Weighty Issues In The Media
From our Fall 1996 issue
These past three months have been incredibly full of news, both good and bad, and I'll attempt to report the highlights. With this column, I will now be including coverage of some news items derived from the several size-oriented groups on the Internet.
News of books and magazines: The hottest item is probably the new book Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health by Glenn A. Gaesser, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist. The book will be out in September and is published by Fawcett Colombine Books. Dr. Gaesser is associate professor in the Department of Human Services, University of Virginia. I was given a chance to read the galleys of this book and found it to be somewhere between Dieter's Dilemma, a classic written a decade ago by William Bennett, M.D., and Joel Gurin, and Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader's muckraking expose of General Motors in the 1960s.
Dr. Gaesser's well-written book fires all its artillery directly at the old diet/weight-loss mentality, and proposes exercise and healthy eating as a substitute. He is profitness and prowellness, and has a live-and-let-live attitude about body weight. Partly because of his credentials, and partly because the book contains so much easy-to-read documentation, it will be taken seriously and could further damage the diet industry. When I asked Dr. Gaesser whether he is prepared to do battle during all the publicity and TV and radio talk shows that will be coming his way, he said that he was looking forward to it!
Big Fat Lies carries an introduction by a man mentioned in this column past summer: epidemiologist Steven Blair, Ph.D., of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. Dr. Blair is an antidiet profitness advocate who has said (in the May/June 1996 Health magazine) that "healthy bodies come in all shapes." Blair was interviewed in Health magazine as part of its response to the much-publicized Harvard "nurses' study," which argues that just twenty "extra" pounds can be deadly. In contrast, Blair's own study, conducted throughout a period of ten years, shows that fat men who exercise regularly live as long as thin men - and that thin men who are out of shape are nearly three times more likely to die young than are fat men who exercise. The Health article also devoted three paragraphs to the work of Pat Lyons, co-author of Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women, and it quoted such size-acceptance allies as C. Wayne Callaway, M.D.
Dr. Blair is currently part of a group that is drafting the Surgeon General's report on health and physical activity, to be delivered in late summer. If Blair's other writing is any indication, this report could be useful in combating former Surgeon General Koop's ridiculous "Shape Up America" campaign.
Another recent book, Love Your Looks: How to Stop Criticizing and Start Appreciating Your Appearance by Carolynn Hillman, C.S.W., was published in January by Fireside Books (Simon & Schuster). The title of the book, written for women, pretty much speaks for itself. I found it easy to read and especially liked the two chapters on weight: "Fat: Fears, Fables, and Facts" and "Weight - Loving All of You." It also has a good resource list, is well documented, and costs only twelve bucks. Ms. Hillman has been on TV and radio to promote the book, but other than TV's Real People, is still waiting for more national media exposure. Something I particularly like about the book: It was written by a long-time reader of Radiance and of this column! (You see, dear reader, you are in great company.)
Daniel Pinkwater is the author of many books, including Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights, and The Afterlife Diet. Pinkwater, a large man who is a well-known critic of diets and who refers to his size matter-of-factly in his occasional National Public Radio commentaries, was criticized by some on the Internet after his recent decision to lose some weight prior to a surgical procedure. He responded to his critics by declaring his right to be whatever size of large he needed to be for health reasons. After the surgery, he proclaimed himself a healthy man at 399 pounds. He says he owes his health to eating good stuff and avoiding the bad. He also says that "eating a healthier diet" and "dieting" are two very different concepts. I couldn't agree more.
The book Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes by Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin (featured in Radiance, Summer 1994) continues to make the news. Photos and text from this book of wonderful nudes will be exhibited at a show on women photographers at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography this September and October. Here's a gem I recently learned: There was a period during which one book distributor reported that Women En Large was outselling Susan Powter's Stop the Insanity!
