The BIG Issue
A Fat-Acceptance Movement Welcomes America's New Majority.
By J.E. Relly
OCTOBER 5, 1998: SANTA MONICA, CALIF., Aug. 15--At a nearby pier, tourists are posing with a cardboard cutout of bikini-clad supermodel Cindy Crawford. The sun is burning through the last of the coastal fog as five luxury buses glide to a halt and unload more than 200 fat-rights activists onto Ocean Avenue's Palisades Park.
Even the most seasoned activists are jittery about potential fat-bashing at their upcoming event, the Million-Pound March, brainchild of Haley Hertz and Marilyn Wann, the outspoken publisher of Fat!So? 'zine.
Weeks before this event, the hot pink-haired Wann said, "I want Americans to see a big, fat crowd of people who claim their pounds." She reasoned the humor in those words would attract more attention than three million pleading or analytical ones.
And Wann is right. As the two-hour march--well, actually more of a rally--begins underneath the park's shade trees, national and international journalists edge around red plastic signs printed with defiant messages: "A woman of size who doesn't apologize!!!" "A waist is a terrible thing to mind." "Fat is Phat!"
The protesters are an eclectic assemblage of attorneys, psychologists, professors, researchers, teachers, sales reps, secretaries, clerks, house fraus--some fat, some thinner. Some wear the scars of stomach stapling and intestinal-bypass surgery; others have been turned away from renting, insurance policies, exercise equipment at the gym, and jobs that have a "fat ceiling" or require "front-office appearance." Many share the childhood baggage of not fitting in classroom desks or carrying Metracal in their tin lunch boxes.
"2-4-6-8. We do not regurgitate!"
Speaker after speaker steps up to the mike. Amazonian actress Camryn Manheim charges that a script for her love interest on ABC's The Practice was sanitized to a mere reference because of her size. That is, until she reminded her producers of the show's promo, where two svelte colleagues fell practically naked out of the shower, kissing. "They told me, 'No, no, no, that's not what it's about.' I said, 'That's exactly what it's about.' I told them, 'I want a kiss, and I want it with tongue.' "
At this very moment, according to surveys, more than half of the U.S. population is trying to lose weight.
"We waste $40 billion each year on the diet industry trying to be thin," Wann's voice blares through the speakers. "Hoping to be thin is not hope, it's hatred."
Among the celebrants of fat lib, there are no promotions of weight-loss plans or magic-bullet diet drugs. In fact, if any research is quoted, it's the research refuting the success rate of diets. The establishment cures have been tried by an astounding percentage of this group, most of whom have failed. For this, the non-profit National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) takes many sacred cows to task, deconstructing each weight-related study for bad science, scrutinizing the approval process of appetite-suppressant drugs, exposing pharmaceutical-industry links to researchers.
"We're fat, we're mean. We don't eat Lean Cuisine," participants chant.
As politically astute Sally Smith, executive director of the 5,000-member human-rights organization, reads through her lines, she facetiously tosses a jab at the National Institutes of Health for recently redefining "overweight" from a body mass index of 27 to 25. Suddenly overnight, "there are 25 million more fat Americans," she says as the cheers overpower her sardonic tone. "To that we say, welcome to the club. This means very significantly that we now constitute 55 percent of the population."
THE SIX-DAY CONVENTION attended by some 500 people offers relief from typical American anti-fat demagoguery. Organizers have forgotten no details, not even spatial ones: armless dining room chairs; extra towels and water; a partially drained pool for large groups of volleyball players and aerobics classes.
Even the temperature will be dropped a few degrees in the Westin Hotel's conference rooms for more than 50 workshops and activities, ranging from "Fat Self-Esteem 101" to "Obtaining Quality Healthcare" to "Caring for Parents Who Once Made Us Miserable" to belly dancing by the Fatimas troupe.
The hotel provisos allow 400- and 500-pound women to frolic in the pool wearing bikinis and thong bathing suits if they wish, without worrying about cameras and ugly stares. (In the past, NAAFA allowed film crews and photographers on site to cover the activism. But exploitative images sold around the world made the press persona non grata at poolside and in the dining room.)
Jennifer Utken, a longtime fat activist from Tucson, remembers her first pool experience at a NAAFA convention four years ago. "We didn't grab towels to wrap around us when we got out. It was total, unconscious, pure joy."
IT'S BEEN 29 years since New Yorker Bill Fabrey co-founded NAAFA. A thin man, Fabrey was disturbed by the weight discrimination that his large wife faced. He gathered a group of friends and associates, and with Llewellyn Louderback, author of Fat Power, and seven others, Fabrey attracted 100 members to the cause. This in an era when there were virtually no legal precedents for size-related discrimination cases and few options for XXXL clothes. Four years later, Susie Orbach's 1973 bestseller Fat is a Feminist Issue hit the stands. In 1977, Michigan enacted the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which remains the only state statute prohibiting discrimination on the basis of height and weight, although lawmakers in Texas, Massachusetts and New York have unsuccessfully introduced size as a protected category in those states' civil-rights laws.
