There isn’t much that Emma Allen doesn’t know about dieting. She once gave up solid food for four months. It didn’t work out. She tried the weight-loss program NutriSystem, but needless to say, they didn’t help either. She was even one of the first generation of Atkins devotees who were required, among other things, to test their own urine.
Yet while she was publicly attempting to shed the kilos, secretly, Allen liked being overweight. As a child she had fantasies of taking a pill that would make her fatter and fatter until she eventually just floated away.
She never told anyone, but when she got pregnant 18 years ago, everything changed. “It was like a religious epiphany,” Allen says. “I remember having this incredible feeling that I could think about what was good for me, instead of calories. The possibility of thinking about food differently was a big turning point.”
Over the next 10 years, Allen immersed herself in the world of size politics. She paid closer attention to the size liberation movement: a political movement that started in the 1970s and made size an axis of oppression. Groups such as Fat Underground and Fat Activists Together (FAT) fought for anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of weight. Then three years ago she finally took the decision to do something she had always wanted to do. “I’d had these fantasies all my life and had been restraining them all my life. There came a time when I wanted to explore,” she says. “I wanted to know more about what they were about. How would I feel about actually gaining weight, would I enjoy it?” In spring 2007, she took the plunge and gained 15kg, to reach a total weight of 111kg.
Allen is a 49-year-old professor at a university in the northwest of England. She is also a “gainer” — sometimes known as a “feedee” — who overeats in an active attempt to put on weight. Although there are no statistics on the number of people doing this, gaining is more common than one might think. “They are everybody: every age, every country, every size; I mean, tiny, skinny people wanting to gain ... it really is a case of, look around you, somebody is having these fantasy scenarios,” says Allen.
This week Donna Simpson, a 42-year-old mother from New Jersey who weighs 273kg, made headlines by revealing that her ongoing weight gain was part of her plan to become the fattest woman on earth. Pictured with an enigmatic smile and a burger in her hand, the press coverage showed varying degrees of restraint in highlighting the US$600-a-week food shops, fast-food binges and unrepentant bid to hit 465kg.
Gaining is often linked to feederism; a topic that occasionally pops up as freakshow fodder in magazines, chat shows or documentaries such as Fat Girls and Feeders, which focused on the relationships between men and the overweight, vulnerable women they chose to fatten to immobility and beyond. Yet many women actively seek to gain weight of their own volition.
There are many Web sites and groups dedicated to gaining but Fantasy Feeder is perhaps the most comprehensive. There are forums, stories and photographs that show unbuttoned blouses revealing pot bellies, wobbly tummies and impressive mounds of flesh cascading over waistbands. Large bosoms escape the confines of their bras, and rolls ripple beneath over-stretched T-shirts. Before and after pictures show the usual weight transformation journey, but in reverse. The poses are proud, matter-of-fact and often sexual.