I now believe that if supermarket checkout counters didn't exist, many magazines and tabloid newspapers would cease publication, and good riddance! Take the May issue of Cosmopolitan, featuring the cover story "Cosmo's Update on Eating Disorders - The Diet Crazes That Can Destroy You." I opened the issue with baited breath and hope in my heart. Was Cosmo reversing the twenty-five-year tradition of founder Helen Gurley Brown that only skin and bones are sexy? Alas. The article was just a review of the well-known health hazards of anorexia and bulimia and gave the readers no insight into why young women might be vulnerable to these illnesses. No wonder the cover of this issue, like all others, displayed another emaciated model. Cosmo will have to do more if they wish to offset the damage they have done to the body image of two or three generations of female readers.
If you ignore Cosmo (I try!), there have been some good cover stories this year. Back in January, McCalls' published "Naked Truth: Would He Love You Fat?" The piece, by Marty Klein, Ph.D., was illustrated with a zaftig woman and an admiring man. According to Klein, a woman's self-esteem is more important to a good sexual relationship than is the man's particular taste, in most cases. Makes sense to me. The same magazine published, in April, the cover headline: "The Dangers of Dieting" and took a moderate stance on the subject, concluding that if a woman must diet, she should do so moderately, eating no less than 1750 calories if her weight is constant at 2000 calories. Well, that will work for only a few, but it will do far less harm than very low calorie diets (VLCDs) of 400�800 or even 1200 calories.
What can we make of the controversial March issue of Allure magazine? The cover story, "They're Here, They're Huge, and They're Not Happy: Fat Women Speak Out," was not worded in an encouraging way (huge is very judgmental), so when I opened the magazine and was confronted with photos of somewhat grim-looking supersized women, I braced myself for horrible text. The text wasn't too bad, but it was clear that the editorial staff didn't know what to do with the topic. Overall, the piece left a negative impression, despite the fact that some valid points were made by the author, Judith Newman. The worst part of the article was the photos. One subject, a NAAFA member named Haley Hertz, wrote of her experience in Dimensions magazine in April. Ms. Hertz gave a plausible account of the treachery and false promises of the photographer, Mary Ellen Mark. Ultimately, the magazine used a photo that Mark had promised not to use. Apparently, Ms. Mark hates fat and probably hated the assignment as well.
The May issue of Weight Watchers magazine published the results of their weight discrimination survey, written by Esther Rothblum, Ph.D., of the University of Vermont, with whom many Radiance readers are already familiar. This well-done piece brought to the attention of WW readers what most of us already know: that employment discrimination is rampant and pervasive. Except for the headline writer's "Does Overweight Hold You Back?," which implied that your weight rather than society was to blame, the article and the editor's comments at the beginning were enlightened.
An important piece appeared on March 5 in the Wall Street Journal. In a column titled "Managing Your Career," author Hal Lancaster told how to battle petty stereotypes in the workplace. The first of several topics was fat people in the workplace. To summarize his advice, which was nonjudgmental about how one got to be fat: dress well and "stress accomplishments that demonstrate self-control and determination, such as earning a master's degree at night." He was quoting Eric Rambusch, coauthor of Overcoming Interview Objections.
There are also the "niche" publications that the public rarely gets to see. The April cover of Journal of NIH Research, which I get to see when I am working as a biomedical engineer, was illustrated with a gorgeous color shot of the Venus of Willendorf. The featured topic was "Fat and Female Fertility." With this coming so soon after the fat mouse cover I mentioned in my most recent column, I have begun to wonder about the editor: Is she one of us?
In an obvious jab at Susan Powter, another Radiance reader of this column, Kathleen Barron Wasden, wrote, "Stop the Real Insanity" in Professional Counselor magazine last December. This excellent piece concluded that "counselors who are encouraging weight loss as the path to self, family and societal acceptance are doing their clients a great disservice." Amen.
Ms. Wasden manages a natural food store called Healthway in Lakeland, Florida, and she maintains a size-acceptance section in one part of the store. If this movement had 1000 more Wasdens, there is nothing we couldn't accomplish!
A perceptive piece about size discrimination in employment and society in general appeared in Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association, past January. The article, "Struggling to Be Accepted by Self and Society," extensively quoted Carrie Hemenway, a career counselor at Smith College and a director of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination; Dr. Esther Rothblum, author of several studies involving fat people; author Cheri Erdman, Ph.D., of the College of DuPage; and Sally Smith and Lynn Meletiche of NAAFA. All these women have been featured in the pages of Radiance. The piece concluded with Erdman's guidelines for therapists and counselors who treat fat people.