In the first years of the movement, Judy Freespirit, now a salt-and-pepper-haired 62, says NAAFA politics were lukewarm, but a core group kept the activism churning. Looking back, Freespirit says changes weren't happening fast enough, so she broke away from NAAFA and co-founded The Fat Underground in Los Angeles.
"It was like the Black Panthers working with the NAACP," she says of the old factions within NAAFA. "Their idea of activism was to go to the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and do volunteer work so that people would say that fat people are nice. Ours was to demonstrate--break into a university lecture hall at UCLA during a class on behavior modification (for weight loss) and take over the classroom."
"It was radical in the early years of this movement to say people shouldn't be dieting," says Freespirit, who, with her self-described radical-feminist colleagues, gathered the scarce data demonstrating that people often gain more weight after dieting than they've lost. "There were whole chapters of NAAFA getting stomach bypasses and stapling in the late '70s." Today, the organization has a four-page platform condemning the surgeries.
Since NAAFA originated, it's always been a clearinghouse for fighting size discrimination. Yet politically active members say it's only been with Sally Smith and President Frances White at the helm, in the last decade, that the movement, with a $225,000 annual budget, has taken on the big issues. Last fall, NAAFA filed a class-action suit against high-power players like Health and Human Services head Donna Shallala, the Food and Drug Administration and 10 pharmaceutical companies, seeking a recall of the diet drugs Redux and fen-phen after numerous health problems surfaced. Within the week, the drug was yanked from the market.
Smith says NAAFA representatives testify at FDA and National Institute of Health hearings which set public policy, but their inclusion is still token. At least 200 NAAFA members demonstrated at the White House, voicing concern with the Clinton Administration's healthcare reform plan after hearing that a few congressmen discussed penalizing fat people. (Withholding benefits from fat people is gaining popularity, with Texas Instruments and U-Haul among dozens of companies that have employed the practice, commonly referred to as "lifestyle discrimination." Smith, whose former employment includes the American Civil Liberties Union, sounds like gay-rights activists fighting back when she says, "We don't consider our size a lifestyle.")
Under the giant tent of fat activism, NAAFA, albeit the largest in the states, is only one of dozens of fat action groups. Yet with more than one in two Americans considered "overweight" by government standards, it's curious that, say for example in Arizona, NAAFA claims only 26 members.
Esther Rothblum, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, whose academic research has included size discrimination in the workplace, reasons that fat people aren't banding together in record numbers because, unlike external forms of oppression such as racism, they suffer not only from societal ridicule, but from internal guilt as well. Author and legal consultant Sandra Solovay agrees: "For many fat people, self-hatred runs so deep that they're not willing to stand up and 'come out' as fat--they just want to be invisible."
Some of the passivism is regional. In the San Francisco Bay area, for example, there are so many fat-acceptance activist interests that network meetings are necessary to prevent events from overlapping. There's Fat Lip Reader's Theater, featuring scripts that are always focused around fat; Hot Lips, another theatre group, highlights fat and sex; and then there's Fat!So?, the 'zine for people who don't apologize for their size; the newsletter Baby Baby; FaT GiRL 'zine, The Big ad, a bi-monthly magazine for full-framed gay men; Radiance magazine, along with the Bay area NAAFA Chapter.
Within NAAFA, membership is a heady mix of special-interest groups, or SIGS, from the Military Issues SIG to the Big Men's Forum SIG to the Lesbian Fat Activist Network to the Parents and Caregivers of Fat Children SIG. And NAAFA members are fanning out around the country to 300 U.S. classrooms to preach the language of fat acceptance. Then there's the Fat Women's Feminist Caucus, for example, formed 15 years ago, in response to the "sexism and heterosexism within the (NAAFA) organization," says chairwoman Judy Freespirit.
The sub-group for the heaviest women within NAAFA, at 300-plus pounds, is the Super SIG. Laura Baker, a soft-spoken member of that sub-group, says they formed "out of the need for a safe place to talk about issues (including mobility, personal hygiene and clothing, among others) that some of our smaller sisters don't have."
Strangely, even autopsies and burials should be added to the list of problems. Michael Cardoza, an attorney for Marlene Corrigan, whose 680-pound daughter's death precipitated a child-abuse proceeding against her, says the coroner didn't do a complete autopsy of the girl because of her size. "He did a 10-minute gross autopsy, walked around the body. He said she died from morbid obesity," which didn't help her mother's criminal case, which fat-rights attorneys say resulted from a string of fat-prejudicial decisions starting with the police.
