with medical rights champion Lynn McAfee
From Radiance Winter 1999
LYNN MC AFEE is three weeks old, and her parents are panicking. Why has she gained so much
weight and grown so long? Her large mother has already spent many painful years of her
life battling her weight, and she doesnt want the same for her child. So its
off to the pediatricians office.
The rest of McAfees childhood continues much the same. She
is either dieting or feeling guilty about not dieting. She is occupied either by a search
for "illicit food" or by efforts to distract herself from hunger.
She is a fat little girl, and very physically active,
running around the neighborhood like all the other kids. But unlike the other kids, food
is an issue in her childhood home, and McAfee feels punished because shes fat. She
also feels as if theres something wrong with her. Once, because of all the doctor
appointments, someone asks McAfee if she is sick. "Well, yes," says the little
girl, "because Im fat."
MC AFEES PARENTS spare no expense in their
effort to help her become thin. But nothing works. When she is six or seven, her
pediatrician starts her on "cocktails" of rainbow-colored amphetamines. The
combinations of dangerous medications make her feel crazy, but at least she loses weight.
Every few months, she is taken off the pills because she develops a tolerance to them.
Back comes the weight because of "rebound hunger": an urgent need to eat
constantly after she stops the pills.
By the age of ten, McAfee is fatter than ever, even
though her mother prepares healthy, balanced meals. As she approaches her teen years,
McAfee becomes more desperate to lose weight. She tries everything: liquid diets, the
gelatin diet, the safflower oil diet, the same-thing-every-day diet, the diabetic diet,
the only-one-color-of-food-a-day diet, only fruit, counting carbohydrates, five hundred
calories a day, shots, Ayds candy, hypnosis, relentless exercise, and diet groups.
When the diets repeatedly fail the teenaged McAfee, it
is she who feels like a failure.
She tries to kill herself.
It doesnt work. But something else happens. After
the botched suicide attempt, Lynn McAfee realizes that she wants to live, even if she is
going to be fat.
AT FOURTEEN, near-tragedy strikes again for McAfee
when she almost dies from a ruptured appendix, undiagnosed until almost too late because
shes afraid to visit the family doctor about the pain. On her last visit before her
appendix burst, he said to her, "Look at you. You look like a G-d gorilla. Look at
your thighs. Look at your belly."
MC AFEE is fifteen years old, eating two hardboiled
eggs and two stalks of celery a day and a case of diet soda a week. Shes taking lots
and lots of Adipex (phentermine). McAfees doctor knows shes taking much more
than the recommended dose, but he reassures her that theyll worry about side effects
when she gets thin.
But McAfee develops a tolerance to this drug, too.
Despite the despair and almost incessant crying she experiences every time she stops
taking medication, she decides that its time to lose weight without them.
"Without the pills, I got hungry like normal people," she says, "and ate
like normal people, which was death to me. My body was so messed up from years of
starvation and pill taking that if I went over a thousand calories a day, I gained a
McAfee experiences a huge rebound weight hike once she
discontinues her medication for the last time. She says, "Theres not much worse
for self-esteem than weight regain."
By the time she starts seeing a therapist, McAfee is
twenty-one and believes she is the "fattest, ugliest thing that ever lived."
Refusing to treat McAfee unless she goes on a diet, the therapist devotes their sessions
to flipping through magazines to look for the hair, clothing, and makeup styles that are
"appropriate" for McAfee while shes still fat. The therapist also insists
that McAfee cut her hair, because, she advises, fat people really shouldnt wear
their hair long.
The therapist places McAfee on a diet and makes her
report her weight loss every week. But McAfee is noncompliant. Strangely, for the first
time in her life, McAfee is unable to diet.
Along with the inability to diet comes a revelation. She
has been living her life almost entirely in the future: "When I lose this weight,
Ill get that job, take that vacation, find that man, go to that concert, let myself
buy nice clothes, and like my body."
McAfee realizes that weight loss is probably not
feasible, so she vows to feel good about herself nonetheless. She teaches herself to
accept her body and to love it by retraining her aesthetics. "I decided to be as
healthy as I could, no matter what my weight. Its the best I could do, and its
the least we all deserve.