I would give a mixed review to the article "Weighing the Difference," which appeared this past January in Energy Times magazine. Generally complimentary toward the "antidiet movement," it attributed what a person weighs mostly to genetic factors and was critical of drug use for weight loss. But in the end, it extolled the benefits of something called garcinia cambogia, a fruit from India that apparently acts as an appetite suppressant to help some people lose weight "naturally." Might work, might not. Can't tell: the claim was not supported by any evidence to speak of. But then, Energy Times is not a peer-reviewed journal. (But let's be honest: The peer-reviewed journals can't always be counted on to speak the truth, either!)
Now, on to show business, sports in particular. Well, the media had a field day with the death of national league baseball umpire John McSherry on April 1. He was said to have weighed between 325 and 380 pounds and had a history of health problems. The league had been pushing all umpires to keep their weight down, but the umpires' union had refused to allow a weight clause in their contracts. McSherry collapsed and died on the field during a televised opening game in Cincinnati. The event was played and replayed by TV news throughout the country. Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote that "too many umpires resemble blimps." Fortunately, the man's obituary and coverage of his funeral in the Times was more dignified and nonjudgmental, stating that he was remembered as a man whose large body "was dwarfed by his sense of humor and love for baseball."
Some commentators have said that was McSherry's physical condition, not his weight, that should have been noted before the tragedy. One, Stan Fishler, writing in the small-town paper, the Kingston (N.Y.) Freeman, observed that the media circus was regrettable, and that telecasters should not have shown McSherry's collapse in such explicit detail. There was talk on the Internet that McSherry had tried to diet several times at the Duke University weight-loss clinic. If it is true that McSherry was a yo-yo dieter, then there's a pretty good chance that it was repeated dieting, not the weight itself, that damaged his cardiovascular health. Unfortunately, as usual, this possibility was lost in the media shuffle.
One week later, the Times reported that umpire Eric Gregg, said to weigh 325 pounds, went on a leave of absence to "take a serious look at my weight and conditioning." The leave was supposedly voluntary, but endorsed by the league president and the head of the umpires' union.
On to the mad, mad world of TV and its advertising. Calvin Klein, well known (and criticized) for his ads of marginal taste that use young, skinny teens and preteens wearing his jeans, ran ads in April for his new cologne. These showed young people of different races, genders, and sizes, including large women. This is probably not a trend. Klein likes to shake up viewers, and will do anything if it isn't orthodox. These new ads aren't enough to offset Klein's "waif" look, typified by the seemingly anorexic model Kate Moss.
Unfortunately, the only message that the fashion industry, as a whole, understands is money. Most in the industry hate large-size fashions, but some will create them or will use large people in ads if forced to do so by the booming market for generous sizes. Calvin Klein is one of the many arbiters of fashion who would probably prefer that big people vanish. Fortunately, such designers are s-l-o-w-l-y being replaced by younger, more liberated types.
TV is moving faster. Have you seen Touched by an Angel on CBS, starring Della Reese, among others? In April, New York Times reviewer Caryn James wrote of the show (April 27) that "Ms. Reese is its soul and greatest strength."
Check out nineteen-year-old Lori Beth Denberg, the supersized actress who has two regular roles on Snick (short for Saturday Night Nick) on the Nickelodeon channel, for youngsters. This version of Saturday Night Live for kids has received good reviews, and a large, full-color photo of Ms. Denberg appeared in the TVjust a few years ago.
There's been some progress in Hollywood, too, although it's got a long way to go. Lots of people in size acceptance seem to feel that actress Rosie O'Donnell is not big enough to be worth mentioning. Yet, at her size, she is far from being the stereotypical Hollywood star, and she is increasingly visible in films and television. We shouldn't ignore her. She is often used to promote films in which she is only one of several actresses. Take, for example, Beautiful Girls, which opened in March. My focus here is that her face, notably chubbier than any other in the cast, was used in many print ads promoting the film. This would not have happened in the Hollywood of old. Personally, I like O'Donnell in her various roles.
