There’s evidence that D.H. Lawrence enjoyed an erotic power exchange relationship with his wife, that James Joyce was into scat (among other things), and that Oscar Wilde—well, most of us know what Oscar Wilde liked. These literary geniuses explored radical sexual agency and desire in their work and in their relationships, but little beyond rumors and personal letters exist to tell us what they themselves thought of their turn-ons and the ways in which those dovetailed with their writing. Even if space for such a discourse and community had existed back then, Lawrence, Joyce and Wilde couldn’t freely discuss their sexuality. As it was, they faced censorship and generated scandal wherever they went, and of course Wilde went to prison for his sexual behavior.
Although our world is still intolerant of sexual difference, I want to believe we’re at a point where people can speak openly about the consensual ways we express our erotic selves. And I’m interested in the connections between those private expressions and the larger, more public work we do in the world. This series is meant as a forging of community; a validation of that which gets called sexual deviance; and a proud celebration of the complex, fascinating ways that humans experience desire.
In this ongoing series of short personal essays, writers in all genres—novelists, poets, journalists, and more—explore the intersection between our literary lives and practices and our BDSM and fetishistic lives and practices. In other words, these essays aren’t about writing about non-normative sex: rather, it’s a series about how looking at the world through the lens of an alternative sexual orientation influences the modes and strategies with which one approaches one’s creative work.
If you have questions or comments, or if you’re a writer who would like to contribute, please contact me at [email protected].
–Arielle Greenberg, Series Editor
Dropping Fictions and Gaining Visibility
Gainer. Someone who derives erotic and/or sexual pleasure from the act of eating and/or gaining weight (in this essay, I will be writing about men because my experience has been in the gay male gainer scene, but gainers and their fetishistic counterparts can be any gender). A gainer is always looking to grow, fantasizes about becoming bigger than they are currently. People on the gain may weigh themselves every day, count calories to make sure they are hitting their goal to get bigger, not maintain or lose weight. Contrary to how it usually works in our culture, losing weight is a gainer’s nightmare.
But a broad general definition applied to a group of people never encompasses all the variations and nuances. For example, in gainer culture, there are the men who prefer to keep gaining in the realm of fantasy and pad their clothes to give the illusion of size, of fat. They can indulge in the concept of size without having to live it on a daily basis: when the urge strikes to be big, they stuff pillows or other materials under their clothes or, if they have the means, don a purchased padded suit. Some gainers don’t consider the padders “real” gainers because there is not an actual physical change to the padder’s body. Those who believe this think the padders have it easy, in a part, because they don’t have to deal with fat phobia.
On the other end of the spectrum are the guys who want to be immobile. These men want to be so fat, so large, that it impedes their daily lives. They want mounds of flesh cascading down their sides until they cannot get out of bed. If they meet their goal, they may need help breathing. They may need someone to help wash and care for them. They only way they could leave their house would be to be wheeled out. This isn’t rare, but it isn’t the “average” gainer goal, either, and it’s not my goal.
The idea of someone, anyone, trying to police what is okay in any fetish is problematic, and I’m not here to do that. I don’t judge these other kinds of gainers, but these are not my personal goals.
I, too, am a gainer, and while I want to grow to a size that most civilians (the term for people who are not into the gaining scene) consider very fat or obese, I want to maintain mobility. I want to leave my house because I want the world to see how fat I am. I do not want to be a secret.
Encourager. Someone who derives erotic or sexual satisfaction from participating in the growth of a gainer. They may verbally encourage a gainer by reminding them to eat, asking for updates about what they have eaten, and pushing them to eat a little more even when they are full. They may praise the gainer for growing and reward the gainer by rubbing or squeezing the gainer’s belly or other areas of their bodies that have grown. They may cook or buy special foods for the gainer. They may set weight gain goals with the gainer. They may actually feed the gainer, sometimes with utensils, sometimes with their hands, and in some cases, a funnel. Encouragers can be nurturing or disciplinary, or a combination of these and other styles. The gainer wants to please the encourager, eat for them, grow for them. There is mutual satisfaction, gratification in this dynamic.
Example. A barista at my neighborhood coffee shop shares my fetish. We know this about each other because there is a social media site for male gay gainers that both of us are on, and I have face and body pics on my account. He doesn’t have any pictures, so when he messaged me to say hello and that he was the barista at my local coffee shop, I didn’t know which barista he might be. When I went to the coffee shop later that day, I watched, eavesdropped on the conversations the baristas had with each other, in an attempt to discover some clue that would tell me which one he might be. It felt like a movie, and I wondered if I should have taken a donut, and the one who asked just one? would be revealed as the mystery encourager. I had hopes for which one it would be—the cute one, as I called him when telling friends about him. When, in fact, the cute one, waved at me, and patted his belly, and I immediately heard Meg Ryan telling Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, “I hoped it would be you.”
