by William J. Fabrey
After the death of Princess Diana this past summer,
there was a public backlash against the media trend to sensationalize
the news, even as the public continued to buy tabloid newspapers such as
the National Enquirer, and watch TV "tabloid" news shows, such
as Hard Copy.
Nearly everyone had a reason to be fond of the
princess: those concerned about eating disorders were especially glad to
see her public discussion about her own eating problems in her famous
interview with Barbara Walters of TV's 20/20. When Diana was killed
while being chased by photographers, many of us had new reason to
dislike and mistrust the tabloids.
In this column, I sometimes refer to such marginal
publications and shows. By doing so, am I excusing their behavior?
No. For big people, it is news when size issues appear
in the media, because the public is influenced by what they see. Also,
sensational news sources are not always inaccurate in what they report.
For example, the National Enquirer has run a number of articles
throughout the years about size acceptance that have brought our ideas
to a public that desperately needs to hear them. The TV news show Hard
Copy even says that it supports the size-acceptance movement!
Quoting a tabloid is not the same as advising you to
run out and buy it. And will I ever report on the private lives of
large-size entertainers or politicians, or even key players in the diet
industry, in an effort to gain more readers of this magazine? I will
not, even if C. Everett Koop himself takes up with a fat girlfriend.
(Don't worry, I made that one up.)
I am often able to report on new books that are
size-positive, but this fatphobic book is one to avoid: The Fat of the
Land by Michael Fumento (Viking). A preview of the book appeared in the
USA Today Sunday newspaper supplement, USA Weekend, on September 14,
1997. Titled "Why we need a new war on weight," this antifat
diatribe declares that "we may soon see our beloved Stars and
Stripes replaced by a yellow flag declaring 'Extra Wide Load.'" In
his book, the author quotes only those studies that support his
position, and is angered by the size-acceptance argument that diets fail
and that you should just try to be healthy. He believes that obesity is
a lifestyle choice and that it is caused by weak-willed, self-indulgent
gluttony. This is really hate literature disguised as serious writing by
someone with a law degree.
In the Wall Street Journal on September 29, Fumento
revealed that he was incensed by those who asserted that big can be
beautiful. He described the plus-size doll nicknamed Ruby used by Body
Shop advertising as a "cross between a nude Barbie and a
dirigible." He was, he said, outraged by the claims of
organizations such as NAAFA, which, he said, "pretend that the
nation's 'obsession with thinness' is based primarily on simple
prejudice." He went on to explain why the prejudice against us was
justified. That piece was rebutted by Anita Roddick, founder and chief
executive of the Body Shop, in a letter published on October 24. She
said, "Negative self-esteem and unrealistic body image can be just
as detrimental as one hamburger too many."
Fumento came in for lots of other criticism. The USA
Weekend article also published the opinions of Michael Steelman, M.D.,
president of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, and Sally E.
Smith, executive director of NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat
Acceptance). Dr. Steelman said that "for millions of obese
individuals, [Fumento's] approach will be a great disservice. Obese
people need to be directed toward improving their health, not pushed
toward a mythical ideal weight." Radical stuff from the
bariatricians! And Smith said, "To encourage stigma against fat
people is sizeist."
ore criticism of Fumento appeared in the Wall Street
Journal on September 12, 1997. Author Tim W. Ferguson, who is West Coast
bureau chief for Forbes Magazine, pointed out that Fumento had lost
twenty pounds and has kept it off for all of two years. Ferguson:
"With the passion of the convert, he tells them not to accept their
appearance." I would add, Please save us from the (currently)
formerly fat who want to convert the heathen! Another well-known social
critic, Amitai Etzioni, wrote a review in the Washington Post on October
5, 1997, calling Fumento's book "self-indulgent." If so, it is
the indulgence of a man who is a resident fellow at the American
Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Fumento has also
written books attacking the ideas that AIDS is dangerous to
heterosexuals and that industrial pollution is harmful.
The best comment I've heard was from Cheri K. Erdman,
author of Nothing to Lose (HarperCollins). Erdman points out that size
acceptance must be making some headway to deserve such a strong attack!
Well, we can't expect the monster of hating and fearing fat to die
without a struggle.
Now to the world of show business. The Broadway
production of The Life caught my attention when it began in May 1997.
(As of this writing, in November 1997, the show is still running.) The
Life is about New York prostitutes in the 1980s. Two of its five
actresses are plus-size. I was impressed by this dose of realism in a
theatrical world that usually exists on fantasy. Real prostitutes are
sometimes fat, but are rarely portrayed that way in show business. On
October 5, New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby called The Life "a
joy" and reported that it had received awards as the best musical
of 1996-'97 from three different groups. Canby said that despite its
subject matter, the show is not offensive to women and does not
glamorize prostitution. Plus-size actresses in this production include
Sharon Wilkins and Katy Grenfell. Watch for a profile of some of the
stars of The Life in an upcoming issue of Radiance.
