Fun, in a big way

By Elisabeth Dyer, Times Staff Writer
Published March 7, 2008

Fit or fat? Adriane Fountain claims both. On the dance floor, she bounces, shakes and gyrates.  She's health conscious - works out at the gym and gets tips from The Biggest Loser.  "I'm a big girl," says Fountain, in a floral print size 26 dress. "I'm sexy and I'm proud."  Public-health advocates warn that obesity is an epidemic and an illness, but she's not buying it.  She'll never be skinny, she says. Her scale has registered 366 pounds and now, about 200.  And that's okay at the weekly Biggie Nights party at a Howard Johnson lounge off Interstate 4.  Big beautiful women, big handsome men and all admirers now have two Tampa hot spots where they can cut loose and be themselves. In February, Biggie Nights opened its doors, and Club Rubenesque moved to downtown Tampa.

Clubs for fun-seeking overweight men and women are gaining popularity in Hillsborough and beyond. Every Saturday, partygoers from Brandon, Carrollwood and Tampa dance along with people from as far away as Jacksonville and Miami.

Abundant. Queen-sized. Voluptuous. Rubenesque.

"It's all really a state of mind," Fountain says. "I know some larger people who are stuck in their houses."

Big and healthy

Fountain grew up in East Tampa. She is 35. Earned two bachelor's degrees.

And she likes to flirt.

Watch her on the dance floor, shaking what she's got.

Magazines and TV tout lean physiques, but is being healthy simply a matter of eating less and exercising more?

"It's about loving their bodies as they are," said Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

"You can be fat and healthy," she says.

Experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn of obesity's risks: diabetes, stroke and some cancers. Howell disagrees.

"For any disease, there are skinny and large people afflicted," Howell said. "Correlation is not causation."

The nonprofit group, which will turn 40 next year, works to eliminate discrimination based on body size.

Pounds, she said, can come with benefits.

"Big women are softer. We have more curves," Howell said. "Those of us who accept ourselves are unstoppable."

Yet they face obstacles in a society that values all things lean.

In February, a Mississippi lawmaker proposed a bill to ban restaurants from serving obese people. The bill died quickly, but not before spotlighting the bigotry obese people face. The lawmaker said his goal was to bring change to Mississippi, ranked the nation's most obese state.

At least one airline charges overweight people for an extra seat for "spillover space." Southwest Airlines may charge customers for two seats if they can't lower their seat's armrests.

Before the clubs

People like Fountain have gained prominence since Tampa's size acceptance movement took root in 2000. That's when Linny Sames started a "big beautiful women" group.

She had taken overweight friends from a chat room to a restaurant meeting. But when they decided to go out dancing at area clubs, they overheard stinging labels.

People pointed.

People mooed.

Sames, of Riverview, decided they needed a safe place. She turned the social group into a weekly dance soiree.

For many BBWs, their lives are divided into periods: "before the clubs" and "after." Caterpillars emerged as butterflies from cocoons, they say. Flower buds bloomed.

The sense of belonging they felt was life-changing, Sames said. Society's message that they were flawed fell away. Sames has since closed her club, and Tampa's scene has bounced from locations in North Tampa and Brandon. Currently, the oversized gatherings occur at Biggie Nights and Club Rubenesque downtown.

At both, partiers find acceptance. Admiration. Self-love.

"A lot of guys like voluptuous women," said Valerie McCaw, of Riverview. She wears a size 16, and weighs less than 200 pounds, she said. "Sometimes I find I'm not big enough."

Stacy Harris, who opened Biggie Nights on Saturdays at the hotel on 50th Street, said she used to feel the stares. "I would be thinking they were like, 'Wow, she has a really big gut.' "

Sames now supports Harris, teaching her how to attract people and market the events. Biggie Nights attract a core group in their 30s to 50s.

Speaking of attraction, Harris met her husband, Harvey, five years ago at a BBW club. They have 21-month-old twins.

Sandi Hernandez, 43, opened Club Rubenesque in 2006, which moved to several sites before landing downtown on Saturdays at Club Chambers. The message: "It is hip to be you."

Her club caters to a younger crowd with more hip-hop music, Hernandez said.

"You'll not be the one holding someone else's handbag while they dance," she said.

Wayne Velasco met his wife, Beth, at a dance in St. Petersburg several years ago. Three weeks later, "she decides to kiss me in the parking lot," he said.

They married a year later.

"I like 'fluffy' women," he said. "I think it's cool that everybody feels comfortable here."

The couple took to the dance floor recently at Biggie Nights. Nearby, Sonia Ocasio, barefoot, shimmied to the beat in a one-shouldered gown she made with the help of a friend, Apollonia Carmichael. The two plan to go into business making fashions for larger women. She is frustrated by the frumpy styles in stores.

"They want to dress us like sofas," said Ocasio, who lives in North Tampa.

Ocasio, 47, married at 15 and separated about five years ago. Sames' club changed her life. She had never been to a nightclub and suffered from depression.

"I started loving myself," she said. "It's a whole different me."

Ocasio once weighed 498 pounds. "I've danced off about 240," she said. "I don't want to be skinny. I want to be a fat girl.

"I hope you spell it right. It's P-H-A-T - pretty, hot and tempting."

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or 813 226-3321.

If you go

Biggie Nights are at the Howard Johnson lounge, 2520 N 50th St.

Club Rubenesque is at Club Chambers, 1701 N Franklin St.

Both clubs cater to "big beautiful women" and "big handsome men" on Saturday nights.

By the numbers

38 percent of Florida adults overweight but not obese

23 percent obese

39 percent whose weight is "acceptable" or underweight

States by rank with most obese adults. Ten of the top 15 states are in the South.

1 Mississippi, 30 percent

34Florida, 23 percent

50Colorado, 18 percent