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Can fat guys be sexy? (Hell yeah)

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Men and body image will be just one of the topics discussed at the second annual Body Love Conference this weekend in Tucson, Arizona.  We asked Jesse Arenstein, self-professed “fat guy”, about his own journey to body confidence – and what happened when he found himself being a model for a day. By Jesse ArensteinPhotos by Rachel Miller and Liora K.

Photo by Rachel

Jesse Arenstein says fat guys are more culturally acceptable than fat women. But men get body shamed too, he argues. Photo by Rachel Miller

When body positive activist Jes Baker, a.k.a. The Militant Baker, asked me to participate in the second Lustworthy photo shoot – a shoot that was based on the premise that money/gold digging isn’t the only thing that can attract sexy women to fat guys – it stirred up a wealth of self-reflection.

I thought about my own tastes and ability to find beauty in, and sexual desire for,  women of all races, sizes, and cultural persuasions.  I felt like a part of a movement that emboldened and validated the part of me that loved both fat thighs and thigh gaps, that cherished, maybe even worshipped, the diversity of the female form.

I was flattered as fuck that this young woman – whom I watched grow from a snarky, savvy, sexy “bookworm” into an international cultural powerhouse changing the way the world perceives beauty –  thought of me first when she wanted to highlight a sexy fat guy in her latest Internet propaganda party. (Jes and photographer Liora K launched the Lustworthy photo series – a rip-off of perfume ads, but one that uses unconventional body pairings – in 2013.)


Jesse poses in the Lustworthy campaign. Photo by Liora K. Other model: Bella Romeo.

Jes, also the founder of this week’s Body Love Conference, has a charisma and a raw energy which I encourage all of you to encounter in person, and I was determined to honor our friendship by participating in this movement.

I had doubts that this idea I was to be the figurehead for in this particular shoot wasn’t anything special.  That fat guys get hot girls all the time.  That there really is a vicious double standard in the way that heavier women are perceived sexually as opposed to heavier guys.  I wrestled with all of the accepted cultural norms like being the “teddy bear”or the “funny fat guy”, the generations of comical fat guys in cartoons that wind up with skinny attractive wives – from Fred Flintstone to Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin. All this seemed to be working against me, in that the point we were making with the second Lustworthy was something the communal consciousness of the world already had accepted.

And, tellingly, these doubts seemed to be reflected pretty consistently in the comments left on Jes’s blog post after the photo shoot was published. Comments like this:



Photo by Liora K.

And when I got nervous about all of this and considered not doing the shoot, my wife Rebecca told me to suck it up, that this is important on a large cultural level, that I was sexy, and that participating would make a difference.  (She was also kind enough to give me the same pep talk when I whined about writing this article).  After the shoot, when one of Rebecca’s male co-workers came up to her and expressed that self-esteem issues based on weight were something he had struggled with for years, and that seeing me in The Huffington Post’s coverage of the shoot made him feel better about himself and his ability to attract women, we both knew she was right. She normally is.

Really though, when considering doing the Lustworthy shoot, I wound up facing my own personal binary relationship with self-esteem.  The heights of testosterone-fueled confidence and the lows of bullying-fueled self-hatred.  The incomparable effect that the confidence part can have on the outside world’s perception of me, and the fact that the source of that confidence also involved not caring about what that perception was.

I thought about the seemingly endless years of being made fun of for being fat throughout school.  And I thought about how beautiful that little kid was and how destructive to his ability to perceive his own beauty all of those taunts and insults were.  The main premise for this article and why I was asked to write it comes from this same source: conveying the idea to the followers, and those who oppose the body love movement,  that guys have body issues too.  No matter how subconsciously culturally acceptable the fat guy, and even the fat guy dating a conventionally hot woman is, the reality of it is this: men get body shamed too, and it hurts across gender lines just as bad.


