They’re here. They’re huge. They’re not happy. Fat women speak out.
Women and men of a certain avoirdupois come together for support and gripe sessions. Not to mention the sex.
By Judith Newman
Photo Editor: Claudia Lebenthal
Ever entertain a glimmer of hope for humanity -a sudden, sweet notion that people are not as cruel as they seem? Let it go. You would if you spent a week among fat people. Not the pudgy or teddy-bearish, but the truly obese -those whose sheer size commands attention wherever they go. I just returned from five days at the Seattle convention of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. I saw a roomful of women sobbing as they recalled growing up overweight. One described how she let a group of frat boys gang-bang her "because at least they were paying attention to me." Another woman, about 5'4" and 350 pounds, described how she would walk into a bar, and men would dare each other to ask her to dance. "I just want people to treat me as human," one woman said. "Of course, this may be asking too much."
NAAFA hopes it is not. At more than 3,000 members, this association is the largest in a small but growing group of size-acceptance organizations that have the audacity to suggest that fat is neither a sin nor a disease, so being fat does not oblige the individual to repent or "heal thyself' with the help of the $30 billion-a-year diet industry. Instead, fat just is. To paraphrase a slogan from an equally vilified group: We're here, we're wide, get used to it.
At a recent NAFAA convention in New York (left to right), Juanita Sanford, Marcella Laramee, and Faith Mendik get together in the whirlpool.
That America is a fat-obsessed culture is undeniable. A third of all adults today are 20 percent overweight. This may explain why the corpulent are ridiculed. After all, people are most vicious to those bearing the traits they most fear in themselves. For many of us, this fear of fat subtly (and not so subtly) controls our lives. I've often wondered: What would life be like without this fear?
What you wear isn't about looking slender; it's about looking good in your clothes. Every time you look well, you are breaking a stereotype.
-Michele Francisco, designer for Color Me Big, a line of large-size clothing.
I am sitting in on a makeup-and-fashion seminar where about 50 women are discussing Lane Bryant, the plus-size clothing retailer. The chain is taking a lot of flack for stocking clothes only up to size 28 and showing them on models that look no bigger than a 14. Julie Jamieson, an angelic blond who resembles Deborah Norville, gripes, "They think we're stupid enough to believe we'll look like the models in those clothes." Heads nod in agreement. Adds designer Francisco, "Their party line is 'Fat women don't want to acknowledge they are fat women."
"Size 28? Barbie clothes," snipes a little voice behind me. I turn around and see a charming, voluptuous woman in a faux-leopard skin jacket. I've noticed her at several of the seminars because, although painfully shy, she does a hilarious running commentary on the proceedings for anyone sitting close enough to hear her.
This is Haley Hertz's first foray into fat activism; she can barely believe she's worked up the courage to come here. "I hate fat people," she tells me. "If a fat person sits next to me on a bus, I move. It's like I'm worried I'll get even fatter by association." Overcoming this aversion, Hertz believes, would mean overcoming an aversion to herself. She'd also love to learn to accept attention from men who actually prefer their women large. "When a man looks at me now, I think, 'What's wrong with this freak?" Again and again, Hertz has been smitten with men who like willowy gamines. Her latest crush was on a man whose physical ideal was Elle Macpherson.
"I," she says wryly, "am the anti-Elle"
The only good thing to come out of my divorce is that it made me come here.
-Nancy, 5'5" and 250 pounds, came to her first meeting after her husband left her. He claimed she had broken her promise to stay thin.
Sherry Collins-Eckert spends much of her time at home with her cat, Madame Butterfly. “Heavy women are forced to become deeper people,” she says.
Membership is overwhelmingly middle-class, white, and female. There are few African-Americans because, as one member told me, being fat is less of a stigma in their community. Neither are there many fat men (the male members are mostly regular-size men who are attracted to fat women), because societal standards of slimness are not nearly as severe on men as on women. But members are quick to point out that discrimination is dependent not only on fat but on body type. Men whose weight is distributed in a typically female pattern-around the thighs and buttocks-have more of a problem than guys with the apple-shaped, Harley-biker look: big shoulders and stomach, small butt and legs.
