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--- By Carole Cullum, J.D.

From Radiance Spring 2000

an Francisco fat activist Marilyn Wann did this incredible thing in February 1999. She energized the fat community in the San Francisco Bay Area to demonstrate outside of a 24-Hour Fitness facility for its fatphobic billboard (see Radiance, Winter 2000, for the whole story). As a result of the tremendous press coverage of this demonstration, the office of San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano contacted the protest’s core organizers to arrange a hearing with the city’s Human Rights Commission. The meeting explored the need to expand the rights provided to fat people under existing antidiscrimination laws of the city and county of San Francisco. Our goal was to introduce an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on weight and body type.

For three months, our core group—Marilyn Wann, Sondra Solovay, Frances White, Jo Kuney, and I—conducted research and contacted other states and cities that had passed similar laws. Then, prior to the hearing, we presented the San Francisco Human Rights Commission with a proposal for how the city’s existing law could be easily amended to prohibit discrimination against fat people in housing, employment, and public accommodations. We leafleted the community up to a month before the hearing date, asking for people to contact us, to submit their stories, and to support this effort.

Ours was the first item on the Human Rights Commission agenda on June 10, 1999. We came with many supporters! Each speaker had up to seven minutes to talk. Marilyn Wann spoke about debunking the weight-loss myth. Pat Lyons spoke of prejudices that create barriers to health care. Professor Joanne Ikeda spoke about her experience as the California Health Department expert on teen obesity, where she came to realize the tremendous impact that prejudice has on fat teenagers, sometimes leading to depression and suicide. Dan Kelly, M.D., a pediatrician and member of the San Francisco School Board, sent a letter to the commission supporting the proposed law, citing the impact our cultural obsession with thinness has on kids. Arthur Jackson, a private employment recruiter, talked about the pervasiveness of fat discrimination by employers and his agency’s commitment to fighting that discrimination. Frances White of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) spoke about her experiences of employment discrimination, as did Carol Volansky. Sondra Solovay shocked the commission when she played a radio ad encouraging fat people’s mutilation of their bodies by submitting to weight-loss surgery so that they can fit society’s idea of appropriate body size. Margarita Rossi, a sixteen-year-old high school student, spoke movingly about her experiences as a fat teen and the discrimination that she experienced at school (see her talk, page 33). As Rossi spoke, the room was absolutely quiet. I could see tears in the eyes of several commissioners. My own discussion in front of the commission focused on public accommodations and the importance and very low cost involved in providing suitable access to schools, restaurants, theaters, courts, and so on.

This hearing took about an hour. The commissioners unanimously approved sending a request to the Board of Supervisors for a change in the city and county laws. The matter is presently in committee, and we expect a response from the Board of Supervisors within a few months.

It is vital for groups in every community to approach their human rights commission and city council people and ask for hearings to evaluate and update antidiscrimination laws. It takes a tremendous amount of courage, but once the issue is brought up, it’s incredibly energizing and self-affirming for everyone involved. We want to bring positive results to the community. We fat people talk about wanting change, but unless we get out there and state our demands, those changes will never happen. ©


CAROLE CULLUM is a certified family law specialist in practice in San Francisco with her law partner, Cheryl Sena. She was appointed by Mayor Willie Brown to the Board of Appeals, where she acted as president for two years and continues to serve today. She is very involved in her local Democratic Club and believes that activism is an absolute requirement for social change. She lives in San Francisco with her domestic partner, Kathy, and her two dogs, Sandy and Sally. Carole was the subject of a Radiance cover story in our sixth issue, Winter 1986. E-mail Carole at cullumsena@aol.com.


A plus-size teenager speaks on size acceptance to
San Francisco's Human Rights Commission


From Radiance Spring 2000

y name is Margarita Rossi. I am sixteen years old today. I live in Daly City. I attend the School of the Arts in San Francisco, where I just completed my sophomore year.

Last year, I had a health concern that was scaring both my mother and me. I sought advice from my regular physician at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. He referred me to a gynecologist. The first available appointment was two months later.

During that appointment, the nurse practitioner made repeated comments and inquiries about my weight, even though I told her up front that I was not interested in weight-loss advice. I lead a very healthy and active life. I exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet. Although the nurse practitioner got information about my symptoms, she did not perform a gynecological exam. What worried me most was that I left the appointment with no diagnosis and no treatment for my health concern. She told me it was nothing, even though she had barely examined me.

I would like to mention several comments the nurse made during my appointment that led me to believe that my weight was a bigger priority for her than my wellness. First, she offered to recommend diet plans and told me I could talk with her in the future if I ever wanted to try to lose weight. She spent a lot more time on this than she did on examining me. Secondly, she did perform a breast exam, even though it had nothing to do with my health concern. During this exam, she said she couldn’t be certain of detecting any problems because of “the extra fatty tissue.” (Whatever that means!) Finally, she continued to make comments about my weight after I told her I wasn’t interested in talking about it.

If I were the type of teenager who had less confidence about body image, this nurse’s comments would have made me feel very bad about myself and very unwilling to go to the doctor again. But since I am very secure about my body, I just got very annoyed and angry that this health professional basically refused to help me and lectured me about something that had nothing to do with my specific problem.

In the end, I had to make another appointment and had to pay more for it. During this appointment, I received a real gynecological exam. I was told that I did have a genuine health problem that needed treatment. I learned that I had probably had this condition for many months, and that I had certainly had it when I went to the previous appointment. At long last, I received proper treatment, which included medication, and I got better.

I hate to think that other teenage girls in San Francisco might suffer what I went through just to get basic medical care. I worry that other girls in my situation would have given up, would never have gotten treated, and might have developed lower self-esteem or even depression in addition to health complications as a result of a lack of real health care.

Fat people deserve the same quality of medical care that thin people deserve. We don’t need weight-loss advice instead of appropriate treatment. I urge the City of San Francisco and the Human Rights Commission to enact a ban on weight-related discrimination. ©


MARGARITA ROSSI is a sixteen-year-old activist living in San Francisco. She is interested in film and film making, art, and psychology. Currently she attends the San Francisco School of the Arts, where she studies visual arts. Margarita received some help preparing her talk from Marilyn Wann.


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