I remember watching Revenge of the Nerds at a 6th grade birthday party in Breezy Point, NY and it occurring  to me that the war of jocks veresus nerds had been raging for a long time. I felt like the casualty of a conflict near its end but still lingering on enough to keep people wounded and damaged.  Later that year I wrote my first poem, went to my first middle school dance, played my first Dungeons and Dragons game, and my parents and I moved to Tucson.

At maybe the third or fourth middle school dance I had attended, I’d find myself finally fed up.  There had been years of bullying, name calling, belittling – constant reminders that I was not good enough, not skinny enough, to deserve the attention of girls, pretty or otherwise.  I was standing in the gym of my middle school, experiencing a puberty-fueled internal nuclear event.  Something just snapped inside.  I can’t remember if it was a particular insult, watching someone else get shamed, or if it was just all of the pretty girls and the Sinead O’Connor ballads.  But I was no longer capable of giving a fuck about what all these petty assholes thought of me or said to me.  I had been beaten up, publicly shamed, endlessly belittled both by classmates and family members about my size, but now the fat shaming was getting in the way of the one thing I could not, would not, be separated from: Girls.

Photo by Rachel Miller

For Jesse, fat shaming was getting in the way of one thing: girls. Photo by Rachel Miller

That moment wound up being pretty critical for me, and not just because I got to dance with a lot of pretty girls that night.  It had always occurred to me that the shaming and the insults people had thrown at me were their own problem, not mine, but I never had the ability to keep that from impacting my opinion of myself.  Now it occurs to me that the 12-year-old kid that I was in the pre-Internet era had the realization at that moment that the self that I would continue to be depended on me following a rule many bloggers, and especially Jes and Liora, follow rigidly. I honestly was not giving a fuck about “the comments”.

* Jes Baker will be a keynote speaker at The Body Love Conference, which takes place Saturday June 6th in Tucson. Tickets and more info here.

* Speakers on men and body issues at this year’s Body Love Conference include Steven Yanez Romo of Romo Tonight Live and Noel Trapp, owner of Noel’s Restoratives. You can read more about Noel in this 3 Story feature.


Vintage shopping: the experts spill

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You love vintage, and your wardrobe and living room are crying out for it. But how do you get started? We asked three experts for their tips on vintage shopping in Tucson. By Joan Calcagno. Cover photo courtesy of Francine Vacca Smith/Hot Cool Vintage

The three vintage mavens we spoke to have lots in common: they are hunter-gatherers; they love the thrill of the find; they shop at many types of places – thrift stores, second-hand stores, vintage specialty shops, Craigslist, rummage and yard sales. And they all consciously developed their eye for vintage.


The fashion stylist

syd leopard

Syd Ballesteros in a 1960’s satin jumpsuit from Desert Vintage. Photo by Puspa Lohmeyer

Sydney Ballesteros is a vintage stylist, creative director, buyer, and consultant extraordinaire. This Tucson Modernism Week, you’ll see her styling an exhibit of 1950’s and ’60’s fashions at the opening reception at Chase Bank.

Syd has had “an appreciation for old things” since she was a girl; her stylish grandma and mother took her to yard sales foraging for clothes and other treasures. When she started shopping for herself in high school, she went for the cuts and styles that appealed to her from many eras. That was the start of building a wardrobe, jewelry and handbags included, which is now 90% vintage.

Mix it up. Wearing or displaying all vintage can be a bit much. Syd blends in contemporary, buying various “filler” pieces, like jeans or a good black turtleneck. And since it’s hard to find vintage shoes that fit, she likes to use modern shoes to add that “mix it up” element. She also mixes “high”  – expensive, designer, mint condition (finding a piece like that is “a really good day,” she says) – with “low” – inexpensive things she likes.

Syd in a brocade suit from Black Cat Vintage. Photo by Puspa Lohmeyer

Syd in a brocade suit from Black Cat Vintage. Photo by Puspa Lohmeyer

Invest in staple pieces. Buy a good vintage dress, possibly a little black dress (expect to pay $50 to $75) and a coat in good condition ($50 to $200, unless you come across a killer deal at a thrift store for $15), some jewelry and a handbag.

