ne of my important news sources is the New York Times. I find few media sources with higher standards for accuracy and journalistic integrity. Although you will find a strong cultural bias against plus-size figures in its fashion pages, the New York Times publishes new items even on weight-related issues that are usually fair and balanced.
I have been clipping pages from the New York Times since 1955, and the truth is that it wasn’t until the 1990s that the paper published photos of and articles about ordinary fat people as a matter of course. Before the early 1990s, my New York Times archives are pretty sparse, except for a piece in 1970: the first article about NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) to appear in a major newspaper. It includes photos of fat people who are not famous, unusual for any paper in those days. If a photo of an ordinary person of size appeared, then the paper usually cropped it to minimize the image. I was always angry about this, especially when the newspaper declined to publish the photo of my supersize fiancé accompanying our engagement announcement in 1963.
For years I have wondered, What changed in the early 1990s? Why did photos of everyday fat folk start appearing, uncropped, in many cases showing poundage that would previously have been censored? On September 26, 1999, I learned the surprising answer when I read in the New York Times Review about The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times, a book by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones (Little, Brown & Co.). Tifft and Jones wrote the following about Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., born in 1951, who, as the New York Times publisher, took over the role from his father in 1992.
The book’s authors explain, “Both before and after he assumed the title of publisher in 1992, the junior Sulzberger argued passionately for greater sensitivity to women, blacks and homosexuals at the paper.”
I strongly believe that part of the editorial shift in news coverage, feature articles, and photo editing was Mr. Sulzberger’s new emphasis on sensitivity to all people who previously might have been considered insufficiently newsworthy. Other media as well have been shifting toward more serious coverage of plus-size people and news—but it hasn’t happened as dramatically as it did during the early 1990s at the New York Times!
n television a plus-size woman has caught the attention of millions of daytime soap viewers. On Days of Our Lives (NBC), actress Patrika Darbo plays the unscrupulous (but very sexy) wife of a good-looking physician. According to Darbo, her fans, many of them large women, derive a great deal of inspiration from seeing her in the role.
For fans of larger male actors, there is the show Martial Law on CBS starring BHM (big handsome man) Sammo Hung as a police officer from China now working with the Los Angeles Police Department. His size and his belly are often referred to, and he invariably outmaneuvers his opponents, showing physical prowess and stamina. Glad to see a big guy out there kicking an old stereotype to pieces!
These days we must include the Internet as one of the major media. Some people get virtually all of their news and information there. I notice that, as an America Online (AOL) user, a weight-related topic often pops up on my welcoming screen. Now and then I take the time to check it out. Sometimes it is badly done and sometimes not. A weight survey I took on September 2, 1999, was not so well handled, judging by the questions and the limited options you had in answering them. For example, for “Is obesity a medical condition or a life-style choice?” you could check only “Medical condition,” “Life-style choice,” or “Not sure.” There was no chance to check “None of the above” or “Both” or “It depends on the individual.”
A more successful example is AOL’s screen on eating disorders and body image in October 1999 with the essay “Fat and Fit at the Same Time” by Peg Jordan, R.N. Jordan turns out to be a champion of the “health at any size” philosophy. She cites Dr. Glenn Gaesser’s book Big Fat Lies, and beats the drum for taking on more physical activity while learning to accept your size and enjoy life. It was refreshing to read her essay, and very nice to know that it was accessible to millions of teens.
Also on AOL, from September 21, 1999, through October 19, 1999, a special five-part series in the Whole Woman Conference Room (a virtual chat room) was titled “How to Be a Proud Fat Chick.” Announcement of the event left no room for doubt as to its pro-size-accepting attitude. The chat was hosted by WLVRosebud@aol.com.
n the sports world, the Wall Street Journal carried a good piece on September 27, 1999, about the wet suit industry. Of interest to me was a quote from Dr. Cameron Bangs, an Oregon physician who is an expert on hypothermia. Dr. Bangs stated that in a boating disaster in cold water, “the fattest will live the longest.” He also commented that the best marathon swimmers tend to have a high body-fat content and that in his opinion, “it’s a myth that you can’t be fat and fit.” Well said.
