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big news logoby William J. Fabrey

From Radiance Winter 1999

When I first heard of the plans to hold a "Million Pound March" by NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) at its convention in Los Angeles this past summer, I thought it a noble concept. But I also feared that its name might set us up for lots of tasteless jokes by late-night TV comedians. Many people with whom I spoke had the same fear, and even the NAAFA newsletter voiced concerns. Fortunately, there were few such jokes, and the event itself, on August 15, 1998, was a resounding success. More a rally than a march, it attracted about 250 enthusiastic people (a good turnout for activism events in the size acceptance movement). Among these were show business personalities Camryn Manheim (Radiance Fall 1998 cover story from ABC-TVs The Practice) and singer Carnie Wilson (Radiance Summer 1996 cover story), both of whom spoke to the crowd. Friends of mine who were there called the gathering a "landmark" event—one they will always remember as a high point in size-acceptance activism.

In addition to Manheim and Wilson, several other speakers eloquently affirmed the right of fat people to live peacefully in a society that usually acts as if we have no rights. The event organizer, Jody Abrams, read statements of support from other organizations, including the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination, the Southern California Size Acceptance Coalition, Girth and Mirth, the International Size Acceptance Association, and our own Radiance magazine. Nineteen commercial sponsors of the march were thanked. Soul-stirring songs lead by Jeanne Toombs were sung by a chorus and by the crowd.

Media coverage was respectful, with TV spots on CNN, ABC, Fox, and CBS. A great front-page story, by Alfred Lubrano in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 16, 1998, was widely disseminated by the Knight Ridder news syndicate. Other media present at the march included Time magazine, TV’s Inside Edition, and reporters from Australia and the U.K.

My congratulations go to all planners and participants who made the Million Pound March so successful!

The News

Let’s plunge right into health issues: 1998 has been a busy year for weight-loss scams, despite the increasing glare of adverse publicity. Is the fake fat Olestra a scam? The Associated Press reported on the pros and cons of Olestra on April 25, 1998, including test results from several major cities. Most people, even those favoring the use of the substance in potato chips, seem to agree that it is not an effective means of losing weight. But if you ignore the nasty side effects, including abdominal cramping and anal leakage, Olestra can reduce your exposure to dietary fats somewhat, especially for potato chip addicts. But foes include Dr. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, who says, "Procter & Gamble has twisted logic and prudent public health practices to say we should market this until there is proof that it’s harmful, instead of proving it’s safe."

My advice: Watch out for bags of potato chips made with Olean, P&G’s brand name for the bogus fat. In some parts of the United States, they are marketed as Wow chips. Wow, indeed. Some friends tested the chips. He liked ’em; she was up all night. Why be a guinea pig again?

As far as I’m concerned, a bigger scam is the one currently being perpetrated on the public by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which announced, on June 17, 1998, a change in their definition of "overweight" from a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 27 down to 25, as part of its "Obesity Treatment Guidelines." (The BMI is defined as one’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of one’s height in meters. Most readers of this column have a BMI much higher than 27. A plus-size fashion model, at five feet six inches, weighing 200 pounds, has a BMI of around 32.)

Activist Lynn McAfee, a director of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination (CSWD), spoke against the change in government standards at a seminar at the NIH on June 4, 1998. She spoke of the problems of receiving sensitive health care that a fat person encounters, the barriers to exercise, and the avoidance of medical treatment by those who fear ridicule in the doctor’s office. She made the telling point that there is no evidence that downgrading the permissible BMI from 27 to 25 will affect the mortality of the average citizen. But the NIH apparently have their own agenda.

Anticipating the upcoming announcement by one day, Weight Watchers paid for a big ad in the New York Times New York Times (June 16, 1998) on the same page as an article by Jane Brody titled "Gaining Weight on Sugar-Free, Fat-Free Diets." The article spoke of the importance of counting calories and getting exercise. The Weight Watchers ad declared, "New Government Findings Report More People Than Ever Are Overweight, Which Carries Significant Health Risks."

I have read the full public statement by the NIH (actually the NHLBI: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) and, optimist that I am, can find only two straws to grasp in all the verbiage: "Overweight and obese patients who do not wish to lose weight, or are otherwise not candidates for weight loss treatment, should be counseled on strategies to avoid further weight gain." Also, "the initial goal of treatment should be to reduce body weight by about 10 percent . . . an amount that reduces obesity-related risk factors."

Well, at least the people at the NIH recognize that some people will (rightfully) decline to try the latest weight-loss scheme and that such persons could focus on avoiding further gain, and that it is not necessary to become "nonobese" to reduce the risk factors. A 10 percent weight reduction, as hard as it is to achieve, is more reasonable than the goals most fat people have when they show up at Weight Watchers.