ITS 1970. McAfee lands a job
in a medical library, fetching books for doctors. The job stirs up her lifelong curiosity
about the medical aspects of obesity and her frustration with the lack of answers
shes gotten to all her questions about her body and the way it functions. All around
her is the material she needs to begin her research. "I thought one of those medical
journals had the secret in it," she says.
But what she discovers is another secret, which only
fuels her sense that shes been betrayed by the medical profession: since 1958, the
failure rate of diets has been more than 95 percent. She is shocked that the researchers
knew all this time that diets dont work, and she waits for the information to be
But her waiting is in vain.
She asks a doctor why figures on the failure rate of
diets havent been divulged. His response to her is that no one wants to discourage
people from dieting.
Its absurd, she thinks, to suggest that people do
what is clearly impossible. She is incensed. "I spent my childhood and adolescence
feeling like the lowest form of life because I couldnt do something as
simple as lose weight and keep it off." The bad news shes learned
about dieting sets her free, because it puts her in touch with all the rage she feels
toward the sizeist society that has abused her.
In 1973, McAfee moves to Los Angeles and finds a group
that has broken away from the local chapter of the National Association to Aid Fat
Americans (NAAFA, now titled the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) and calls
itself the Fat Underground. FU, its initials, signified, she says, the groups
contempt for "thin" society.
Lynn McAfee is now Lynn Mabel-Lois, having replaced her
surname with her mothers and maternal grandmothers first names as a sign of
her feminist identity.
In 1970s confrontational style, the FU pickets and
marches; invades diet group meetings, confronting the instructors about the diets
failure rates; disrupts and takes over university lectures and seminars; and speaks at
political rallies. The FU make their presence and their objectives quite clear.
Still an activist, Mabel-Lois leaves Los Angeles a few
years later. She continues the work on her own, and then she joins NAAFA. But soon she
leaves NAAFA, along with NAAFA founders Bill Fabrey, Nancy Summers, and Paula and Neil
Dachis, to form the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination (CSWD). The members of the
CSWD seek to influence public opinion and policy on behalf of larger individuals through
public testimony, letter-writing campaigns, and participation in national task forces and
"When I was in the Fat Underground, I thought that
if I just told the world they were wrong and showed them how theyd hurt us, things
would change. They didnt. When I was in NAAFA, I thought that if I could help fat
people feel better about themselves, feel more entitled to a better life, things would
change. They didnt. So I decided to downscale my expectations. I realized that I had
expected the world to move too fast, to go from A to Z in one or two short leaps. Through
the council, I decided to concentrate on moving people from A to B.
"Ive always operated on the principle that
people arent crazy: even doctors, even obesity researchers, and even the FDA. They
have reasons for doing what they do, and for believing what they believe, and they believe
that the reasons are good and logical ones. The reasons may not always be apparent to us,
but there is an internal logic to what people say and do. We all have a responsibility as
communicators to try to find the other persons underlying logic and understand and
respect it. When I locate that internal logic, then I can critique it. We can dialogue
about what we perceive as reality, not just yell at each other or each think the other is
Through the years and the struggles to improve life for
the large, McAfee has become far more concerned with finding the truth than with changing
HERE ARE A
FEW OF HER TRUTHS:
I get to exist as I am, fat or thin, healthy or sick,
There is currently no way to make fat people thin.
The evidence of the biological superiority of extreme
thinness is contro-versial and weak at best.
Evidence that most people can be healthy and not
disabled at very high weights is also not there.
Thin people are not superior, nor are fat people. We
are simply different. Our bodies and our experiences in society are different.
There are no helpful stereotypes.
These truths are the foundation for McAfees work
as director of the Medical Advocacy Project for the Council on Size & Weight
Discrimination. In that capacity, she attends meetings of the National Institutes of
Health (NIH) Task Force on Obesity Prevention and Treatment and their consensus panels.
