The Bigger the Figure:
Gainers and Encouragers in the Land of Calvin Klein
by Tony Phillips
Just try telling your average gay man that in the four short months between Valentine’s Day and Gay Pride — a time of year more commonly known as high gym season — you not only packed on 35 pounds, but also worked a gym routine specifically designed to make your stomach rounder. If there’s not a Jenny Craig joke by the time you add that your workout instructions came courtesy of a fairly hot internet date who also got off on feeding you donuts, then lunch is on me. You see I am that person, making a mad rush at the scales and running them all the way up to 230 pounds from a not-exactly-svelte-to-begin-with 195. I’ll spare you the stones and alcohol units, but in the time I spent exploring the underground world of fetish feeders tagged Gainers & Encouragers; lunch was sometimes, quite literally, on me.
About a year ago, Frederic Moffet’s premiered his 23-minute short form documentary called Hard Fat at New York’s NewFest. It was lumped together with a bunch of other shorts loosely organized around the topic of queer body issues. The only other short I can even vaguely recall was a gender-blind video diary with the mock-shock ending that revealed the anorexic we’d been following for the last 20 minutes was (gasp!) a boy. Not so with Hard Fat. That film, with its equal parts talking head and peeping tom, is burned on the brain still. And while the fetish didn’t exactly speak to me, the need to know what made Gainers & Encouragers tick did. By the time I caught up with Canadian director Frederic Moffet the balmy March night his film won the HBO best short award at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, I’d already packed on 15 pounds with my Encourager, a mid-30s art director for a national magazine who was slightly older than me, but keeping it real with an eyebrow piercing. He requested, for the purposes of this piece, to be called John.
I was also layering Rocawear instead of rocking resort wear in Miami. Freddy noticed. As we gabbed under the palms at the swank National Hotel’s closing night party, Moffet nodded flirtatiously in agreement with my decision to explore Gaining, but added he himself was more drawn toward the role of Encourager, or the partner within a couple who feeds the Gainer. “Logically, Gainers are the ones who are getting more,” Moffet explained, “yet the Encouragers can be invisible. That’s part of the deal. When you’re a Gainer, you have to go through a lot of steps to make it your reality. But Encouragers are almost like another fetish. You have to keep it in the closet. A feeder gets turned on by someone else’s body so for me that made more sense. The Gainer is more complex. How does the fetish work for them since it’s about their own body? That took me a little time to understand.”
But is the idea of gays being “about their own bodies” really that difficult to comprehend? Surely it’s a cult at least as old as Calvin Klein. What’s different here is Gaining is a reaction to, among other things, Madison Avenue. Yet it posits a body type no less extreme than that first, 20-story Klein underwear model, but it’s almost a polar opposite. Still, the Mirth and Girth set had that angle covered long ago. But those folks started out fat and stayed fat. Where Gaining departs is in the transition, the journey from Sasha Mitchell to Garth Brooks. “It’s about the transformation,” Moffet seconds, “But also about how people respond to that transformation. A lot of times it becomes like a competition. The idea of community is so important to Gainers,” Moffet says, pointing out the slew of websites like gainrweb and bellybuilders that first drew him into what he doesn’t hesitate to call a movement. “They were competitive,” Moffet explains of the people he met and interviewed for his film, “if someone gained a lot, someone else would try and gain more.”
45-year-old John Outcalt knows a thing or two about tete-a-tete on the scales. When guests weigh in at his weekend Encouragecon retreats, they do so on two scales, each foot on its own individual scale. As Outcalt explains, even the good scales top out at 350. As the keeper of Gainer bible Encouragement, Outcalt made a transition from Ben Stone, his nom de plume which kept this out gay man a closeted foodie until he retired both the name and the ‘zine in 1996. Outcalt also makes documentary films about Gaining, as does everyone I interview for this story, although he insists that the obsessive documentation: the films, the web pages tracking weight gain, the stacks of photos are all coincidental. Back issues of Encouragement reveal a typical article charting Dennis Quaid’s weigh gain for the film Everybody’s All American while a random personal ad from Pennsylvania begins “Hefty, handsome, hairy…” And then there are the stories, both graphic and narrative, a kind of backbone for today’s doublespeed online community. At last June’s Encouragecon — titled Bellies in Paradise — 37 men took over a Warm Sands resort in Palm Springs. Days were spent relaxing by the pool as the weekend became progressively more clothing optional. Activities including diving for Twinkies and a pie eating contest and attendees were weighed out at the close of the weekend with prizes doled out for most weight gained.
