It takes a lot of food to satisfy a 336-pound man. Particularly a 336-pound man who's trying to double his weight. And yet Jorge Rivera, sitting in a midtown Manhattan diner, is almost demure when he orders his dinner: one standard-size cheeseburger, Philly-style; one order of sweet-potato fries; one Diet Coke. (It's the Diet Coke, incidentally, that prompts a priceless double-take from the seen-it-all waiter.) After he's finished, Rivera settles back in the booth and wipes his goatee. The Formica table shifts beneath his elbows, and his belly, clothed in a Mets T-shirt (size: XXXXL), is almost flush with the table's edge.
Eight years ago, when he was 19, Rivera dated a woman who wanted him to add 20 pounds to his six-foot, 280-pound frame. At restaurant buffets, she would cram plate after plate with fried fish, mac-and-cheese, gravy-soaked meats, and multiple slices of pie and cake. He ate dutifully—first his plate, then hers—until his stomach emerged from beneath his shirt. Then they would go home and have sex. Or they might first get in bed, naked, while she sat on his mighty thighs, feeding him slices of pizza or forkfuls of chocolate-mousse cake and rubbing his bulging belly until they couldn't hold off any longer. Within three months, Rivera had packed on a heart-stopping 50 pounds—and discovered the erotic charge of watching his waist expand under his lover's approving gaze. "It's very exciting to have her get turned on by the fat," Rivera says. "It's a simple equation: more food, more fat, more sex."
Dessert arrives—a wedge of German-chocolate cake—and when that's gone, Rivera lifts his fleshy stomach and proudly flops several inches of it onto the table. On his way home from the diner, he plans to stop at McDonald's for two double cheeseburgers and an order of 10 Chicken McNuggets.
Rivera is a "gainer": an enthusiastic participant in the expanding subculture of feederism, in which fat fetishists get aroused by "growing" themselves or their romantic partners, consuming their way to morbid obesity. Feederism has been around at least as long as cupcakes, but the fetish is rapidly gaining recognition (and fans) through Internet exposure. It's an extreme variation on fat admiration: Rather than merely preferring large partners, "encouragers" (who cheer on "gainers") and "feeders" (who serve piles of food to "feedees") also get off on embodying the public's fear of fat, and in knowing their sexual taste strikes people as deviant. "It's like being in a club with a few exclusive members," Rivera says. "Society never did anything for me, so why should I try to be what society wants?"
Although, in a sense, he gives society exactly what it wants. While the calorie counters at nearby tables request their salad dressing on the side, Rivera gloats at having trouble squeezing into a booth. And whenever he overhears whispers from other customers, he signals to his waiter and orders more.
In an era when trans-fat obsessives scrutinize every nutrition statistic, fantasizing about obesity—even immobility—is just a twist on a cultural norm. If anything, the feeder fantasy merely perverts the more popular ideal of waifish women snacking on sprouts. "Fat is so demonized in this society that it actually makes it attractive," says Don Kulick, a New York University anthropolgy professor and a co-editor of the anthology Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession. "It's a taboo that is both rejected and desired."
Still, feederism is highly controversial among fat-acceptance activists. Both the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance and the International Size Acceptance Association have come out against the fetish. "Our official stance is that each person should have control over their own body," says Russell Williams, the ISAA's vice president of activism. "One partner shouldn't be controlling another's size."
Predictably, feederism has found a home where all kinks flourish: online, where sites like MySpace, DimensionsMagazine.com, and FantasyFeeder.com entertain enthusiasts who daydream about stuffing their lovers with crullers. In a seeming parody of the pro-anorexia "thinspiration" movement, gainers and feedees swap message-board tips on how to keep the pounds on. They celebrate the term super size, made notorious by Morgan Spurlock's 2004 fast-food exposé, Super Size Me, in abbreviations like SSBBW (Super-Sized Big Beautiful Woman) and SSBHM (Super-Sized Big Handsome Man). They know all about the evils of fast food. That's why they eat it two, three, even four times a day.
Ryan (some names in this story have been partly withheld or changed) is a 20-year-old student from Batavia, New York, who says he discovered his proclivity as a child, when he found himself excited by the scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in which Violet Beauregarde balloons into a giant blueberry. Robbie, a 22-year-old student from Staten Island, posts photos of his expanding belly, replete with stretch marks, and keeps a MySpace blog about gaining. (He was up to 290 before a stomach flu last winter robbed him of 20 pounds. "My belly looks quite deflated," his blog reads. "Wish me luck on getting back into shape. Round shape, that is.") Brian, 25, a student and Web-support technician, has gained close to 100 pounds in the past year; he's now 315 but aims to weigh 500 or more. Rivera, for his part, has garnered a small following through belly-jiggle videos he's uploaded to YouTube.