She goes to the annual conventions of the obesity research organization North American
Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO) and the American Society for Clinical
Nutrition. "Many times I cant stop what I see as wrong or harmful to us, but I
believe that at least raising issues may make change easier in the future." One
tangible consequence of McAfees involvement is the NIH publication, of a pamphlet on
exercise for supersize people. (See "Medical Activism
Resources", which is compiled by Lynn McAfee.)
Through the Medical Advocacy Project, McAfee is reaching
not only government agencies but also pharmaceutical companies and the general public.
When Knoll Pharmaceuticals asked her to coteach a size-acceptance seminar for five hundred
of their employees, McAfee persuaded them to refrain from using "before and
after" pictures in their advertising. Knoll has since stated that it is considering
taking a public stand against size prejudice in its ads.
McAfee published a two-part article on medical
discrimination in the May and July 1998 issues of BBW entitled "Health Care
Horror Stories." She also appeared in the fall 1998 PBS documentary by Antony
Thomas on weight, which looked at current research as well as the theories and activities
of people in the fat-acceptance community.
McAfee was invited to join a Federal Trade Commission
(FTC) committee to develop voluntary business guidelines for weight-loss programs such as
Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. "The diet program folks are nervous about this.
Theyre afraid theyll be out of business if people see the true costs of the
programs. For example, Jenny Craig advertises twenty pounds for $20. But if you buy
everything you need to follow through with the program, it costs you over $1000.
"People who are fat are desperate to be as thin as
possible to avoid social prejudice and gain social privilege. The problem we face is that
the behavior of many physicians and weight-loss programs has been so unscrupulous that we
doubt they have either the ability or desire to assess the risks to some people in some
"This project has been quite an experience for me.
At the first meeting of the Voluntary Guidelines Committee, I sat at a table with the FTC
and all the big diet program companies. We argued for three solid hours about whether to
disclose the educational or professional backgrounds of company representatives who work
with consumers. To this day, I have no idea what their objections really were."
WE ALL KNOW that myths and stereotypes about fat people abound. According to McAfee, the
medical profession is responsible for inventing as well as maintaining many of the
misconceptions that lead to the mistreatment of fat individuals. One misconception is that
all our bodies are the same: that we all experience hunger and satiety in the same way and
have the same metabolic processes. Thus if someone is thin, the assumption is that she has
more discipline. McAfee explains, "Scientists now know that this is not true, yet
this myth continues to be an important basis for size prejudice and discrimination."
Such untruths persist because of societys
unwillingness to let go of archaic beliefs. For instance, many people think, despite
mounting evidence to the contrary, "that all large people are on the verge of death,
simply because of their size." Other popular stereotypes by the medical establishment
that have seeped their way into public opinion: all fat people have various psychological
disturbances and develop diabetes, hypertension, heart trouble, and hemorrhoids. Fat women
are infertile, give birth to deformed babies, and have irregular or no menstrual periods.
And, McAfee adds, "My own personal favorite is that were never sexually active
and therefore dont need birth control.
"Like the majority of others in our society, health
care professionals hold beliefs that express our cultures contempt for fat people.
We are seen as intrinsically unhealthy. Its gotten so oppressive that it seems as if
thin people are presented as the healthy master race and fat people are the sick, inferior
This is evident from the horror stories McAfee tells of
in her BBW article. Here are a few examples:
A twenty-two-year-old woman is raped. While waiting for
treatment in the emergency room, she hears two doctors arguing about who has to examine
her "fat, disgusting body" and joking about whether her genitals are as fat as
the rest of her. "People seem to feel," says McAfee, "that they have
permission to act as though we are invisible and without feelings."
A womans gynecologist palpates her abdomen so hard
that it becomes uncomfortable for her. His response: "Well, if you werent so
damn fat, this wouldnt hurt. This is your problem, not mine!"
A child reports that her pediatrician threatened her the
last time she was there: "Youre too fat. If you dont lose weight,
Im going to put you in the hospital."
One woman reports that her fertility specialist is a bit
confused. First he tells her that having a baby at her size would be irresponsible, that
she is "far too big" to safely carry a baby, and that she should use birth
control until she loses at least one hundred pounds. Then he says that she cant
possibly ovulate at her size and will not even be able to get pregnant until she loses
"We are told that we have our ailments because we
are fat and that if we lose weight, our medical problems will disappear. While weight loss
may help many conditions, we are sometimes given diet advice instead of the testing or
treatments we need."
