Big and Beautiful

Go ahead, get a good look at the fat women in the swimming pool.

Make your orca jokes; lambaste them for daring to show their pudgy bellies in a two-piece bathing suit. Take pictures if you need to. These women could give a rat’s patootie what you think of them. They’re more concerned with what to wear to the dance on this recent Friday night. Or who’s flirting with the cute guys. Or how much that strapless sundress at the convention’s store costs.

The 30 or so women sunning themselves at the Tuscany hotel swimming pool on this Friday afternoon are only a handful of the 1,000 attending the Big, Beautiful Women Network Bash, which took place last week. In its 12th year, the bash brings together plus-sized women — and a few men — for four days of socializing, dancing, partying and a few life-changing experiences.

It’s not about promoting fat or encouraging people to gain weight, as some have said in the past, said JoAnn Bellemore of Pahrump, the event organizer. Rather, the bash is about women who have been pushed to the fringes of society coming together and bonding, celebrating life and living in the moment, like anyone else.

“If you’re plus-sized, sometimes you feel like the whole world is against you,” Bellemore says. Women came from 13 countries to attend this year’s bash. “This is all about size-acceptance and self-esteem.”

The BBW Network started out as an online chat room. After people got to know each other, they thought it would be fun to actually meet in person, Bellemore says. She chose Las Vegas in case the get-together fell flat; at least they could explore the city, she recalls. Twenty-six people turned out for the first one and, despite the lack of advertising, the event has grown every year since.

When she looks for a host hotel, Bellemore makes sure she finds a fat-friendly place. Those are businesses that have chairs without arms, ground-based toilets instead of those attached to walls, and aisles that are wide enough for electric scooters.

The bash offers a variety of events, from a seminar on living with diabetes to belly dancing lessons. Attendees can shop in a makeshift store where plus-sized clothing stores display their fashions, including eveningwear, bathing suits, jewelry and other items.

At night, attendees get together for dances, pajama parties and lingerie shows.

But there’s more to the gathering than just socializing, Bellemore says. Women who had been too scared to wear clothes that showed their bare arms or even go to a club with friends back home come to the bash and wear shorts, bikinis and strapless dresses. They dance, unabashedly, and flirt with the single men.

“It changed my life,” says Californian Colleen Gerke, who was attending for her third year in a row. “Before, I thought I was ugly. I covered up, I had no self-esteem. “

That’s hard to believe coming from this spirited woman in a bathing suit and thin wrap. She laughs and jokes with two dozen other attendees who have gathered in a room to learn the Electric Slide and Cuban Shuffle; they needed a few moves for the night’s dance.

The Vegas bash has helped Gerke, who has been overweight for most of her life, accept and love herself for who she is, right now. And the freedom she has gained from her attitude helps with the viciousness that plus-sized women experience in everyday life.

Before the dance lessons, Gerke was at the pool with other attendees when two “average” sized women stopped to stare and take pictures. Sometimes, she confronts people who do things like that. Mostly, it’s best to ignore them and go on with life, says this first-grade teacher.

“Take a good look. This is who I am,” Gerke says, gesturing to her body. “If that’s what you need to do to entertain yourself, then you lead a sad life.”

That kind of thing is common in the world of plus-sized women, says Minnesota native Chea Castro. That’s why the bash is so important.

“There’s a safety and comfort in being together because in the world, people have no problem telling you you’re fat,” Castro says. “I know without asking that all these women here will have a story where some stranger has come up to them and said something about their weight.”

For Castro, that story is when strangers approach her and tell her she has a pretty face; it’s a shame she’s so fat.

“You get a thick skin,” says Heather Nemeyer, 34. “I live my life just like everyone else. I’m just in a bigger body.”

Nemeyer, who is from Massachusetts, has been facing such attitudes since she was in high school. Recently, she walked into a store and saw a man raise his arm and make a noise, mimicking an elephant.

“I’ll call people out on it. I say, ‘Hey, I’m fat but I’m not deaf,’ ” she says.

Making fun of fat people is the last, acceptable form of discrimination, Nemeyer says. It’s not OK to make fun of disabled people or make ethnic jokes. But people will always laugh at fat jokes, she adds.

But Nemeyer may be having the last laugh; she has built what her mother calls a fat empire. Nemeyer hosts BBW socials and runs an erotic Web site featuring plus-sized women, bigcuties.com.

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.

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