On July 30, 1997, New York Post entertainment writer
Su Avasthi included fat people in a list of those that Hollywood's film
industry seeks to villainize or make fun of without incurring the wrath
of advocacy groups. One example: In Speed 2: Cruise Control, shipboard
dieters are targeted for repeated "sight gags," including
gluttonous eating and a fat woman stripping to her bra and panties.
Avasthi interviewed Mariam Berg, president of the Council on Size &
Weight Discrimination (CSWD). Here's her advice to screenwriters:
"We have a test. If you want to know whether a joke is offensive,
just replace the word 'fat' with the word 'black' and see if it
offends." Talk of theaters makes me bristle again about that old
problem: comfortable seating. A report this past October from the
Associated Press, courtesy of reader Joan Borgos, told us that Brasilia,
capital of Brazil, has passed a law requiring theaters and buses to have
at least 3 percent of their seating accessible to very large people. The
special seating is to be three feet in width. In that respect, Brazil is
way ahead of us. In the United States, theaters are beginning to install
some bench-style seating, but wide seating is rare in mass
Here's a nice quote from Lucy Lawless, the New Zealand
actress who plays the title role in TV's Xena: Warrior Princess.
Lawless, whose role is popular with many Radiance
readers, was interviewed on WPIX-TV news in New York. The anchor
commented, "You don't look like a big girl: you are slim and
trim." Replied Ms. Lawless, "My weight goes up and down. I
don't worry about it. I figure that if I put on ten pounds, five million
women will feel better about themselves!"
In July 4, 1997, veteran CBS newscaster Charles Kuralt
died at the age of sixty-two. Kuralt, a large man, was with the network
for thirty-seven years, starting out as their youngest reporter in
Vietnam. Later, he hosted a long-running show called On the Road, which
made him famous for the keen insight he displayed while traveling and
reporting on diverse people and places in America. His subsequent show,
CBS News Sunday Morning, had a loyal following for many years. Mr.
Kuralt's weight never seemed to hold him back at CBS, nor in the eyes of
his fans. He was big in physical presence, intellect, and compassion. An
obituary in the July 5, 1997, edition of the New York Times praised
Kuralt as the "chronicler of the country."
In magazine publishing, People magazine's September
29, 1997, cover story must have raised a few eyebrows: "Who Says
Size Counts!" read People's headline. "So what if they aren't
size 6? Healthy, wealthy, and unabashed, they're proudly proving big is
beautiful, too." People's cover was plastered with photos of Emme
(the plus-size model), Wynonna Judd, Delta Burke, Oprah Winfrey, and
Rosie O'Donnell. The article itself was a tribute to those women, plus
Carnie Wilson, Kathy Kinney (Drew Carey), Star Jones (co-host of
ABC-TV's daytime talk show The View), Yvette Freeman of TV's ER, and
Queen Latifah of Living Single. Even Radiance
magazine was mentioned!
Of course, People included the obligatory negative
quote, this time from Dr. Barbara Moore of Dr. C. Everett Koop's Shape
Up America! program, funded by the diet industry. But offsetting that
were quotes from the upbeat Laura Fraser, author of Losing It: America's
Obsession with Weight and the Industry That Feeds on It, including this
one: "Being 20 or 40 pounds heavier than what most actresses and
models weigh is not only normal but healthy."
Helen Gurley Brown retired in February 1997, after
thirty-one years as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. Feminists, who
worry about eating disorders and body image problems among women, often
believe that Ms. Brown's obsession with thinness contributed to the
extravagant increase in such disorders in the past three decades. The
"Cosmo girl," portrayed on the magazine's covers at
supermarket checkout counters and heavily promoted by the Hearst
Corporation, always had slim, even skinny body parts, but she was always
busty. Feminists are also critical of Brown's philosophy, which is about
manipulating men in the name of sexual freedom.
My mother, a Cosmo reader in the decades before Brown
took over, was angry about the emphasis on sex since 1966. And I have
been equally negative about Cosmo, especially the body image stuff,
since Brown assumed her position. The new editor, Bonnie Fuller, has not
made any sweeping changes, to judge by recent Cosmo covers: same slim
bodies, same big busts, same pouty looks (is that supposed to make me
want to come hither?) Sigh.