Another sport in which fat is no handicap: weightlifting. On September 3, 1999, television’s CNN aired a story about sixteen-year-old Cheryl Haworth of Savannah, Georgia. Ms. Haworth, at five-feet-ten-inches and 296 pounds, is an Olympic-style weight lifter. She has won the Pan-American championships and become, officially, the third-strongest woman in the world (in her sport). Haworth, although fat, also has considerable muscle mass: the two, it turns out, are not incompatible. (See articles on Haworth and on women who like to lift weights in this Radiance.)
As you may know, I keep a keen eye on the performing arts. I don’t have much time to attend performances, but I always want to know what the reviewers are saying and how size affects the careers of artists. One area seems especially weighted in favor of fat performers: gospel singing! On August 24, 1999, the New York Times published a review of an August 22 concert, the Roots of American Music Festival, starring Doc Watson and the Original Clara Ward Singers. Alice Houston, sporting a foot-tall red wig, sang and danced her way around an enthusiastic audience, according to reviewer Jon Pareles. He didn’t mention her size, but the photo left little doubt that Ms. Houston is, in the classic gospel tradition, a large woman.
ctress Kathy Bates possesses skills that are increasingly well known to the public. After her part in Titanic, she’s had more job offers than she can accept. (Before her successes in Titanic and the film Primary Colors, Bates assumed that she’d have to lose weight to further her acting career.) On November 6, 1999, the New York Times reviewer Anita Gates praised ABC television’s “joyous new film” Annie, which aired on ABC November 7, in which Ms. Bates plays an evil Miss Hannigan. According to reviewer Gates, who rarely gushes, “It is Ms. Bates’s genius to make Hannigan simultaneously monstrous and sympathetic, just a victim of career frustration.” And “who knew Kathy Bates could sing and dance like a dream?” In one scene, Bates and Kristin Chenoweth “burst into song and exuberant dance in ‘Easy Street.’ They swing around desks, do a little soft-shoe on top of file cabinets, and take it into the streets.”
Here’s something from the print media: the fifteen-year-old fashion magazine called Paper, copublished in New York by Kim Hastreiter, a supersize woman. She and her business partner, David Hershkovitz, emphasize offbeat and let-it-all-hang-out reporting, unlike those “other” fashion magazine editors, who are forced to take the whole subject more seriously. According to fashion writer Alex Kuczynski in the New York Times on September 20, 1999, Paper is “street wise and fashion smart.” He give as one example its July swimsuit fashion spread in which the models were “looking more zaftig than reed thin.” According to Ms. Hastreiter, “We don’t care whether our readers are rich or poor or small or big or black or yellow or gay or straight. We just care that they are eccentric.”
I was thrilled to see the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination (CSWD www.cswd.org) quoted at length in the October 1999 issue of a newsletter called Water on Stone: Women’s Ways to Global Change. In a section titled “Loving Our Bodies,” the editors interviewed Carol Munter and Jane Hirschmann of the National Center for Overcoming Overeating (www.overcomingovereating.com) and Carolena Nericcio of FatChanceBellyDance (San Francisco, www.fcbd.com). They also mentioned other resources, including the Amplestuff mail-order catalog, the About-Face organization (feminist, positive body image projects in the media at www.about-face.org), and the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders (www.renfrew.org), among others. The newsletter’s mission is to “inspire women to use their natural gifts and talents to create a world where people can live from their deepest values” (www.wateronstone.com).
write-up of our own Radiance magazine appeared in Library Journal (July 1999). After stating correctly that Radiance is not a traditional fashion mag with plus-size models but a full life-style publication, here’s the Journal’s recommendation: “Public libraries that can afford to stock the mainstream fashion magazines owe it to patrons to buy this quarterly for balance.” Hooray!
In September 1999, US magazine’s cover story was “Stars Who Get Way Too Skinny.” Subtitled “The Incredible Shrinking Women,” it discussed the increasing pressure on TV and motion picture stars to get smaller. Did you know that starved-down starlets are known in the trade as “lollipops,” and that some feel that the pressure increased when Ally McBeal’s Calista Flockhart arrived at the Emmy Awards on September 13, 1998, and revealed her newly extremely slender body? Those who wish to be ultrathin, according to this article, include Lara Flynn Boyle of The Practice and practically all the female stars of Friends. About all this plus-size actress Kathy Najimy (Veronica’s Closet) says, “The glamorization of ghastly thinness is what’s truly frightening… If it continues, I really think we are going to see a woman drop dead on one of these television shows.” Najimy also says that she is not surprised at the incidence of extreme thinness, considering the economic pressures actresses are under from wardrobe people, fashion designers, producers, and much of the audience.
