Fat Enough to Belong?
by Sally E. Smith

The choice of models featured in the last issue of Dimensions brought up an old question: who is fat enough to belong to the size acceptance movement? The answer should be obvious, but apparently, to many people it is not.

The differences between the two models featured in the last issue of Dimensions (175 pound Catherine and super-size Cathy) were obvious--or were they? While it's true that one model outweighed the other by 300 pounds, the experiences of both women were similar on many levels. The inclusion of a 175-pound model in the pages of Dimensions generated reader comments that range from indignation that featuring a "skinny" model, to admissions that many FAs also find "smaller" large woman attractive, to kudos for embracing size diversity.

This spectrum of reactions mirrors issues that have plagued the size acceptance movement for many years, such as sizism within the movement, the prioritization of the movement' s work, and even how groups and organizations define themselves.

The issues that can crop up between midsize and supersize women are familiar to many of us. I cringe when I think about the number of times I've heard midsize women at events report that larger women (and some FAs) told them that they weren't fat enough to attend. Or that some supersize women invalidate the midsize woman' s experiences of harassment and discrimination. Heck, when I began working for NAAFA in 1988 and weighed 275 pounds, I received a call from a long-time NAAFAn who told me I wasn't fat and didn't know what I was talking about. That one comment invalidated my 20-plus years of size oppression.

One of my clearest memories of my first couple of years with NAAFA was a letter we received at the office from a woman who wrote that her kids were ashamed of her because she was fat, and her husband was going to leave her because she was fat. The last line of her letter was, "I weigh 145 pounds." I could see so clearly that this woman was in much more pain about her weight than most of the 300-plus pound women I had met in the organization, and that internalized size oppression has absolutely no correlation to the number on the scale.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are some midsize women who see supersize women as their worst nightmare. I've seen a group of smaller large women leave a supersize woman with mobility problems lagging behind, and midsize women admit that they didn't invite a larger woman along on a trip because they didn't want to deal with her special needs. More disturbing is the report I heard that one midsize woman told another that she kill herself if she ever got as fat as so-and-so.

I imagine that almost all of us in the size acceptance movement are sizist in some way, and I know that the prejudice we feel results from a combination of our pain about our own weight and myths and stereotypes about fatness that we've internalized from the media and the medical profession.

Of course, this type of prejudice isn't unique to the size acceptance movement. Other movements struggle with "isms" within their organizations, too. Within the African-American community, for example, there are those who invalidate the lighter-skinned person's experience of racism, believing that those who are lighter-skinned have it easy compared with those who have darker skin. It seems a shame that, even within a movement, we can't seem to escape perpetuating and reinforcing the oppression we face.

This awareness of size differences has certainly affected the evolution of the size acceptance movement. The membership of NAAFA, for example, is commonly believe to be comprised of the very largest of the population of fat people, yet in a demographic survey of NAAFA's membership a few years ago, the average weight range of female members was 250-275. Until fairly recently in NAAFA's history, however, those in top leadership were almost exclusively supersized women or men who were married to supersized women.

It's been interesting to see the different ways size diversity issues come into play advocating for the rights of fat people. At NAAFA, the historic stance has been that the organization wouldn't touch a policy or program unless it could accommodate the very largest of its members or potential members. When NAAFA was looking at offering health insurance to its membership, for example, and even the best carrier had a cut-off for coverage at around 300 pounds, the organization declined to offer the coverage, even though the vast majority of our members would have been eligible for--and welcomed--health insurance. Likewise, optional events at conventions could only be scheduled if they were accessible to the largest attendees--even though most of the attendees would have welcomed more choices.

I'm not saying that the all-or-nothing position is wrong; I've always thought that if anyone was going to take that position, it should be NAAFA. But what I've found ironic is how things have shifted in the past few years. Let me give you a couple of examples.

A few years back, Cook v. The State of Rhode Island resulted in a court decision which said, in effect, that the "morbidly obese" were protected from discrimination by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and, by extension, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Subsequently, NAAFA worked to educate New York legislators who would vote on a bill that would add "weight" as a protected category to that state's civil rights laws, even though the average NAAFA member was already protected with the Cook decision. As I sat in various legislators' offices trying to convince them of the merits of such a law, it occurred to me that I was advocating on behalf of people like flight attendants and the 175-pound job applicants denied a position because they didn't have a "front office appearance", rather than on behalf of my colleagues, my friends, and myself.

Likewise, the fattest of us are virtually excluded in the current focus of obesity research. Weight loss surgery, which used to be reserved for people weighing 100 or more pounds over the height-weight charts, is now being performed on 180-200 pound women. Pushers of the new diet pills target women who are "slightly to moderately overweight". When I meet with public health policy makers or attend obesity research conferences, I realize that I'm not representing NAAFA's membership; in fact, most of us don't even come close to being included in the studies currently being funded, and the data that is generated can't necessarily be applied to supersized people.

Of course, NAAFA's mission is to advocate on behalf of, support, and educate the public about people all sizes of large, not just the sizes our members happen to be. Nonetheless, the questions that beg to be answered are why more "smaller large" people don't support NAAFA, and how much more effective could we be if our supporters numbered in the tens of thousands, instead of in the thousands.

NAAFA is in the process of trying to find answers to these questions, and is re-evaluating its organizational self-perception. While there are many reasons why people of size won't support the size acceptance movement (such as too much self-hatred, a belief that they are only "temporarily" fat), a belief among many in NAAFA's current leadership (which includes midsize and supersize women, as well as fat men) is that the word "fat" in NAAFA's name (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) prevents many people from joining the organization. The debate over the use of "the F word" has waxed and waned during the life of the organization, and perhaps an organizational name change is one of the things that will bring more size diversity into NAAFA, which in turn will increase the organization's effectiveness.

It seems as though the size acceptance movement, both as a whole and as separate parts, needs to re-examine its self-concept. We need to look at who "we" are -- are we only supersized people, only midsize people, or only FAs? Or are "we" in the size acceptance movement all of these groups? The average woman's dress size is a 14 or a 16, depending on which survey you read. Should we make more of an effort to embrace the "average" woman, who by society's and the medical community's standards is "overweight"?

We all have an enormous commitment to the goals of the movement and spend much time, energy, and money in trying to fulfill those goals. Given that size oppression affects people of all sizes and that our work would be easier with many more supporters than we currently have, it seems appropriate that Dimensions welcomes both the 175-pound and the 475-pound model, that NAAFA take steps to reach the people closer to the middle of the bell curve of weight distribution, and that each of us examines our own weight-related biases and works through them. ß



Musings