A small checkout-counter-magazine called Your Health
got on the antidiet bandwagon with its July 22, 1997, cover story,
"Say Goodbye to Dieting! Rosie, Bette and Oprah: Why bigger can be
better-and healthier." The issue contained two articles-one
highlighting plus-size entertainers Rosie O'Donnell, Bette Midler, and
Oprah Winfrey, as well as Kathy Bates, Delta Burke, and Aretha Franklin,
along with a companion piece by Laura Fraser about medical reasons to
oppose dieting. Bette Midler was included because she is perceived by
the public as being plus-size and has played roles as a woman with a
"weight problem" in several films, most recently The First
Wives' Club. Oprah Winfrey is a veteran dieter and disciple of fitness,
but is relatively liberal on the subject these days, saying she
understands that lots of large women cannot do what she has done. She is
no longer model-thin, either.
I'm always happy to get mail from readers of this
column, even when they disagree with me. Reader Barbara Schilling and I
had a brief e-mail exchange in which she pointed out that I may have
been too hard on Mode magazine in my Fall 1997 column. (I had stated
that Mode had some good writers and filled a need, but that I was
disappointed that their target audience was limited to those no larger
than size 18.) Perhaps I should keep a more open mind: I certainly
believe that women in the 12 to 18 size range have their own struggles
with society and are entitled to fashion magazine coverage. Mode says it
now has a circulation of more than 300,000.
The October 1997 Redbook scored a hit with two cover
stories: an interview with Rosie O'Donnell and "Little Girls Who
Won't Eat: The Dangerous Diet Craze." In the O'Donnell piece, the
biggest type was reserved for her comment "I don't think I'm any
less appealing or funny or sexy because of my weight." Right on!
A gold star goes to Judith Newman for her perceptive
article on eating disorders in the same issue. A few of her pointers:
"Accept your body (at least in front of your kids)."
"Don't make food a major focus in your household." "Never
say diet." "And, for fathers: Take your daughters seriously,
and show you value women for more than their looks." "Take a
hard look at the media your children are exposed to." "Discuss
'looks-ism' with your kids." If you are a parent of young children,
you might look up this Redbook article in your community library.
I can't help but ponder how the public education that
Newman and others provide might eventually prevent tragedies such as
that reported from England by CNN and the Associated Press in October
1997. A thirteen-year-old girl in a town north of London committed
suicide in September after enduring the taunts of a group of up to
fifteen neighborhood children, who attacked her house with stones and
food items on several consecutive evenings. The girl was said to have
been teased constantly about her weight, both inside and outside school.
This news item made for some depressing reading and should certainly
serve to stir the flames of commitment for all those who care about
Well, diet scams are still going strong. We'd like to
think that the public will learn, but it's taking longer than we'd
expected. Veteran readers of this column may remember my report on the
Berry Trim weight-loss plan in the Summer 1990 issue. The company sent
copies of bogus magazine articles promoting Berry Trim to rented mailing
lists of names. My friend Harry Gossett (author of Fat Chance) got their
mailing at that time. A computer had written in handwriting with a blue
pen, "Harold: Try it. It works!" Well, now his wife has
received a nearly identical mailing for Berry Trim Plus! You know, these
mailings cost a bundle. That means that an awful lot of people are
sending in their money.
Diet guru Richard Simmons claims he can make people
thinner in only twenty minutes a month. Last June, Simmons's company
bought my name, and millions of others, from some mailing list, and sent
me a promotional flier for his new Richard Simmons & Friends
Newsletter and free book, the Book of Hope, plus a free gift if I joined
his "Never Give Up Club" within ten days. Annual dues are a
mere $27.96 ($6.99 a month for four months). Simmons promises a lively,
upbeat, hope-inspiring newsletter. It sounded so great that I nearly
signed up! (I suppose it's too late now to get the free book.) But the
Simmons flier never did explain its headline's promise to make people
thinner in only twenty minutes a month. And it took me more than twenty
minutes just to read the sixteen-page document! Where's the FTC when you
Then there's just plain offensive advertising-like the
Pizza Hut TV ad in which the appearance of a fat kid at a party causes
the host to order a second pizza. The ad, which appeared past summer,
was targeted on the Internet by size-acceptance activists for a
telephone campaign to Pizza Hut headquarters.
Targeting such ads is a good idea, and it's much
easier now that many activists can communicate quickly and cheaply on
the Internet. However, trying to kill offensive advertising is like
shooting at a moving target. Most ads are temporary and are quickly
replaced by new ones, even if the advertiser doesn't take objections
into account. Still, maybe we can help educate ad agencies to take fat
people more seriously and think twice before creating such ads.
ther advertising news: Kellogg has been stung by
criticism from anorexia support groups in the United States, after years
of antifat advertising for Special K.
I can't help but wonder if this criticism influenced
Kellogg's recent ad for Special K shown in Canada. The ad depicts an
ultrathin model, with the headline "If this is beauty, there's
something wrong with the eye of the beholder." Well, Kellogg went a
little overboard there, because, as we know, healthy beauty can come in
all sizes. Lane Bryant's new ad campaign is in a somewhat similar tone.