Among those who are disturbed by the superthin trend is Dr. Randi Wirth, executive director of the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association. Even Joan Rivers, former comedian, currently host of the E! network awards and fashion specials, and traditional enemy of the plus-size figure in Hollywood, is concerned. “The girls now are painfully, painfully thin,” the article quotes her as saying. If even Joan Rivers thinks they are too thin, you know something nasty is going on!
On the other side of the picture is all the success being enjoyed by larger-size actresses in show business, a trend I don’t see going away. The recent sudden increase in anorexia noted by US may be a short-lived phenomenon or even a countertrend aimed at a different market niche and different audience. My main worry is that girls in their formative preteen years will be influenced by these extremely thin role models. The best remedy may be to give up tsk-tsking about Hollywood and concentrate on programs for parents and the schools that emphasize that physical perfection and conformist beauty are not worthwhile goals for our girls.
Kudos to a newsletter from Australia titled Rosemary’s NoteBook, “for size 16 plus.” The newsletter is distributed throughout Australia and the Pacific Islands, French Polynesia, and even in the United Kingdom and here in the United States. Editor Rosemary Parry-Brock’s motto: “Womanhood should be celebrated with style—no matter what age, what size.” Ms. Parry-Brock says that she derives inspiration from Radiance. Further information can be had by writing to P.O. Box 65, Mandurah, WA 6210, Australia (phone/fax 61-89586-3074).
inger-musician Minna Bromberg credits Radiance with turning her attitude around to one of self-acceptance—when she was fifteen years old! An article and photo called “Living Large” featured Bromberg in the August 20, 1999, issue of the Chicago Reader. Bromberg is active in Chicago NAAFA events and in fat feminist meetings around the country. Bromberg says that when she is approached by strangers with diet recommendations, “I tell them that I like my body the way it is and that I’m working on other, nondieting ways to make sure that I’m as healthy as I can possibly be.”
Belle magazine (a quarterly with a focus on large black women) boasted a knockout cover photo of singer Kelly Price for its Fall 1999 issue. Price, who is twenty-six years old and somewhere between plus size and supersize, originally wanted to be a lawyer, but singing gospel music in her grandfather’s church led to her burgeoning career as a writer, singer, arranger, and producer. Soon she will preview her own line of clothes as well: the Kelly Price Collection. One of her backers is Magic Johnson, of basketball fame, who, she says, has consistently been one of her biggest fans. I must say, the man has taste.
Price says that society should learn to adjust to the fact that people come in all sizes and have different attributes: “We have to learn how to respect and appreciate” one another, she says. And she says, “There ought to be role models for everyone, skinny role models, fat ones.” I think that Ms. Price, at her young age, is already entitled to feel that she is a role model for other large women with a dream.
Check out the November 1999 issue of Ebony. Its cover model is Queen Latifah, herself a plus-size musical performer, now with her own TV talk show in syndication.
Any discussion of show business seems inevitably to lead to politics, especially when politics verges (as it so often does) on entertainment. Former wrestler turned governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura seems to keep himself in the spotlight, mainly through public controversy. His November interview in Playboy was no exception. An advance copy caused the chair of the Reform Party, Russell J. Verney, to request Ventura’s resignation from the party, according to the New York Times on October 2, 1999. Verney objected to Ventura’s remarks about “religion, sexual assault, overweight people, drugs, prostitution, women’s undergarments, and many other subjects” which “do not represent the values” of the party.
Ventura started all this by putting down the former Minnesota governor’s ex-wife (who had criticized Ventura in Mirabella magazine) for having had weight-loss surgery instead of using willpower to lose weight. Said Ventura, “What ever happened to willpower? I love fat people. Every fat person says it’s not their fault, that they have gland trouble. You know which gland? The saliva gland. They can’t push away from the table.”
