(This is the first installment in a five-part series about fat acceptance.)
They’ve been part of the U.S. since the days of the Founding Fathers, but in recent years their presence has become increasingly visible. Now comprising about two-thirds of the American populace, the more vocal among their ranks have been causing a stir lately; their unconditional refusal to accept long-standing, seemingly incontrovertible research findings puts them squarely at odds with a large, powerful segment of the scientific community. Moreover, the fight – and its consequences – may only be in the opening round.
Another swipe at the Christian right’s war on evolution and stem-cell research? Think again. Meet the fat-acceptance movement, whose members are here to tell you on no uncertain terms they’re sick of being treated as, well, sick. “Fat-activist” or “fat-advocacy” groups – the most prominent of which is the 36-year-old Sacramento-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance – have sprung up around the country in recent years and boast extremely energetic, news-conscious followings. But these are no workaday support groups; their raison d’etre is not encouraging weight loss, but battling those who do, be their opponents doctors, corporations or arms of the government. NAAFA, which has over 11,000 members, classifies itself as a civil-rights group. Imagine not a 12-step sobriety-maintenance meeting but a room full of defiant topers asserting that the purported and published risks of too much drinking are overstated at best, propaganda at worst.
That may seem like a harsh comparison. But fat advocates’ treatment of medical research and researchers who stand counter to their cause isn’t gentle, either. Central to fat advocates’ dogma is the categorical refusal to believe – or acknowledge – that carrying around extra weight in the form of fat is, in and of itself, unhealthy. They claim that dieting – especially “yo-yo” dieting, consisting of repeated cycles of weight loss and weight gain and linked to problems such as gallstones and loss of muscle mass – is not only futile but inherently far more dangerous than being overweight, and has itself underwritten the trend toward larger body sizes among Americans. They loathe the diet and pharmaceutical industries targeting their demographic – Americans spend over $33 billion a year on weight-loss services and products – and suggest that everyone from the government to the media is to blame for imposing contrived notions of leanness on Americans who are not only stuck at greater sizes, but would be perfectly happy that way were they not part of a society which, according to Big Fat Blog founder Paul McAleer, “alternately ignores and ridicules fat people.”
“We do stigmatize obese patients just as we do people who are different in any physical way from ourselves,” says Ron Albright, M.D., a Birmingham physician who specializes in treating obesity and once packed over 250 pounds – more than 50 over his present weight – on a 5′ 9″ frame. “Unfortunately, from a statistical view, their cries of ‘prejudice against a minority’ are holding increasing less water. As a nation and a world, obesity is becoming more and more the statistical norm.”
America is truly living large, and it’s no secret that we’re getting ever heavier. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that on average, in 2002, American men and women between the ages of 20 and 74 weighed about 25 pounds more than they did than in 1960, with the median height of each increasing by 1″ in the same span; older men and younger women have borne the brunt of this increase. Researchers and the government now use the body-mass index (BMI), calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared, to medically define “normal weight” (BMI between 18.5 and 25), “overweight” (BMI between 25 and 30) and “obese” (BMI greater than 30); in the same 42-year span, the average BMI of U.S. adults rose from about 25 to about 28. For reasons explored later in this series, the use of the BMI as an assessment and classification tool is a major point of contention.
Much of fat advocates’ energy is poured into highlighting and stamping out examples of legal and functional discrimination. In February 2002, Jennifer Portnick, a 5′ 8″, 240-pound aerobics instructor from San Francisco, successfully sued Jazzercise Inc. after it rejected her application for employment and told her flat-out that her appearance ruled out any chance of her working for the company. At the time, Portnick was a 15-year veteran of aerobics classes who worked out six days a week and had proven skills – but the “wrong” body. In the end, the case was purely about appearance. Moreover, it was not just about Portnick, who now owns her own fitness business, Feeling Good Fitness, but about the changing relationship between the fitness sector and those who don’t conform to its classical standards. A statement from Jazzercize Inc. at the time of the settlement read in part: “Recent studies document that it may be possible for people of varying weights to be fit. Jazzercise has determined that the value of ‘fit appearance’ as a standard is debatable.” San Francisco is one few jurisdictions in the U.S. with anti-weight discrimination laws on its books; others include Santa Cruz, Calif., Michigan, and the District of Columbia.
In 1997, NAAFA was a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit resulting in the immediate removal of the diet drugs dexfenfluramine (Redux) and fenfluramine (Pondimin; along with phentermine, one of the ingredients of the combination drug “fen-phen”) from the market. Its members have also made noise over Southwest Airlines’ policy, implemented in June 2002, of charging super-sized passengers for extra seats they effectively occupy, and have maligned Honda for not providing seat belt extenders for persons above 215 pounds (the automaker is in compliance with federal regulations). In an effort to force the world adapt to fat people and not the other way around, NAAFA constantly implores manufacturers and workplaces to alter their standards to accommodate “people of size,” and its site offers heavy airline fliers comfort-maximizing tips ranging from the borderline aggressive to the commercially unrealistic. At the same time, for purposes of pursuing legal action, NAAFA contends that obesity should be considered a disability in the context of existing anti-discrimination laws that do not specifically offer protection to the heavy.