Letters to the Editor

Letters from January 24, 2001

Weighty Issues

Cut down to size: The city of San Francisco did not outlaw discrimination based on height and weight because body size is genetic, but because discrimination is wrong. Peter Byrne's defense of the narrow-minded status quo is a perfect example of why we need such legal protection. His article, "As a Matter of Fat" (Jan. 17), is anything but a matter of fact.

One of the facts Byrne chooses to ignore: The National Institutes of Health has found that a whopping 90 percent of the people who lose weight on medically supervised diets will regain that weight within three years. (This is not the failure rate for fad diets, as Byrne would have it, but the failure rate for sensible, doctor-approved plans to eat less and exercise more. They just don't work.) Here's another fact Byrne doesn't like: Thin people who don't exercise are three times more likely to die young than fat people who exercise regularly, according to the nation's leading fitness research center, the Dallas-based Cooper Institute. (These data explain why I urge people to focus on good nutrition and fitness -- rather than on weight loss -- as the key to good health.) I have to suspect that Peter Byrne isn't worried that I'm healthy, he's worried that I'm uppity.

Finally, despite Byrne's claims to the contrary, weight-based discrimination is not just anecdotal; it has been documented by no less an authority than the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that fat women earn an average of $6,710 less in annual salary than thin women do. That's a huge price to pay for the complacence and intolerance of people like Peter Byrne. And it doesn't even begin to consider the terrible human cost of eating disorders, which are often inspired by a fear of being ridiculed and shamed for being different (as in SF Weekly's mocking cartoon of short, tall, and fat people sitting in theater seats).

The worst part is not that Byrne was presented with these facts and chose to ignore them. The worst part is that SF Weeklythinks people who face cruelty should starve themselves to win the approval of their tormentors. You don't have to cut yourself down to "acceptable" size to win respect, at least not in San Francisco!

Marilyn Wann
Western Addition

Points of contention: "Every morning my child's school bus driver harasses him in front of the other kids because of his weight. The school won't do anything. Please help me." "They said I am qualified for the job but that they won't hire anyone over 200 pounds."

This is what is missing from Peter Byrne's article. This is the reason we need laws to protect people from weight-based discrimination.

While I do not expect everyone to agree with my position, I am shocked by Byrne's one-sided mischaracterization of my research, my work, and the related issues about weight discrimination. In addition, there are serious inaccuracies in Byrne's article that relate to me specifically.

1) I did not work undercover for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to ferret out weight discrimination in housing. (I worked for a fair-housing agency and encountered weight discrimination in housing during the course of my regular duties.)

2) Neither I nor other legal scholars agree that anti-discrimination law exists to protect groups based only on the immutability of the characteristic in question. In my book (Tipping the Scales of Justice) I set out three theories that justify anti-discrimination law. Only one of those involves the concept of "immutable" characteristics.

3) Byrne incorrectly says, "She claims that fat people are "an oppressed biological minority,' and links the medical establishment's so-called "war on fat' to "genocide.'"

As I clearly state in my book, "A member of the early fat liberation group known as the Los Angeles Fat Underground wrote a letter to the medical community in the 1970s, "You see fat as suicide, I see weight-loss as murder -- genocide to be precise -- the systematic murder of a biological minority by organized medicine." Later I refer to this comment, saying, "Some activists, responding to the biological and genetic root causes of fat, liken such medical efforts to genocide," and I include a standard dictionary definition of the word "genocide."

4) Byrne uses a quote from my book, completely out of context, to say that I "admit" there is a lack of "solid evidence that weight discrimination is a pressing social problem." I absolutely disagree with this statement. It is crystal clear that weight discrimination is a pressing social problem that occurs in many areas, including employment, housing, social settings, and courts of law.

Sondra Solovay

Thin between the ears: Re your trolling-for-Jenny-Craig-advertising-dollars anti-fat screed: I am absolutely appalled that SF Weeklywould interview brilliant, maverick women like size-acceptance advocates Marilyn Wann and Sondra Solovay and then proceed to do a hatchet job on them.

In opposing the law forbidding discrimination based on body size and shape, Byrne calls on that shallow, creaky, ad hominem argument that since we all could be thin if we rilly rilly wanted to, we deserve whatever life hands out to us if we "refuse to lose." Hmm. Haven't Anita Bryant, Laura Schlesinger, and other anti-gay agitators made these exact same statements about lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender folks -- i.e., that they could get married, have kids like "normal" people do, and forget about this silly same-sex-lover nonsense, and then discrimination would be no problemo?

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