The real news here is that critics of Ventura were willing to include “overweight” people in their list of groups insulted by the governor. On October 23, 1999, syndicated columnist Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, referred to us as “the single largest bipartisan constituency in the country.”
n to other kinds of publications. Barbara Deckert’s Sewing for Plus Sizes was introduced in September 1999, and I view her book as a strong piece of activism. You might not regard a sewing book as political, but the sight of models size 18, 24, and 32, including the queen-size Deckert herself on the cover, is nothing less than a political statement aimed at the traditional fashion mavens with their think-thin, let-fat-women-wear-tents mind-set. Ms. Deckert should get an award for this book. Subtitled Design, Fit, and Construction for Ample Apparel, it is published by Taunton Books (www.taunton.com) for $24.95. Order a copy or ask your local bookseller for the book if you want to sew large, attractive fashions—or even if you just want to benefit from Deckert’s fashion advice.
Sewing for Plus Sizes has been praised by everyone from Radiance editor Alice Ansfield to the Cleveland Plain Dealer (September 23, 1999). Ms. Deckert and I spoke a couple of years ago, when she was writing the book, and I found her to be in tune with the philosophy of accepting your body size and making the most of what you have—which includes dressing well regardless of what clothes manufacturers might want to throw at you.
In November 1999, a book called ZINK, written by plus-size author Cherie Bennett, was released by Delacorte Press. ZINK is said to “take an uncompromising and unsentimental look at what it is like to be young and different” and concerns a sixth-grade girl who is battling cancer. The Kirkus Reviews (read by librarians) calls it “poignant… a tale of courage personified.” Anything by Cherie Bennett, whose previous book was Life in the Fat Lane, a novel for young women, deserves our attention. (See Radiance, Spring 1999, for a profile of Bennett.)
In February (2000, that is!), size activist Sondra Solovay’s book Tipping the Scales of Justice was issued by Prometheus Books ($16.95, 227 pages). This is a history and analysis of size discrimination and the law, written in lay language we can all understand—a book long overdue. Ms. Solovay is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, and she is becoming known as the only legal specialist in weight-related cases. She has appeared on CNN’s Burden of Proof, and has been active in size-acceptance activities for several years, even before she obtained her law degree. Three cheers for Sondra!
And always an inspiration for any plus-size woman wanting to get more active, Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women, by Pat Lyons, M.A., R.N., and Debby Burgard, Ph.D., is back in print. It’s available again through www.backinprint.com, www.amazon.com, or bookstores. The authors emphasize the pleasure and enjoyment of an active, healthy life, regardless of size, and offer practical ways to overcome barriers large women often encounter in getting started.
Here’s another possibility for your reading list: Looking in the Mirror: A Workbook. The cover of the book proclaims that the book is about “exploring your relationship with food, eating and weight.” The book is self-published by the author, a plus-size psychotherapist (Linda Levinson, L.C.S.W., 8489 West Third St., Los Angeles, CA 90048; 310-202-0262). The book boasts a spiral binder and costs $17.95 plus $2.50 S/H per copy. The focus of Looking in the Mirror is achieving a healthy weight; the book encourages readers to set their own goals. Those who seek a better relationship with food and a healthier body may find this workbook a useful tool, especially when used with the help of a health care professional who has a similarly flexible attitude. People who believe that their weight has little to do with their eating or who do not want any focus on losing weight will not be helped by this book, nor will activists who object to the word “excess” next to the word “weight.”
More and more authors are finding out that traditional publishers don’t always do the job, and so, like Ms. Levinson, they are turning to self-publishing, an increasingly respectable way to go. However, if you are thinking of self-publishing, be warned: You must include an editor in your budget. Never go to press with an unedited manuscript!
Now, a look at size activism. What I most want to talk about this time is the push to get those manufacturers of automobiles who do not already make seat belt extenders for their cars to get to it! Honda is probably the most famous of the holdouts. Although the issue has been out there for two decades, with “seat belt activists” popping up now and then, the efforts of Elizabeth Fisher are exemplary.
Ms. Fisher, who is the Louisiana area facilitator for NAAFA and is based in Baton Rouge, runs the web site www.ifisher.com. Fisher has also written articles on the subject for the Healthy Weight Journal (September/October 1999) and Dimensions (September 1999). Her efforts grew out of her own anger when she found out that not only does Honda not make seat belt extenders (unlike most of the major auto companies, including Toyota), but that it refuses to even consider doing so, as a matter of corporate policy.
here is now an effort to compel Honda to reconsider. Ms. Fisher suggests that if you are riding unbelted in a Honda, then you should file a formal written complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at 400 Seventh Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20490, or call their auto safety hotline at 888-327-4236. Meanwhile, if you (including your heaviest winter coat) or any of your friends or family are supersize, you might avoid buying a Honda!