The more time I spend at the convention, the more I realize that the fat-activist movement is going through political puberty. For example, "supersize" women (those 300 pounds and over) think "midsize" women don't really understand what discrimination is about; on the other hand, in this world where bigger really is better, midsizers are envious of the sexual appeal of the supersizers. Many straight women resent the presence of lesbians at the meeting, claiming lesbians don't understand their "issues." Nobody's quite sure whether the Enemy is the health establishment (the legions of doctors, dietitians, and fitness gurus who make their money trying to "cure" fatness) or the judicial system, which can't seem to make up its mind whether morbid obesity-defined medically as weight 100 percent in excess of one's ideal body weight-is covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Of course, within the ranks of the activists, nobody can agree on whether fat ought to be legally declared a handicap: Such a ruling could win some job-discrimination suits, but it might also further marginalize fat people, most of whom want nothing more than to be considered normal.
Tolerance for people's differences is a prevailing theme in the size-acceptance movement, but as I discovered, that tolerance doesn't extend to mildly pudgy journalists. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, shunned. Shortly after I arrived, even though I had informed officials that I was writing a story, the organizer ordered me to leave the convention and tried to rip my notes out of my hands. In a seminar, every seat was filled except the one next to mine. I literally could not get the time of day: I asked a guy with a watch what time it was, and he said pointedly, "I don't know," then walked away. It was like reliving my worst days in junior high.
But as Jamieson, one of the few members who would talk to me, explained, "As a fat woman, you spend so much of your time having to be nice and polite-having to sort of apologize for taking up so much space-that when you get here, you can be yourself. And for a lot of people, being themselves means being angry sometimes at the status quo, which is you." Then she showed me the skimpy bathing suit she had bought for the evening's pool party-plus some lingerie she was going to surprise her husband with that night. Jamieson is not an angry woman.
Haley Hertz lounges with her Shih Tzu, Uncle Hairy. Accepting her size, Hertz says, “has given me the permission to be a whole person.”
Haley Hertz is talking about yo-yo dieting, the pattern of loss and gain that has plagued the life of virtually every fat person. Hertz was a chubby baby and an even chubbier child; she recalls a horrible trip to Southeast Asia "where everyone wanted to touch me because they couldn't believe how large I was."
Hertz has been thin several times, but she always felt like she was renting a thin body and at any moment might be evicted. "I've lost 150 pounds at a clip.
I can do it. It's easy. But then, when I reach that magic number, it's like I'm a thin person with the same problems, because people who used to hate me now like me-and what's that all about?"
I suggest that it must be difficult for her to trust people.
"Why should I trust people?" she replies.
"I guess fat people feel…"
She stops me. "No. The point is they don't feel. Because if you allow yourself to feel, you want to kill yourself."
Here's what fat activists want: first, the death of dieting, and the complete acceptance of one's weight. Then… armless chairs in movies, restaurants, and doctors' waiting rooms. The ability to go to a physician and not be scolded or insulted. (Members say the reason fat people are considered so unhealthy is that, rather than be lectured by a doctor about dieting, they'll wait until an ailment is so bad they simply have to go.) A skeptical view of obesity "cures," like the new appetite suppressant fenfluramine, which create false hope among those who have not yet accepted their size. Affordable medical insurance. Any medical insurance. (It's almost impossible to get if you're 100 pounds overweight and self-employed.) Protection against job discrimination.
So I'm tired sometimes, so, what? I'm just as healthy as a woman half my size. Besides, I was a fat baby and a fat child-my fat cells have been there forever. Losing is impossible for me.
-My 5'1", 225-pound mother, shortly before suffering gallstones, cancer of the uterus, and a stroke caused by chronic hypertension. She has now lost 80 pounds.
