Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"If I can ever stop one person from picking on a fat kid, I will."
The ad was a big mistake.
It was meant as a call to overweight men and women willing to talk about what it means to be fat. Pot bellies, love handles, slow-spreading thighs — humdrum stuff. I wanted to speak with those who worry about the furniture each time they sit. What did it fed like to be the largest person in any group, to be embarrassed about eating in a restaurant, to struggle getting in and out of a car?
In sharing their stories, respondents would be inviting strangers to peek into private places. It was vital that each interviewee feel comfortable about undergoing such exposure. A light tone in the ad would underscore the informality I wanted; playfulness would establish feelings of sympathy and good humor.
More than just fat?
Are you known as a “Two-Ton Tillie,” “Big Daddy,” or “Big Whopper?”
Do you weigh 350-plus pounds?
Wanna tell your story?
With 350 pounds selected to discourage slightly overweight candidates, I told myself the tone was just right. Then came feedback. Not one of those who read the ad and spoke to me thought it was sympathetic or funny. For those fighting a battle with weight, the ad was an insult. Others called it insensitive. I thought of a ballad I know, which carries the refrain, “How could something so right turn out so wrong?”
“Of course, you didn’t see it,” said Maryanne Bodolay, spokesperson for the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). “Negative attitudes about fat are so much a part of society that they are almost unconscious. You didn’t recognize your own bigotry,” she said, speaking by phone from Sacramento. Size discrimination, she told me, was the last safe prejudice.
The first two weeks the ad ran, 18 calls were registered. Seventeen were hang-ups, a hushed landscape of white noise segmented, like a barbed-wire fence, by piercing two-second beeps. And then a sudden, lone human voice. “I read your ad about the ‘Big Whopper,’ which I guess I am. If you want, you can call me.” His name was Tim; he said he weighed 365 pounds.
I called but no one was home. Speaking to his answering machine, I introduced myself. That ghost train of silence with its 17 empty boxcars had spooked me a little, so I jabbered some: I went on about how his weight may have given him insight on experiences few of us knew about. I promised to call back again, which I did, first at regular hours, then at odd times when I thought he might be sleeping. I spoke to Tim’s answering machine so much I memorized his greeting. I never caught him at home, or if I did, he never picked up the phone. I left my number over and over again. I never heard from Tim.
I’d gotten all those hang-ups, I figured, because I offered nothing in my message (I thought the ad said it all). I decided to explain what I was doing. My outgoing message now described the series, assuring callers the experience would prove instructive.
“You’ve really got some nerve!” yelled one woman who responded. “I read your ad and I’m not even fat, but how dare you call someone a Two-Ton Tillie’ or a ‘Big Whopper’! Then you talk about being instructive! You ’re the one who needs to learn something. I mean, what gives you the right? And besides, just listening to you, you sound really ugly like your nose is spread over your face the size of Texas!”
I wrote a new ad.
The original ad ran two weeks. It would take another week for the new ad to appear. Gone were Tillie, Big Daddy, and the Big Whopper.
Are you overweight?
Do you weigh more than 350 lbs.?
Do you have stories to share?
Kim called while the first ad was still in print and the new ad had yet to run. She said that if I was really interested in hearing stories from fat people, I was sure going about it the wrong way. “Your ad was obnoxious and dumb.”
I called the number she left. “Hello — ?” With its lilt of Gen-X angst, Kim’s greeting told me about the woman on the other end of the line. She sounded young and hip; I liked her. I introduced myself and told the story of the ad, how I meant it to be playful, how a revision would soon run.
“In the meantime, all I can say is I’m sorry if I offended you."
“Well, it was pretty stupid, you have to admit.” Her laughter was an absolution.
Kim, 28, had recently lost weight, which put
her down somewhere close to 300 pounds.
“Were you always — ?" I stopped, fumbling over the word: overweight, chubby, heavy?
“Fat is fine.”
“Sure. Why not?” Kim’s choice of “fat” is now a political line gaining currency in the fat acceptance movement. “African-Americans took back black and gays took back queer,” said NAAFA’s Rodolay. “And we’re taking back fat. The word was used to ridicule us, but we’re turning it around and saying it’s okay to be fat.”
Marilyn Wann, editor of Fat! So? magazine — “For people who don’t apologize for their size’’ — was more specific and less conciliatory. “I don’t accept ‘overweight’ because it takes the measure of myself, my weight, and gives it to others who tell me not only that I do not fit their model but that I am unworthy as I am. I refuse this.” Wann, speaking by phone from San Francisco where her magazine is published, was equally critical of other terms, such as obese. “It medicalizes me,” she said. “It takes away my humanity. As tor terms like grossly obese’ or ‘morbidly obese,’ they’re more of the same thing. Except they also allow the medical establishment to deny health coverage to people like me. Terms like ‘morbidly obese’ are used to kill us.” (Bodolay echoed this sentiment. She knew of two people, she said, who died in 1997 because they were refused medical treatment that might have saved their lives. They were fat and their physicians said they did not want to chance certain medical intervention. “Sure, sometimes working on a fat body is more difficult,” she admitted. “But doctors have to be willing to try.”) “Well then, fat it is,” I said to Kim, struggling with the word and the prohibitions against its use, which had come to me as early as kindergarten, where we were told it was not nice to call a classmate fat.