In the world of advertising, I always check out the Walmart ads and fliers. An October 2, 1999, mailing showed clothes modeled on a variety of body shapes and sizes. The folks at Walmart must have realized long ago that there are lots of plus-size people in the United States, including their customers and their own employees (both of whom get to appear in some of their ads). Walmart’s ads show real people, and there’s a 180 degree difference between their philosophy and that of the Brylane Corporation. As owner of the mail-order catalog Lane Bryant, Roamans, King-Size Co., and who knows what else, the Brylane Corporation has actually stated that its models represent customers’ fantasies, and that models shouldn’t be fat.
Well, Brylane is going against a more progressive trend I’ve been following. There’s a huge pile of catalogs in my office from suppliers who picture employees, including fat employees, in their catalogs. One example is the cover of the Fall/Winter 1999 NEBS catalog (office forms, and so on), showing a large black woman. This would never have happened in the bad old days. I am told that many other department stores around the country are starting to incorporate plus-size models in photos with slender models. A prime example of this is Mervyn’s in California. A healthy trend.
In the New York City subway system in October 1999, hundreds of subway cars sported poster ads for an employment agency specializing in jobs in health care. Six people are portrayed in the ad, doing different jobs. Of the six, four are fat. I wonder, is this an effort to represent a cross section of the New York population or an effort to recruit traditionally underpaid workers into a field that has some desirable jobs, but also many undesirable ones?
I love the billboard right off the Long Island Expressway in Woodside, Queens, New York, for an imported beer. It shows a painting of several Flemish couples partying. The women are all Rubenesque; the ad’s caption: “Grolsch—Full-Bodied Since 1685.” Seeing that brightly lit billboard when I drive out of the Queens–Midtown Tunnel on a cold night always brings a smile to my face.
On the down side of advertising, I must complain about American Greetings, which has a long history of questionable taste and insensitivity to large people. Consider their sample card, glued to a magazine page, showing a little girl blowing dandelion seeds into the air and making a wish. The sentiment printed inside reads, “May all your dreams come true.” Okay, so far. But what does the American Greetings marketing department come up with to “personalize” their ad’s appeal? In handwriting under the printed sentiment, they add the “sender’s note”: “Size 6 by July? You can do it.—Sis.”
Sure. Let’s all encourage our sisters to get down to a size 6 by July, just in time for bathing suit season. Presumably, they can hardly waddle around at their present sizes of, say, size 8 or size 10. Who do these marketing types think their customers are? I don’t buy American Greetings products when I can help it.
As usual, people sent in loads of material on weight-loss scams. I call it “scam buildup.” Cellasene in Canada was foiled by www.dietfraud.com. The Canadian government promised to crack down on Cellasene and other diet frauds. Then there’s the Denise Austin Quick Start 14 Day Diet. And the Befosan Institute Free Trial Weight Loss research program with its “AHA-6” treatment. Or Diet News Magazine, not a magazine at all, but a weight-loss promo for MillenexES (named for the millennium, would you believe it?). MillenexES is a “fat-melting pill” (!) that claims to make you look “hot and sexy without useless dieting.” Well, they got part of their claim right. You can, in fact, look hot and sexy without useless dieting. But MillenexES isn’t necessary for that!
he Renfrew Center Foundation conference on November 12–14, 1999, in Philadelphia was called Feminist Perspectives on the Process of Change: Exploring What Works and Why. Feminist views on a number of issues, including nutrition, eating disorders, and body image, were tackled by some speakers familiar to Radiance: Dr. Glenn A. Gaesser and Karin Kratina (“The Language of Advocacy: Speaking Up and Out in a Fat-Phobic World”); Dr. Debora L. Burgard, Dr. Cheri Erdman, and Pat Lyons (“Living Large: From Research to Practice”); and Dayle Hayes, R.D. (“Taming the Food Monster: Exploring Creative Approaches to Resolving Food Issues”).
