by William J. Fabrey
From Radiance Spring 1998
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 transportation.
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 children.
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 need them?
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 moms-to-be!
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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