Go for what you love. Look through vintage magazines, read books, watch old movies and see what you like. “Everyone’s eye favors a certain aesthetic. Vintage just gives you the opportunity to be original with styling it. Wear what you love. Wear it with confidence. Express your individuality!”

Where she shops in Tucson: : Buffalo Exchange, How Sweet It Was, Desert Vintage, Razzle Dazzle, Black Cat Vintage, OZMA Atelier.

For more on Syd, read our feature, Golden Girl of the West. 

The blogger


Francine displays some of her spoils. Photo by Joan Calcagno

Francine Vacca Smith writes the blog Hot Cool Vintage in tandem with running her Etsy shop, which focuses on home accessories – “smalls”, as they are called in the biz. She grew up in a family of antique jewelry sellers and in a home with stylish pieces that sparked her aesthetic senses. Over time, her taste moved to Scandinavian/Danish-modern, partly because she grew up with it.

She is particularly fond of Catherineholm enamelware – those lovely pieces with the leaf-like design you see in the photo. Moving from New York to Tucson three years ago with “virtually nothing” and a spacious home to furnish, she looked to the second-hand market. Then it occurred to her, “Hey, I could be selling this stuff”, and her Etsy shop was born.


One of Francine’s finds: a like-new vintage snack set and Blenko bottle. Photo courtesy of Francine Vacca Smith/Hot Cool Vintage

Research it. See a particular piece you like? Root around on the web so you get to know designers’ styles and price ranges. If your research says an item might be worth its price,  but it’s outside your budget and you love it, you might ask if there is “any room” on the price. Sometimes a seller can do better and sometimes not. Sometimes a knock-off can be touted, and priced, as the real thing. So if you’re not sure, do research on the spot. Look for the telltale details, and use your smartphone to help.

Mix it up. Like Syd, Francine likes to add modern to her vintage collection. Her dining room chairs, for example, are from Target.

francine glassware

Some of Francine’s Scandinavian glassware. Photo by Joan Calcagno

It’s OK to make mistakes. Francine loves mid-mod Scandinavian glass, but it can be hard to find authentic pieces because they aren’t marked. Over time, she developed an eye for the subtle differences. For example, maybe you can see that the tall piece on the left in the photo is a bit thicker on the rim. It’s just less refined throughout, even though it is the same pattern. So it’s possibly not an Oiva Toikka Flora piece like the one on the right. If you are decorating for yourself, it doesn’t really matter, unless you are set on having designer pieces, says Francine. What does matter is that you don’t want to pay designer prices for a knock-off. Although “it happens. You just have to get out there, have fun and make mistakes, that’s how you learn”.

Where she shops in Tucson: She’s not telling! This lady is in business, after all, and doesn’t want to reveal her sources. But she did tell us she likes the Tanque Verde Antique Fair, at 11100 E. Tanque Verde Road, first Sunday of every month.

The B&B owner


Charlotte in the ‘Atomic Room’. Photo by Joan Calcagno

Charlotte Lowe-Bailey is the proprietor of Bailey House, an artist B&B/retreat near the Tucson Mountains. A year ago, when she moved from Patagonia back to a family home, planning to open the B&B, she was faced with furnishing five guest bedrooms, as well as common and outdoor spaces. The house was built in 1966 and has good mid-century bones: floor-to-ceiling windows, angular styling, floor tiling indicative of the era. So Charlotte chose mid-century décor as the focus. While she enjoys houses where people have absolutely everything of an era, she used a more pragmatic, practical approach – starting with some pieces she had and some which reflect the sentimentality of blending in family heirlooms.

Look for bargains, but don’t haggle Charlotte, like our other experts, usually doesn’t haggle if the price is reasonable. She will make an offer if things are overpriced or have been on display a long time. She also tracks various thrift stores that have percent-off days, like The Girls Estate Sale Shop. “They mark things down on an announced schedule, so you know what the opportunities and risks are,” she says.