AS THE AWARDS-LUNCHEON participants trickle out into the lobby, a California attendee mentions that she doesn't consider guest speaker Laura Fraser fat. The slightly fleshy author of Losing It: America's Obsession with Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It, who counted calories in kindergarten and spent years struggling inside the grip of bulimia, doesn't fit the fat stereotype, but NAAFA's policy is to take in everyone. Nearly 25 percent of the membership includes supporters--people who are not fat.
"Theoretically, people (in NAAFA) want to be broad-spectrum fat," says Freespirit.
It's the moderately fat or average-size people who are largely left out in the cold, legally, when claiming weight discrimination, says Sally Smith, who lobbied with others, successfully, for a Santa Cruz, Calif., ordinance which prohibits height and weight discrimination. Washington, D.C., has a similar law.
While the federal Civil Rights Act doesn't cover fat people of any shape or size, an early '90s U.S. Court of Appeals decision--the only landmark case in the past decade--protects those who are "morbidly obese" (or more than 100 percent over the height-weight tables) against size-related discrimination through the Americans With Disabilities Act.
At least one-third of the population is over what is considered their ideal weight, yet they aren't large enough to be disabled. Instead, flight attendants fired for weight restrictions, like most other groups, use Title VII protection, alleging sex and age discrimination. Last year, a federal judge ruled against United Airlines flight attendants who claimed in their class-action suit that the company formerly had weight-discriminatory policies. The court found that no classwide discrimination existed, but did acknowledge that "erroneous, inconsistent and perhaps even discriminatory decisions were made in certain individual cases."
There are no hard figures documenting the number of national legal actions about weight discrimination, says Berkeley-based legal consultant Sondra Solovay, whose forthcoming book, Tipping the Scales of Injustice, offers the most comprehensive survey of weight-discrimination cases to date. Yet surveys show that fat people are underemployed and less likely to receive promotions than thin people, regardless of their job performance. Other studies have shown that overweight people earn salaries 10 to 20 percent lower than their thinner colleagues.
WHEN NAAFA officials open a 20-minute window for photographers before the convention's Hooray For Hollywood! Dance, the still photographers' flashguns pop and the German documentary videographers scramble for good shots. This is a high-anxiety moment.
An ad for the festivities ran in the Los Angeles Times, and hundreds of people are expected to attend. The crowd is waved into a room that's as cavernous as an empty high-school auditorium.
Later, as a husky DJ plays a pop-disco entrée, a British photographer flashes away at a group that includes a supersize starlet, Sherry Collins-Eckert, who's dressed like a Victorian damsel. She's posing with NAAFA President Frances White. Collins-Eckert agrees to a few more shots. But there's something frozen about her demeanor as she insists that Don, her husband, stand next to her.
Supersize photographer Sandie Sabo, a several-hundred-pound woman herself, had coached another photographer earlier not to snap photos of large people from the ground. "Photographers think that shooting from a low angle makes us look taller; it just makes us look squattier, shows the shadows of the chins--not a bad thing, just not flattering."
After the pose, the somewhat-reserved Collins-Eckert discloses an earlier betrayal. The last time she was photographed for publication, her bounteous body was pulled across the London Telegraph to the edge of the frame and her husband was reduced to a mere shadow. The image was sold elsewhere in Europe and Australia, she says. Another NAAFA attendee's image ended up on a postcard that's still being sold, with the caption, "Having a Whale of a Time."
"It's a rear shot," Sally Smith recalls, "and she has a very unique body type, so that everybody who looks at it says, 'Oh, that's so and so.' "
There's also the image lifted for a pornographic film, with the addition of cow and pig sounds.
"I can tell you 15 more versions of that happening to other people," Collins-Eckert says bitterly.
THE CONCOURSE BALLROOM is packed with tables and racks of merchandise, velvet capes, lacy negligees, supersize business suits, towels, cat suits, pantyhose, big body clay sculptures, super-large patterns, David Lee's generously large figures in acrylics, and mounds of books with titles like Fat Girl Dances with Rocks and Journeys to Self-Acceptance. The goods have been carefully screened for the trade show to avoid any merchandise from the diet industry.
Some manufacturers make enough booty from sales here and in their hotel rooms to keep a low profile the remainder of the year. George Glendenning, of Las Vegas, is looking a bit bored as he stands beside his selection of lingerie, "Colesce Couture." He wishes he'd brought more of the supersizes, which have nearly sold out.
Will the sheer power of a majority in the marketplace raise size acceptance to a new level? As odd as it seems, the bottom line might become one of the largest human-rights enablers for the Big Majority, in what fat-rights activists term one of the last acceptable prejudices. Sales of big-women's fashions alone account for a quarter of the entire women's apparel market. Sales in the plus-size category were $23 billion last year, according to the NPD Group, a New York-based marketing information company.
