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As a Matter of Fat 

The city's new weight discrimination law is badly reasoned, legally defective, costly, and bad for public health

Wednesday, Jan 17 2001
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In the neon flatlands of San Lorenzo, near a fast-food restaurant strip and a Jenny Craig weight-loss center, is Arroyo High School. It is a pure California school architectonic: a maze of open-air hallways leading to a paved yard ringed with classroom trailers and an occasional blade of grass. On this mild December day, a fat San Franciscan, Marilyn Wann, is visiting Arroyo High to talk with teenagers about the evils of weight discrimination. She was invited here by her friend and fellow fat activist, Timnah Steinman, a rosy-cheeked teacher of public speech.

Colorful posters decorate Steinman's classroom, which is fast filling up with chattering 15- and 16-year-olds. "Why Be Normal?" muses one poster. "Question Authority!" orders another. The faces of the 30 or so students in attendance light up when Steinman tells them that their guest has appeared on The Tonight Show and been featured in People magazine. Wann, the 270-pound author of Fat!So?, a popular book that promotes fat pride, begins her presentation with a quote from comedian George Carlin: "Euphemisms are a form of lying." She then proceeds to tell the direct truth: "Fat people are not gravitationally disadvantaged. They're fat. I prefer seeing things the way they are, not the way some people wish they were."

Wann, who holds a master's degree in literature and philosophy from Stanford University, tells the students she started reaching out to high schools after she read about a fat boy who committed suicide because he could not take the social harassment visited upon him because of his weight. That heartfelt anecdote quickly quiets down the class; they are all ears.

"I came out as a fat person," confides Wann, "on what I call my bad fat day, October 26, 1993. That's the terrible day that my boyfriend said he was ashamed to be seen with me. Then Blue Cross canceled my health insurance because I am what they call "morbidly obese.'

"So I decided to reclaim the f-word," she smiles. Then Wann joyously leads the kids in shouting the f-word: "Fat. Fat. Fat." The ice is definitely broken; the kids are on her side.

During the next hour, Wann teaches the class to deconstruct stereotypes about fat people (bad); thin people (good); sexual standards (fat folks are not attractive); food (fat people are gluttons); and health (fat people are unhealthy). In the back of the room, a fat boy starts to relax. His face moves from scared to pensive. And he grins when Wann breaks the kids into small groups, where they discuss ways to combat specific instances of fat discrimination, such as when a gym teacher teases you about your weight.

For the past seven years, Wann has been speaking, lobbying, and writing, hoping to revolutionize the way America treats fat people. To this end, she stresses that weight is not determined by a person's eating habits, but by heredity. On this day, she tells the students of Arroyo High that genetics determines 80 percent of a person's weight, that fatness is natural, and that it is essentially impossible for a fat person to lose weight over the long run.

These statements aren't entirely true. Outside the classroom, she admits that the scientific verdict on genetic influence is not in, that a person's genes are thought to be responsible for "somewhere between 30 to 80 percent" of body weight. In other words, she acknowledges, fatness may not be forever. But that's not what these students -- or, for that matter, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors -- have heard from the lips of Marilyn Wann.

Wann is a charming, articulate, robust, 34-year-old rebel with a cause. To put it simply, she is a professional fat agitator. In February 1999, she organized a protest in San Francisco against a health club chain after it put up a billboard featuring a hungry space alien and the caption, "When they come, they will eat the fat ones first." Thirty large people did aerobics in front of the gym, brandishing signs saying "Eat Me." Wann, who was once a freelance journalist, says she deliberately chose a slow news day for the demonstration; her amusing spectacle got international coverage, and the ad was pulled.

Fourteen months later, largely due to Wann's efforts, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors added weight and height to existing city ordinances that now make it unlawful to discriminate "based on actual or perceived race, religion, color, ancestry, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, place of birth, weight, height, domestic partner status, marital status, AIDS/HIV status, association with members of [these protected] classes." These laws target acts of discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, business, and social activities, because "such discrimination poses a substantial threat to the health, safety, and general welfare of this community."

A representative of the Little People of America (i.e., dwarves) spoke in favor of the new law, which disallows discrimination based on both height and weight, but the main force behind the legislation was people concerned about fat discrimination. In public testimony leading up to the vote, nearly two dozen people, mostly large women, told personal stories about fat discrimination they had experienced.

A 16-year-old girl elicited gasps of outrage from the audience when she talked about receiving ego-bruising comments about her size from a nurse practitioner, instead of the basic gynecological services she desperately sought. Others talked about being redlined by HMOs and passed over for job promotions because of their weight.

Sondra Solovay, author of Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight-Based Discrimination, spoke about working undercover for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to ferret out weight discrimination in housing. Some landlords would not make eye contact with her, she said, let alone rent an apartment to a fat person.

Wann told the supervisors that weight is 80 percent genetically determined and that most scientific studies show no correlation between weight and health. She assured the supervisors that the legislation would cost almost nothing; the price of implementation would be "the cost of a couple of [armless] chairs [for fat people]."

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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