Why is fat wrong? Why is thin always seen as better? In the US, land of obesity, rotund action groups are gaining momentum, united in a life-long battle against dieting and cinema armrests.
July 1996
Report by Judith Newman
Picture Editor Duane Ashurst

Making a splash, from left: Faith Mendik, Juanita Sanford, Susan Burns, and Marcella Laramee at a NAAFA pool party: “We’re here, we’re wide, get used to it!”

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 5ft 4in and 25 stone, 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. To paraphrase a slogan from another equally vilified group, 'We're here, we're wide, get used to it.'

That America is a fat‑obsessed culture is undeniable. A third of all American adults are 20 per cent overweight. This may explain why the corpulent are ridiculed. After all, people are most vicious to those with 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?

Marilyn Wann and Faith Mendik at the pool party. Other NAAFA events include sexuality workshops.

I am sitting in on a make‑up and fashion seminar where about 50 women are discussing Lane Bryant, an American out‑size clothing retailer. The chain is taking a lot of flak for stocking clothes only up to size 30 (UK) and then showing them on models who look no bigger than a 16. Julie Jamieson, an angelic blonde gripes, 'They think we're stupid enough to believe we'll look like their models in these clothes.' Designer Michele Francisco, of Color Me Big, a line of large-size clothing, adds '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 faux leopardskin jacket. I've noticed her already because, although painfully shy, she has been doing a hilarious running commentary on the proceedings for anyone close enough to hear.

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, left: “Inside every fat person is a volcano waiting to erupt.”

NAAFA 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 shape. 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 (21 stone and over) think 'medium‑size' women don't really understand discrimination; 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 they 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. Furthermore no one 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 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 podgy journalists. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was shunned. 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. No one would give me the time of day, literally. I asked a man who was wearing a watch what the time was, and he said pointedly, 'I don't know', then walked away. It was like reliving my worst days at school.

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 apologise for taking up so much space ‑ that when you get here, you can be yourself. And for a lot of people, being themselves means sometimes being angry at the status quo, and that's you.' Then she showed me a skimpy bathing suit 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.

Julie Jamieson: ”I have fought my weight all my life. The fight is over.”

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 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 as if she was merely renting a thin body. 'I've lost 150 pounds [10 stone] just like that. 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.

'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.'

This is what fat activists want: firstly, the death of dieting, and the complete acceptance of one's weight. Then ...armless chairs in cinemas and restaurants. To be able 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 be lectured by a doctor about dieting, they'll wait until a problem is so bad they simply have to go). A sceptical view of obesity 'cures' and appetite suppressants, which create false hope among those who have not accepted their size. Affordable medical insurance. Any medical insurance (it's almost impossible to get if you're 100 pounds [seven stone] overweight and self‑employed). Protection against job discrimination. Kindness.

Jodi Ornstein and Nancy Esposito strike a pose by the pool.

Like most organisations in which political activism provides a thinly veiled excuse for mating rituals, the NAAFA convention 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 mug'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 American fatties like actor John Candy, The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia (drug use notwithstanding), and 70‑stone Walter Hudson who, activists claim, all died when they started to eat normally again after going off a starvation diet. Their bodies 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 weight of about a 60 (UK) dress size. Leaning heavily on her cane, she explains that her current mobility problems are due not so much to her weight, as to the pain caused by stomach-stapling surgery. In the late 70s she had a vertical gastroplasty, in which her stomach was sewn up to the size of an egg, allowing her to eat only two ounces of food at a time. In four months, she lost nine and a half stone. Despite the vomiting, diarrhoea, and blackouts, 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 500 a day without gaining weight,' she says. Excessive scarring from the operation caused painful internal adhesions, and many fibrous foods became lodged in the shrunken opening to her stomach. Today Collins‑Eckert lives on painkillers. 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 a hot bath,' 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 innumerable health problems that might be preventable, not by conforming to the aesthetics of conventional society, but simply by weighing say, 20 stone, instead of 30 or 35 stone. The most ironic of their health problems is that many of these women, whose bodies fit certain preconceived notions of bountiful fertility, cannot conceive ‑ hormon­al disturbances wreak havoc with their menstrual cycles.

Love blossoms for a couple at the ball.

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 proof‑reader 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?'

Back in my hotel room, I flip through a copy of the magazine Dimensions. 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 is obsessed with fat women. Anyway, Galef gives me the lowdown on fat admirers.

'The majority of these guys want to be thought of as average people who associate fat with ultra‑femininity. 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 buried 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'. 'A feeder,' he explains, 'is a guy 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.'

Marilyn Wann dresses to impress at the NAAFA ball.

It's Saturday night, the evening of the convention's costume ball. Haley Hertz is thrilled; she's had something of a breakthrough. She's actually bought ‑ not worn, but bought ‑ a bathing suit. It's 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'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, 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 aluminium foil. She is slow‑dancing with a sombre, 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.' 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 5ft 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 wills 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.