I'm standing at my desk working. Archer, a 10-pound bundle of sass and midnight fur, sits behind me on a stool, a single claw plunging repeatedly into the elbow of my sweater: "Pay attention to me!"
Archer knows I'm looking at other cats. He just knows.
I'm on Facebook, bearing witness to the fattest cats on the internet. It's a called "THIS CAT IS C H O N K Y," where proud members post photos and videos of their beloved fuzzballs and comments pour in by the hundreds. Along with over 270,000 others, I worship at the house of Chonky. We lurk here. We comment. We find deep comfort.
Facebook has been slammed for privacy failures and scandals, and like social media in general, it's been called out for feeding loneliness and depression. Even social-media-savvy political rock star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quit Facebook. I've been tempted to follow suit, but I stay, in part, for Chonky. And I'm not alone.
Yes, Chonky is for oohing and ahhing over cats with belly flab and kittens with poofy cheeks. But for many, it's also a light in the darkness.
One Chonky mod asked members to share what the group means to them -- and got over 1,000 replies. "It's a ray of sunshine in a gray world of negativity," one member responded. Said another: "There have been many days where I isolate myself and cry nonstop but this group can stop that in an instant."
Members going through breakups put out the call for soothing cat photos to lift their spirits. People who just lost their beloved furry companions turn to Chonky for support and a virtual shoulder to cry on.
Chonky founder Tori Diaz gets messages from group members who want her to know how Chonky has cheered them up during their most stressful moments. "What hit me the hardest," Diaz says, "were the people responding saying the group has helped them through suicidal thoughts, depression and severe medical problems."
I visited Chonky one day when a young woman expressed thoughts of self-harm. The group arrived to tell her that her life matters. They shared their own stories of depression and how their cats gave them something to hold onto. The original poster later updated the message to say she had reached out to a therapist for help.
The first rule of Chonk Club
Chonky isn't the Wild West. You can share pictures of your cats and comment on photos, but you can't sling insults. The group has strict rules of conduct. Rule No. 1: No chonk shaming. This is "the ultimate sin." Don't shame owners, either. That includes not calling them bad pet parents because their cats are overweight.
"Don't be condescending, judgy, or incite arguments," the rules read. No politics or medical advice.
In an internet world full of snark and trolling, Chonky is meant to be sacred ground. Jerks will be banned.
Diaz, who lives with a ginger tabby named Flynn (pictured at the top of this article), created the Chonky group one night in May 2018. "One major issue I noticed in animal groups was owner and pet shaming, especially if the animal was overweight," Diaz tells me. "It made me sad to see them being torn down for posting a picture of a beloved pet that they were excited to share."
You don't have to look far to see what Diaz is talking about. Reddit's popular Aww group is sometimes beset by this issue. A post showing a short video of a fat and fluffy cat received responses calling the owners out for "at least negligence, if not straight-up abuse." It's hard to know the stories behind the overweight pets we glimpse on social media. Are they on diets? Do they have medical conditions? Are they recent rescues?
Diaz created Chonky to be "a safe group to post chubby cats, or any cats, without meanness." The term "chonky" came to her when she was looking at a photo of a fat cat. She thought it felt like internet-speak for "chunky."
Chonky strummed Facebook heartstrings right from the start, zipping to over 100,000 members by the end of 2018. When it hit 125,000, Diaz accepted the help of a small group of Chonky followers who offered to become moderators. They work their butts off.
"Chonky isn't immune to the problems of nasty internet users and trolling, myself and the mods just remove problem people fast and have learned what types of posts are most likely to start problems," Diaz says. "A lot of love and work goes into keeping the group how it is."
Moderator Natalie Bunting, who also volunteers at a cat rescue, says the rule to "be nice" is the one most frequently violated. She has witnessed (and quashed) arguments for and against outdoor cats, political statements and personal attacks, like a member telling another to clean up a house seen in a photo.
"There are literally well over a thousand member requests each day and at least 200 posts an hour," she says. "It's absolutely mind blowing."
Volunteering to wrangle Chonky posts is time-consuming, but Bunting sticks around because she's connected with Diaz and the other mods. They blow off steam in a behind-the-scenes chat group, where Bunting says they laugh, cry and support each other.
A lot of the conversation revolves around Chonky business, such as which posts should be approved or whether a member should be banned, but sometimes it veers into talk of families, food and work. "The subject can change 30 times within 30 minutes and it is the most entertaining chat I've ever been a part of," says Bunting, who has two chonks of her own: Cubby and Baxter.
"They are the goodest boys," she reports.
Chonky is a closed group, so you need to be a member to see the fur flying. Here's a typical day in the life of Chonky: Emily shared a photo of her wide-load black cat sitting on a cable box, eyes poppin' and two front legs dangling straight down. It attracted 222 comments, including some photoshopped parodies showing the cat wearing a business suit or strolling through a Western town. Another poster demanded to see the group's "oranges" and kicked off over 600 comments about ginger cats.
Lizzie posted her gorgeous 14-year-old fluffy boy, who's in declining health. She received lots of love. "Cherish your time together, I'm sure he does," wrote one Chonky member.
If you're fortunate enough to be accepted into Chonky and you can abide by the simple rules, you will need to know some vocabulary.
Beans: toe pads
Cat tax: providing a photo of your own cat when requesting photos from others
Chonk: a fat cat
Hamb/hambina: a cat
Nip nops: nipples
Peets: cat feet
Slonk: a skinny cat
Void: a black cat
Used in a paragraph: My boi Archer is a semi-chonk void hamb, while his sister is a smol void slonk. They're not thicc super-floofs, but their lil peets are adorbs.
Fear of the inevitable
Bunting's avocado-loving cat, Cubby, suffered from a mysterious illness for months before vets finally diagnosed the rare Cushing's disease, an adrenal gland issue that can be difficult to treat. The Chonky team posted a GoFundMe fundraiser on Bunting's behalf, and the community has fed money toward the $2,000 goal to offset Cubby's steep health expenses. "Sending healing energy for Cubby! Thanks for sharing the chonks with the world," wrote one Chonky-loving donor.
Bunting says the campaign absolutely blew her away at a time when she was dealing with an unexpected death in her family. "As silly as it sounds, the whole thing gave me reasons to smile during an extremely difficult time," she says. Chonky fans are also mailing her little shirts for Cubby to wear to help protect his fragile skin. "I still have no idea who sent some of them," Bunting says.
I've been working on this article for a while. My big boy Archer has curled up inside his UFO-shaped cat bed under my monitor stand. He's sleeping, but there's now a tiny paw appearing from beneath my keyboard holder, reaching out daintily for the front of my sweater. "Pay attention to me!" I shift my position so his teensy sister Delia can sit on my lap.
I visit Chonky a couple of times a day. I do it for the respite of cat pictures.
I'm also here because I'm afraid of the future. My cats are over 17. I've known them since the day they were born in a friend's closet as little wiggling bundles of fur, and I love them like they were carved from my own heart. They both have kidney disease.
Delia is getting clumsy. Archer had a mysterious seizure some months ago. The vet calls them seniors, and I know someday, probably not too long from now, I will lose them both.
As much as I lurk on Chonky, I rarely post. When the day comes that I have to say goodbye to my beautiful cats, I already know I will go to Chonky for solace.
And I know a vast community of cat-loving Chonksters will be there to support me.
Originally published June 12.