Published October 26, 2009
LONG BEACH, Calif. – Move over, it's Saturday night at Club Bounce and people are bouncing onto the dance floor in a big, big way.
These are big, big people, all dressed to the nines and many tipping the scales at 250, maybe 300 pounds.
That's because this expansive nightclub a couple blocks from the Pacific Ocean, with its flashing lights, friendly atmosphere and wall-rattling hip-hop sounds, caters specifically to fat people.
That's right, fat people. Not just any fat people, either, but fat people who are proud to call themselves fat people. People who joke that they are part of the new Fat is Phat movement.
"Self-conscious? No! Not at all," laughs Monique Lopez, a curvaceous woman of 23 as she arrives in a tight, black dress and heels. "I was like, 'I'm going to Club Bounce tonight. I'm going to wear my shortest skirt.'" (Which she did.)
The movement for equal rights for plus-sized people is nothing new of course. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, with chapters around the country, was founded 40 years ago. A nonprofit group, it advocates that everyone be treated equally regardless of size, arguing that we don't live in a one-size-fits-all world.
But what has been slower coming, fat advocates say, are places like Club Bounce, where people who might have some trouble getting past the velvet ropes at other night spots because of their size are made to feel like they fit right in.
"When you're not what they consider ideal, you know, and you're out there trying to get your dance on at those other places, you get the looks, the stares. But not here. Everything's accepted here," says Vanessa Gray of Long Beach, an attractive 30-something woman who acknowledges jovially that after giving birth to three children, "I've got a little more meat on my bones."
Such clubs are still a relatively new phenomenon, however, with a handful scattered across California, mainly in coastal cities from San Diego to San Francisco.
"The whole thing really started on the Internet, with clubhouse parties organized online," says Kathleen Divine, who runs another Southern California plus-size club, the Butterfly Lounge. "Now you see a lot more large people out in public, not hiding behind their keyboards anymore."
A Web site for "big beautiful women" (bbwnetwork.com ) sponsors an annual "Vegas Bash," for example, and there are similar gatherings in cities like Atlanta and Seattle.
But veteran fat activist Lynn McAfe of the Council On Size and Weight Discrimination would like to see more clubs.
"It's nice to have a place to go where you can do a little flirting and maybe bring your thin sister or somebody from work who isn't fat, and they'll be in your world for awhile," says McAfe, a pioneer of the fat advocacy movement. "That's an amazing experience for a lot of people who aren't fat, to spend a day or night in a world of fat people."
Not that every large person prefers to be called fat, especially by someone who isn't.
Lisa Marie Garbo, who opened Club Bounce five years ago, says she prefers plus-sized or larger-framed.
"But I don't think fat is a bad word anymore," she adds. "I think a lot of people embrace it now."
Garbo, a vivacious, 40-year-old blonde partial to flamboyant outfits of tight-fitting pants and low-cut tops, said she opened the club for herself and others who were tired of being "the only fat girl at the local nightclub."
The club, with a capacity of 400, attracts relatively equal numbers of men and women, although Garbo says about three-quarters of the women tend to be heavy, while only about a quarter of the men are.
Some club-goers, like Chad Koyanagi, started out big, then slimmed down. Others, like Garbo herself, have seen their weight go up and down over the years. Still others say they're happy the way they are.
Like a lot of heavy people, Koyanagi says he started dropping by the club after a friend he met on a social networking site kept after him to get out of the house. Painfully shy at first, the 30-year-old eventually began to fit in and ended up shedding 50 pounds. Although he's no longer hefty enough to fit the club's BHM profile (Big Handsome Man), he says he's made too many friends to stop coming.
But while not all club-goers are overweight, the very nature of such venues has led some to question whether they are encouraging people to remain fat in a society where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of adults are already obese.
"I'm not a gain-weight advocate or anything like that," says Garbo, who adds she has struggled with her own weight since doctors put her on steroids as a child to treat her asthma. "My message to people is live your life no matter what size you are."
Although obesity remains a serious problem, with links to diabetes, heart disease and other health issues, says sociologist Karen Sternheimer, creating a place where people can feel good about themselves can build self-esteem, which in turn can prompt people to do something about their weight.
"As the country gets heavier and ultimately unhealthier, in many instances the problem is people feeling bad about themselves, and feeling bad about themselves doesn't motivate people to lose weight," says Sternheimer, author of "Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture."
What does motivate people, she said, is starting with a positive outlook of accepting who you are, then working from there to change your appearance in whatever way you want.
"Anything that helps people feel better about themselves," she said, "there's something positive to that."