This substandard health care, McAfee believes,
contributes to the higher mortality rates of larger people.
Another contributor to mortality rates is avoidance of
health care. When large patients (especially women) are verbally attacked by their
doctors, they simply stop going for examinations or treatment. McAfee says, "We are
forced to suffer severe verbal abuse from angry and contemptuous physicians who seem to
blame every condition we have on obesity. This abuse ranges from Take this medicine
with food, which shouldnt be a problem for you, to stopping a patients
young son on the street and telling him, Your mother is going to die because
she wouldnt go on a liquid diet, to telling a woman during a bungled gynecology
exam, Well, probably no man would touch you, anyway."
McAfee recalls, "Ive been yelled at and told
I was subhuman many times. Whats interesting about this is that at a certain point,
it all becomes totally internalized. Even if a nurse or doctor doesnt say anything,
the scale becomes the judge, which is one of the reasons fat people avoid medical
According to David B. Allison, Ph.D., a noted obesity
researcher and assistant professor at Columbia University whom McAfee quotes in her BBW
article, research indicates that women larger than a certain size are less likely to
receive certain kinds of preventive health care. He says, "Some of this may have to
do with the direct results of discrimination on the part of health care providers, and
some of it may have to do with the discomfort of large women with seeking medical care in
general or certain medical procedures in particular."
McAfee says that it is imperative that the medical
profession begin to realize the part it plays in supporting and promoting societys
prejudices. Its also imperative that researchers and health care professionals stop
blaming the victims.
"Medical prejudice is something many of us
encounter in our lives. How we handle it can make the difference between life and death.
Both sides have to be involved in solving the problem. The medical profession has to study
the problem and find ways of educating physicians and other health care workers. Women of
size have to become aware that the problem is a social one, not a personal one, and
continue to seek, and insist on, good health care."
In her statement given to the National Institutes of
Health panel on methods for voluntary weight loss and control in 1992, McAfee spoke of her
amazement at the inconsistency between knowledge and practice in the field of obesity
research. "We know that diets dont work, yet we continue to prescribe them and
act as if there is only one cause of obesity, only one path this so-called disease can
take, and only one treatment."
That was 1992. Today, diets still breed at a furious
rate and continue to fail their devotees. Says McAfee, "Body size is not about
dieting. Its about understanding individually who we are, where we come from
environmentally, what our genetic potentials are, and our basic biology. How do we manage
who we are in ways that make us happy and comfortable? For many of us, thats not
ever going to involve dieting.
"Ive gotten in touch with my issues around
nutrition. The whole concept of nutrition was perpetrated on me by the diet industry.
Ive had to learn to give my body what it needs, not deny my body. That is something
new for me. My growing-up years were about taking away from my body. Now, nutrition is not
at all about cutting out foods, but about adding foods that my body needs. If I care about
myself as a person and I want to take care of myself, I will give my body what it needs,
not take away things that other people think I dont need."
When Redux and fen-phen came out, they were all the
rage. Now, we find that the drugs have injured the health of many of their users, in some
cases irreversibly. In the Council on Size & Weight Discriminations statement to
the public about its legal suit against the FDA to stop the sale of Redux and fen-phen
based on insufficient testing of the drugs, McAfee wrote, "Fat people in this country
often live very painful lives. We face the effects of prejudice and discrimination because
of the size of our bodies. Most of the sales of these drugs have been to people who were
seeking to escape this prejudice by whatever means necessary. I often receive mail from
people who tell me they dont care if these drugs kill them, as long as they can be
thinner, even for a while."
Why arent the diet drugs working? According to
McAfee, some are very outdatedthough the current market hype might lead us to
believe that theyre newand some have only a temporary effect. "The older
drugs, which are more than twenty-five years old, work on the dopamine model. The body
develops a tolerance to them and overcomes them. The newer drugsthe serotonin
reuptake inhibitors like Zoloft and Prozachave an anorectic effect in the beginning,
but as soon as your bodys weight maintenance mechanism kicks in, it overcomes the
drugs weight-loss effect. We admit that we dont understand the basic
mechanisms involved in obesity, yet we continue to develop drugs based on our imperfect
knowledge and on our stereotypes about fat people and how we eat."
