I am fat. If I say this about myself, friends or co-workers are quick to say some variation of, “no no, you’re not fat.” For a long time I would say nothing in response. I knew they thought they were being kind or helpful. I wanted to tell them that I wanted to be fat. I didn’t see it as an insult or a negative to be called fat. What I really wanted to tell them was that I am not fat on accident. I am not longing for a thin body. I want to be fat. I am fat on purpose. In fact, I want to be fatter.
Transformation. The concept fascinated me from an early age. At nine years old, it took the form of wanting to be a vampire. I had this recurring dream that there would be a knock on the front door late at night that only I would hear. The rest of my family would sleep through it, unaware of what was transpiring not that far from them. I’d go downstairs, open the inner door, and see a vampire standing there. The orange glow of the light tucked into the overhang over the house splayed shadows across his pale face. It was always a male vampire in my dream, usually around my age or just a few years older that had come for me.
The screen door kept us apart. I knew enough vampire lore that I knew he couldn’t cross the threshold of the house without an invitation. For once, my house was a safe space. I would have to invite him in or go outside for him to do me any harm. I worried about him hurting me, even though in every dream, I knew without any word from him that he wanted me to go with him. He wanted me to be like him. Part of me wanted the same thing. Another part of me was terrified. I had no idea what being a vampire would actually be like. I was, perhaps, too practical a child, even in my dreams. It also scared me that I wanted to be a vampire.
The desire for vampiric transformation would eventually fade away, but not the desire for transformation. I don’t remember what age my desire to be fat kicked in. Maybe it was before the vampire, maybe after, maybe they nested inside each other in some way. I knew that I could never tell anyone about it. I knew that my family, especially would think it was odd, gross. I was a chubby kid in a family of people geared towards thinness and sports. The pressure to be like them was constant. My father’s solution to my fatness was to sign me up for any sport I showed even the most minuscule amount of interest in. My mother’s tactic was to put me on diet after diet, ones where I had to limit my calorie intake to 1500 calories and could have a few slices of cheese with crackers. There was no space for me to say that I liked being fat. Although I didn’t even have the vocabulary to express that I liked it. I wasn’t supposed to. I internalized it as something wrong with me. So I would go to the soccer practices, eat my few slices of cheese, and wait for a moment when I could eat from the jar of peanut butter that I hid in a shoebox under my bed.
Not only did I want to be fat, I enjoyed looking at other fat men. I imagined being as big as them. I imagined pushing our bellies together. It always big bellied men that caught my attention, made me jealous that I wasn’t their size. Never women. I knew what this meant. But I wasn’t ready to acknowledge that either.
I’m going to tell you a secret. This was the title of the follow up to Madonna’s Truth or Dare documentary. The second documentary she made about herself happened thirteen years after the first. She was on tour again to support her American Life album. Where Truth or Dare was made at the height of her career, I’m Going to Tell You a Secret was made as a kind of a career course correction after the harsh reception of American Life. She wanted to change her own narrative or at least try to influence the public narrative about herself. She wanted to show a different side, her life as a mother. I’m not necessarily concerned about Madonna’s public persona. She’s just fine. What I am interested in from that documentary is the idea of shifting a narrative. I’m concerned with the narrative around being queer and fat.
This series is also a kind of sequel to two other pieces I’ve written. The first being an essay called “Truth or Dare”. I told my coming out story for the first time in that essay, about how I hid in the closet and was married to a woman for nine years, about how I didn’t know where to turn when I did come out.
I had been trying to write some version of that essay for years. Two conversations helped me to finally write it. In 2013, I went to the Saint & Sinners literary festival in New Orleans where I took a master class with Dorothy Allison. She talked about the importance of telling our stories. It struck such a nerve with me that I started crying when I asked her to sign my copy of Bastard Out of Carolina. “What’s wrong, honey?” She said.
“I’m not telling my story,” I sobbed.
She told me to find her tomorrow, so we could talk about it when there wasn’t a line of people waiting for books to be signed and so that I could cry it out.
The next day, she found me and asked me about my story. I told it to her. “You have to tell that story,” she said. “I’m giving you permission to tell that story.”
In a weird way that was what I needed to hear that it was okay to tell my story. It would still be months before I would start to write it. A friend would give me another push by asking me to contribute to the series on visibility where “Truth or Dare” first appeared. He gave me a deadline. If I didn’t have it turned into him by then, the essay wouldn’t run. It was slated to be the first essay in the series, and would be published on Halloween, my favorite of all holidays. It felt like it was now or never. I had to write that essay. I knew it was time to stop running from the things that scared me.
