“Do you find fat women attractive?” asks a calm, disembodied voice at the beginning of Big Girls: Big Beautiful Women in the Adult Entertainment Industry. “No,” “not really,” “not generally”–the answers come back quickly as the camera cuts from one man on the street to the next, culminating with one guy’s declaration that “big women suck!” At that, Sara McCool turns the camera on herself and flips it the bird.

McCool made Big Girls two years ago as her senior project at Antioch College. The 25-minute video includes interviews with prostitutes, phone sex workers, pornographers, activists, self-described “fat admirers,” and models for fetish magazines like Big Butt and Plumpers and Big Women, as well as clips from The Sally Jessy Raphael Show and hot pink graphics comparing the pay scales and circulation of mainstream girlie mags with those of their “niche” counterparts. Juxtaposed against the talking heads and statistics is footage of McCool trying on tight clothes, laughing in disbelief at a can of Slim-Fast, and shaking her own frilly-pantied ass.

“I feel like there’s a thin fetish in the United States, and there is this belief that it is a very natural aesthetic to have,” she says. “But in reality this aesthetic illustrates who has power and who determines standards of beauty.” Basically, “I wanted to brainwash the audience into seeing fat women as sexy.”

A native of Pittsburgh, McCool moved to Chicago last September. But she first visited when she was 17, to talk about riot grrls on Oprah.

“When I was 14,” she says, “my mom let me and my friend get on a bus and go to D.C., and we went to the first riot grrl convention, and it completely changed my life.” On “a billion” diets since she was a child, she now says, “I credit riot grrl with me not having an eating disorder.”

As a teenager McCool put out a zine called Sourpuss and corresponded with the publishers of fat-positive zines like Fat!So? and I’m So Fucking Beautiful. Her early video projects addressed gender and body image issues in general–she did a video on “girl skateboarder gangs taking over Pittsburgh with pink baseball bats,” as well as a biographical piece on the women in her family and a fictional narrative about a fat woman’s visit to the doctor. In 1998, while she was an intern at Paper Tiger Television in New York, a coworker showed her a copy of Plumpers.

“We were going to work on a project for Paper Tiger that encompassed all magazines that were geared toward fat women,” says McCool. “Because a whole host of them were out at that time, including, like, Mode and Belle.” That project didn’t pan out, but back at Antioch she decided to narrow the focus of her video project to the sex industry, because “porn, which has traditionally had a difficult relationship with feminist women, for fat women has become this huge victory.” As Cat Ross, a sex worker featured in the video, puts it: “I’m not only fat, I’m a prostitute. I’m making money off this sexual energy, and it’s just one of the sins of all time.”

In the two years since she completed the video, McCool has traveled the country, screening it at colleges and other venues–Ladyfest in Olympia, Washington, and sex workers’ film festivals in San Francisco, Tucson, and Portland, Oregon.

She’s pretty happy with the reception it’s gotten, though in hindsight she wishes she’d done some things differently–interviewed women working in queer porn, for example. But, she says, “I had to graduate [and] I didn’t have any more money!”

Near the end of production, she realized she could make a quick $100 by modeling for Plumpers. She submitted four “boobie shots” to its amateur section, but the magazine folded before they ran and she never got paid. “That would have been great, though,” she says. “I would have liked to have been in Plumpers. I’m kind of sad, now that I think about it.”

Big Girls: Big Beautiful Women in the Adult Entertainment Industry will be shown Friday, March 15, as part of “Homegirls: New Work From Chicago,” the opening-night program of the 21st annual Women in the Director’s Chair film festival. The program starts at 7 at Preston Bradley Center, 941 W. Lawrence, first floor. Tickets are $8, $6 for students and seniors; call 773-907-0610 or see the sidebar in Section Two for a complete festival schedule.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette marie Dostani.