One of the personal truths that McAfee holds most dear
is that there is no helpful stereotype, no matter where it comes from. After years of
addressing the stereotypes that society at large holds about fat people, she is now asking
the fat community to examine the stereotypes that we hold about our own. "We act as
if all fat people are healthy and eating in healthy ways. We act as if there are no
diseases or disorders we are subject to as fat people.
"On the other hand, in the publics mind, all
fat people have eating disorders. Fat and compulsive overeating have become
synonymous. It has long been a fight of mine to get the medical profession to see that,
for some people, genetics have dictated that we have a certain body size, and that the
amount we eat is appropriate to our size: it is not overeating."
Nor is obesity a disease, says McAfee. "The medical
profession sees obesity as a disease. I see it as a made-up word. In the Fat Underground,
we used to say, Dieting is the cure that doesnt work for the disease that
doesnt exist. Would I say that there are some people who have a disease or
defect? Yes. But do I, just because Im fat? No. My cholesterol is low, I have no
diabetes. Not everyone whos fat has a disease. Obesity in itself is not an
Neither is it a mental disorder, McAfee says, reflecting
on her experiences with psychotherapy. "For many of us, therapists are just another
way our culture enforces its standards of acceptable body size. I was taught early in life
that because I was fat, I was mentally ill. The all-knowing therapist could help me
understand why I was so aberrant, so willful as to want to eat."
So what is the truth when it comes to fatness?
"There are three aspects of being fat: genetics,
basic biology, and environment. Genetics is the background. For instance, I probably would
not be fat in a starving country, but I might be among the last to die of malnutrition.
For people who are fat because of basic biology, when they lose weight, their bodies do
everything to gain it back. As for environment, ask yourself if you grew up in a family
that withheld food. That would make food much more important to you than it should have
been. Or were you force fed? These environmental influences can have varying effects on
what and how much we eat."
Despite the efforts of the size-acceptance movement to
downplay the health risks of being supersize, McAfee has come forth about her problems
with both sleep apnea, a disorder in which the sufferer stops breathing at times during
sleep and is thus fatigued during waking hours, and with obesity hypoventilation syndrome,
a problem with exhaling. It has become difficult to breathe when she moves around a lot or
has to stand to give lectures. She explains, "While some thin people do get this, the
vast majority of people who have these problems are fat. Originally, I went to a pulmonary
specialist who told me, Things dont work right. You have to lose a hundred
pounds, at least, or youll die. That was it. He didnt even give me the
name of the condition. I had to do my own research. When I found out that sleep apnea was
associated with the hypoventilation problem, I decided to get my sleep apnea fixed. I had
to work on my HMO to pay for it, which they did, and thats when I went to Virginia
to the hospital-based program that I knew from my research would give me unprejudiced
health care. Unfortunately, that program is no longer in existence.
"When I was told that the only thing I could do for
the hypoventilation syndrome was to lose weight, I knew that it was a death sentence.
Telling me that all I have to do is lose one hundred pounds and keep it off is the same
thing as telling me that Im going to die and theres nothing to be done. There
was no way for me to lose one hundred pounds and keep it off. I knew that from my life. I
knew that from the research Id done on obesity. To me, thats just like saying,
Go home and die. And thats what happens to a lot of people: they go home to a very
long, slow death."
After her many years of involvement with size-acceptance
and medical activism, and after working so diligently to dispel the myths and stereotypes
that abound when it comes to fatness and illness, you might think that McAfee would have
balked at the suggestion that she had a physical disorder associated with obesity.
"It didnt bother me to find out that my obesity was causing some physical
problems, because Im aware that a lot of things are associated with obesity.
Im not going to feel ashamed about not being in perfect health. Why should I be
defensive about this? Why should I be ashamed?"