Begun in the fall of 1997, these ads promote Lane Bryant's clothes as
"what real women wear." I suppose this means that anyone who
wears a size 9 or smaller is not a real woman! More fashion snobbery!
Why do so many marketers feel that they have to cut down some group to
build up another?
Better fashion-advertising news. I'm thrilled to
finally see a mail-order catalog with maternity wear for plus-size and
supersize pregnant and nursing women. Charlotte Bradley, who runs Baby
Becoming, was motivated by her personal experience. As a size-26
pregnant woman, Bradley was brought to tears when she could find nothing
in maternity stores. Well, large mothers-to-be need cry no more! You can
find Baby Becoming at 10 Nate Whipple Highway, Cumberland, RI 02864, or
at www.babybecoming.com. Looking at Baby Becoming's catalog brings a
smile to my face. All those babies, and those big, happy moms and
Here's a great ad I spotted on the Long Island
Railroad, on every other train car: a large photo of Bill Parcells, head
coach of the New York Jets football team, a big man with an obviously
large waistline. The headline read, "WIN BIG. CASUAL MALE."
You may have figured out that the ad was for Casual Male Big and Tall
stores; there are thirty stores in the New York area and more
nationwide. Big men really need to see this kind of endorsement from a
sports celebrity. It makes them feel better about going into a store
that carries their size. Large women usually receive more criticism
about their size than men do, but big men with body image problems have
far fewer resources than do women.
On to another, more sobering, topic. In my column this
past winter, I discussed, at some length, the worries many people have
about diet drugs, especially Redux and the fen-phen (fenfluramine and
phentermine) combination. On September 6, 1997, NAAFA and CSWD joined
forces in helping to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in
Washington. The suit sought a drug recall and an injunction against the
sale of Redux and the use of fen-phen for weight loss. It charged that
the FDA failed to follow its own regulations in the approval of Redux
and accused marketers of these drugs of misleading consumers as to the
drugs' safety and effectiveness.
As you probably know, on September 15, the FDA
encouraged the "voluntary" recall of Redux and fenfluramine,
half of the fen-phen combination, due to the increasing number of people
with heart-valve problems attributable to the drugs.
That statement came as a bombshell to hundreds of
thousands of dieters who had been using the drugs, and the news media
went to town with it. On September 16, the Wall Street Journal asked,
"How could the FDA have approved a drug that a year later proved so
dangerous it had to be withdrawn from the market?" On September 22,
the widely syndicated political cartoonist Don Wright of the Palm Beach
Post portrayed fen-phen as a new way to execute prisoners who were
slated for capital punishment. (Back on July 20, Wright had penned a
cartoon showing a fat man dying from the drugs, nearly two months before
the FDA acted.)
As liability lawsuits became publicized, law firms
began to advertise toll-free numbers to call with claims. USA Today, in
its September 16 coverage of the recall, referred to it as the
"obesity pill fiasco." On September 29, U.S. News and World
Report had the cover headline, "Diet-Drug Bust-What Went Wrong at
the FDA." On September 22, hoping to capitalize on the situation,
Weight Watchers took out national advertising touting the fact that they
had never, and would never, offer diet drugs, and asserted that their
program was the healthy, natural way to lose weight. Well, I suppose
they deserve some credit for avoiding drugs.
When NAAFA and CSWD posted information about the diet
pill recall on the Internet, they received hate mail from dieters who
blamed the organization for helping cause the recall! As we've noted
before, some fat people will face any risk, even death, to get thinner.
We in the size-acceptance movement may feel entitled to say, "We
told you so" to those who ignored the warning signs that diet drugs
are dangerous. But faced with the possibility that millions of dieters
may now have damaged heart valves, we take no comfort in that fact. It
would have been better if our concerns had turned out to be groundless.
I'm looking forward to some noteworthy events and
media coverage this year on International No-Diet Day (INDD) on May 6.
Fat activists got some good coverage this past May. One of my favorites
was written by Sarah McBride of the Wall Street Journal (May 2, 1997).
The piece quoted Lee Martindale, publisher of Rump Parliament and an
organizer of No-Diet Day activities, as saying, "We're basically
challenging society to stop judging us by the pound." Martindale,
NAAFA, the International No-Diet Coalition (a project sponsored by the
Council on Size & Weight Discrimination), and many other
organizations will continue to beat the drums for this annual
international event. It asks people to give up dieting for just one day,
and think about other things in their lives. Remember to join us-either
privately or at public events-in this one-of-a-kind celebration!
Together, we are making history. And, I might add, big news. ©
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 W j firstname.lastname@example.org.
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