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Big News

By William J. Fabrey

From Radiance Fall 1998


bignews.logo.gif (3334 bytes)These days, organizations, events, and other resources for fat people and their admirers are multiplying like jackrabbits. This is amazing. In 1969, the year we formed the NAAFA organization (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), common reactions included, "What are you, nuts? You will just be giving fatties an excuse to go off their diets. If they don’t like being discriminated against, why don’t they just lose weight? Who in their right mind would want to get together with other fat people?"

Today, what with local and national organizations, publications, social clubs, and support groups, news groups, web sites, and chat rooms, you could occupy much of your free time with size-related human rights, educational, and support activities.

It isn’t possible to report on all of the size-acceptance events or resources in this column, but I like to cite a few as examples. The second annual Big as Texas event was held March 13 to 15, 1998, in Houston. About seventy people from sixteen different states attended. Perhaps 35 percent of attendees were men, and many couples showed up. The event was organized by former NAAFA board member Terry Lawler Early, who put a lot of energy (a lot of hard work!) into a conference that addressed diverse interests.

The keynote speaker was size activist Lynn McAfee, a director of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination (CSWD). She spoke about her work on health issues and her testimony before the National Institutes of Health and the Federal Trade Commission about regulatory matters affecting fat people. A magazine for young women in the United Kingdom called Nineteen did a respectful story about the conference in its May 1998 issue, timed to coincide with International No Diet Day on May 6.

I know how much work such conferences are to plan and execute, and I’m proud of Ms. Early and others like her for making them possible. Those who would like to be on the mailing list for next year’s event can write to her at P.O. Box 363, Sour Lake, TX 77659.

Increasingly, such events have activities for the children of attendees, some of whom are fat kids. I have seen such children grow up and become active in the size-acceptance movement as large adults. Now what we need to do is encourage more such activities for fat kids and their parents (of any size), with the focus on self-acceptance and on family support. And when these events happen, I hope someone lets me know, so that I can report it here!

THE NEWS

Children are an important focus of Radiance these days—and none too soon. We were all kids once, and too many of us who had a fat childhood recall it with pain. It shouldn’t be that way, and I’m glad we’re talking about it.

My nomination for the public figure who currently does the most for kids, including fat kids, is Rosie O’Donnell. O’Donnell’s example of a well-adjusted fat adult is great inspiration for kids and their parents. Helping children is high on her agenda. Her appearance this past March in the film Wide Awake, which had to do with a kid’s coming of age, was called "the best Rosie O’Donnell performance I’ve seen in a movie" by film critic Roger Ebert. Love that Rosie!

I’m happy to report on a wonderful new novel for teenage girls and their families called Life in the Fat Lane (Delacorte Press) by teen advice columnist and playwright Cherie Bennett. Ms. Bennett, a large woman who underwent a precipitous weight gain while on medication, understands and communicates well with teenagers. I love her column, "Hey Cherie!," which is syndicated nationally by the Copley News Service: her advice is both intelligent and intuitive.

In Bennett’s book, a slender and popular high school junior suddenly starts gaining weight and ends up at 200-plus pounds. The story examines how the weight gain affects the girl’s friendships, her popularity, and her own self-esteem. The book is called "pure entertainment" by the powerful Kirkus Reviews (December 15, 1997), which is read by thousands of librarians who decide which books to order for their libraries. Kirkus said, "While the hazard of setting unrealistic standards of beauty is a familiar theme in teen novels, the author lays out the issues with unusual clarity, sharp insight, and cutting irony." In a BBW (May 1998) review, Cheri K. Erdman said the book makes a "significant contribution in addressing the body image problems of American girls."

Author Bennett hopes that fat teens and their mothers will read her book together. If the truths of self-acceptance are to penetrate the minds of teens (and their parents), we will need more writers like Cherie Bennett!

You may recall from my summer column that the American Heart Association (AHA) had created an extremely negative ad about a kid snacking after school and morphing into a fat kid, complete with oink noises. Some of us wrote letters and sent e-mail messages, to no avail. Then Lynn McAfee of the CSWD decided to pay a call on the Washington, D.C., office of the AHA and ask them to explain themselves. To her astonishment, they initially denied that it was their ad! Then they realized that their corporate headquarters in Dallas, Texas, had created the ad.

The AHA, which thinks it is working to combat obesity in children, did not comprehend why its ad was counterproductive. So Ms. McAfee mailed out video copies of the ad to ten leading authorities on childhood obesity and eating disorders. I have seen only one response so far, but it is powerful: Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., professor of psychology, epidemiology, and public health at Yale University, wrote a brilliant letter to the AHA. Dr. Brownell, who is also director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, said that when he showed the ad to a research and policy group at Yale, the sentiment was "unanimous, forceful, and quite negative." He went on to tell the AHA specifically why he and the group found the ad to be so offensive and counterproductive and urged them to withdraw it immediately. Dr. Brownell is well known for his great concern about the increasing incidence of obesity in the United States (sometimes raising the hackles of size-acceptance activists), so his eloquent criticism of the AHA ad is likely to be taken seriously by those who need their consciousness raised.