One of feederism's most glamorous figures is Nicki Hammond, the "Gaining Goddess." Hammond, who's from London, Ontario, was struggling to accept her weight four years ago, when she was 180 pounds. But she became fascinated by BBWs and SSBBWs, and when she decided to emulate them, her husband became an encourager. "I liked the way I was looking, and I liked the way my husband was reacting," she says. Hammond founded GainingGoddess.com, where subscribers pay to watch her pose in lingerie and buy Meal Deals—food she eats on camera. She weighs 420 pounds. She wants to reach 600.
In high school, "Mike" was in the closet. He couldn't talk to anyone about how he got aroused by fat women. "I'd like a girl and worry that she wouldn't be into it," says the 23-year-old environmental-science student and self-proclaimed feeder in northern New Jersey. "But once I got online, I found out that this thing had a name." (Some in the scene refer to their "feeder-dar": "A lot of girls who like large men are in the closet," Rivera says. "It's like the new gay.")
Mike dated average-size women, even thin women, but he couldn't get fat chicks out of his head. Last year, he joined a Yahoo Group called JackisJellyBelly. "Jacki" was a 33-year-old, five-foot-four woman who spent a year growing herself from 150 pounds to 226. Mike was attracted to her confidence—and her fleshy curves. "She was like the skinny girl who stops working out and becomes a BBW," Mike says. "I went gaga over her body."
After an instant-message courtship, Mike drove to Pennsylvania and took Jacki to a Chinese buffet and a movie. Their age difference concerned them at first, but they shared enough interests—especially feeding. Together, they lived out their fantasies. Jacki's weight had dipped to 210 after a nasty cough, but Mike quickly remedied that with carloads of cannolis, cream puffs, and eclairs from his local bakery. Once, he brought her a tiramisu cake; she consumed it over two days, on top of her customary 3,000 calories. Mike would feed her jumbo pastries while she lounged in a T-shirt and panties. When they finished their foreplay—"just desserts," they called it—they would tear off each other's clothes for feverish sex. In five months, she gained 16 pounds.
But even during sex, Mike says, he fantasizes about having a partner who's even larger. Over the years, he's amassed thousands of images of fat women. He's even attracted Internet fans with his homemade porn, in which Jacki ate Breyer's vanilla ice cream while he rubbed lotion on her belly.
"I could feed her and get aroused," Mike says. "It would happen every day: not just once a day, but over and over. I get off on the gluttony—to me, it's the hottest thing. It works better than Viagra."
That's the biggest difference between the amateurs, who break out cans of novelty-shop whipped cream to spice up their sex life, and the serious feeders, whose eating eclipses every other activity—including sex, which becomes less and less frequent as one or both partners pass the 400-pound mark, making traditional sex positions impractical. The obese body becomes a symbol for both feeder and gainer, Kulick notes in Fat, and each accrued pound becomes a reminder of a hot night of bingeing.
Most feeders (or feedees) say they want to stuff (or be stuffed) in the context of a normal, loving relationship. Mike speaks wistfully about Jacki, whom he's taking a break from dating, and muses on how hard it is to meet a woman he really likes who also loves to eat—and eat, and eat—in bed. Yet it's easy to see how neatly each role fits into one side of the S&M ampersand. And how, in fat-phobic America, where obesity seems a fate worse than death, such an arrangement might seem abusive, even suicidal.
Some gainers argue that the physical dangers of obesity are greatly exaggerated—that it's possible to be both fat and healthy. Jorge Rivera sees his doctor twice a year and says he'll stop growing if his health ever deteriorates. He says his cholesterol is 211, at the borderline-risk level, but his blood pressure is an optimal 119/74. Yet his body-mass index is 45—a dangerously high figure on a scale where 30 indicates obesity. A 2003 Johns Hopkins study calculates that a BMI that high means his life may end 13 years sooner than it would if he were at a normal weight.
If Rivera is worried, he doesn't show it. "I've had a good run," he says with a shrug. "People leave comments on YouTube telling me I'm going to die. And I'm like, 'You're gonna live forever?'"