Transformation. I am fat. I want to be fat. I want to be fatter. This series is also a sequel to “Dropping Fictions & Gaining Visibility,” an essay from The Rumpus where I came out a second time, this time as a gainer. As I defined in that essay, a gainer is someone who derives erotic and/or sexual pleasure from the act of eating and/or gaining weight (I will be writing about men because my experience has been in the gay male gainer scene, but gainers and their fetishistic counterparts can be any gender or sexuality). A gainer is always looking to grow, fantasizes about becoming bigger than they are currently. People on the gain may weigh themselves every day, count calories to make sure they are hitting their goal to get bigger, not maintain or lose weight. Contrary to how it usually works in our culture, losing weight is a gainer’s nightmare.
My queerness and my fatness are intertwined. My awakening as a gainer triggered the resurrection of my queerness, which I had denied, which I suppressed while I was married until both of them refused to remain hidden any longer.
I have lived in the world where people saw me as a straight man and thin man, and I saw privileges afforded to me as both of those type of men. These were false versions of me. I felt uncomfortable in those identities. I didn’t shed them overnight. It was a process to be able to come out. Coming out as queer felt much easier than coming out as someone who wants to be and enjoys being fat.
Shame. I chewed on the ends of my tie. This was in first grade when I attended a catholic elementary school, St. Mary’s. The school’s uniform dictated that boys had to wear button down shirts, ties with a patch with the school’s logo sewed on to it, dress pants, and dress shoes. My teeth marks pressed into the mashed down fabric, which was perpetually damp from my nervous habit. My teacher was a nun, Sister Marylin. I remember the habit and the chunky cardigan she wore giving her the shape of a triangle.
It was in her first grade class that I first remember learning shame. I remember the room as always being poorly lit as if half the overhead lights were always off, the vinyl blinds drawn, so the only a thin stream of light could be seen from the edges, casting a grayness over the room. The room was right across the hall from the main office. We could hear the smack smack of the mimeograph as the secretary made copies. It was loud enough that Sister Marylin had to address the noise. She said it was the spanking machine. Being a gullible child, I believed her. I believed that the school kept a machine that would punish, smack children in the most efficient way possible. However, what I didn’t know was that machine actually produced the copies of our tests and handouts. The ink was purple and smelled pungent like fresh asphalt. I loved it. I’d always put the warm sheets of paper up to my face, take the scent in deeply. Sometimes the ink would be fresh enough that some of the purple would transfer to the bulb of my nose.
Sister Marilyn would yell at me to stop chewing on my ties, said she would send me to the spanking machine if I didn’t stop, which only made me more nervous. I remember being very aware of my status as the weird kid who chewed on his ties.
One of the only students I remember from that class was John. I remember thinking he was cool and somewhat mysterious. His heavy eyebrows helped to make his facial expressions seem very intense. He flipped up the collar of his button downs. There was something vampire like about him.
One day, we watched a movie in the afternoon, something about science or nature. I kept looking at John as he watched the video, diverting my gaze when I thought he might catch me. I chewed on my tie. He seemed serious, yet relaxed, unworried. I dropped the tie out of my mouth and flipped my collar up. I kept looking at him, I wanted him to see that I was trying to be like him. He finally turned towards me. He shook his head. I put my collar back down. He turned back towards the front of the room. I remember feeling that I had done something terribly wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed.
Shame has ruled my life. It’s what keep me in the closet. It’s what made me afraid to be fat, made me keep those secrets from the people closest to me. It’s part of what has made me feel that I don’t fit in the world, a world that doesn’t necessarily want to make room for queer people or fat people, so a queer fat person is sometimes too much for some people.
The Midwest. Growing up, my mother told me that people were always watching, always judging, even if they were smiling to your face. How I looked, how I acted, how people thought of me was very important to her. Being a husky kid. Being a “sensitive” kid, code for effeminate, was all subject to negative judgment and potential embarrassment on her part. She told me she didn’t care if I was “sensitive” but other people did. My aunt, her youngest sister, cared.
I made the forty-five minute drive South from our house to my aunt’s house with my mother. I was in high school. My mother had recently taken me to see Madonna’s Girlie Show Tour in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I bought a tour t-shirt and it was the only shirt I’d wear on the weekends. Most of the visit with my aunt had been fine. She showed us around her new apartment. Every room was covered in wood paneling. She made a point of showing us that you could see her old apartment from the side window of her new one.