It's obvious, though, as the fat-acceptance movement hits a zenith, the marketplace is increasing its niche: Online links connect a network of people with Fat Art and Culture; single's parties; Fat people's tours; Fat Fantasy date lines. There are countless web pages listing attorneys who deal exclusively in size discrimination; fat-sensitive physicians and fat-friendly massage therapists. In some cities, such as L.A., San Francisco and New York, there are for-profit parties. Ads run: "Big beautiful people and their admirers" can enjoy each other in a "comfortable non-judgmental atmosphere" for a $30 cover. Down the street, Mor 2 Luv offers a dance, BYOB, entry fee: $22.
There are the raffish ads that critics say promote degrading myths, such as super-big people want to be fed to grow bigger. The classified ad with a photo caption for A Real FG (Fat Girl), 750+ pounds, reads: "Spend a day with me, from waking up in the morning to going to sleep that night. Watch me eat three full meals and a whole cheesecake for dessert while I walk a little, and playfully move. "
It's this "feeder" fantasy that many say has banished fat preference in people's minds to a bizarre fetish. Elaine Falevitch, of Montana, wrote a letter to Dimensions magazine expressing her concern about the otherwise useful magazine: "Bountiful Productions, for example, advertises a videotape of 'Lollipop,' using terms 'Big Belly,' 'Thunder Thighs,' 'Lard Legs.' As a fat woman who has gone my whole life being called names, I am truly and utterly offended by this."
SANDIE SABO AND Guy Russo specialize in photographing and videotaping large models--no porn--through Russo Productions. Their work appears in most of the large-women's magazines. The San Diego couple drop down in two chairs between their convention shoots. Sabo, the fashion editor of Dimensions magazine, holds up their August bathing-suit cover. She says even within the industry itself there's "rampant" discrimination against 400-and 500-pound models. Women's magazines such as MODE, Radiance, BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) and Belle run photos of mid-size models, and the bi-monthly Dimensions is the only one that regularly runs photos of supersize women.
A NAAFA member for 21 years, Russo is tall and what would be considered somewhat average size, hovering around six feet. As a teenager, he hid his big-girl preference and says he regrets that he didn't date large women. He had pin-ups of big women in his locker, says Sabo. Russo still has the original Dimensions publication that Conrad Blickenstorfer began as a 10-page Xerox 13 years ago as a lifeline for "fat-admiring" (FA) men. Now, in addition to light nudity, the magazine contains everything from a health column written by a 500-pound emergency-room physician to articles covering issues such as how parents view their fat kids.
Russo's participation in the Fat Admirer's SIG is more as a mentor for people coming out about their "size orientation." With the pervasive societal prejudice against fat people, psychologists say, FAs are often erroneously considered abnormal. (Of course, not all people with fat partners necessarily have the preference.) While scientific studies on large-size preference are scarce, there are fewer heterosexuals, at least, who prefer the very thin or the very fat. Consequently, some lack the courage to appear with their big partners in public. Others observe that in this society, it's infinitely easier for women who have preferences for fat men.
"This is what I find attractive for me," says Russo, motioning, almost vehemently, with an outstretched arm to the confident blonde-haired Sabo. "It may not work for other people. This is, genetically or otherwise, what is instilled in me."
Leaders of the Couples and the Fat Admirer's SIGs, compare their social experience to that of mixed-race couples. Bob and Linda Sponaugle, of Atco, New Jersey, have been married 10 years, and yet, still, Linda has not met Bob's parents, who live only three hours away. "They want nothing to do with me," says Linda, the chairwoman of the Mid-Size SIG.
Laura and John Baker, from Santa Barbara, say they suffer similar
discrimination from his family. And then there are the "buddies":
While the Bakers don't need to maintain an upwardly-mobile facade
that might be required at Fortune 500 firms, says Linda, her husband's
engineering colleagues ask the dashing, 5-foot-11 John,
"These poor guys," says Sabo, a self-described "super-size," "they've almost taken a worse rap than fat people. There are no closets for fat people. But with these guys, dealing with the issues with their families, the people they work with. It's infinitely easier to hide."
It's those societal prejudices, says Russo, that make the NAAFA socials so necessary. "Where else can a man go and see all these attractive women in one place at one time," he says of the convention, as a stream of vigorous women step off a nearby escalator on their way to an aerobics class. "When plus-sized women go out in public, they're given the message that they're not attractive," he says. "If a man compliments them, they're looked at suspiciously. 'What do you want?' They're not going to take it seriously. Outside something like this, it's hard to develop social interaction where everybody's comfortable. Here, you know the games are left outside, and this is who we are."
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