Like most organizations in which political activism provides a thinly veiled excuse for mating rituals, NAAFA was rife with perky, upbeat activities. Fashion shows! Sexuality workshops! Pool parties! But the issue that subtly informed all others was health -namely, the bold assertion that dieting is a sucker's game, and that it's perfectly possible to be fit and fat.
Fat activists' main argument is that it's dieting, not obesity, that kills you. They point to famous fatties like John Candy, Jerry Garcia (drug use notwithstanding), and 1,000-plus-pound Walter Hudson, who activists say all died when they started to eat normally once again after going off a starvation diet: The body lost lean muscle mass, the argument goes, so when they started to regain weight after their period of "starvation," undue stress was placed on the heart.
Sherry Collins-Eckert, for one, agrees. Collins-Eckert, whose lovely, melancholy features and luminous skin are reminiscent of a maidservant in a Rembrandt painting, claims she has dieted her way to her current size. I do not dare ask her weight, but her dress size is about a 60. Leaning heavily on her cane, she explains that her current mobility problems are due not so much to her weight as to the pain from her stomach-stapling surgery. In the late 1970s she had a vertical gastroplasty, in which her stomach was sutured to about the size of an egg, allowing her to eat only 2 ounces of food at a time. In four months, she lost 133 pounds. Despite the vomiting, diarrhea, and blackout spells, she was thrilled.
After two years, the weight began to pile on again. "My body became so good at conserving calories, my doctor told me I couldn't eat more than 500 calories a day without gaining," she says. Excessive scarring caused painful internal adhesions, and many fibrous foods became lodged in the shrunken opening to her stomach. Today, Collins-Eckert lives on pain medication. But insurance will not pay for reversing the procedure, and doctors are afraid to operate anyway because of her weight. "The only time I'm completely comfortable is when I'm in my hot tub," she says, sighing.
Julie Jameson today. In picture at left, as a little girl. “When I was two month old, the doctor put me on skim milk. I’ve fought my weight all my life,” she says. “The fight is over.”
Certainly, there's a level of denial underlying this tale: Collins-Eckert's supersize has as much to do with her discomfort as the effects of her surgery. And this is an aspect of fat activism that is baffling, if not downright alarming, to the outsider: the placid acceptance of myriad health problems that might be preventable not by conforming to the aesthetics of conventional society but by, say, weighing a mere 300 pounds instead of 400 or 500. (The most ironic of health problems? Many of these women whose bodies fit certain preconceived notions of bountiful fertility cannot conceive; hormonal disturbances wreak havoc with their menstrual cycles.)
Members who dissent from the prevailing opinion don't dare voice their feelings to other members. "I don't want to be told I shouldn't diet any more than I want to be told I must diet," says Anne, a proofreader from Boston who walks around in fuzzy slippers shaped like cows, because her feet are so swollen she can't find shoes that are comfortable. "At this point, I'm losing mobility. How can I let this happen?"
Life is a banquet. Why starve yourself?
-Motto on free booklet passed out at a NAAFA convention.
Back in my hotel room, I flip through a copy of 'Dimensions', the magazine "where big is beautiful." It is published by NAAFA chairman Conrad Blickenstorfer, and it's for fat women and their male admirers. I get a call from David Galef, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi and himself an admirer of the larger female form (as he coyly puts it); he's just published his first novel, Flesh (Permanent Press), which, oddly enough, is about a professor at a southern university who's obsessed with fat women. Anyway, Galef gives me the skinny on fat admirers.
"The majority of these guys want to be thought of as average Joes who associate fat with ultrafemininity; they say they love the softness, the roundness," Galef begins. "For many of them, that's true. But what many others won't tell you is that there's sometimes an element of sadomasochism in their interest. They like to be overwhelmed by fat, controlled by it. She buries him under her body-that sort of thing." I ask Galef about a line that crops up repeatedly in 'Dimensions' personal ads: "Feeders welcome" or "No feeders, please. What's a feeder? " That's a guy whose ultimate sexual fantasy is to make love to a woman so large she's virtually immobilized-so his role, in this ongoing scenario, is to feed her, like a farmer stuffing a goose for foie gras."
