Marilyn Wann At CU

On March 10th, 2005, Marilyn Wann gave a talk at the University of Colorado At Boulder (CU). This was an event sponsored by CU as part of Body Appreciation month. A few of us from RMNAAFA attended the talk. We even had a chance to chat with her a little bit before hand.

Marilyn is now on the board of NAAFA( the national organization). We talked a bit about the upcoming National Convention this summer in San Francisco.

Marilyn began her presentation by talking about how happy she was to be here at the University of Colorado. She said that she was seeing a ground swell of interest around the country on college campuses in the issues surrounding body politics. She also mentioned that she is particularly excited about being at CU, partly because of the fact that Paul Campos is a professor here. His columns about size rights, and his book The Obesity Myth have been a great contribution to size acceptance and body politics.

Marilyn then talked about alienation, and about how this is the primary price that prejudice and bigotry exact on those who are singled out by it. The alienation that is felt by a fat person is particularly deep because they are made to feel like they are not at home in their own body. At that point, where do you go?

Marilyn asked for a show of hands of people who knew at least one person that worried about their weight. With a little coaxing, everyone in the room admitted that they knew at least one such person. Then, she asked for a show of hands of who knew even one person who had never been concerned about their weight. There was a hand or two. Marilyn said that it was her goal to se those two show of hands reversed.

Marilyn then shared with us here personal story about coming out as a fat person. The turning point came for her on a really bad day. This was a day on which she received some very unkind words from a young man she was close to. On the same day, she was also rejected for health insurance because she was morbidly obese (insurance company words).

She then took the energy from this rage and harnessed it into a positive, creative endeavor. This was the point at which she started her zine, Fat!So? The name came to here when she was going over in her mind all of the names she had been called in her life, and she realized she could change the sense of this epitaph with just a little punctuation.

So, she began writing and printing the zine. She did her own printing, and circulated the zine at first through local independent bookstores. What surprised her the most was that as she told people about the zine, and what its focus was, she did not get the reaction she anticipated. She thought that the average person would snicker, chide her, or at least give her a dazed and confused look. What she found instead was that whoever she told the idea to, whether friends, business associated, or (finally) her family, people were universally accepting and excited about the concept. She concluded that, if fact, this was an idea that people were waiting for. The saturation of antifat propaganda in our society had created a real need by people to hear the other side.

As the zine became more successful, Marilyn started to receive invitations to appear on talk shows, radio phone in programs, and other media events. The idea of a fat woman who was happy, healthy, and not trying to loose weight was so novel that it seemed to be a news item.

It was around this time that a tragedy occurred that underscored the depth of alienation which is felt by young people as a result of size prejudice. A young fat man who had all of the teasing he could stand as a result of his weight decided he could take no more and ended his life. It was at this point that Marilyn started talking at high schools, and trying to bring the message of fat acceptance to young people.

We did an exercise that involved shouting the word fat at the top of our lungs. This led into Marilyn talking about the power of this word, and why she feels it is an important word to embrace, and to capture the power of it.

She discussed some of the alternatives that are used to describe fat people.

The most common term is probably overweight. What is wrong with that word, immediately, is that it is a judgment. It assumes that there is a right weight for every single person, and that a fat person is over that weight. It infers that the fat person should be trying to reach the weight which they are over.

Obese is possibly the second most common term. First of all, Marilyn says that she is not sick. The inference of this word is that being fat is some sort of disease that has to be treated. The nastiest baggage that comes with this word is that it is used by the insurance industry to deny health care coverage to people.

There are other terms, such as plump, large, zoftig, and so fourth, which appear on the surface to be kinder than the word fat. But, the truth is that these words are euphemisms which skate around the taboo that society associates with fat. By not saying what they mean, these words enforce the idea that there is something wrong with being fat, and that it is somehow impolite to refer to a person as fat.

There really is nothing wrong with being fat, and the message needs to be that it is OK to be fat.

The word fat is the truth. It is simple and direct, and describes the person as what they are. If we take back the word fat, and no longer let it be seen as an insult, then we allow for the possibility that a fat person can be beautiful, intelligent, and healthy.

Marilyn then led an exercise where we drew a line down the center of a white board. On one side of the line was written the word fat, and on the other side was written the word thin. The audience was then asked to provide words which were generally associated in our society with these two words. The idea was that we were acting as anthropologists, and just collecting ideas which this society had associated with the two simple descriptive terms.

There was no trouble coming up with terms for either side. On the fat side were words like lazy, sloppy, unhealthy, ignorant, stupid, unsuccessful. On the thin side were words like sexy, healthy, beautiful, and in shape.

The point was made that this was really something that an anthropologist would consider a rich finding. That there was no difficulty in filling the board with these terms, and in agreeing that this society held the view that this is how these ideas were associated with these two simple descriptions (whether or not the audience agreed with these attachments).