However, there was a turn. I don’t know what caused it because I had already made it down the hall to the kitchen and they were still in the living room when it happened. I heard them shouting. I peeked around the corner to see down the hall.
“That,” my aunt said, pointing at me. “Why do you always bring that with you.”
My heart and my stomach smacked into each other. I knew she favored my siblings, but I didn’t know until that moment what she really thought of me. I’d love to tell you that it didn’t hurt, but it did. My mother and aunt were in profile to me. It was the first time I noticed how my aunt’s face was a much more vicious version of my mother’s.
Like most arguments in my family, the one between my mother and my aunt turned physical. Like I did at home, I intervened, put myself in the middle to break it up. I only remember a flurry of arms and shouting as they tried to get around me to get at each other. I remember my aunt’s nails cut my lip. I remember she grabbed at the collar of my Madonna t-shirt and pulled hard enough to tear the front of the collar from the rest of the shirt. I pushed her away from me.
“Get out,” my aunt shouted. She picked up her glass of pop from the coffee table, the ice cubes packed into it so tightly they didn’t move when she tilted the glass to take a slug of it. “Now,” my aunt said.
My mother and I left. In a few days, my aunt would call my mother and they would patch things up. I never saw or spoke to my aunt again after that day.
On that day, my mother only drove a couple blocks before she had to pull the car over into the parking lot of a convenience store to cry. She said she wished I had my license so that I could drive. She was tired. My mother was always tired.
I held a tissue to my lip as I waited for the bleeding to stop.
“She ripped my shirt,” was all I could say.
This made my mother cry more. She looked right at me as she did. I don’t know if she wanted a witness or if she expected me to comfort her. One time when she was upset I tried to hug her and she tensed up, asked me to step away, so I knew she didn’t expect that kind of moment.
“It doesn’t matter about the shirt,” I said. It felt silly to be sad about it, but I was. Maybe that was my way of deflecting from the “that”. I didn’t know how to process it or address it, so nothing was ever said about it.
“I could drive. I’ll drive carefully,” I said.
She shook her head. So we sat in the parking lot while my mother cried and I tried not to let blood drip onto my Madonna t-shirt. When my mother stopped crying, she said she was going to buy me a Wendy’s. I reminded her that I was on a diet.
“You can skip the diet today,” she said.
Last year, the last time I had any communication with my mother, it was for her to tell me how embarrassed she was that I wrote about being a gainer, about wanting to be fat. It was all via text, but I could hear her voice saying, what will people think?!
Transformation. I’m more comfortable with my fatness now than ever before, but some of those fragments of shame remain. There are days where I wonder what impact it will have on my career, my health, or my relationships. I wonder the same thing about my queerness, if coming out late makes relationships, how I relate to those around me, more difficult than it would have been if I had come out when I was a teenager. Recently, I watched HBO’s Looking. In the movie that ended the series, Patrick, the main character, wonders to his friend, Dom, the same thing, would he have had an easier time with relationships, felt better adjusted if he had come out when he was sixteen. Dom says, “Maybe it’s not worth thinking about. You can’t go back in time.”
This simultaneously seems like great advice and an unsatisfying response. It’s the easy movie/TV response when a character can sweep things away because it will only be important when the plot needs it be again. They won’t be living with it.
A couple weeks ago, a gainer who is very early in his gaining journey asked me how I had figured it all out.
“Figured what out?” I said.
“Gaining. Being out. All that,” he said. It took me a moment to answer because I felt like I was supposed to say that there have been no problems, no hang-ups. He is twenty-four, the age I was when I got married. He is looking for answers to questions that at that age I didn’t know to ask. There is a sixteen year difference between us. I had thought the whole time that people who came out in their twenties were the ones who had figured it all out.
“I don’t have it all together,” I said. “I’m still figuring it out as I go.”
This wasn’t what he wanted to hear. I wish I could have given him a more comforting answer. The passcode to knowing what he wanted to know. I wanted that at one point. Some days I still do. I was hung up on the idea for many years that life is meant to be plotted in a certain way. I thought I should have seen the problems coming and be able to redirect the narrative so that everything would be easy. But that’s impossible. My mother once told me that things wouldn’t come as easily to me as they did for my siblings. I have no idea what exactly why she said, but it is something that has stuck with me for years. Maybe she saw, knew that I wouldn’t quite fit in anywhere, and that would make things difficult for me. Maybe my challenge is to find ways to be comfortable in that space.
Brian Kornell’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency as well as chosen as a Jane G. Camp fellow by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). His essay, “Goodbye: A Trilogy” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.