McAfee was also dismayed to find out several years ago
that she has an eating disorder. "I stopped pretending that I ate the exact amount of
food my body needed, and realized that I ate a lot of food. I also found that I
didnt make the food choices that I would have liked to make. I came to really
understand the effect that my history of dieting had on my choices. When I realized all
this, I really began to mourn for my past. I looked at it differently. Instead of fighting
my weight and being defensive about it, I really mourned the person I could have been. For
the dying I had done. For the life that I had had, and the easier life I could have
had. I really got angry about the extent of the damage that had been done to me. Undoing
diet damage is like telling a rape victim that everything will be all right. Everything
will never be all right again. I will never be the person I would have been if I
hadnt spent all those years dieting. I can never go back and undo that damage:
its not possible. The best I can hope to do is manage that damage a little
McAfees discovery that she has an eating disorder
came about when she checked into the hospital program to help her lose the small amount of
weight that might improve her sleep and breathing conditions. "For the first time in
my life, I was in a medical setting that was free of fat phobia and fat prejudice. This
positive atmosphere enabled me to stop fighting the compulsive overeating
stereotype and look at the truth about myself, rather than relying on what others said
about me. What I learned in my five weeks in a program that included anorexic and bulimic
women and men is that my eating disorder is a function of the dieting oppression I
suffered as a child. Anorexic and bulimic people are also responding to our fatphobic
culture, and they understand that our struggle and theirs are tied. In a sense, my eating
disorder was as appropriate a response as I could have had to my living situation. I have
a disordered relationship to food as a result of the cultural overlay thats been put
on me as a fat woman."
In a speech at the 1992 NAAFA convention, McAfee talked
about a girl she met while in the hospital. "Her name is Brandy and she is twelve
years old. She is a beautiful, sweet, loving fat girl who is harassed at home and at
school because of her size. The staff told her that she is okay the way she is and that
she should never diet again. She was taught to accept herself and to feel good about who
she is, regardless of what she weighs. I cried for the little girl in me who never
heard that she was okay, for the little girl who spent her life feeling like a failure no
matter how much she accomplished, because she couldnt get thin. When I look at all
the scars I have on my mind, body, and soul from a childhood of dieting, I vow not to let
another generation of fat children suffer in silence."
McAfee asks us, "Do our childhood scars have to
doom us to a second-rate life? Do we have to accept the stereotypes of a world that thinks
we are all unhealthy binge eaters? Do we have to accept the size-acceptance rhetoric that
says we are all healthy?"
For most of us, she says, the truth can be found
somewhere between the two extremes. And it is only when we find our own truth that we can
truly begin to define ourselves and set a course toward health and happiness. It is only
then that we will have the strength to demand the medical care we need, to feel good about
taking care of our nutritional needs, to give up any fears or guilt we have about eating,
and to be as strong and powerful as we need to be to succeed as individuals and as a
Recent studies by obesity researchers reveal that most fat people with uncomplicated
obesity do not live longer if they lose weight. Still, the latest balloon of weight-loss
"magic" has been released, and it floats above the U.S. public: a new diet drug
called Meridia. Just as news of the new drug arrives on the scene, another news report
claims that there are 25 percent more "overweight" adults than was previously
counted. The diet industry and medical profession are no longer using height and weight
charts, but are now turning to a new system for determining "ideal" weight: the
body mass index (BMI), which yields an increase in the number of those who are termed
Where is Lynn McAfee in all this?
In her early activist days, she was most interested in
saying what she believed and getting her principles out to the world. Now, though,
shes more interested in hearing what other people have to say. How is what they say
different from what she believes? she asks herself. Then she asks herself, What is right
and what is wrong with both belief systems? "Then," she says, "I try to
find ways to move our opponent just an inch along the continuum toward what I
see as the truth, or perhaps a new version of the truth that is an amalgam of the
information to which we all have access."
What she wants is movement. "Movement and
change," she says, "no matter how small." ©
Lynn McAfee can be reached at
Lynnweb@hotmail.com, or write to her c/o CSWD,
P.O. Box 305, Mt. Marion, NY 12456.
lives in Connecticut with her two cat-sons. She teaches creative writing and college
composition in Connecticut and New York.