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.