Take another example, that of Loretta Devine, the largest of four black actresses who starred in the movie Waiting to Exhale. In the film, Ms. Devine, described by New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden (December 22, 1995) as a "woman of some girth," is the only one of the four who ends up finding "Mr. Right." This movie could not have been made ten years ago.
If you've had trouble fitting into theater seats and don't see movies until they reach cable or video rental stores, take heart. This should change within a few years. In April, according to Bloomberg Business News, the United Artists Theater Circuit agreed to modify or renovate its 420 theaters by the year 2001. The agreement came after investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which began receiving complaints of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) back in 1992, directed at UA theaters, as well as other chains. The complaints, as well as a lawsuit, apparently originated in California. Such renovations may be limited to the removal of some seats to allow room for wheelchairs or folding chairs and the addition of ramps, but some theaters are installing bench seating without armrests. I'll report on this more in the future.
Let's get into the complex issue of health. Here's a follow-up to my most recent column, in which I wrote about the troubles Procter & Gamble are having with their new but tainted fake fat, Olestra. I say "tainted," because people are reluctant to try it, what with its warning label and all. In February, New York's Village Voice newspaper, not traditionally a friend of fat people, declared Olestra to be the "latest diet scam." In May, the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest announced that they had established a toll-free number (1-888-OLESTRA) to receive complaints from people suffering problems caused by eating the new Frito-Lay snack foods, laced with Olestra which are available in some cities. Michael Jacobson, the group's executive director, who had opposed the FDA approval, was quoted by the New York Times (May 9, 1996) as saying, "The public needs to know that Frito-Lay and Procter & Gamble are using them as guinea pigs for the food industry in sales tests." I couldn't have said it better myself!
Even more seriously, in previous columns I have written about the impending approval of the diet drug dexfenfluramine (Redux) by the FDA. This approval has now formally taken place, and the antidiet movement is bracing itself for an onslaught of promotion, for fat people becoming guinea pigs once again, and of health complications down the road that can only be imagined now.
Did the movement do enough to oppose this approval? Well, many groups opposed it, including ours (Lynn McAfee of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination actually spoke at the second meeting of the approval committee). Many of the opposing groups are not even in the antidiet or size acceptance movements. Apparently, stopping Redux was like trying to stop a freight train. Lynn feels that the one thing that probably persuaded the FDA to give final approval was the estimate of 300,000 deaths a year in the United States supposedly caused by obesity.
Dexfenfluramine appears to have the potential for deadly long-term side effects for some people, especially primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH) and neurotoxicity (irreversible brain damage). FDA approval was obviously premature. Although media coverage was mostly uncritical, I was pleased to see ABC-TV's Prime Time Live on May 8. This show, which has often been accused of sensationalism, did a fairly dignified, balanced expos� of the drug, including the forty deaths per year in France attributed to the drug and an interview with a young American woman who, after losing thirty pounds, now has contracted PPH and may have only three years to live. The show even sent a size 8 reporter to interview two diet doctors: she had no trouble getting them to prescribe the drug to help her get even smaller!
Before you allow yourself or any friend to be talked into trying this medication, you should read the list of concerns that Lynn McAfee brilliantly wrote for some Internet user groups. To obtain a free copy, you can send a stamped, self-addressed envelope (the postage is for less than one ounce, 32 cents in the United States) to Council on Size & Weight Discrimination, P.O. Box 305, Mt. Marion, NY, 12456.
I would like to thank the many readers who send me news items (clippings, transcripts, even videotapes) for use in this column. Special thanks goes to Harry Gossett and his wife for the great stuff they have been sending me for years, in particular items from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Smithsonian magazine.
WILLIAM J. FABREY is a director of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination. He also helps run Amplestuff, the mail-order company. He is credited with having founded NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) in 1969, serving in its leadership until 1990. News items can be sent to him at P.O. Box 116, Bearsville, NY 12409.
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