By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
"But you're not fat," they said.
"Yes," Cathy said, "I am."
But they never saw her that way. Because "fat" to them was an ugly word, an insult. And they liked Cathy.
Cathy didn't date much in college. Or after college. She stayed in Pensacola for junior college and vocational training in fashion marketing and data processing. Instead of the "freshman 15," she put on 150 pounds, which put her at nearly 500. (Since then, she has gained only 13 pounds.) The way she explains it, she was just like any other college student, running around, always on the go, eating fast food and ordering midnight pizzas.
After she graduated, she worked at a nonprofit organization that helped the developmentally disabled. She was in the Jaycees and the Kiwanis Club, and she taught Junior Achievement classes. She was always busy, so she didn't much miss having a boyfriend.
Five years ago she was watching Sally Jessy Raphael and heard about the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. She called the number on the screen, found out there was a national convention coming up and decided she wanted to be there. Her family thought she was crazy when she bought the plane ticket to D.C. That was the first time she saw fat women in bikinis. At first she thought it was wrong, then she thought it was cute and decided she wanted one.
At the convention she didn't feel fat. She felt average.
And there were men there. She didn't have to worry about whether they would like her even though she was fat. Because these men like fat women; they come to the convention to meet fat women. They're called FA's, or Fat Admirers; they used to be known as Chubby Chasers or Hoggers.
Cathy's mother doesn't like the men that go to these conventions. "I think they're sick," says Ruby Lee. "I really do."
Cathy thinks they're fine. It's just an unexplainable sexual preference, she says. But she doesn't want men to like her just because she's fat.
Cathy met a man from Switzerland and had a weeklong romance that made her feel like she was in a Danielle Steel novel. He still sends her chocolates and offered to buy her plane tickets to Europe. But Cathy doesn't like Europe -- everything over there is too small. The bars are small, the seats are small, the subway is small. It's not a fat-friendly place.
She went home from the convention and placed a personal ad:
"Super size BBW looking for a man with a warm heart to love me and strong arms to hold me. A man that loves to laugh and knows how to cry."
She got 160 responses. She had men calling her and men writing her that they like a "big round bottom." They told her that they hate skinny girls; they want a woman they can sink into.
She placed more personal ads, became chair of the NAAFA's southern states, put up a Web site and went to more conventions. At the conventions she had lunches and dinners and dancing dates with different guys. It was like being one of the popular girls in high school.
She got to pick and choose among her men. She got to decide what she wanted, and she wanted thin, muscled men. "I like my men as hard as they like me soft," she says. "I like a very toned, hard body."
They can't be short, they can't be too skinny, and they can't be fat. She especially likes black men. "I'm waiting to find a white man with a black guy's body," she says. "My mother would probably appreciate it a lot more."
She likes a well-dressed man, and she doesn't think fat men wear clothes well.
But she tells large women that they look beautiful no matter what their size.
"They do," Cathy says. "That's different."
"NAAFA?" asks the man handing out parking passes at Quintana Beach. "They're already down there."
"Oh, I think you'll find 'em," he says.
It's the second annual NAAFA beach party in mid-August. They chose Quintana Beach because it's empty.
Cathy walks up a couple of hours late. "Guess what we're buying you for Christmas?" asks Mike Tidwell, NAAFA's vice chair. "A watch -- a great big one."
Cathy's almost always late. She doesn't care. "Get over it," she says.
She sits down on a bench and pulls a polka-dot bikini out of her bag. She hands it to a girl with a ponytail and tells her to go put it on.
"No," the girl says. "I have my Sporty Spice bathing suit."
She pulls her shirt up so Cathy can see. "It's only a 24," the girl says. She's one of few people at the NAAFA picnic who don't like being fat. She hates her body. Cathy wants to smack her and tell her she's beautiful.
Cathy doesn't praise small sizes. She looks at the suit and says, "It must have a lot of stretch to it."
The group is huddled under the pavilion waiting for the sun to shift. The sun's too bright, and most of them are too pale. Cathy's not.