Promoting size acceptance is much more than just a job--it's a life, one that can be quite draining at times.
Traveling down the road of size acceptance and self-acceptance can oftentimes be a lonely journey. Even when we embrace our fat community, we still must deal with our "other" life: our family of origin, our co-workers, our friends. Do we "divorce" them and reinvent ourselves within the size acceptance movement? Do we challenge their beliefs about fatness and fat people by trying to bring them along with us on our journey? Or do we take the path of least resistance and develop two personalities: a strong and powerful one we can use within our fat community and to deal with the world, and a meeker one that allows our family's anti-fat remarks or behavior to go unchallenged?
In a perfect world, we'd be able to educate every person we encountered. But the world's not perfect, and neither are we. Many times, we just don't have the energy and it's easier to let fatphobic remarks whiz past us. Sometimes, we're just tired of fighting size prejudice and have to rest a bit. At other times, the resistance of our families or co-workers is so great that simple survival can be our only goal.
My experience in educating other people about size acceptance has been more evolutionary than revolutionary. Even though I'd belonged to and even worked for human rights organizations, when I first joined NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) in 1986, I was ashamed of being a member, and hid my NAAFA Newsletters so my husband wouldn't see them. Although it only took me about a year to come out of the closet as a fat person, it took my family many more years to accept my fat activism.
Educating my family, friends, and strangers was easier than it is for many people, in that I started working for NAAFA in 1988. So every time someone asked, "What do you do for a living?" I had the opportunity and obligation to educate them about our issues. My family, however, didn't exactly see my occupation in the same light. One of my favorite stories about my mom was when I overhead her on the phone talking to a friend, who must have asked about my sisters and me. My mom said, with pride in her voice, "My daughter Sandy is the city attorney of Milpitas, and my daughter Sue is the meeting planner for County Supervisors Association of California. And my daughter Sally, well, er, um... She's the executive director of a non-profit organization." Mom couldn't quite deal with telling her friends that I advocated for fat people. Her cover was busted, though, when her friends started sending her clippings of news articles in which I was quoted. And by the time of her death in 1989, she--and her friends!--were volunteering and stuffing envelopes for NAAFA.
My friendships also shifted as I got more involved in and committed to the size acceptance movement. I found that, as I began to make friends within NAAFA and the movement, many of my prior friendships faded. One friend from college and I totally drifted apart. Although she was average size and very athletic, she had a terrible body image and was constantly dieting, which made me as crazy as my working for NAAFA made her. Another woman from college, with whom I remain friends, also diets and binges, and is very negative about fatness. She and I have agreed not to discuss weight-related issues or dieting. Every year or two we dabble in the verboten areas, always to the regret of both of us.
And over the years, I've done my share of educating my health care providers and other service providers I deal with. But I've also passed by many opportunities to educate these folks because I simply didn't have the energy to fight. For example, one time I went to the dentist and found that he was now sharing his practice with another dentist, to whom I was assigned. He was probing my teeth with a sharp instrument when he said something to the effect that I should lose weight because it was putting a stream on my heart and because being "overweight" caused high blood pressure and diabetes. Despite the questionable wisdom of challenging someone who is holding a sharp instrument near your mouth, I made him stop and told him that he didn't know what he was talking about. I then told him what I knew to be true, and later mailed him some additional information and research. He wrote me a letter saying he had read everything and thanking me for setting him straight. And a few years ago, I even made a presentation to his dental study group.
On the other hand, I went to a nurse practitioner the other day because I have plantar fasciitis (which causes foot and heel pain). She told me, among other things, that losing "even a little bit" of weight would help my condition. As she said it, all the counter-arguments (there's no evidence that a small weight loss is any more sustainable than a large weight loss, that there's a good chance I would regain more than I lost, the negative health effects of weight cycling, etc.) flashed through my mind. Did I educate her? Nope. Just sat there. I was too tired and my foot hurt and I didn't want to deal with it.
In my work with NAAFA, I've also had opportunities to educate groups of people, and have had some interesting experiences in my attempts to slay the dragon of size prejudice. My first major speaking gig on NAAFA's behalf was doing a workshop and a speech at the conference of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians (i.e., diet doctors and weight loss surgeons). Needless to say, I was scared to death, and literally had nightmares that I was the only fat person in the hotel and they kidnapped me and forced me to lose weight.
My experience there led me to develop a theory that I still believe to be true. Just as there are some pyromaniacs who become firefighters, I'm convinced that there are some fat admirers who become diet doctors and weight loss surgeons. At the bariatricians' conference, I definitely was the only fat person in the hotel, and I swear that I was stalked by two or three doctors. On the last day, as I was going to the bank of elevators to go up to my room, one doctor ran up to me and said, breathlessly, "Um, I just have to tell you that I think you're really attractive."
I also had the opportunity to speak at a conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School. Again, the attendees were mostly diet doctors, and again, I was the only fat person there. And again, I was petrified. I know that the reason I get these kinds of invitations to speak is, first, so they can say they're presenting a "balanced" schedule (yeah, my presentation and the eleven others that are pro-weight loss). Second, I'm convinced it's because they think that if we're invited to speak, we won't be demonstrating outside. And third, they think, because I'm always the only one on the agenda who doesn't have letters after my name (M.D., Ph.D., etc.), that I'm less of a threat.
I go into these experiences knowing that I don't have a snowball's chance in hell of convincing most of them of our point of view; they have far too much invested, both economically and in terms of their self-concept, to even hear what I'm saying. The most I'm hoping for is, first, to survive the experience, and second, to perhaps reach those few who are either new to the field or who aren't thoroughly entrenched in the weight loss position. The typical reaction I get after making presentations to these groups isn't to the material I present, but rather simply to my presence, i.e., the "I admire you for showing up," and "It took a lot of courage to come here" reactions. I also get many perplexed looks. Most bariatricians have never seen a self-accepting, professionally dressed, supersized woman before. After all, they routinely encounter fat women who are miserable, self-loathing, and desperate to lose weight. I don't fit into their stereotype of fat women.
Probably the most rewarding experiences I've had educating groups of people have been with medical students at Stanford and UC Davis Medical Schools. I'm sure some of them are entrenched in anti-fat attitudes, but my overall impression is that they're open to hearing our message. They ask a lot of questions and are eager to get more information. I've also had the opportunity to speak to therapists and health care providers at UC Santa Barbara, and nutritionists at a Society for Nutrition Education conference. I often hope that, by influencing those who have an impact on the lives of fat people, our fat brothers and sisters will have an easier time living their lives.
Of course, it's always much less nervewracking and much more enjoyable to preach to the proverbial choir. I've had the opportunity to speak at AHELP (Association for the Health Enrichment of Large People) conferences, the Fall Fat Women's Gathering, Making it Big, and various NAAFA conventions. It's very empowering when we give each other ammunition to combat fat oppression and to spread the anti-diet, size acceptance message. It's wonderful to develop new theories and strategize together, and to leave such gatherings feeling refueled and ready to change the world.
Of course, it takes a lot of time and energy to challenge the world's attitudes about fatness. But even if we change our small corner of the world, through educating our family, friends, or co-workers, we'll have done our part. And when even that seems too overwhelming, remember that in the long run, with all the time, energy, and money we've spent trying to change our bodies to conform to society, it'll definitely be easier to change society. ß