A major legal case caught the attention of many within and outside of the size-acceptance movement. On February 27, 1998, in Martinez, California, Marlene Corrigan was convicted of a misdemeanor in the death of her daughter Christina, who weighed 680 pounds at the age of thirteen. Ms. Corrigan was sentenced to probation and 240 hours of community service. Prosecutors had asked that she serve jail time or, failing that, 1000 hours of community service.

Despite the judge’s apparent leniency in the sentencing, some size-acceptance activists close to the case were angry that it was brought to trial at all. Apparently, the judge’s effort to temper justice with mercy displeased all sides in the battle, which dragged on for a year and a half. The original charge, felony child abuse, could have resulted in a six-year jail sentence.

I find this case a very troubling one: troubling because the media sensationalized the facts, troubling because many details of the case made it anything but a clear-cut child abuse situation, troubling because so many agencies and people failed to help the child, Christina, when she needed it, and troubling because so many people became polarized in their reactions—including activists who opposed the case against Corrigan and also those who believed that she was negligent (including some of our own friends and supporters). Most troubling is the suffering and death of the child herself, who, by all accounts, was bright and had great potential.

I don’t automatically agree with some activists that this is a clear case of size discrimination, and I don’t necessarily disagree with those (including the prosecutors) who stated that Christina’s size had nothing to do with their bringing the case to trial.

After reviewing a huge stack of press clippings about the case, I believe that the best discussion of whether the case was related to size discrimination was in the NAAFA Newsletter; (January/February;1998). That issue presented its own editorial opinion, as well as articles by Judy Freespirit, Marily Wann, and Debby Burgard, all of whom attended some or most of the trial. The newsletter also examined the reasons for NAAFA’s concerns about the case and the media coverage, as well as the qualms of some members who felt that Christina’s mother had indeed abused her daughter.

According to editorial coverage from the NAAFA Newsletter, "Marlene Corrigan, a single working mother who cared for her two elderly, severely ill parents in addition to Christina, exhausted the available resources in trying to get help for Christina. She took her daughter to the doctor ninety times, yet was never referred to an available specialist; she was told by Child Protective Services ‘We don’t do fat’; and she was told by the school that they could not accommodate her daughter, that Christina wasn’t eligible for in-home teaching, and that Mrs. Corrigan wasn’t qualified to teach Christina at home."

Perhaps there was some avenue Corrigan failed to try for her daughter, but I believe that the "experts" from whom she might have obtained referrals in a better social services system or a better school system would have probably done no more to help a 680-pound thirteen-year-old than they can do, currently, to help a 680-pound adult. Most likely, they would have advocated stapling her stomach.

Legally, the prosecutors may have had a case for proceeding, even if fat had not been involved. Legally, the judge had to base his ruling on the law. But morally, the entire system failed both mother and daughter. Ask yourself this: Where would you have turned, had you been in Marlene Corrigan’s shoes? And, finally, I’d like to suggest that unless you were at the trial yourself or examined all the evidence, it might be a mistake to pass judgment on the mother, the judge, or even the prosecutor.

I do believe that at its root, the Corrigan case was very much based on society’s size discrimination. Christina might be alive today had not the entire social order discriminated against its larger members—failing to provide everything from an adequate size of school desk to appropriate medical facilities to improve the fitness and health of fat children and adults.

Now, on to fat adults: I’ve been impressed by comments I’ve heard about the book Delta Style (St. Martin’s Press), written by TV actress Delta Burke. An excerpt appeared in People magazine (March 23, 1998) as a cover story. Perhaps you recall her outstanding role as Suzanne Sugarbaker in the TV series Designing Women, from 1986 to 1991. In a 1990 show, her character dealt directly and forcefully with size discrimination at a high school class reunion. Ms. Burke says that that TV episode was the "beginning of the person I am now." Burke writes of her hope that "young women, in particular, learn to accept their bodies" and realize that "there are many definitions of beauty." She also has a line of clothing that she sells on QVC (a cable shopping channel) and other places (see Radiance, Fall 1997). Internet discussions of the book and Delta Burke’s many public appearances (TV talk shows, bookstores, and so on) have been complimentary. For example, after her appearances on NBC-TV’s Dateline on March 15, 1998, and the Today Show on March 16, 1998, many thought her to be an outstanding spokesperson for large women.