“Do you date?” I asked.
“Sure, sometimes” said Kim. I’d read ads placed by men extolling the sexiness of Rubenesquc women, who thrilled at the thought of feeding a fat date (“the fatter the better!”) bacon cheeseburgers and French fries, followed by a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.
“What is dating like for you?”
Kim took a deep breath. “You know, I'm really nice looking.” Her words came out fast and sharp, like a whistling tea kettle. “And I get dates. But sometimes the guys don’t want their friends to know they’re dating someone fat.” Few people, I said, had any idea what it means to live as she did. I told her she had to let me interview her, but she demurred. She was not at the 350-pound weight I’d advertised for, she said. The number was arbitrary, I countered, a figure chosen to filter out fat from someone complaining of a spare tire. Could she speak anonymously? I said sure, but wouldn’t her story be more powerful if she were willing to name herself, have her photograph taken? In the end she said okay, and we set up a time to talk. Hut I already suspected what I’d hear when I called later to confirm. I just wasn’t sure how she’d bow out.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’m changing careers, and I don’t think I can afford to be so high-profile.”
Of the 30,000,(XX) overweight people in America, Marilyn Wann told me, most participate in their own oppression. Maybe this was true of Kim. But who was I to criticize her for not wishing to expose herself to insult?
Interest in that first ad had spilled onto the letters-to-the-editor page. “What the hell was the point? Presumably you’re planning to do a story about the experiences of very large people in San Diego. All well and good. But why go about it in such a negative way? Would you seek African-Americans’ input by asking, ‘Are you a Little Black Sambo?’ Would you solicit stories from the gay community with ‘Are you as queer as a three-dollar bill?’ ”
The writer, “Name Withheld,” went on to say that it was not considered acceptable to use such insults against ethnic minorities, homosexuals, women, and the disabled. “Apparently it’s just fine, though, to make fun of fat people. It always has been.”
Another letter-writer, also “Name Withheld,’’ declared themselves a tolerant person by saying “everybody’s entitled to their own form of stupidity, but I absolutely don’t see you running ads that say, ‘Are you a faggot? Are you a wop? Are you a kike?’ ”
Helen McKenna of Claire-mont wrote the next week. She called the first letter-writer an “excuse-maker” and suggested the person get off the “poor-victim” bandwagon.
“Eat right, exercise, and sign your name when you write letters," she concluded.
Letter-writers who withhold their names. Telephone leads that come to nothing. Fat was cloaked in secrecy. Maybe Marilyn Wann was right. In choosing not to participate in an interview or name themselves in their letters, perhaps these people were, as she said, colluding in the bigotry. If so, they had good reason.
In 1992, the New York Times published a three-part series on fat in America. In one study, all the formerly fat people who had lost weight after intestinal bypass surgery reported that they would rather be blind, deaf, or have a leg amputated than be fat again. The article went on to quote Dr. Kelly Bromwell, an obesity researcher at Yale University School of Medicine. “Overweight people have a condition that is unacceptable in our society.” He added that, unlike the blind or deaf, fat people are told they could be thin if they really wanted to be. “It’s kind of a double punishment,” he said.
The social consequences of being fat are profound. An obesity researcher at the University of Florida reported that her patients spoke of overwhelming embarrassment about their appearance and said they faced constant prejudice and discrimination.
According to the Times, fat people were less likely to be admitted to elite colleges or be hired for a job; they were hired at lower salaries and were less likely to be promoted. Fat people told researchers they were accosted on the street by strangers who admonished them to lose weight. One study found businessmen “sacrificed $1000 in salary for every pound they are overweight." Studies reported that many doctors found fat people “disgusting" and the children of fat parents expressed shame.
In 1992, a research panel from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) studied dietary patterns and found that diets, including expensive commercial ones, have poor success rates in the long term, with most dieters regaining the weight they’d lost. In her letter, Helen McKenna echoed a position held by many when she implied — mistakenly, it turns out — that one could take the weight off and keep it off if one just tried. The NIH panel wrote that there was “increasing physiological, biochemical, and genetic evidence that overweight is not a simple disorder of willpower, as is sometimes implied, but is a complex disorder of energy metabolism.”
“It is one thing to say that most dieters fail to lose weight and keep it off and another to really accept, emotionally, that fat people cannot help it.” Dr. Susan C. Wooley, director of the eating disorders clinic at the University of Cincinnati, added that few people, including those within the medical, scientific, and research communities, fully accept fat people.