It is Saturday night, the evening of the convention's costume ball. Tonight Haley Hertz is thrilled; she's had something of a breakthrough. She's actually bought-not worn yet, but bought a bathing suit. It is the first one she's owned since she was a child.
We sit through dance after dance -me, because no one gives me a second look, and Hertz, because she is too embarrassed to flirt back with several men I see eyeing her. Motown gets everyone on their feet-"Respect," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Earth Angel." Many of these women are supremely graceful, living Boleros whirling around the tacky hotel ballroom. Earth angels, indeed.
"See the baked potato?" asks Hertz, pointing toward a woman who did, in fact, look like she was wrapped in aluminum foil. She was slow-dancing with a somber, all-too-visibly aroused young man. "She had six guys this weekend," Hertz tells me. "That's what happens with a lot of the women here. They don't have an adolescence, so they come to these meetings and all that repressed energy comes out. Inside every fat person is a volcano waiting to erupt." And the men at the ball, the fat admirers, just stand back and wait for the lava to flow.
It was getting late. Prizes for best costume of the evening were given out. First prize went to a woman who was easily five feet in diameter; she was dressed as a pizza, and the sobriquet above the sewn-on anchovies read "I Deliver." It was time for me to go.
I turned around to say good-bye to Hertz, and I saw a tall, well-built man making his way determinedly to her table. She put her head down and tried to will the earth to swallow her up. She wasn't ready. But in moment a group of men and women swirled around her, urging her to her feet, imploring her to join them. No, no way. She couldn't dance; she had never danced. I couldn't hear the conversation, but the last I saw of Hertz was a tiny plump hand being dragged, only half-reluctantly, to the dance floor.
Jeanine Albu, a physician at the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York, helps unravel the truth about fat.
CLAIM: Dieting wrecks the metabolism. WHAT WE KNOW: If you carry around a lot of weight, you burn more calories, because it requires a greater expenditure of energy just to move around. As you lose weight, it takes fewer calories. So while your metabolism is not "wrecked," it does adapt subtly-which is why chronic dieters seem to be better than others at holding on to calories. This is why physicians think exercise is crucial to keeping weight off permanently: It helps build lean muscle mass, which burns more calories.
CLAIM: Yo-yo dieting can kill you. WHAT WE KNOW: Many studies have been done on patients who lost and regained weight, and there is no evidence that this practice is physically harmful if the loss and regain is gradual. On an appropriate diet, fat and lean muscle are lost in a ratio of 75 percent to 25 percent. What may be more harmful are crash diets, where lean muscle-which includes the heart-is lost too quickly.
CLAIM: Obesity is genetic, so it's largely out of the individual's control. WHAT WE KNOW: Yes, obesity does appear to be genetic. But when we talk about genetic disposition, that explains only part of the problem; there are also environmental factors. So if you live in a Westernized society with great availability of food and little movement, those predisposed to obesity will be obese.
CLAIM: Fat people don't necessarily eat more than anyone else. WHAT WE KNOW: Not quite true. Fat people generally do eat more than their thin counterparts. This doesn't mean they have less willpower; it means that for some reason their body regulates at a higher weight. They simply are not satisfied with the same amount of food as a thin person.
CLAIM: Losing weight isn't the problem. Keeping fat off is. Therefore, why bother to diet? WHAT WE KNOW: The reason to bother, Albu claims, is that being significantly overweight does pose health risks and is extremely uncomfortable, both mentally and physically. But fat activists are 100 percent correct about losing weight versus keeping it off. "We have effective treatments for making people lose weight, but we don't have effective treatments for maintaining weight loss," Albu says. "Once you're obese, the odds are not terrific."