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Monday, November 08, 2004 - Page updated at 10:30 A.M.

Club nights where being "plus" is a positive are full-size fun

By Pamela Sitt
Seattle Times staff reporter

JAMES BRANAMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Katee Lilloren and Dave Wheeler at an Abundance Northwest event.
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In nightlife, as in T-shirts, there is fallacy in the notion that one size fits all.

Melissa Habeck, a vivacious plus-size Seattleite, found that bars in Belltown and Pioneer Square just didn't fit right. They weren't comfortable, and they didn't make her feel fabulous.

So she did what any smart shopper would do — she kept looking. Her Goldilocks moment came when she discovered Abundance Northwest. Sold.

"I think the vibe is different from the Seattle bar scene," said Habeck, 33. "I mean, it's cliquey like anything else, but I guess we all have one common bond."

Abundance Northwest is celebrating one year of throwing what it calls size-positive club nights, where BBW (big beautiful women) and BHM (big handsome men) come together to mingle, drink and dance. It's not unlike adolescence in a way, what with the hormones and the uncertainty, the lessons in self-acceptance and the insider acronyms. Which is fitting, one supposes, because it took some growing pains to get here.

"After I got divorced, I felt like I would never meet anybody who would want to go out with me [because] I was so large," said Susan James, 42, who started Abundance Northwest last December with friend Tina Walker. Another partner, Luke Hensen, took over ownership of the group in June. "It wasn't until I discovered the size-acceptance community that I realized I shouldn't let my weight cause me to not get out there and have fun, and not use that as an excuse."

Nearly everyone, regardless of size, has experienced a weekend when he or she feels too fat to go out. Abundance Northwest's goal is to quash this notion, and it appears to be working.

At favorite locations like Chihuahua's Mexican Restaurant and Cantina in Auburn and Eli's 104th Avenue Roadhouse in Kent — chosen for their proximity to cities both north and south — up to 100 people typically gather once or twice a month to dance under strobe lights to Nelly and Jay-Z. Some travel from as far as Portland and Vancouver, B.C., to attend.

"They dance a lot and have a good time," said Juan Flores, owner of Chihuahua's. "I get to know the regulars, and I see a lot of new faces as well. It's growing and growing, I think. ... We get phone calls from all over, asking directions on how to get here."

Upcoming events


Abundance Northwest hosts monthly club nights for the plus-size community and friends. Cover charge is $8.

• Tomorrow, Eli's 104th Avenue Roadhouse, 24228 104th Ave. S.E., Kent.

• Nov. 13, Chihuahua's Cantina, 4202 Auburn Way N., Auburn.

• Nov. 27, Chihuahua's Cantina, 4202 Auburn Way N., Auburn.

• Anniversary party, Dec. 11, The Spotlight, 3901 N.E. Fourth, Renton.

James is expecting a boost in attendance as the holidays approach and "people start wanting to get dressed up and go out."

"We know there's a lot of hip plus-size people out there, and that's who we wanted to attract — the fun crowd that wants to go out and dance and wear club clothes," she said. "We kind of wanted to get away from the stigma of having it at a community center or Elks club."

Habeck, who on a recent night at Chihuahua's was wearing pink capri pants, a black top and ribboned shoes — "It's my 'Greased Lightning' outfit" — is encouraged by plus-size women who put the same effort into their appearance as anyone else.

"I'm proud of women truly taking care of themselves and defying the stereotype of being frumpy and not caring," she said.

Not everyone here starts out that way. But more often than not, each successive visit yields a tiny transformation. You can see it in the details: a dab of makeup here, a fitted skirt there, a willingness to smile for the camera.

"I think it's knowing you're going to have some event to go to every couple of weeks. You start pulling things together," James said. "I hope to think they feel better about themselves."

Nightclubs dedicated solely to larger-size patrons are thriving in other cities — including Moxie in Los Angeles and Goddesses in New York — and the trend is applauded by the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

"Fifty-five percent of the nation is now above the NIH's [National Institutes of Health] standards" for body mass, said Debra Perkins, vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAAFA. And the health risks of obesity are well known. Yet, Perkins points out, regardless of why someone is overweight or what health issues he or she may have, "With so many people considered legally fat, a lot of people feel like they don't deserve a life. ... This gets them out of the house and lets them see that there's no shame in being a larger person."

Abundance is the only organization in the Northwest to offer regular events in a nightclub atmosphere. At $8 a head, the cover charge generates just enough to pay for a disc jockey, bouncers and "my bar tab," James jokes. The crowd ranges in age from late 20s to mid-40s, and women usually outnumber men by a ratio of 60-to-40 — unlike the typical Seattle bar scene, which tends to be overrun with testosterone.

Many say they prefer plus-size events to bars where "all the skinny women get all the men," according to Teri Wangler, 31, of Kent. Some haven't stepped foot in a "regular" nightclub in years.

"It's just comfort in numbers. You go to a regular club and get ostracized a little bit," said Bill Kaminski, 36, of Portland. "Personally, I feel OK. I can go out and ham it up and get people laughing, but for a lot of people, that is a problem."

People of all sizes are welcome at Abundance events — regulars often bring friends along — and organizers are careful to avoid any potential discrimination against those who are smaller.

"That's something I'm really aware of. We talk about the fact that you can't be size-accepting unless you're accepting of all sizes," James said. "We don't feel like we need to be sequestered, like we're delicate flowers that can't be around regular people."

Wangler, who discovered Abundance Northwest about six months ago, likens the group to a big family. Indeed, its members meet frequently for dinner or organize picnics during the summer.

"I've made so many new friends," James said. "The biggest thing is just having a social group to do stuff with."

Toni Frick, 31, had trouble meeting people when she moved to Lynnwood from Wisconsin. She saw Seattle as "not friendly." She credits Abundance Northwest for reviving her social life.

"It brought me out of my shell. I don't feel self-conscious here. I lost my shyness," Frick said. "I'm going out to regular bars now, and it's not so different anymore. I felt like all eyes were on me. ... Now I don't feel that way."

It has had a similar effect on Katrina Walton, 41, of Kent.

"I wouldn't make eye contact with people," she said. "And now I'm one of the worst flirts in the world."

Pamela Sitt: 206-464-2376 or psitt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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