We do need to take notice of health matters. Most people now agree that some physical activity is a must for those who want to stay healthy, whatever their weight. With that in mind, New Yorker Joseph Bruno set out to ride a bicycle around his neighborhood for fun and for health, but he constantly encountered well-meaning friends who assured him that bicycling was no way to eliminate his potbelly. At 250 pounds, and having survived cancer, Mr. Bruno was proud of his belly and didn’t want to eliminate it—so he started the Potbelly Cycling Association. In practically no time at all, he built up an international membership, with its own quarterly newsletter and a web site (http://members.aol.com/potbellyc). Internet-free households can call 914-747-0000 for information on how to join. His story appeared in August 1999 in the Healthy Weight Journal. Although Bruno is married to a size-acceptance activist, he didn’t think of himself as one until his bicyclingexperience.
The October 1999 issue of Pediatrics included a study concluding that kids who want to lose weight are more likely to start smoking than those who don’t. According to one author, Dr. Alison Field of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, “In both boys and girls we found children who thought about smoking were more likely to be concerned about their weight” (printed in papers nationwide on October 5, 1999, through the Associated Press Wire Service). The study examined more than sixteen thousand children, ages nine to fourteen. It confirmed that children believe what many adults believe: that smoking will help you maintain a lower weight. Actually, smoking as a weight-loss method (albeit an unhealthy and minimally effective one) has been around for sixty years.
An article on September 6, 1999, in the New York Times titled “Employers Focus on Weight as Workplace Health Issue” looked at weight as seen by employers who believe that health problems traditionally associated with obesity can be alleviated through weight-loss and on-the-job fitness programs for their employees. Some studies do show higher average medical costs for fat employees, but few diet and weight-cycling histories are available to permit any useful study of these life-style and health issues.
Some researchers, even “hard-liners” such as Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, director of obesity research at St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York, admit that, for reasons they don’t understand, some fat people are not destined to be adversely affected by their weight. In the same New York Times piece, Dr. William H. Dietz, director of the Nutrition and Physical Activity Division at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said, “People who are overfat and have a negative family history for all the ‘obesity-associated’ diseases will live to over 85 and not have any” of these diseases. “We don’t know a lot about those people.” Later, on an October 26, 1999, National Public Radio show, the same Dr. Dietz called obesity an “epidemic” in this country.
ortunately, most employers have avoided compelling workers to lose weight or giving actual rewards for losing weight, which would, of course, be discriminatory. The New York Times article of September 6, 1999, quoted Carol Johnson, head of Largely Positive in Milwaukee, an advocacy group that promotes self-esteem and health for large people. Lynn McAfee, director of medical advocacy for the CSWD, questioned the rationale of those employers who consider offering to reimburse employees for taking weight-loss drugs. She feels that the long-term safety and effectiveness of drugs currently on the market is open to question. But the last word in the article went to Dr. Glenn A. Gaesser, an exercise physiology professor at the University of Virginia and author of Big Fat Lies. He said, “If you get a person exercising more and improving their diet, their health problems may clear up, even if they don’t lose weight.” Amen.
Weight-loss drugs continue to be big business. The October 1, 1999, edition of the Wall Street Journal revealed that Hoffman-LaRoche will be spending $50 million on an advertising blitz throughout a four-month period for their newly approved drug Xenical (also known as Orlistat)—you know, the one that works by blocking some fat absorption in your intestines, with side effects similar to those of Olestra-soaked potato chips, including fecal incontinence. Hey, there’s a full-page ad for the drug in the October 11, 1999, issue of the New York Times on page 5—page 5! Let me tell you, that ain’t cheap.
We all know about how American Home Products (AHP) aggressively promoted its two diet drugs that, taken in combination (Fen-Phen), may have damaged the heart valves and caused the premature deaths of a number of people, some from primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH), a fatal illness that suffocates you slowly. According to the front page of the New York Times on October 8, 1999, AHP has agreed to pay $3.75 billion to thousands of people who say they were injured by the medication. The settlement came after a federal judge ruled on August 25, 1999, that the case could go to trial. However, on October 15, the Associated Press reported that more than eight thousand people who have sued AHP have opted out of the class action settlement and will proceed with their lawsuits. This represents an enormous potential liability to the company. Meanwhile, law firms are aggressively seeking more clients. A large ad that appeared on October 6, 1999, in the New York Times promoted the services of Goldberg & Osborne (“the injury lawyers”) to those who have taken Fen-Phen or Redux and had an adverse medical diagnosis.