The best response to the new BMI standards was, I think, that of humorist Dave Barry, who appears in newspapers throughout the country for the Knight Ridder/Tribune syndicate. His article, headlined "The Facts Are In: You’re Fat!," lampooned the whole idea of millions of us waking up to discover that, suddenly, we are officially fat. Barry wrote that "most of us could never in a million years figure out our own Body Mass Index, so it’s only a matter of time before the Internal Revenue Service requires us to include it on our tax returns."

A political cartoon by Don Wright of the Palm Beach Post, reprinted by the New York Times on July 5, 1998, trivialized the situation by portraying a fat man and a fat woman trying, with difficulty, to reach guns in their holsters. The caption read, "New research shows that as Americans get fatter, they’re finding it much more difficult to get to their handguns." This column has mentioned a previous cartoon in which Wright drew attention to the health risks of Redux even before it was withdrawn from the market.

In a more serious vein, author Richard Klein (Eat Fat) wrote, in the Wall Street Journal on June 9, 1998, that the new official government guidelines were enthusiastically received by the head of the Weight Watchers organization, and undoubtedly everyone else in the $40 billion U.S. diet industry. In his article, "Leaning On Those Who Aren’t Lean," Klein said that "what makes these new guidelines worrisome" is that "they will encourage some people to take extravagant and harmful dieting measures" and "make doctors more willing to prescribe the latest diet drugs for people whose goals are mainly cosmetic." The guidelines, he said, "illustrate the coercive power of what has been called public healthism, and are destined to be used as weapons in the war against fat being waged by insurance companies, HMOs and the government."

I’m hoping that the derision expressed by Dave Barry will prevail. The public’s mistrust of government pronouncements and the shifting sands of what Washington believes is good for us may, in the end, be our best defense. And, as a practical matter, whether a healthy BMI is said officially to be 25, 27, or even larger will have little effect on the life of a woman who is, say, a size 18 or larger, because she already exceeds any of those BMIs! By the way, most athletes exceed them, too.

As we already know, yo-yo dieting is one of the probable culprits in the fattening of those in the United States. And one of the biggest (and oldest) companies implicated in the prevalence of yo-yo dieting is Weight Watchers International. I’ll wager WWI has done business with 90 percent of larger Radiance readers at one time or another. WWI may be, nutritionally, and at the corporate level, a tad more responsible than other weight-loss companies—but that’s not saying much.

Anyway, the news is that the person who made it all possible was Albert Lippert, who died back on February 28, 1998, at the age of seventy-two. Both the New York Times and National Public Radio did impressive obituaries on March 3. Lippert sold his holding in WWI to the H.J. Heinz Company in 1978 for $15 million and remained active as a WWI consultant until his death.

Mr. Lippert apparently believed in his product, having lost weight permanently on his own program, and thought others could do likewise. He was such a successful promoter of the business that hundreds of thousands of people went through the Weight Watchers program countless times in a fruitless attempt to become thin. A fatter United States is probably one of the results.

Some good news: A Reuters news release on May 28, 1998, quoted three researchers at Hoffman-La Roche (a pharmaceutical company, of all things) as saying that "some obese people may not be unhealthy at all." The researchers spoke in favor of using "metabolic fitness" as a better measure of health than BMI and stated that "the hope is that by using metabolic fitness as a measure of success, health professionals can shift the patient’s focus from unrealistic, culturally imposed goals (for example, dress size or belt size) to the more appropriate and achievable goal of better health."

The diet-conscious consumer has been pursued by food manufacturers with various claims about low-fat or even fat-free products, such as Nabisco’s Snackwell crackers and cookies. But a May 1, 1998, New York Times story, "Fickle Finger of Fat," revealed Nabisco’s decision to add more fat to their Snackwell line because sales have slumped, five years after the brand was introduced. "I thought [the products] tasted like sugary straw," said Marion Nestle, head of nutrition and food studies at New York University. I met Ms. Nestle at a government-sponsored obesity conference a few years ago and found her to be as outspoken then as she seems to be now.

A great article appeared in the July/August 1998 "Nutrition Action Health Letter." This publication serves as the voice of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The center is feared by both the food and the pharmaceutical industries because of its opposition to inadequate food labeling, premature introduction of untested drugs, and fake fats like Olestra and diet drugs like Redux.

The story, called "The Pressure to Eat—Why We’re Getting Fatter," consists of an interview with Dr. Kelly Brownell, who sometimes raises the hackles of size-acceptance activists, but also does some work that they cheer. Dr. Brownell believes that in the United States, we have a "toxic food environment." Brownell points out that three new McDonald’s fast food restaurants are opened every day, and that the entire food industry stimulates us to consume more than is good for us. He does not say that all fat people are fat because of overconsumption, but includes genetics as a factor. His main points, with respect to our surge in fatness since 1980, are that our genes did not change in so short a time, and that this increase should not be blamed on the individual being weak-willed or gluttonous, but rather on the marketing of consumption. Dr. Brownell’s conclusion? Efforts to turn up the pressure on fat people to lose weight "will be counterproductive and make people even more obsessed with what they eat. A good example is the Shape Up America! Program. . . . Its basic message is that the American public should weigh less and exercise more. Is there anyone in America who doesn’t know that?"