“I like big and hairy,” Outcalt laughs, “I like big and hairy men, including Garth.” It sounds less discerning than it actually is. “For me, personally, I am attracted to bodies that have a shape,” Outcalt, who hovers around 240, admits, “you’d like to know that there is some structure there.” It’s a subtle differentiation, but an important one. And one the opposite end of the spectrum doesn’t make. After all, abs are abs. They’re either steel or they’re not. But once you have a roomful of large men with their clothes off, a very unique pecking order comes to the fore. “There are a lot of straight guys that are body builders,” Outcalt continues, “they look at a big, muscular guy and say, ‘Wow, that guy’s beautiful. I want to look like that. I think with a lot of people that are Gainers see a fat guy and say, ‘Wow that guy is beautiful, I want to look like that. I find that guy sensual, hot, erotic and I’d like to be sensual, hot and erotic in that way. There’s some similarity between hard body builders and fat body builders. I think they’re both obsessed with size and being big, ultimately, whether it’s muscle or fat.”
But a visit to Bruin Buddies says different. The club, an occasional sex party buried deep in New York’s plant district, reveals a society as disintegrated as Wittgenstein's Vienna. But the elite here are not resisting fascism, they’re recreating it. Up a rickety flight of stairs strung with Christmas lights lie three large rooms, two smaller, darker ones and a terrace. The men range from average in size to well over 500 pounds, and yet among all these vagaries, an Adonis type emerges. He is typically over six foot, beefy, worked out arms, rounded “beach ball” stomach and big legs. The other men who are merely overweight, but not trained in this direction hang back. It’s these Tom of Finland Goes to Pot types who get all the play, while those with sagging bellies, loose flesh and other less desirable body types pace the rooms. Lube carts with Burger King styled condiment cups stud the hallways as décor. There’s plenty of sex, yet an unevenly high ratio of that specific Washed-Up Tom body type having it. Online, immobility is huge trade. I come to think of the immobility folks as the “Jenny Jones” types. Saddles of fat hang from the pelvis. Their photos are mostly boudoir, and it’s unclear whether that by necessity or choice. A large segment of the Jenny Jones encouragers express a desire for their counterparts to completely lose mobility, but bedridden is a nice start. Some are even encouraged to smoke. There are a few Jenny Jones types present at the party, but none are in play.
“I think people mostly have an aversion to fat,” Moffet explains of the discrepancy, “it’s very specialized. It’s not like bondage. That’s more accessible because it’s not permanent. It’s something you can do on a Friday night and it’s over, you can’t do that with Gaining. There’s a bunch of subcultures within the movement, there’s the whole immobility thing, but I think that’s really rare. Then there are the types that are more bearish and really fat. Then there are guys who are more ex-jocks, who I think are more popular. My film is called Hard Fat, it’s more about those people, they’re accepted more readily. Also, it deals more with masculinity whereas there are people who aren’t at all about masculinity. They just want to be fat and flabby. It was interesting because the Gainer as ex-jock opens up parallels to body building.” I tell Moffet it sucks that even in this freaky subculture, the jocks are still popular, but Outcalt adds, “I was interested in both the body builders and the fat guys since puberty. I was just obsessed with size. But my interests turned to the bigger, heavier guys. Once you’ve actually put on the weight, it’s a 24/7 thing. It’s not like you can take off this extra hundred pounds tomorrow. You have it. It took a lot of effort to get there, and it will take a lot of effort to get back.”