The FBI has been conducting a preliminary investigation, questioning employees of AHP and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to “discover whether there is enough evidence to start a formal criminal inquiry” (New York Times, September 10, 1999). Among its concerns are that the company may have withheld evidence of valve damage and PPH in their application for approval to the FDA. Various possible improprieties are being investigated by the FBI. Stay tuned on this one.
Many of us have been concerned about a study conducted by the American Cancer Society and published on October 6, 1999, by the New England Journal of Medicine. The study of more than one million people in the United States purported to show a clear association between being overweight and a shorter life span. News articles, such as those distributed by the Associated Press on the same day, quoted hard-liners such as Dr. Jo Ann Manson, a Harvard University endocrinologist, who believe that the study “settles, once and for all, any lingering questions about whether weight alone increases the risk of death and disease.” The study concluded that there is a relationship between “excess” weight and a higher risk of dying from heart disease or cancer.
Strangely, the study also showed black women to be exceptions to the rule. Most obese black women did not have a significantly higher risk of premature death than thin black women, according to the Associated Press on October 6, 1999. Nonetheless, Dr. Manson claims that the study probably understates the risks of obesity for black women. My favorite Manson quote: “It would be really unfortunate if we became more complacent about obesity in blacks than in whites.” Manson said that she felt that black women had higher risks from poorer health care, and that the effects of obesity might be masked by such problems. At no time did she suggest that in the black community there might be less stigmatization of and stress on, larger women, or that there might be a biological reason for black women’s ability to store fat without the risks listed for white women.
And here’s another good point: although very thin people were also shown to have higher death rates than “normal” weight people, Manson never suggested that we need a national campaign to combat thinness!
Dr. Manson’s credibility has been questioned in the past, in this column and other places. Credibility aside, is there any chance that she is right in this case? Not according to Dr. Glenn A. Gaesser, who wrote on the Internet about the study’s limitations. “Very little is known about life-style, fitness, diet, diet history, current or past use of weight-loss drugs, as well as other health variables (i.e., blood pressure, lipids, insulin, etc.). So it really does little to resolve the issue of whether it is weight itself or other physical or behavioral factors that impact health and mortality.” Dr. Gaesser, as usual, would have people focus on life-style, not on weight loss. He also commented that older black women, as a group, may diet less than white women, and are more accepting of large sizes.
he entire October 27, 1999, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was devoted to weighty matters. Several papers were negative on the subject of health and weight, leaving the reader with the impression that the entire country has one (collective) foot in the grave. An editorial called for “developing a comprehensive national strategy to prevent obesity.” While we’re at it, perhaps we could develop a comprehensive national strategy to reduce poverty—which has also been linked to poor health care services.
I was happy to get Pat Lyons’s take on these questions. Lyons is project director and founder of CONNECTIONS Women’s Health Consulting Network and coauthor of Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women. She reviewed the entire JAMA issue and found “no mention of the fact that ‘treatment’ is ineffective; that weight loss does not automatically improve health;…that weight discrimination in the culture, and especially in medical care delivery, might affect health outcomes; [or] of the rise in eating disorders.” And, I might add, there was no mention of the possible effects of the weight cycling (yo-yo dieting) engaged in by almost all fat people at some time in their lives.
As for the “epidemic” of obesity, Karen W. Stimson, codirector of Largesse, the Network for Size Esteem (www.eskimo.com/~largesse) poses an interesting question: Didn’t the geniuses [my word] working for the government and the obesity research community recently redefine the definition of obesity downward, so as to guarantee an increase in the number of fat people? Didn’t millions of people wake up a few months ago to discover that, overnight, they had become officially obese?
And, I would ask, isn’t the diet industry, aided and abetted by many of the medical types, helping to create yet another generation of crash-dieting weight cyclers? And is anyone surprised that there are more and more fat people? Puh-leez!
This whole mess was followed up by a big New York Times article on October 31, 1999, by science writer Gina Kolata, whom I respect, titled “The Fat War: Hope Amid the Harm.” The “hope” referred to is the study of leptin, which seems to be leading us to a better understanding of the causes of obesity and will eventually result in effective pharmacological means to control it, according to Dr. Steven B. Heymesfield, deputy director of the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital in New York. Dr. Heymesfield has been managing some of the leptin studies. I’ve spoken to Dr. Heymesfield in the past and feel that he is a genuinely motivated, humane individual who hopes to help make fat people healthier, and does not blame them for being fat.
