What I Learned About Body Positivity from My Mom's BBW Party Queen Days

Getty Images

The first time I heard Nicki Minaj's song "Only," in which Drake casually declares that he "likes his girls BBW," I was taken aback. Having first heard the term back when I was 10 years old, I had always operated under the naive assumption that "BBW," meaning "Big Beautiful Women," was a phrase familiar only to myself and the small Connecticut community of plus-size women and their admirers that my mom belonged to back in the late '90s and early '00s.

In a nutshell, BBW events were weekend-long bacchanals held at various Connecticut clubs or hotels that involved drinking, dancing, swimming and maybe even some casual sex. For full-figured women who were tired of being pathologically ignored on the mainstream singles bar scene, BBW events were safe spaces to mingle exclusively with dudes who were interested in curvy women.

"Especially back then, being overweight meant being invisible," my mom recently explained to me during a drunken trip down memory lane.

"BBW parties were basically the only option we had."

Drake in the "Only" video. Note the glaring lack of actual BBWs.  Mic/YouTube

I met a few of my mom's BBW friends during this era, but Maureen (this is not her real name) stood out. Maureen was fiercely body-positive before fierce body positivity was a trending topic on the Internet. She introduced my mom to pro-BBW books with titles like Fat! So? and was something of a prototype for the unapologetic and confident plus-size heroines we have today in models and activists like Tess Holliday or porn stars like Kelly Shibari.

Every so often, Maureen and my mom would hit up the party circuit as a way to meet men who were on the prowl for BBWs. What followed for my mother was a string of toxic relationships with cheaters, users, men who kept her a secret and men who were just plain stupid. The men Maureen typically wound up with weren't any better, but she didn't seem to mind.

"I'm not saying that BBW parties are a bad thing. They can be great for many reasons," my mother said, citing the community's general ethos of fat acceptance as an example. "But there was a dark side that people don't really talk about as much." 

My mother said that ultimately, she went to BBW parties not so she could learn to love and celebrate her body, but rather to seek out the male attention and validation she had missed out on in everyday life. In a world that constantly told larger women they were unworthy of love, it felt like her only option.

"Women putting that energy out there resulted in a lot of assholes showing up, looking to get laid for the night, thinking we'd be desperate or easy," she told me. "If you wanted to actually connect meaningfully with someone? Have them take you out in public? Meet the family? Have a healthy relationship?

"Good fucking luck."

"Being overweight always meant being invisible."

While my mom struggled with her weight in the late '90s and sought solace on the BBW party circuit, I struggled with my own weight too. But instead of going on wild party weekends, I found solace by feeding my addictions to junk food, stolen diet pills, Mariah Carey albums and lots and lots of Ally McBeal.

One episode of Ally in particular resonated with me. It was called "The Promise," and in it an obese lawyer named Harry falls in love with Ally, despite the fact that he's already in a relationship with Angela, his also-overweight fiancée. "She's never made my heart bounce," Harry laments to the pretty, slim Ally, adding that he has never found Angela sexually attractive.

After Ally rejects him (expressly because of his weight), the two discuss whether or not it's OK to settle for someone just because they're your only option. While Ally believes that Harry shouldn't settle, by the end of the episode Harry and Angela end up marrying anyway, despite the fact that they're only together because neither think they can do any better.

To my impressionable, 10-year-old self, watching the drama unfold onscreen felt all too familiar. I imagined someone like Harry as my future self; I saw flashes of my mom in Angela. Society's message was painstakingly clear, whether at a fat-positive BBW party or within the fictional world of a one-hour television drama:

When it comes to love, fat people have to settle for what they can get.

Source: Mic/20th Century Fox Television/Netflix

Today, my mom and I are both outspokenly body-positive and strong supporters of the idea that fat people deserve to love themselves and be loved. But that self-acceptance comes with a caveat: We're both no longer fat. She eventually cut out carbs and sugar to gradually drop 80 pounds, and I grew up to be gay, which meant de facto membership to a community that propagates wildly unattainable body standards. Even Fat! So?-wielding Maureen decided to get gastric bypass surgery.

As someone who has been both fat and thin, I would be lying if I said that there aren't privileges that come with navigating life as the latter. I can catch a dick on Tinder without too much effort, indulge in the occasional donut without being judged and partner with a boyfriend that, as Harry from Ally McBeal would say, "makes my heart bounce." As a result of my thin privilege, I feel confident about my body, but I can't say I don't feel guilty about that. 

In an ideal world, we'd all have the unabashed self-assurance of body-positive champions like Tess Holliday and a pre-surgery Maureen, who have high self-esteem without needing external validation. But the world we live in now makes that possible for only the most sure-footed and DGAF fat people among us. That's why we need to continue relentlessly promoting body-positivity: Because until it's universally accepted that fat people are people who deserve love and respect, feeling confident about our bodies will forever be an uphill battle.

Since my mom lost weight and left the BBW circuit, the number (and quality) of men who pursue her has increased dramatically. Gone are the BBW fetishizers seeking discreet hookups, the married men who prey on sexually insecure women. The men who pursue my mother today are eager to take her out and introduce her to their kids and commit to more than a hotel party weekend.

It's a stark, sad contrast from 15 years ago, and clear evidence that our society as a whole still has a long way to go in terms of fat acceptance. And for my formerly BBW mother, the transition hasn't gone unnoticed. 

"The craziest part about it is that I'm the same exact person I was 80 pounds ago," she says. "But they wouldn't know that."