At 30 years old, Annette “Nettie” Hedtke is tired of dealing with family members, coworkers, and persistent diet ads all trying to control her weight. She's fat, and she's finally ready to embrace her body. We see her go through this journey, from pretending to drink a diet shake with her boss to loudly declaring "I'm fat!" at a family dinner, in TBS and Refinery29's new web series, Puffy. But on her way to body positivity, Nettie encounters some roadblocks, including a cute man named Allen who seemed perfect for her...until he called her a cow.
It starts out innocently enough, when Allen tells Nettie that she's hot "like a sexy farmer's daughter." Then, his fantasy quickly takes a turn from wanting to watch Nettie milk a cow to pretending that she is the cow and he's "pulling on [her] soft pink udders." Nettie backs off at this moment, feeling that Allen is calling her a cow and fetishising her body. And her instinct to run is totally understandable. Fetishisation is a complicated subject in the fat activist community. Like Nettie, many people want to run at the first sign that someone is attracted to them because of their body type. Many plus-size women have had similar experiences with people who reduce them to nothing more than a body, or want to control their body and size through feeding (a sexual kink where one partner gets pleasure from feeding the other). Those kinds of kinks are totally fine, as long as both partners share that interest. But if the plus woman doesn't want to be fed, realising that her partner sees her body as a sexual object can be dehumanising.
Yet, some fat activists push back against fetishisation concerns. "There are some fat women I know who describe nearly any physical attraction from men as fetishising," fat activist Your Fat Friend tweeted. She and other fat activists wish that wasn't the case. "I’d love to get us to the point where attraction to fat bodies is normalised, and we don’t read it as somehow necessarily unsafe/unsavoury," she wrote. We call someone who has a preference toward plus size bodies a fetishist, but fat is only a fetish because society tells us that it's not normal to find it attractive, body positive advocate Marie Southard Ospina previously told Refinery29. “Telling your bros you like fat chicks? That’s weird, at least in some communities,” Ospina said. “If your preference is something that isn’t conventionally attractive...it can still be deemed a fetish.” And having a fetish has it's own set of stigma attached to it (just look at how quickly Nettie dismissed Allen when his farm role play stepped a little too outside of the norm for her interests).
So, having a fat fetish isn't necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on whether the person who's attracted to fat bodies is seeing their partner as a whole person, not just a soft stomach. And what Allen did at first, while definitely a little tactless and abrupt, wasn't terrible. If he and Nettie had a chat about fetishisation and desire and boundaries before they got into the farm role play, maybe she would've been able to go along with it. Maybe she could have dealt with being the cow in his fantasy if he explained that it had nothing to do with her weight or that he's attracted to her fat body but also interested in her personality. But what he did next was unforgivable. And it happens way too often to fat women who reject thin men.
As soon as Nettie walks away from Allen, telling him "don't call me," he shouts back, "You know, I don't even date fat girls." It's a reaction that happens all too often, says Laura Delarato, a body positive activist and sex educator who works at Refinery29. And it happens because being rejected by a fat person is so shameful that often, a person's first instinct is to lash out. It's like getting fired and then telling your boss that actually, you quit. "The idea of a fat woman rejecting a person is so outside of our understanding because we see plus size women, and fat women, and chubby women, and bigger bodies as desperate, like they'll take anything," she says. Of course, that's not true. A fat woman can and will reject anyone she's not interested in, especially if she feels that they're objectifying her.
Ultimately, changing that reaction and changing the idea that being attracted to fat is a fetish at all comes down to representation, Delarato says. It's 2018, and just about every fat woman on TV has a storyline about weight, as if they don't have lives outside of worrying about their size. We need to see a plus-size woman who has already embraced her body and who has sex with people who find her desirable just because she is.