You may recall from my preceding two columns a discussion about the extremely negative TV ad created by the American Heart Association (AHA) about a kid snacking after school and morphing into a fat kid, complete with oinking noises. Activists wrote letters to the AHA, which may have helped, but initially drew little reaction. Lynn McAfee of the CSWD decided to send videotapes of the ad to ten leading authorities on childhood obesity and eating disorders, and some of them wrote brilliant letters opposing the ad. Finally, McAfee brought up the matter during a press conference at which the president of the AHA was present. The AHA subsequently announced its withdrawal of the ad for further study.

What caused this success? I believe that many events that led up to the final one (the press conference) helped enormously. Publicly embarrassing the AHA in front of obesity experts may have been the last straw. We’ll never know. The lesson is, keep writing your letters, activists!

I used to think, perhaps naively, that Prevention magazine and the whole Rodale Press publishing empire based in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, had some scruples regarding the health claims they made and how far they would go to promote their products. Not anymore. In May we received, by mail, their flier headlined "Escape from Dieting Hell." I think everyone should escape from that place, but not by using Prevention’s "obesity buster" (whatever that may be) or by "thinking themselves thin"—even though success is supposedly "100 percent guaranteed." The flier was basically a catalog full of things to make you be or look thinner. "Never, never buy the fat dress again" shouts the headline above a slender model holding up what looks like a size 28 dress.

These are the same people whose August 1998 issue of Prevention had a cover story headlined "Lose your belly and more! Even if you can’t lose weight!" Readers of my past columns know that Prevention has a belly fixation: they hate bellies! And they assume that all of us do, too. Strange: I know people who love bellies.

BBW magazine has supposedly breathed its last with its September 1998 issue (great cover photo of actress and plus-size fashion designer Delta Burke). As of this writing, word has it that publisher Larry Flynt has finally pulled the plug on what he claims is a money-losing proposition. As you read this, you may know otherwise—Flynt has reversed himself before, and perhaps he will find a buyer for BBW.

Flynt’s Hustler magazine should have been the one to go under! Whatever its defects were, BBW occupied a useful place in size acceptance, boasted some good writers, and served as a "point of entry" to self-esteem for millions of large women. I hope that time proves me wrong, and that this obituary is premature.

I sometimes receive copies of foreign magazines with size-related news. FHM magazine, of the United Kingdom, is geared for men—kind of a kinky version of GQ, but not as explicit as Penthouse. Their August 1998 edition interviewed me briefly on the subject of gadgets to help make the larger person’s life easier, including some of the products carried by the Amplestuff catalog.

Radiance readers Tamar and Raphael Altman in the United Kingdom sent me coverage of a peculiar situation in the July 15, 1998, Oxford Mail newspaper. English nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow took the unusual step of banning large women from his glitzy London club, Stringfellows. According to him, "There’s no point in going to a nice place if it’s not surrounded by nice people that you want to look at." The newspaper interviewed Tamar, a size-acceptance activist, for her opinions on the subject. She provided some good ones, such as, "when Stringfellow opens his mouth and says something like that, it encourages bullying. I think it’s a very serious issue and he is causing pain to a lot of people. It’s outrageous. I say people can look attractive whatever their size."

Ms. Altman, who weighs about 220 pounds, was joined by her husband, Raphael, who said "we have a thirty-year-old romance because of the person Tamar is. There’s a tyranny among men to conform to a particular taste." The newspaper also interviewed antidiet compaigner Mary Evans Young, who founded the Diet Breakers organization in the United Kingdom in 1992 and is credited with being the founder of International No-Diet Day, celebrated by activists worldwide.

Here’s some refreshing fashion news. I generally find New York Times fashion coverage pretty snobbish and intolerant of plus sizes and supersizes. However, its fashion section on August 2, 1998, was illustrated with a photo of plus-size actress Mia Tyler, who participated in a showing of Lane Bryant’s new label, Venezia Jeans Clothing. Now that was a pleasure to behold.

Every now and then, I get to see some mail from Richard Simmons. The CSWD received a personal invitation by e-mail this past spring from Richard himself, inviting the council to join his new Richard Simmons Club House web site. "By joining, you’ll be able to reach out twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and connect with someone who is dealing with the same bumps along the weight loss road you’re experiencing!" The site promises chat rooms, personals, live Q&A with Richard, and so on.