The most impressive kudos I’ve seen for Delta Burke were in Liz Smith’s syndicated celebrity column of March 24, 1998, in the New York Post. Below a dynamite photo of the actress, Smith said, "Wow! Delta Burke sure is looking good these days, out promoting her new book....Sexily plump, Delta is proof positive that a woman doesn’t have to be slender to be a knockout. Delta is a real role model for women who carry a few extra pounds. Here’s to the former Suzanne Sugarbaker, and here’s to real women with real hips the world over!"

The past three months have been busy for weight-loss scam artists, despite the increasing glare of adverse publicity. The "herbal fen-phen" scam was exposed by Laura Fraser in Good Housekeeping in February 1998. Ingredients such as ephedra (also known as ma huang), commonly found in herbal weight-loss supplements, are said to be harmful to many people. The article listed other herbs used in diet supplements and their effects (or lack thereof) on dieters. The article’s conclusion: "There is no herb that’s been proven to induce weight loss," says Varro Tyler, Ph.D., an expert on medicinal herbs. Yet the FTC doesn’t have the funds to monitor most of the claims of weight-loss promoters. Thank goodness people like Laura Fraser keep track of these scoundrels! The possibility of an exposé by an investigative reporter is sometimes all that keeps an exploitative food and drug supplier from doing more damage.

On the magazine scene, this one is totally different from any others: COLORS. This periodical is published in Italy, receives worldwide distribution, is multilingual (including English), and is dedicated to a "different" view of reporting the world news. The COLORS April/May 1998 issue was dedicated entirely to fat: fat in food, in animals, and in people; more than you ever wanted to know about fat, really. People I know were among those quoted or photographed in the issue. Some activists are annoyed by some of the negatives about fat that were published—but the magazine balanced that with lots of positive news. Overall, I found it to be even-handed, and I learned a thing or two myself. Did you know that a woman in Alaska is compiling data on fat people who have been injured by toilets that shattered, in the hope of getting manufacturers to beef up the standard load ratings? Everyone can find something to be shocked by in the issue. The COLORS publisher is affiliated with the Italian fashion promoter and manufacturer United Colors of Benetton, which has a liberal, activist corporate policy, so I was not surprised by the magazine’s tone.

In the April 1998 issue of Vogue magazine, an article called "The Fat of the Land" spouted the usual glib nonsense about why women get fat and what to do about it. The article was accompanied by a photograph of a plus-size nude, which aroused much comment among size activists. Was this progress on the part of Vogue, or was it a subtle put-down? I know I am normally a glass-is-half-full-not-half-empty kind of guy, but I believe Vogue did it so they could say, "You see, we used a fat model, and everyone said how disgusting that was, and to keep them out of the magazine." Vogue’s plus-size model had the appearance—in her pose and her tentative expression—of being uncomfortable with her size and her nudity.

Knowing how bad Vogue can be, I wish my larger friends would give Mode magazine a little more credit. Women larger than size 16 are not in Mode’s target audience. Period. This is unfortunate, but Mode still serves an important group of women.

More intelligent was the May 1998 issue of Glamour, which seems to be more perceptive on women’s issues (for a mainstream magazine, that is). An insightful article written anonymously by a man about his average-size wife’s obsession with losing weight must have made some female readers uncomfortable about their own obsession. Let’s hope this piece helps some women to get beyond that.

One piece of bad news: antifat bigot Michael Fumento, author of hate literature disguised as a book (The Fat of the Land: The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves) sold the Brooklyn Bridge (figuratively speaking) to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). He wrote an article, "Weight After 50: Is there too much on our plate?," for the May–June 1998 issue of Modern Maturity. The magazine even let Fumento, as an "expert," rebut the January 1, 1998, New England Journal of Medicine editorial that blew the whistle on the medical campaign against obesity (see Radiance, Spring 1998). Naturally, Fumento foams at the mouth at the mention of the NEJM editorial and cannot conceal his disdain for editors Jerome P. Kassirer, M.D., and Marcia Angell, M.D. Why am I not surprised? I am sorry to see the AARP get suckered in by Fumento. I don’t question Fumento’s sincerity—merely his facts and his conclusion (that’s all!). And hate is hate, regardless of whatever facts you think you can muster to support it.

In great contrast with the preceding, is my favorite magazine article of this past spring: "Living Large" by Jeanie Wilson, in Woman’s Day (April 21, 1998). It was subtitled, "Not a size 12, 14, or even 20? So what!" A number of large women were beautifully photographed, including some supersize women. The article quoted dozens of people who had size-positive things to say, including artists, models, authors, size-acceptance activists, and actress Darlene Cates, and it was a charming, heartwarming piece that is worth looking up in the library if you haven’t already seen it!