While my second ad was running, obesity was making national headlines. Marlene Corrigan, dark haired and unsmiling, was on trial in Contra Costa County for her part in the death of her daughter, Christina. The year before she died, the 13-year-old had stopped attending school because she’d been ridiculed for her size. Christina, with curly hair as dark as her mother’s, died at home, lying in her own excrement, her body disfigured by bed sores. At the time of her death, she weighed 680 pounds.
The media circus that tracked the court proceedings distressed Maryanne Beniolay of NAAFA. “We’re talking about a 13-year-old girl here,” she fumed. “We’re talking about a little girl who is dead. And what do we hear? Jokes about using a crane to remove the body from the house, remarks like 'Free Willy,' the movie about the whale. I mean, this girl had no peace in life, and she wasn’t getting any in death.” Marlene Corrigan was found guilty of child endangerment, but for Bodolay, the issue of responsibility remained uncertain. (In the course of the trial, Corrigan’s lawyer suggested the girl may have suffered from Prader-Willi syndrome, a developmental disability that includes a pattern of constant eating.) Marilyn Wann said, “None of us should be made to bear the responsibility for the eating behavior of others.”
Christina Corrigan was not the only child to die from the consequences of eating. In the neon-pink covered sixth issue of Fat! So? Samuel Graham, 12, was reported as having hung himself from the tree in the back yard of his Florida home in August 1997, the night before he was to start middle school. He said he feared more ridicule from his classmates. Three years earlier, Brian Head, 16, a Georgia high school sophomore, was waiting for his economics class to start when his classmates began taunting him. Often the butt of jokes, this time he pulled out a gun. “I’m tired of it!” Head said, and shot himself.
“No kid, fat or otherwise, should have to go through that kind of abuse,” wrote one man. Recalling his own mistreatment, another reported that his parents sent him to doctors and health clubs and quick weight-loss programs, “but nothing ever worked. I don’t really know why I stay fat, but I do know that, as long as I live, if I can ever stop one person from picking on a fat kid, I will. The damage that is done with each remark is worse than if you walked up and slapped the kid in the face.”
Robert answered my second ad. He had not grown up a fat kid, he said. He started his weight gain in the Navy.
“On ship, I was bored and there was not a lot to do. The mess was open late, and if you wanted you could go down and have a meal and go back again a little later and have the same meal again. That’s what I did.” Robert left the Navy overweight. * Now in his 40s, he is over 300 pounds. He takes public transportation and recently was on the bus when a woman brushed against his leg. She.cursed him, calling him a fat slob and ordering him to keep his feet out of the aisle.
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I didn’t say anything.” Robert, who spends most of his time at home, admitted, “I’m kind of antisocial.” He has also been diagnosed as diabetic.
On January 15, a cartoon of an overweight Mayor Susan Golding appeared in this newspaper. The next week, a letter appeared — Name Withheld — commenting that the cartoon was unprofessional of cartoonist J.D. Crowe, “and I think, in fact, it’s libel.” In another letter, Wayne Raffesberger wrote, “It’s one thing to make fun of her policies and politics in a cartoon; it’s quite another to make her physical appearance the sole subject of a lampoon. That isn’t just having fun at her expense— it’s mean and vicious.” I was no longer the only si/e bigot.
Then Diana called. Her call required the help of a telephone relay operator who typed my remarks so that Diana, who is hearing impaired, could read what was sent. She would then type her remarks, which were read to me. The delay in response gave a surreal quality to our exchange, exaggerated by the instruction, whenever we completed a comment, to end with the phrase “Go ahead." (In this way, the operator knew she was free to transmit what had been communicated.)
“I read your ad in the paper and I am answering it for my best friend,” wrote Diana. The operator continued to read: “She might be interested in talking with you. Go ahead.”
“I would very much like to speak with her,” I said, and went on to describe the project. “Could we set up a time to meet?” I asked. “Go ahead.”
“Perhaps,” said the relay operator, sending my remarks and then reading Diana’s. “Go ahead.”
“What is convenient for you? Go ahead.”
“I am not sure yet I must talk to my friend. But I have one question. What is in it for my friend? Go ahead.”
-“You mean money?” We could not pay our interviewees, I told her. Her friend’s story would help people learn more about what it means to be fat in our society. “She’d do a lot of good,” I said. “Was that not reward in itself? Go ahead.” “I’m not sure. I’ll speak with my friend and have her call you. Go ahead.”
“I look forward to that. Go ahead.”
“Good-bye. Go ahead.” “Good-bye.” And we hung up.
Robert later phoned to say he’d decided not to participate in the story. As for Diana, I don’t think she had a friend. I believe she was speaking for herself. But since neither she nor her friend called back, I have no way of knowing.
I wrote another ad and held my breath.
Please call 235-3000, ext. 7486