Pool parties, sex workshops, fashion seminars… big women are coming to grips with their over-abundance of flesh, reports Judith Newman, as are their legions of avid male admirers.
June 1996

Making a splash. From left: Juanita Sanford, Marcella Laramee and faith Mendik at the conference for people of a certain weight.

Ever entertained a glimmer of hope for humanity – a sudden, sweet notion that people are not as cruel as they seem? Well forget it. You would if you spent a week with fat people. Not the podgy or teddy-bearish, but the truly obese –those whose sheer size commands attention wherever they go. I have just returned from five days at the Seattle convention of America’s National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. I saw a room full of women sobbing as they recalled growing up overweight. One described how she let a group of college boys gang-rape her, “because at least they were paying attention to me.” Another woman, about 155cm and 160kg, 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,” said another. “Of course, this may be asking too much.”

NAAFA hopes it is not. With more than 3,000 members, this association is the largest in a small but growing group of size-acceptance organizations who 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 US diet industry. Instead, fat just is. Their slogan could well be: 'We're here, we're wide, get used to it.'

I am sitting in on a make‑up and fashion seminar where about 50 women are discussing the shortcomings of a plus-size clothing retailer in the US. The chain is taking a lot of flak for stocking clothes only up to size 30 and, even worse, showing them on models who look no bigger than a 16. Julie Jamieson gripes, 'They think we're stupid enough to believe we'll look like their models in these clothes.' Heads nod in agreement. Adds Michael Francisco, the designer of a fashion range for larger women, 'Their party line is "Fat women don't want to acknowledge that they are fat women".'

'Size 30? Barbie clothes!' snipes a little voice behind me. I turn round 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 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.'

Haley Hertz is irresistibly drawn to men who prefer skinny women; she is repulsed by fat people and those who are sexually attracted to them.

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, for the most part, normal‑size men who are attracted to fat women), because society's standards of slimness are not nearly as severe for men as for 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 have more of a problem than men with the pot‑bellied, Harley‑biker look.

The more time I spend at the convention, the more I realise the fat‑activist movement is going through political puberty. For example, 'super‑size' women (those 135kgs and over) think 'medium‑size' women don't really understand what discrimination is about. On the other hand, in this world, where bigger really is better, medium-sizers are envious of the sexual appeal of the super-sizers. Many straight women resent the presence of lesbians at the meeting, claiming lesbians don't understand 'their issues'. No one is quite sure whether The Enemy is the health establishment (the legions of doctors, dieticians 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 or not morbid obesity ‑defined medically as weight 100 per cent 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, on the one hand, such a ruling could win some job discrimination suits, but it might also further marginalise fat people, most of whom want nothing more than to be considered normal.

Tolerance towards 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 shunned. Shortly after I arrived, even though I had informed officials that I was writing an article, the organiser 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 man with a watch what time it was, and he said pointedly, 'I don't know', then walked away.

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 but, 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 that evening's pool party ‑ plus some lingerie she was going to surprise her husband with that night. Jamieson is not an angry woman.

Sherry Collins-Eckert, holding Madame Butterfly, claims she has dieted to her current weight, and spends most of her life in physical pain.

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 child. She recalls a horrible trip to South‑east Asia 'where everyone wanted to touch me because they could not believe how large I was'.

Hertz has been thin several times, but always felt like she was renting a thin body and might be evicted. 'I've lost 68 kgs at a clip. I can do it. It's easy. But then, when I reach that magic number, I'm just 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 when their acceptance of her is so reliant on her weight.

'Why should I trust people?' she replies.

'I suppose 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 is what fat activists want: firstly, the death of dieting, and the complete acceptance of one's weight. Then ...armless chairs in movies restaurants and doctor’s waiting rooms. The ability to go to a doctor and not be scolded or insulted (members say the reason fat people are considered so unhealthy is that, rather than being lectured by a doctor about dieting, they'll wait until an ailment is so bad they simply have to go). A sceptical view of “miracle” obesity “cures” –such as the new appetite suppressants, fenfluramine- which create false hope among those who have not yet learnt to accept their size. Protection against job discrimination. Kindness.