Outcalt does a good job of railing against “the thin, gay white men on television,” but is relatively calm when it comes to their presence — or lack thereof — on the Gainer scene. “I don’t see a lot of black people in the scene,” he admits, “and I’m a black person. There are a few peripheral black men, but I don’t feel unwelcome. I know an awful lot of people and I put on convergences every year. I never felt like an outsider coming in. I always felt this was essential — quintessential — to who I am.” There was a single black person at Bruin Buddies, but we’re talking all this over at Outcalt’s house, a nice brownstone in Kips Bay that displays Gainer memorabilia and Hirschfeld's Bette Midler with equal aplomb. He shares it with his white boyfriend Andrew who over 15 years of their relationship has gained more than 150 pounds before plateauing — Outcalt complains — at 390. It’s a happy marriage; a domestic partnership certificate is proudly displayed. Outcalt stresses that Andrews’s health comes first. They puzzle over my experimental fiasco with John, but back off when I explain that winding up naked on the floor under someone’s computer digesting donuts that I paid for myself isn’t exactly ranking on my list of greatest lays. Something about forking over for those donuts completely savaged any sense of chivalry that was working on me. But then I was a long way from the extreme. John left his dog in the room when he fed me, another smirch. How do you compete with a doggie Gainer? Still, none of us had inflated our stomachs with an air pump — a not uncommon Gainer practice — but Outcalt tops that with a story about a trick showing up at his door and — while still standing in the hallway trying to feed Outcalt lard. “We’re sane about it,” he says, “but look, when a dick is talking, there’s not such thing as reality. It’s about getting off, whether you’re straight, gay or whatever.”
The biggest whatever I can find is inexorably linked to Gaining, both on the timeline and in people’s perception. “As someone who has been here through all of this,” Outcalt begins, “I know this community started about 24 years ago in 1980, about the same time as the AIDS crisis. And people thought, ‘Oh, I can go with that big chubby guy because he must not be infected.’ It’s the dumbest thing in the world, but a lot of people felt that larger men were safer because they hadn’t had sex. ‘Who’d want to have sex with them?’” he asks rhetorically, “‘look at how big they are, they must not be infected.’ It’s medieval thinking.” He’s much more dismissive of the ideal Gainer body type corresponding to, even eroticizing, the post-protease body, yelling, “That’s a ridiculous comparison, the body type of AIDS is like the body type of a starving African child. That AIDS belly is not in proportion to anything else that’s going on. It's always skinny legs, skinny arms and the inflated belly. That’s an image of death and illness.” It’s also an image that wasn’t getting any takers at Bruin Buddies. Moffet, however, isn’t so quick to write off the theory. “As somebody who has a fetish for bigger guys right now,” he says, “when I look at someone I ask myself is that fat or lipodistrophy? The whole thing becomes bizarre. But really, gaining came on the scene at the same time as AIDS when people were getting really skinny and unhealthy. So when you see this big dude that’s kind of fat, you don’t think that he has AIDS. Those two images are changing right now.”
Food, sex and death. Sounds like a date with Woody Allen, but those three sisters are intertwined with very deep roots in any society. Our junk culture’s rush to supersize — bigger, stronger, faster — is certainly reflected in Gaining. From the seminal Isadore 'Fritz' Freleng cartoon “Pigs is Pigs” most Gainers cite as sacred text — this 1937 gem features Piggy Hamhock — often mistaken for Porky — dreaming he’s strapped into a feeding machine and force fed by an evil scientist who barely submerges his homo subtext — to last year’s dreary rom-com snooze The Sweetest Thing in which Cameron Diaz fantasizes about mutual cunnilingus and hot fudge sundaes. Sure, the movie tanked, but let’s cut Cammy some slack. She also took on the alt.fetishes of plushy sex and glory holes in that one. As for Outcalt, things proceed. He’s happy at home with his super-sized boyfriend and their gigantic cat he jokes is really a bear. Moffet is hard at work researching his next project, a screenplay based on Jean Genet’s 1968 visit to the Chicago Democratic Convention, which ended with that city in flames. He sees it as an historical way into America’s current tensions with France. And me? Well, I’m not seeing John anymore. I’m of the mind that an asshole with a fetish is still an asshole. I’m ten pounds down from the top of my arc and slightly less nervous about my drift back to normalcy. I’ll probably never understand the allure of sex on a full stomach, but I did skip Gay Pride this year. Progress? No. I was just held up at the Javitz Center’s Fancy Foods Show. Sometimes you really can stay too long at the fair.