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Fat in America

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Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2005 7:23 am | Updated: 7:54 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Victoria Jewell parks her car in a handicapped spot at the supermarket and heads for the front door. To see her, you wouldn’t know she has a disability, but she has needed handicapped parking ever since her exhusband broke her knees with a baseball bat. One day, she might be able to ditch that handicapped sticker. Her legs are slowly mending. She has a job. She has remarried.

She has lost 225 pounds from a high of 434. As she nears the store, she hears a man’s voice. "Is that your car?" the stranger asks. "Yes." "Wow. I didn’t know they gave out handicapped stickers for being fat."

A FORM OF PREJUDICE

Jewell can handle the cruel remark. She’s a spunky woman who makes jokes about her past, about her weight. "I have a skinny personality. My butt just hasn’t caught up," she says.

But like the guy at the supermarket, many people see her weight instead of her personality. She and millions of others who aren’t Paris Hilton-thin are constantly reduced to a number on a scale, to body mass index, to a set of stereotypes about fat people: Lazy, stupid, undisciplined.

Fatso. Lard-butt. Obese. Overweight. Big-boned. No matter how you say it, overweight people have heard it all, and some are fighting back through a "fat acceptance" movement. Fat advocates say weight-bashing is the last socially accepted form of prejudice in our culture, and it’s time to respect people of all sizes.

"Overweight? Over what weight?" asks Paul Campos, author of "The Obesity Myth." "That’s like labeling Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) over-tall. It’s like saying everybody should be between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-10."

That, in short, is the raison d’etre for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, the only national group dedicated to fighting size discrimination. The group says fat people face discrimination in employment, education, access to public accommodations and adequate medical care. Its mission, says Carmen Cool, spokeswoman for NAAFA’s Rocky Mountain Chapter, is to "help make the world a safe place for people of all sizes."

Cool and her sister Kelly grew up fat. After intensive dieting, Cool learned she would never achieve her ideal body. She became a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, and she joined NAAFA to promote fat acceptance.

Her sister dealt with it, too. She never accepted that her body wouldn’t reach ideal standards, and her quest to be thin turned into anorexia. She died of complications from the disease in March.

"I’ve thought a lot about the direction she took and the direction I took," Cool says. "The experience of being large in a world that values thin is painful."

NOT A NEW ISSUE

Jewell got a taste of the attitudes facing fat people long before she broke 400 pounds. Now a manager at Full Figure Resale Shop in Colorado Springs, Colo., Jewell says she was 130 pounds at 18, but her mother — her thin mother — would sing the Jell-O song when she walked by: "See it wiggle, watch it jiggle."

Now, even though she has lost 225 pounds, she’s still not skinny enough for some people.

"The worst part is going out to eat," she says. "They watch what you eat. Unless you order a salad and ice water, you are the subject of conversation."

The subject of weight and weight discrimination is nothing new. Weight Watchers got its start in the early 1960s. NAAFA was formed in 1969. But lately, the issue has exploded. Campos says coverage of weight issues in mainstream print media sources jumped from 50 articles in 1985 to 7,000 articles in 2003.

Shows such as "The Biggest Loser," "Extreme Makeover" and "The Swan" attack fat, with cellulite as the antagonist.

One of the loudest voices weighing in has been Kirstie Alley and her Showtime series, "Fat Actress." Constantly hounded by paparazzi and tabloid coverage of her growing waistline, Alley struck back with her own questions: Why do people care how much she and Oprah weigh this week? Why do fat actors get good roles (hello, James Gandolfini and Jason Alexander), while fat actresses get Jenny Craig commercials? Would she be more acceptable as a thin crack addict than as a fat person?

UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

The cry of "it’s a health issue!" is a convenient way to mask prejudice against people of larger size, NAAFA says. "It’s not that we don’t care about health. It’s just that we don’t buy into the automatic link between health and weight," Cool says. "That’s one of the things that lets prejudice continue, is the idea that people choose their size. That’s actually just not the case for a lot of people."

NAAFA representatives say the body mass index charts released by the government (which label two-thirds of Americans as overweight) are unrealistic for many people. They wrongly shift the focus from health to arbitrary size. According to those guidelines, Shaquille O’Neal is obese.

"Obesity Myth" author Campos, also a law professor at the University of Colorado, calls the supposed obesity epidemic "the most astonishing lie."

He argues that a "fat hysteria" has trickled down from America’s medical establishment, government agencies and the diet industry. For decades, he says, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health have been issuing "dire, cataclysmic warnings" that obesity will have devastating health consequences — yet, he notes, Americans are living longer lives than ever before.

"I’m not saying weight has no effect on health," Campos says. "For people significantly thinner than average or significantly fatter than others, there are certainly effects." His position is that government standards for what constitutes being overweight are absurd and that the reported health consequences are dubious.

- BILL REED

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