Like most organisations 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 and Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead (drug use notwithstanding) who, activists claim, both died when they started to eat normally once again after undergoing 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 agrees. She claims she has dieted her way to her current size. I dare not ask her weight, but her dress size id about a 60. Leaning 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 70s she had a vertical gastroplasty, in which her stomach was sutured to about size of an egg, allowing her to eat only 60 grams of food at a time. In four months, she lost 60 kgs. Despite the vomiting and blackouts spells, she was thrilled.

After two years, the weight began to pile on again. 'My body became so good at conserving calories that my doctor told me I couldn't eat more than 2090kj a day without gaining weight,' 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 medication and doctors are afraid to operate because of her weight. 'The only time I'm completely comfortable is when I'm in a hot tub,' she says, sighing.

Certainly, there's a level of denial underlying this tale. Collins‑Eckert's discomfort has as much to do with her super‑size 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, says, weighing a mere 150kg instead of 200. (The most ironic of health problems? Many of these women, whose bodies fit certain preconceived notions of bountiful fertility, can’t 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 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?'

Back in my hotel room, I flip through a copy of the magazine 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 a southern American University and an admirer of the larger female form (as he coyly puts it). He's just had his first novel, Flesh, published in the United States. Oddly enough, it is about a professor at a southern university who’s obsessed with fat women. Anyway, Galef gives me the skinny on fat admirers. 'Most of these guys want to be thought of as average Joes who associate fat with ultra‑femininity; they say they love the softness, the roundness,' Galef begins. 'For the majority 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. They want the woman to bury them 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 who whose ultimate sexual fantasy is to make love to a woman so large she's virtually immobilised ‑ so his role in this scenario is to feed her, like a farmer stuffing a goose for foie gras.'

It's 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 swimming costume. Itis the first one she's owned since she was a young child.

We sit through dance after dance ‑ me because no one gives me a second look, and Hertz because she's too embarrassed to flirt back with any of the several men I see eyeing her up. 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?' Hertz says, pointing at a woman who does, in fact, look as if she is wrapped in foil. She is slow‑dancing with an 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's getting late. Prizes for best costume of the evening are given out. First prize goes to a woman who is easily 150cm in diameter; she is dressed as a pizza, and the sobriquet above the appliquéd anchovies reads 'I Deliver'. It's time for me to go.

I turn to say goodbye to Hertz, and see a tall, well‑built man making his way determinedly to her table. She puts her head down and tries to will the earth to swallow her up. She isn't ready. But in a moment, a group of men and women swirl around her, urging her to her feet, imploring her to join them. No, no way. She can't dance; she has never danced. I can't hear the conversation, but the last I see of Hertz is a tiny plump hand being dragged, only half‑reluctantly, to the dance floor.

Julie Jamieson today and, in the photo at left, as a little girl. “When I was two months old, the doctor put me on skim milk. I’ve fought my weight all my life,” she says. “My fight is over.”

Fat Fiction

Jeanine Albu, a doctor at the Obesity Research Center in New York, gives the fact on fat.

Claim: Dieting wrecks the metabolism

What we know: If you carry around a lot of weight, you burn more kilojoules, because it requires a greater expenditure of energy just to move around. As you lose weight, it takes fewer kilojoules. 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 kilojoules. This is why doctors think exercice is crucial to keeping weight off permanently. It helps build lean muscles mass, which burns more kilojoules.

Claim: Yo-yo dieting can kill.

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 ost in a ratio of 75 per cent to 25 per cent. 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 a person’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 Westernised society with great availability of food and little movement, those predisposed to obesity will become 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 it 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 per cent correct about losing weight versus keeping it off. “We have effective treatments for making people lose weight, but don’t have effective treatments for maintaining weight loss,” Albu says. “Once you’re obsess, the odds are not terrific.”