The barista tells me on his break that he would have known I was a gainer even without seeing me on the site because I dressed in tight shirts that accentuated my belly, sometimes just barely covering it. But I look put together, not sloppy—my hair always done, my beard groomed. Because he’s an encourager, the barista notices how men who are fat accidentally or don’t want to be fat—who are ashamed of being fat—hide their fat, don’t know how to dress their bodies. They want people to ignore their bodies. But not me.
I sit at the counter, reading, or writing, and he slides a sample of milkshake toward me as he walks by. I arch my back, pretending to stretch when really, I am showing off my belly for him, displaying the growth he is helping me achieve. He asks me if I want more to drink or to eat. I always nod, and he always smiles. When I order a latte he switches the milk from 2% to half & half to ensure maximum calorie density. When he can, he doesn’t charge me for the extra things I eat or drink. Sometimes he gives me a discount. Often we never say a word to each other; no one else around us knows what we are doing, the fun we are having. We share these secret, erotic, experiences in public, in front of other people, and without ever touching each other.
But we are both the type for whom the unspoken only satisfies for so long. We want to give voice to what is happening. We whisper questions to each other. How long have you been a gainer/encourager? Our answers are the same: for as long as either one of us can remember. He wants to know how fat I want to get. I tell him 300 pounds is my first major goal. He likes the idea of me at that size. He tells me that he thinks my frame could handle 350 pounds easily. Encouragers have always been able to imagine more than I can, but I like the idea of 350 pounds. He asks if I have ever been fed, had my belly rubbed by an encourager.
Yes, I say to both. But it’s been a while.
About six months.
That’s too long, he says. He walks away to help another customer before I can agree.
Secrets never want to stay hidden, even if that’s part of their initial appeal.
There is an erotic charge in the secret that the barista and I share, but the day arrives when he wants to hang out after he’s finished work. I’m nervous and glad that he suggested this because although there is power in secrecy, too often that power transforms into shame.
We meet in the park at the end of the street. The illicitness is no longer enticing as I think about the history of gay men cruising parks because there was no other way to meet. He brings me cookies from the coffee shop. I eat them as we talk about horror movies, books we love. The barista wants to touch my belly, and I let him. It feels good—thrilling and relaxing at the same time—despite his hand being cold as he runs his hand along the edge of my belly, squeezing my overhang.
Then he pulls my shirt back down. I have to stop, he says. The barista has a boyfriend. A civilian. He loves him. They might get married. He already feels unfaithful.
I understand, I say. I ask him if he plans to tell his boyfriend about this fetish.
He shakes his head. He wouldn’t understand.
You know this won’t go away, I tell him.
I know, he shrugs. I have to see if I can live with that.
We spend a few hours discussing the rarity of randomly finding someone with this fetish “out in the wild” as he puts it, someone that you see on a regular basis. We discuss whether or not gaining and encouraging is something you can incorporate into your daily life. For him, it has to stay separate, a fantasy. For him, it has to stay a secret.
When I first started writing, I wrote fiction. It was autobiographical, but it avoided certain topics. The parents in my stories were neglectful or absent, but not overtly abusive; abuse was left in the margins. As was queerness. These were my secrets, kept even from my writing.
As I worked on my graduate school thesis, I started introducing the supernatural into my stories. Using the paranormal was a more comfortable way to discuss the oddness of life, anything out of the heteronormative usual. Writing the supernatural was a way of admitting that I had a secret that needed to be discussed even if I wasn’t fully aware that’s what I was doing.
When I started graduate school, I presented as a straight married man, who was accidentally fat. I could not discuss being gay, or being a gainer, with anyone, but those were two aspects that were fighting to not be a secret anymore. The more I actively oppressed them, the more they tried to come out in my writing.
This was most obvious in a story I wrote about a vampire. In the story, a man hears pebbles being thrown against his bedroom window one night. When he goes to the window he sees a man, recently deceased, motioning for him to join him. The men had been childhood friends, they had been in love, but the narrator chose to stay closeted and get married. He wants to go to his vampire friend, but he still can’t bring himself to venture into the unknown. The friend visits every night for the next week. They repeat the same pattern. The narrator looks forward to seeing his friend, but then the visits stop. He wishes he had had the courage to join his friend, to have chosen this other life—one that includes a type of feeding.
The metaphor was clear to the people in my workshop: the narrator wishes he would have embraced his queerness. Here was a part of myself made public without anyone else actually knowing it or at least without anyone openly acknowledging it. If they guessed it was about me, no one said anything. I never showed that story to my wife. When she asked if she could read it, I told her it wasn’t ready.
Unlike the narrator of my vampire story, I eventually came out. I ended my marriage. I embraced my queerness. Discovering the gaining community and realizing that I was a gainer was the catalyst for those changes. I would still write fiction for the next few years.