Why was the council so lucky as to receive Richard’s personal invitation? Well, some other AOL recipients were also listed on the e-mail, so I looked up everyone’s "profile" (a short biographical sketch) in the AOL membership directory. I discovered that everyone had the word diet somewhere in their name or description. Now, the council runs a project called the International No Diet Coalition, which caused Simmons’s computers to assume that the council was interested in dieting! I think they failed to notice the word No No before the word Diet!

On the brighter side of the Internet is the fact that the AOL appointed a plus-size consultant, Susan L. Weber, who runs the site www.grandstyle.com, an on-line boutique for large women. She does a good job of it, and so AOL has added a new plus-size department to its site for women at www.elektra.com, under the "style" area. It is exciting when a mainstream on-line service like AOL recognizes the need for sites for large women. The Internet is a beehive of information and support services for the large person. You could spend twenty-four hours a day on-line, checking out bulletin boards, mailing lists, web sites, and so on.

If you listen to radio, watch out for Susan Powter! She’s baaaaack—and telling everyone who will listen that fat people need interventions. By interventions, she means walking up to a fat person in the supermarket and telling her she shouldn’t be buying a bag of potato chips! (Powter is out of control: For hints on dealing with her and her devotees, see "Rude Remarks and Right On Rejoinders," Summer 1998 Radiance.) Radiance reader Julie Revell Benjamin sees Powter’s campaign as a step backward for all of us. I agree: the size-acceptance movement has made some progress in recent years, and it is scaring some fatphobic people. Opportunists like Susan Powter and Michael Fumento are trying to capitalize on this fear.

In late July 1998, the city of Denton, Texas, decided to charge an additional $25 to anyone weighing more than 300 pounds who used the ambulance service. An article on July 26, 1998, in the Dallas Morning News discussed the controversial fee and the adverse media attention aimed at Denton, and reported that the city council was reviewing the matter. (The fee was later rescinded.) Although city officials stated that additional attendants were needed for very large patients, one member of the city council, Mick Cochran, was quoted as saying that he believed the fee to be "insulting and discriminatory." Fire Chief Ross Chadwick stated that he still feels it is a valid fee, but the "public relations gain" by removing it "will far outweigh any financial loss." According to the newspaper, some other Texas cities have such a fee, and have not drawn fire about it.

An unusual series of news articles in the Asbury Park Press (in New Jersey) appeared on May 17–19, 1998, called "Fitting In: Obesity in a Thin World." Although the focus was on intractable problems, especially the health problems faced by some people, the articles showed some balance by giving more positive coverage in the areas of support groups and resources available to large readers. Author Regina McEnery, a health writer for the paper, concluded by inviting readers to visit the paper’s web site to see the entire series: www.injersey.com/fittingin.

The Philadelphia Inquirer (not to be confused with the tabloid the National Enquirer) published, on July 16, 1998, one of the best articles I have ever read in the mainstream press about heterosexual male fat admirers (FAs). Called "The Secret Life and Unstudied Passion of Men Who Like Their Women Large" by Alfred Lubrano, this was a serious, balanced article on the subject. Lubrano quoted FA artists Paul Delacroix and Ned Sonntag; NAAFA’s Executive Director Sally E. Smith; medical experts including Dr. Kelly Brownell and Dr. Albert J. Stunkard; Dimensions magazine publishers Conrad Blickenstorfer and Ruby Greenwald; and several others.

I was fascinated to read that Dr. Brownell believes that being attracted to large women is "not deviant or abnormal; it’s part of the natural course of things. Fat admirers are small in number, but they still exist. Who knows what it means to love large bodies? There’s not much scientific we can say." I knew that about myself, but it’s nice to hear a famous doctor say it. I am a bit sorry that the article didn’t include heterosexual female fat admirers (FFAs), or lesbians or gays of either gender who are also FAs, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I’d like to close the column this time with an affirmative point of view from a reader named Alice Johnson, whose letter to the editor appears elsewhere in this issue. In the Summer 1998 Radiance, in discussing the various levels of self-acceptance one can have, I described a level that I felt could not be achieved by every woman, but might be desirable nonetheless. Called decisive acceptance by Cheri Erdman, Ed.D., it could entail not only accepting ourselves, but taking pleasure and joy in our curves and abundance. Ms. Johnson wrote to say, "Yes! I found myself having advanced to this stage just a little while ago . . . What's wrong with us," she asks, "that we seem to spend our whole lives, and most of our social energy, trying to find someone else to tell us this, and not believing it when we hear it. Why is it acceptable for someone else to like our bodies, but not us?"

Why, indeed, Ms. Johnson? She raises an excellent point. I do believe that it is okay for us to like our own bodies—fat or thin—or at least parts of them, if other parts are giving us grief. They’re the bodies we have. It’s so much nicer to like them, if you can. ©

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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