Be on constant lookout. Hitting the thrifts and vintage shops is usually part of any travel itinerary for these gals. Charlotte checks bulletin boards whenever she’s in small towns, looking for rummage and estate sales. At home, she – like the others – integrates vintage shopping into her week by stopping at a thrift or secondhand store when running other errands.


The “Atomic Room” at Bailey House. Photo by Joan Calcagno

How she puts a room together. Charlotte’s “Atomic Room” (pictured) started with the blond console piece given to her by a family member. Then she found the atomic-patterned convertible chaise/bed on Then she started doing what she usually does – filling in. An authentic swag lamp (from Tom’s Fine Furniture and Collectables. $95); the marble coffee table (from The Girls Estate Sale shop. $85); the Flokati rug (she loves these wool shag rugs because they are iconic to the 60s, easy to clean and easy to find. This one’s from Craigslist, $75); two black side tables (one from a rummage sale, the other from St Vincent de Paul thrift, about $5 each. “They weren’t great, but I sprayed them black and they work”); a TV (from HabiStore, $3); rummage sale side chairs, and smaller accessories, like the ashtray (Goodwill, $5); and, of course, wall art – an Albert Kogel poster, an abstract painting, and vintage album covers she displays in cases from Target.

Where she shops in Tucson: Charlotte seems to have good luck at what she calls “junk shops” – places that have a lot of inventory scattered outside, like Gersons Used Building Materials or the back yard at St. Vincent DePaul thrift, 820 S. 6th Avenue. Some of her favorite places are thrifts where wealthy, stylish clientele provide the donations, like Assistance League Thrift Shop. “They have killer sales”. Other places include: The Girls Estate Sale Shop; HabiStore; Goodwill;  Savers; Tom’s Fine Furniture and Collectables, 5454 E. Pima Street. When she is reupholstering: SAS Fabrics and Baca Upholstery, 2100 South 4th Avenue.

And lastly…

* Let the experts’ advice inspire you. Watch some old movies. Check out some vintage magazines. Get out there. Before you know it, your foraging instincts will kick in and your reward center will light up when  you find something that is a good fit at a good price. And you’ll know: you are hooked.

* Speaking of movies… We see that Grace of Monaco, with Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly, is coming out around Christmas. Judging from the promo pics, it should be full of 1960s eye-candy.

francine egg cups

Photo courtesy of Hot Cool Vintage/Francine Vacca Smith

* Vintage and mid-mod shopping in Tucson is easy when you know where to go. There are mid-mod booths at the  22nd Street Antique Mall and Copper Country Antiques (and don’t miss Fred’s Recycle Bin in the back). You can find mid-mod things at second hand stores like Betty Blue’s Junk Shop (Betty’s a bulldog. Say hi to her!), Kismet and Diamond Lil’s Vintage & Gifts, 2201 E. River Road, and in Trail Dust Town, 6541 E. Tanque Verde Road.

* And there are lots of thrifts where you might find a vintage bargain.  Try Miracle Center Thrift Store (great for glassware), 1st Rate 2nd Hand Thrift Store, Humane Society of Southern Arizona Thrift and Speedway Outlet Thrift, 5421 E. Speedway.

* Retro Renovation and eBay. While our experts were not using eBay much, we note that Pam Kueber, the woman behind the Retro Renovation website, peruses eBay every day and creates curated lists of the mid-century vintage items she finds.

The Mid Century Marketplace and Expo at Tucson Modernism Week is a must. Visit it at the Murphy Building,  2959 East Broadway, Sunday October 6th from 8.30am to 4pm.

* There are always vintage delights to be had at Shop Your Girlfriend’s Closet. This Voices for Education benefit takes place October 25th, 26th and 27th, 3822 N. Oracle Road. We’re told Linda Ronstadt has donated a couple of purses, so make sure you get first dibs.  More here.

Natalie Wright goes deep (beneath)

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The planned return of the X-Files has nothing on Tucson’s Natalie Wright, author of H.A.L.F: The Deep Beneath. She gave up law to write adventurous young-adult fantasy and sci-fi fiction. Here she tells why you should never let her near your latte. By Joan Calcagno. All photos courtesy of Natalie Wright.