When people have asked me how I knew I was gay after being married for nine years, I would always say I just knew. I’d leave out the part about stumbling onto a video of a man, a gainer, eating a bowl of ice cream on YouTube, rubbing his belly as it grows from the ice cream he eats. My fascination, my excitement—the feeling that something had switched over in my brain, in my very being, and I finally knew everything about myself.
When I saw that video, I knew I wanted to grow. I wanted to feel another man rub his hands over my belly, press my belly into his, I wanted to grow for him and with him. But I felt I had to hide the part of my fantasy that was about gaining. That was the part about which I felt the most shame. The part I didn’t feel I could tell anyone. Not even, maybe especially, the civilian who was my first serious boyfriend.
I met him at a time when I was losing a lot of weight; I’d been 315 pounds, but when we met I was around 230 pounds. I continued to lose weight during the course of our relationship. Like the barista, I thought that gaining and encouraging wasn’t that important to my sexual life. But gaining isn’t just sexual: it is a way of life. To grow the way you want to, you have to always be working at it. To only leave it for when you feel horny is to be too inconsistent.
As my body shrunk, I felt less like myself, less like my body belonged to me. It made me sad and cranky. But that boyfriend was the first real love of my life and I worried that if I told him what was going on, he’d think I was weird for wanting to be fat and I would lose him. I’d feel the call to gain and would try my best to ignore it.
Friends congratulated me on my weight loss because they had no idea I had been that fat on purpose. Our culture believes that fat people have no agency in their fatness, that they are victims of it. Maybe for some people that is true, but there is no counter narrative.
During my time as a thinner person, I became more active in the literary world. I’d like to believe that this had nothing to do with being thin and more about the fact that I had found my voice as a writer and my role in the literary world as an organizer of a reading series focused on queer writers of color. But I have to admit it was easier to stand up in front of crowds and approach other writers at conferences or events with that body. When I would go to the gym or go for a run, I’d tell myself this was getting myself “TV ready.” When I’d see pictures of the “rising stars” of the literary world, they were all thin. They were all praised for being good-looking. As I lost weight, I was told more often that I was handsome. If I wanted to be successful in the literary world, it seemed, I would have to maintain this standard of thinness.
I had felt invisible in the literary world when I was fat despite working for a high-profile magazine. I published more as a thin man than I did as a fat man. There was no way to know until later that this was correlation and not causation.
During my thin time, when I was at a dinner and would push my plate away, people didn’t know that I wanted to eat it all, and their leftovers too. They didn’t know how uncomfortable I felt in clothes that didn’t have buttons straining against my body. I could walk into any store and buy nice clothes, something I couldn’t do when I was at my highest weight. There was no way for them to know the longing I felt when I’d see a fat man and wish I looked like that. This was like pretending to be straight all over again. I’d been carrying two secrets and only one had been revealed. I convinced myself that to keep my career on track, to be a desirable writer to have in a magazine or at a reading, I’d have to keep this second secret, the fetish, suppressed.
But after my break up, I decided to gain again.
Part of it was for comfort. Part of it was that I wanted to be me. But the gaining journey is never quick. I started and stopped. I worried about my health. I worried about my career. Put on ten pounds and most people won’t notice; thirty pounds is a different story. Thirty pounds in a couple months is a very different story.
At a critical moment, a friend, a fellow writer, said he was concerned about my weight gain—so much, so fast. At first, I said what I always said: I don’t mind the extra weight. But not minding and enjoying it are two different things. I knew the vampire was waving for me to join him. So, I told my friend I was a gainer. I explained what that meant, how it bothered me to keep it a secret. He didn’t abandon me. He didn’t suddenly take my writing less seriously. He didn’t think I was the weirdest person he had met. He said to make sure I kept an eye on my health, but otherwise he supported what made me happy.
He was the only civilian I told for a while. As I continued, and continue, to gain weight, I feel more and more strongly that I want people to know that the size of my body isn’t an accident. I am in control of this. Being fat is what I want.
I have felt this all the more since I dropped fiction and started writing nonfiction. I was asked to write an essay about LGBTQ visibility and share my story of being married and closeted into my thirties. I wrote it in four hours and cried the whole time. I was scared to have people read it. I was scared to be that exposed on the page, in public. But I also felt relief. Even though I had spoken to friends about the process, I had never written about it, never shared it with the world.
After that, I felt empowered to write another essay about the domestic violence in my childhood home. The more secrets I wrote about, the fewer I wanted to keep. And the more secrets I made public through my writing, the more I gained.
Writing nonfiction, removing that shroud of secrecy from my writing, allows me to tell the stories I wanted to tell, more than writing fiction ever did. In my nonfiction, I became more authentically myself as a writer. This—and not the number on the scale—was why I had a better response from magazines and readers with my essays: I was putting all of myself onto the page. For too long, I have held onto secrets out of fear that I would not be accepted or loved for my authentic self, but the more essays I write and the more people I tell about being a gainer, I am finding these are fears I can finally let go.
Rumpus original logo and art by Liam Golden.