By Michelle Goldberg
Marilyn Wann had had enough. Over dinner, the man that she was dating told her he was embarrassed to introduce her to his friends because she was too fat. Upset, she went home, only to find a letter from a health insurance company denying her coverage, saying she was morbidly obese. "It was a double whammy," she said.
But instead of going on a desperate diet, as many in her situation might, Wann woke up the next morning and started Fat?So!, "The magazine for people who don't apologize for their size." Since then, the 5'4, 250 pound, hot-pink-haired Wann has been a leader in the growing fat pride or fat acceptance movement. She calls fat acceptance a civil rights movement that seeks to eradicate the last acceptable prejudice--discrimination against fat people.
Wann isn't alone--there are whole organizations who share her mission. "I think you finally get fed up and tired of having to apologize for simply existing in the world. There's a blame the victim mentality. We're shoved around by the diet industry and then blamed for regaining the weight," said Maryanne Bodolay of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, or NAAFA.
Bodolay says NAAFA has five thousand members and 48 chapters, including groups in Brazil, Italy, New Zealand, London and Australia. There are more than thirty magazines geared towards fat people, as well as countless websites.
Central to NAAFA's "fat politics" is the argument that fat people are not simply those who can't control their appetites. In fact, members say that diets, along with genetics and hormones, are the cause and not the cure for obesity.
Unlike others in the movement, Wann is adamant about not wanting obesity to be classified as a disability, even though if it was fat people could sue for workplace discrimination and lack of access to public places, such a movie theaters and airplanes where the seats are too narrow. "Frankly, its not a disease. Its more of a rights issue than a health issue," Wann said.
But Overeaters Anonymous, while critical of the diet industry, disagrees. It likens obesity to diseases like alcoholism or compulsive gambling, hardly things to be proud of.
"Being severely overweight does cause a lot of medical problems," said Maria, who asked that her last name not be used. Maria has belonged to Overeaters Anonymous for 14 years and said obesity is never healthy.
"When I'm overweight I'm very miserable. Overeating is an obsession with food. It is a disease to me. I have a disease. Its like having diabetes," she said.
Of course, those who share Maria's feelings about their fat are still in the majority. Despite a spate of recent articles and the publication of the pro-fat books Eat Fat by Cornell professor Richard Klein and Women en Large by Laurie Toby Edison, the movement is far from mainstream. A spokeswoman for The National Calorie Control Council said she never heard of fat acceptance and then called it "absurd." Spokespeople for Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, two of the country's most popular diet programs, also said they weren't aware of the movement.
But increasingly, some doctors and nutritionists are saying that the fat acceptance movement is correct in its claim that the health risks around fat have been overstated. "The medical system does have a prejudice against weight. Fat acceptance has pointed out the way that the research is skewed," said psychologist Jane Kaplan.
Kaplan, who has worked with eating disorders for over 20 years, says that the risks associated with fat may be outweighed by the stress of constant dieting and the self-loathing that comes with it. "Body acceptance is always good medicine," she said. "It's very political territory."
"To some degree, there are health risks to overweight," she continued. But she beleives that some health complaints associated with fat, such a fatigue and depression, may have more to do with the pressure of living in a fat-phobic culture.
Nutritionist Sonia Ghaemi, author of Weight Smart, said fat acceptance is healthy as long as each person is honest with themselves and not simply resigned to never losing weight. "Too much fat is not healthy but if you have it and you feel good you should feel proud of it. Honestly, don't lie to yourself. Some people feel comfortable, and they feel fat is pretty. I want them to be eating healthy whether they're fat or not."
Wann said that most fat people do eat healthy. And, even though she said she believes that fat is beautiful, she rails against the diet industry, which she says is making fat people fatter.
"One of the big stereotypes is that we eat all the time. We're getting fatter because of dieting. That's the big blind spot, the dieter is always the failure, not the diet," Wann said. "The way to fatten an animal is to starve an animal and then re-feed it. Your metabolism slows down when you're eating less. People on diets are predisposing their body to gain more weight."
Lynn McAfee, the Director of the Medical Project on the Council on Size and Weight discrimination in Philadelphia, said three social trends that have contributed to a rise in obesity in the last few decades are decreased exercise, increased consumption of fast food, and, most of all, dieting.
"There are many, many hormones involved. When we screw around with that too much, we can't return to normal. The more we try to obtain the unattainable, the further we fall from our natural state," she said.
McAfee was a pioneer in the fat pride movement. She was living in LA in 1974 when Cass Elliott of the Mamas and the Papas died. A nasty rumor spread that Elliott had died choking on a ham sandwich. Outraged, McAfee started the Fat Underground (F.U. for short), a group known to disrupt Weight Watchers meetings with pro-fat guerrilla theater.
It may seem odd that the fat pride movement was born in a city known for its arobicized inhabitants, but LA fat activist Idrea Lippman says it makes perfect sense. While minorities and gays can find acceptance in big cities, Lippman said, the tolerance doesn't extend to fat people, and the constant pressure leads to militancy.
"There's not as much of a stigma attached to being large in other parts of the country than in the big cities. The people who are here are tired of having it thrown in their face and it makes them very rebellious. In my heart of hearts I know the people who push it the most are people who are supersize (over 350 pounds). They're the most militant of the group and they tend to get the message out there."
Lippman differs from many in the fat acceptance movement in that she said she "can't relate" to supersize women, even though she sees them as the movement's leaders. Her feelings are indicative of the divisions in the movement over what constitutes fat and what, if anything, is too fat.
Some super-size people complain that a 200 pound person doesn't understand real discrimination. "A person who is a size 12 has privileges that a person who is a size 22 doesn't have," said Wann.
In a roundtable discussion in the Oakland-based magazine Fat Girl, writers fulminated against women who say they feel fat even though they are thin enough to be accepted by mainstream society. "I want thin and medium-sized women to deal with their body-image dysphoria and realize that there is a world of difference between their experiences as women who hate their bodies and my experience of being fat," said one woman.
Another said, "I don't want to hear that it's fine for me to be fat but for themselves they've just never been happy at their larger size. What they're saying is they're doing everything in their power to look less like me."
Still, Wann said the movement is maturing to the point where it can be more inclusive. "I feel eating disorders are the mirror image of fat discrimination. I'm every anorexic girl's worst nightmare and she probably thinks she looks just like me," she said.
Wann has visited Berkeley High School to talk about fat acceptance in the hope that it will help all adolescents develop healthier body images. "I think I have the attitude that might help people who are anorexic. Its not possible in this culture to be thin enough. I feel like I'm fighting on behalf of everyone who's wasting their precious life worrying about this non-issue."
Web exclusive to the Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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