Early bird or night owl? “Night owl. I can be logical and productive in the morning.  I’m more creative when the sun goes down. There’s something about the dark or moonlight when people are asleep that allows our imagination to be more free. We’re not embroiled in the daytime issues. So in terms of my writing life, I’m much more creative between the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. I write longhand in the evening and then the next day, in the morning, I’m typing that in, editing as I go.”

Favorite accessory? “My cat. I enjoy having a furry friend with me at all times. Things are just better when I have my baby near me.”

Photo by Natalie Wright

Tucson author Natalie Wright gave up law to write fiction.

Favorite faux pas? “Oh my gosh, there are so many! Here’s a socially inept thing I did. We’d just moved to Tucson, twenty years ago, and we were at the symphony. We hadn’t been there before. I saw all these coffees on this table and they had labels on them – latte, whatever. I picked one up and started drinking it. I’m walking away and this lady is complaining that she has been waiting for her latte forever and looks at me. And I realize my cup has a name on it. I don’t know what I was thinking – ‘Tucson is great! This is wonderful! There are coffees just sitting out!’ And now I’m drinking this woman’s latte. What do I do? I run with this latte as far as I can. My husband was mortified.”

Who is your dream reader? “I have readers from five years old to 90. But they have to be people who enjoy going along for a ride that’s probably not going to be quite like anything they have done before. Curious readers who enjoy an adventure, wondering ‘What is she going to do next?’ Readers who think young adult [fiction] means Twilight redux, they are not going to like my books.”

If I weren’t a young adult fiction writer I would…  “I would own a taco bar on a beach in Hawaii. That’s one thing I think is necessary and doesn’t exist yet. Every time I’m there I think ‘I could really go for a fish taco and a Corona or something’. They are missing the boat.”

If I could change one thing I would… “I’m in the middle of a very poignant time in my life and the observation I have at this moment, based on caring for my ailing parents, is that kindness is very important – human beings being kind to one another. I mean every day, day-by-day kindness. If I could change one thing, I would be more kind and I would be in a kinder world.”

Las Vegas Comic-Con. Photo by Natalie Wright.

At Las Vegas Comic-Con

What was the biggest surprise in leaving the practice of law for writing? “I disliked law school and I disliked being a lawyer, but I did it for twenty years. So I was more than ready to end my practice and had been moving in that direction anyway. My husband, who is my biggest cheerleader, said: ‘You need to give yourself six months to a year. You’re not going to leave this and turn around and write ten novels in a year.’ So when I moped around the house and couldn’t seem to get anything to happen for about six months, he said ‘I told you’. So that was a big surprise – that I would mourn the loss of something I didn’t even think I wanted.”

How did the idea for the H.A.L.F. story come to you? “I was driving along Sunrise Drive in Tucson. It was a really hot summer day and I had this song playing called Cowboys and Aliens by the band Gram Rabbit from the Joshua Tree area of California. And I’m looking down at the valley out across the mountains toward the south and I had this vision pop in my head. I went home and just wrote out an outline. The basic story line was there of an underground lab in Arizona where they were breeding alien-human hybrids and hybrids escape. I have this girl character and she meets up with one of them in the desert.

“I decided Ajo would be a perfect place for my teen protagonist to live because it’s out there by a missile range – miles upon miles of sort of nothing out there. And I thought that would be a really cool thing – what if there was something going on under the ground as well as above the ground?

“I love all the X-Files stuff. I’m not creating new theories, I’m playing into all the conspiracy theories that are out there  – you know, the 1947 Roswell crash, that there is this big underground facility in New Mexico where the alien-human hybrids are. I’m just saying ‘all this alien mythology already exists, let’s just assume that it is all true’.”

* Natalie’s newest sci-fi book, H.A.L.F: the Deep Beneath is available here. Find out more on her website and follow her on Facebook. 

* The X-Files returns to TV screens in January 2016. For a preview, click here.