Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fighting for Weight Diversity: An Interview with Fat!So? Author Marilyn Wann

Recently I had a chance to talk with Marilyn Wann, author of Fat!So? and fat activist. For more than 15 years, Marilyn has been an active voice and participant within the fat pride community. After being denied health insurance coverage based solely on her weight, she started the zine version of Fat!So? which eventually she made into a book. She now gives weight diversity talks on college campuses.

FFF: You’ve been described as a fat activist. What does it mean to be a fat activist?
MW: Fat activists are people of all sizes resisting others who are saying, “You’re fat and bad; you’re thin and good.”

Part of the work in this community is choosing to reclaim the word ‘fat’. Traditionally, people use it as a very negative thing. Fat activists don’t view weight diversity as a negative. It’s something we can celebrate.

FFF: What kind of work have you done as a fat activist?
MW: Activism doesn’t have to daunting. All of us, people of all sizes, when we encounter negative attitudes toward fatness, we can find a way to disagree with it and resist that system—and we can have fun while we’re doing that.

FFF: Can you give me some examples of fun fat activism?
MW: I’ve taken dance classes with Big Moves (, a dance studio that welcomes dancers of all sizes. I also danced with the Phat Fly Girls, the hip hop troupe with Big Moves.

I ended up in a synchronized swimming group called the Padded Lilies for awhile, too. Forty years ago, San Francisco started a weekly swim for fat people. People weren’t swimming because they feared being judged in a swimsuit. Now it’s more than a swim. It’s a community space called Making Waves.

One day, after our swim, my friends and I were doing fake synchronized swimming moves. Amusingly enough, the high school pool where we swam had a very active synchronized swimming program. The coach saw us and asked if we wanted to perform. We learned this high-camp routine. The music was a medley of Broadway show tunes. We ended up appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

I also organized a group of fat people of all sizes to respond to the popularization of weight-loss surgery. To me it’s really just stomach amputation. At the Walk from Obesity, a walkathon celebrating those who have gone through the surgery, we dressed up as cheerleaders, called ourselves the Bod Squad, and cheered on the sidelines for body diversity.

FFF: What is your philosophy on losing weight?
MW: If you come at fitness and good nutrition as a form of punishment for a bad body, it just won’t last. Humans can only willingly do a form of punishment for about five or six weeks.

Eating less and exercising more are wonderful behaviors. But attaching those behaviors to a “poison pill” doesn’t work.

The alternatives is a paradigm shift developed by a community of psychologists, nutritionists, physical fitness experts and epidemiologists called Health at Every Size. This community of people have rejected the weight-based model for health and switched to a new model. The basic concept is to celebrate weight diversity and love your body. Take good care of it. Respond to internal hunger. Recognize satiety, and reject the idea of good and bad food. Fitness becomes joyful, never a reason for weight loss. Instead of punishment, it becomes pleasurable. It goes with human nature. People will continue their health enhancing behaviors because it’s enjoyable.

A friend of mine, Linda Bacon, conducted a small but significant study comparing a weight-loss model with a health-at-every-size model. After two years, the health-at-every-size group were continuing their health enhancing behavior. The weight-loss group had a 40% dropout rate. Of the people who stayed in the program, none of them maintained the behavior and so that group received none of the health benefits that the health-at-every-size group received. The only thing the weight-loss group gained was lower self-esteem.

FFF: Can you tell me a little about what you were trying to accomplish with your book?
MW: I don’t think I’m going to end all of weight prejudice. But I hope I can help others expand their livable space by refusing to go along with the way things are and by imagining how things could be different. We shouldn’t have to jump through a weight-based hoop to feel a sense of self-worth. If you can’t be at home in your own body, where else can you go?

FFF: How do you feel about contemporary beauty standards?
MW: We need to grow up in our opinion about what is beautiful. If we can only see one kind of beauty, we’re like children with a limited palette.

Someone once asked me if I was really happy with the Dove’s Real Beauty ad campaign. First of all, I don’t like the notion of real versus high-status. Second, the images of women (and no men) were only slightly larger than usual. Clearly, there was still a weight limit for the definition of beauty. And Dove was selling firming lotion. You can’t celebrate my fat ass and try to limit it at the same time. It was drawing the line slightly further out, but it was still oppressive.

Another example of our limited palette came from when I was invited to speak about the movie Shallow Hal on TV. I decided it would be worth the pain of watching others enjoying what was hurtful and diminishing to me. I watched couple after couple come in to the movie theater. Everyone was average weight or smaller. Everyone enjoyed feeling superior to people like me, and in that moment I really hated humanity. They should be able to see beauty in all sizes.

FFF: What do you do to resist negative messages about body image?
MW: I still have moments and look in the mirror and dislike something about myself. I try to remember, for example, if an outfit isn’t working, it’s not my body’s fault, it’s the fabric’s fault. The fabric is inappropriate if it isn’t making me feel fabulous.

It’s an ongoing practice for me of noticing weight prejudicial systems and then finding a way to divest. The challenge is in noticing the weight prejudicial stuff. Noticing, divesting and letting other people know. It’s very painful to confront prejudice. Nobody started it, but we can end it.

A huge thanks to Marilyn for speaking with FunFitFoodie about this. For more information, you can read Marliyn’s book Fat!So? or check out her Web site.

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