Role Models
by Barbara Altman Bruno, Ph.D.

One of the files I keep open is a repository of stories about people I consider to be role models--whether or not I have ever met them personally. They are people whose actions and lives inspire me. They show me what is possible, sometimes despite incredibly difficult circumstances. One such role model was Paul Hearne who had a crippling disease and spent his life in a wheelchair, yet managed to become a lawyer and advocate for the rights of disabled people nationwide.

According to the New York Times, Hearne "would zip through the corridors of power on his motorized scooter, screech to a halt millimeters away from a bureaucrat’s toes, and then, with a combination of persuasive logic and infectious good humor, win yet another convert to his lifelong campaign to make life easier for those with disabilities and more fun for everybody." He was a founder or officer of virtually every national organization for the disabled, and had helped create the Americans With Disabilities Act.

My first fat role model was Maryann, who helped me co-lead our local NAAFA chapter. Maryann was a supersized dynamo who was liked and respected at her job. She was always well dressed and groomed, and seemed always to have a man in her life. She had many talents, including the calligraphy with which she made our NAAFA signs for local events. She was a talented singer and a graceful dancer, sociable, reliable, hard-working, smart, and good-humored. While other NAAFAns continue to show me what is possible for a fat person in our culture, Maryann was the first I referred to in my book, Worth Your Weight.

Yesterday, I was interviewed for a magazine article for teenage girls. The article will be about how they can deal with our weight-obsessed culture, especially if they are not thin. One resource I mentioned was role models. Especially when we are young, it is important for us to see grownups with whom we can identify. If they are good role models, we want to aim our lives so that we can grow up like them. When I was a child, athletes like Mickey Mantle or movie stars like Grace Kelly were popular role models who offered a lot to emulate. Unfortunately, there were few positive fat role models other than Jackie Gleason. Fat people in the media were buffoons, asexual, sloppy, or crude. It is only very recently that we are seeing some talented, attractive, positive fat role models such as Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimy, Rosie O'Donnell, or John Goodman. While some young people are fortunate enough to grow up with a family member, teacher, or coach who is a fat-positive role model, others see their mothers constantly obsessing about weight, or hear their fathers' or teachers' negative comments about their or others' size. When they are taunted by schoolmates, they have no one to imagine being like, and perhaps no one whom they believe will stand up for them.

We need role models to show us what is possible for us. Too often lately the public figures we used to look up to, including politicians, athletes, and movie stars, behave in ways best not emulated. Too often, the adults we look up to are obsessed with being thinner or being with people who look to be surgically enhanced or reduced.

There was a discussion in a fat-related internet group about a middle school teacher who took his students to a pool as a reward. When the students asked him to join them swimming, he said he didn't have a bathing suit. Several students gathered around him and said, "You don't have to be embarrassed. We already like you." Their compassion moved him such that he had to really face his shame about swimming in public. Much of the feedback in the group was about how well he had sensitized such a class of youngsters. The rest of the feedback was from people who said, basically, "Don't worry about what others think. You only live once; you might as well have fun!" Some talked about how they had faced their fear of swimming in public—e.g., they brought along a supportive friend, found a bathing suit, found or arranged a women-only or fat-only swim time, or made many attempts before they ever got to the water. Those who were already enjoying the blissful experience of swimming, served as role models for those who were afraid—including this teacher.

The discussants also made the point that any time a fat person appears in public having a good time, they serve as a role model. It takes a huge amount of courage to live fully, or to date in public someone, in a full-size body, yet each step seems to make the next one easier. Sometimes people took needed retreats in order to regroup. But just as this teacher was making life better for fat people in the future by educating youngsters to be fat accepting, so each of us can make life better for a younger person who is or prefers to be with a fat person.

So consider this: each time you venture out in public to live well, you are not only making your own life better, but you are also serving as a role model for someone else—who then can become someone else’s role model-and so on, down the line. If you need a role model to help you get started, just look through this magazine. ß

Well Being