On an emotional episode of the Drew Carey show on March 11, 1998, Drew’s fiancée leaves him because she has gained weight. (She sees herself in a bedroom video they made of themselves.) When Drew tells her she looks fine to him, she responds that he is part of the problem. She is clearly not comfortable being with a man who likes her at any size. The issues raised by this show took it out of the comedy category for many viewers. Unfortunately, the situation is not uncommon in real life. Some activists disliked the show, but I thought it was a realistic portrayal that didn’t get milked for laughs as you might expect of a sitcom.

A record number of viewers tuned in to the final episode of Seinfeld on May 13 and found the foursome—Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George—on trial for failing to help a fat man whose wallet and car were stolen as they stood by and watched. Not only did they watch: they mocked the victim. ("There goes the money for lipo." "He [the thief] is really doing him a favor: now he’ll have less money to buy food." "The great thing about stealing from a fat guy is it’s an easy getaway: he can’t run after you.") It is this "callous indifference and utter disregard for all that is human" that lands them a one-year jail sentence.

The victim of the theft and derision might be seen by some as the stereotypical "fat guy," but it seems like progress when a popular TV show like Seinfeld chooses fat bashing as an example of bad behavior, especially on its final episode.

What can we say about Camryn Manheim, but wow! She’s popped up in this column for many years and is on this issue’s cover. These days, she is really making media news. As Ellenor on The Practice (ABC-TV), Manheim’s role calls for her to be "out" about her size. It is no coincidence that the show is produced by David E. Kelley, who has a long history of dealing realistically and sympathetically with size discrimination.

Manheim received powerful praise by media critic Peter Marks in the "Week in Review" section of the New York Times on Sunday, May 3, 1998. That section is read by millions. Pictured on the front page in living color, Ms. Manheim’s photo was captioned "Breaking the Fat Barrier—A 200-lb. starlet who isn’t a joke." My pulse raced a bit as I turned to the piece on page 5. A bold headline shouted, "Sometimes Fat Women Have Lives." In the article, Marks proclaimed, "The real breakthrough for fat people this year is Camryn Manheim." He went on to say that in her role on The Practice, "she doesn’t wear floral muumuus or have a chip on her shoulder or end up with story lines that inevitably brush up against the grotesque. Plus, she’s sexually active . . . . She’s sensible. She’s attractive. She’s admirable."

Kathy Bates has certainly come into her own as a large actress with her parts in Titanic and Primary Colors. The awards and praise she has recently received have probably assured her that she will be in demand as the fine large-size actress she is, for many years to come.

There is something about actress Kate Winslet, the female lead of the film Titanic that is appealing, and she does not qualify as a reed-thin actress typical of Hollwood. In fact, according to Movieline magazine in March, she "hates the attention Hollywood women pay to weight." Ms. Winslet told the magazine that she used to be obsessed with her weight, which she "struggled with" for much of her young life, but she read The Beauty Myth (by Naomi Wolf) and was enormously influenced by it.

In the world of advertising, the big news is the "Reshape Your Attitude" ad campaign by Kellogg’s Special K (photo and mention in Radiance Summer 1998). The ads, which spoof women obsessing about their bodies, emphasize eating nutritiously, not eating to lose weight per se. This is a reversal of their old ads, which emphasized staying slim.

One funny scene shows various men making comments commonly heard from women obsessing about their bodies ("Do these make my butt look big?" and "I have my mother’s hips") with a female voice-over: "Men don’t obsess about their weight: why should we?" Kellogg’s focus groups of women from the aging baby boomer population found that most women were turned off by the old ads hyping an unrealistic body image. It’s about time!

I don’t always mention mail-order catalogs in this column, but I have to tip my hat to the Plus Woman catalog. It has featured plus-size and supersize models from the start; it is beginning to enjoy a large circulation with the mainstream public; it is supportive of size acceptance, including this magazine; and it stays in business year after year, while others fall by the wayside. It is by no means the only mainstream catalog to include supersize models (to name one, check out Making It Big), but deserves a pat on the back for what it has been doing (for a catalog, call 800-628-5525 or 704-628-3562).

A refreshing view from the world of sports: I hope you didn’t miss the Associated Press photo on February 6, 1998, showing Tara Lipinski, a figure skater who was "the smallest U.S. Olympian at 86 pounds" greeting the 516-pound champion sumo wrestler Akebono in Nagano, Japan. The media loves size-contrasting stuff like this, but on this occasion treated both champions with respect.

That’s it for this issue. My thanks goes to all the readers who sent news items via mail and e-mail. ©

WILLIAM J. FABREY helps run Amplestuff, a mail-order company. He founded NAAFA in 1969, and currently is a director of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 116, Bearsville, NY 12409, or at WJFabrey@aol.com.

 

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