uttered constantly, without an "in my opinion" disclaimer that would prevent the statement from being factually incorrect. But these statements are factually incorrect, because no one person has the right or ability to define what is and isn't attractive to other people.

Of course, pornography, like all industries in this world, has more than its fair share of issues, and its link to sexism and misogyny has been discussed for decades. But we need to start talking about the fact that women watch porn, too. Because of this latter fact, it can only be a good thing to see that BBW label on porn sites — hubs where folks of all genders can turn to for representation of sexual bodies not often represented or validated in most other mediums that could actually allow for it.

It's possible that as the fight for plus size bodies on all points of the plus spectrum continue to fight for visibility, inclusivity, and equality, we'll begin to see "BBW" creep up more and more in positive connotations. Heck, in his own dude-ly way, Drake is arguably helping that happen already. In the meantime — our individual thoughts on porn aside — I would suggest continuing to think of BBW as precisely what it stands for: A descriptor for big, beautiful women who are, for the most part, still deemed unsightly and unattractive by much of mainstream culture. And as an outlet for people to express their thoughts on and interpretations of fat sexuality, whatever that might mean to them. At the end of the day, fat people are getting it on too, and there's absolutely no shame in recognizing as much.

Images: HMSVintage/Marie Southard Ospina (1); Urban Dictionary (1); StaceyTorresArt/Etsy (1)