Then, someone from the audience was asked to volunteer to come up and erase the line. This was a cathartic exercise, as everyone cheered as she erased the line, did a little victory dance, and returned to her seat.

The point is that erasing this line is the goal. These terms can be associated with people, but they should have no relationship to a persons weight. A fat person can be beautiful, sexy, and ambitious. A thin person can be lazy ignorant, and, indeed, out of shape (inactive and unfit). It is valid to use these terms to sometimes describe a person, but it is not valid to assume that every fat person has inherited all of the terms on the fat side of the line, just by virtue of the fact that they are fat.

While it is the goal of fat acceptance to erase this line, society keeps etching this line more and more firmly. And the definition of which side of the line a person is on is very subjective. it is set by our siblings, our parents, our peers,and our doctors, and it moves all over the place. it is an interesting and disturbing observation that even our doctors can not make up their minds where this line is.

The point was made that similar lines have been drawn in the past dividing people on the basis of race, gender, or other characteristics. Almost always, one side of the line is good and desirable, and the other side of the line is bad and undesirable.

Despite what the majority view is in this society, the line is neither valid nor benign. it is untrue, arbitrary, and hateful.

Marilyn talked about what this line costs us. She talked about the fact that the Americans spend $40 billion each year on diets that do not work. Diets are not supposed to work. If they worked, if people really lost weight and it did not return, then the diet industry would have no customers.

If we decided to spend this money on something else instead, we could provide free college to every high school graduate. Or, ironically, we could feed every hungry person in America.

But, the $40 billion dollars is not the end of the story. Consider the amount of time and energy that is wasted by people in this futile pursuit. Consider the staggering number of people who are developing eating disorders.

The line, in fact, does not just victimize fat people. Thin people are frightened of the line, and waste their time, money, and energy trying to stay on the good side of the line.

Marilyn then talked about the reasons that this line is drawn, and the justifications that are used to etch it deeper and deeper.

The reasons and justifications fall into three categories: Hope, Health, and Hate.

Hope is about telling people that they can cross over the line, and move from fat to thin. It is about convincing them that which side of the line they are on is theirs to control Of course, the hope is false. According to the National Institute of Health, 90% to 98% of all diets ultimately fail. It is also strange to consider that the basic traditions of weight loss have been the same for over 50 years--you can change your weight through diet and exercise. And yet, every year someone comes out with a new diet revolution, where they pretend we can loose weight by not eating certain foods, and that somehow this idea is new and fresh, and never been seen before.

It is strange that people can continue to make these claims, and that there are always people who will buy them, when this giant science experiment involving 70 million people has proven again and again that this approach will not work.

The second justification for drawing the line is health. The idea that drawing the line is based upon concern for the health of fat people is simply a gigantic lie. In fact, the book Big Fat Lies talks about this subject. This book shows that 75% of the data that is used to try to demonstrate that fat people are unhealthy actually demonstrates, upon proper analysis, that there is no correlation between fat and health.

Steven Blair is another researcher who has divided people into fitness levels based upon their activity level. Remembering that a fat person can be fit and a thin person can be unfit, Blair used the term unfit to describe someone who has virtually no physical activity in their lives, fit to describe someone with a modest amount of physical activity (e.g. walking three times a week), and high fit to describe people who regularly engaged in strenuous physical activity. Based upon these categories, he found that you are three times more likely to die if you are thin and unfit than if you are fat and fit. In other words, fitness counts, but fatness does not.

The third justification for the line is hate. it is an aesthetic that some people just do not like the way that fat people look. An aesthetic is a tough thing to argue against. But, tastes vary, and the idea that fat people are unattractive is not (even now) universally accepted, and it certainly has not been in the past. It is certainly no reason to draw that line between fat and thin.

One of the last points made was that some of the worst fat bigots are those who have convinced themselves that they have crossed over the line. They have invested time, money, and effort into getting across the line, and want to feel that this has been a worthwhile thing to do. They need to feel justified, and questioning whether the line should even exist really threatens them.

It was an outstanding talk, full of information, humor, and thought provoking argument. Marilyn provided an uplifting experience, that made us all go away with a good feeling about ourselves, and (true) hope and determination about the cause of fat acceptance.
Marilyn was doing a Yay Scale event in the atrium of the UMC on the next day (Friday, the 11th). A Yay Scale is a scale that has the numbers covered up by almost anything else. Her Yay scale, for example, gives you a compliment when you stood on it, instead of giving you a number. Such a scale can be made from most any ordinary bathroom scale by taking off the little plastic window, covering the numbers on the dial with something less offensive, then putting the little plastic window back. She described the plans for the next day as a three ring circus.

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