These studies might eventually help those who are fat because they eat more than they should due to lack of satiety. There are, of course, twenty-five or thirty other documented causes of fatness, but hey, at least we may “cure” one of them. I suppose Kolata couldn’t come up with anything more positive to offset the doom-and-gloom of the JAMA article. She should have quoted Pat Lyons: “Focusing on healthy life-style, body satisfaction, positive self-esteem, strong social support, and access to compassionate, quality health care for children and families of all sizes remains the best approach to [coping in] a very complicated social environment where all of these aspects [of our health] are being consistently undermined.”
I’d like to close with a positive thought. I keep running into mail on the Internet and other places that goes something like this: “I am a morbidly obese woman who reads your column (your magazine, your web site) and all I see is stuff about how I can be beautiful, I can get a boyfriend, I can be happy and wear nice clothes and go on nice cruises, and I should feel so good about myself that I should give up dieting or thoughts about the latest diet pill or weight-loss surgery. Well, I want you to know that I am miserable, my knees hurt, nobody could possibly find me attractive at my weight of (170 pounds, 270 pounds, 370 pounds) and I wouldn’t date him if he did (the last guy who asked me out turned out to be one of those perverted “fat admirers”), and I can’t find any decent clothes. My doctor won’t treat me with respect, not that I blame him, and my mother is still, after forty years, on my case to lose weight.”
riends, there are millions of women like this fictitious letter writer; in fact, perhaps you share some of her complaints. Believe me, I understand how hard it can be to have fun when your knees hurt. If you weighed less, they might hurt less—although I know several people in the 300-pound weight range who have had successful knee replacements, and plenty of fat people with no knee problems at all. Except for knees, there are nondieting and nonsurgical remedies for every one of the complaints listed. The primary reason this woman is miserable is her attitude. Her unhappiness is understandable, as she was trained by society to be unhappy at her size.
I asked this question of a number of women who are happy, well-adjusted, plus-size or supersize people with partners, nice clothes, good incomes, sympathetic doctors, and mothers who shut up about the weight question a long time ago: What’s the secret to your success?
Nearly all these women told me that their secret is attitude! Here are some responses:
Once I started having a good feeling about myself, everything fell into place, although not overnight. I stopped hating fat and discovered I could feel pretty. Another said, I no longer describe myself as “morbidly obese”: I am now a “woman of size.” Many women began buying clothing from stores and mail-order companies that want their business and respect their size, and show models of size in their ads or catalogs. One woman wrote: I signed a truce with my mother that, in my presence at least, she gets off my case—and she loves and respects me more for it, too. A few women stated they fired their doctors and found one who treats them like a person.
A number of women said they stopped smoking and increased their swimming and other physical activities that don’t stress out their knees. Says another woman: I stopped being suspicious of everyone who looked at me with any interest, and I am now dating someone whose interest in me is genuine in a number of ways: physical, spiritual—everything. I even had to choose between two or three of my dates, to concentrate on the one I like best. The real perverts lost interest the minute they saw I had self-respect. I hate to think of the potentialpartners I might have turned away before I improved my attitude.
Carol Johnson, of Largely Positive, has it right. Happiness is all in developing a positive attitude. If you want to find out how to help yourself or to help someone else, start by reading her book Self-Esteem Comes in All Sizes. And don’t forget to “tune out” those who can’t deal with your newly positive self-image. You worked hard to develop it, and you should defend it against those who feel threatened by it and would tear you down again. You may also have to defend yourself against the parts of your own personality that disapprove of your new attitude! I’ll pass along other tips in later columns, as space permits.
Thanks for news leads for this issue go to, in addition to those already mentioned, Miriam Berg, Kristine Danowski, Nina Feldman, Harry Gossett, Helene Ilg, Jenny Masché, Esther Rothblum, and Tara Sketchley. ©
WILLIAM J. FABREY helps run Amplestuff, a mail-order company. He founded NAAFA in 1969, and has been a director of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination since 1990. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 116, Bearsville, NY 12409, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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