THE WEDDING was, as weddings are, unforgettable.
From the moment she appeared dramatically at the top of the aisle in the ultra-modern church, the moment she began her solemn walk down the long white polyester carpet rolled out in her honor, Peggy eclipsed her surroundings. Twenty-four feet of shimmering ivory Qiana trimmed in creamy Venice lace, ten feet of frothy bridal illusion, a gown custom-made by Miss Judy herself of Miss Judy's Bridal Salon in Baltimore, enveloped her as she floated toward the fluorescent-lit altar. Peggy's joy and being that chilly February day filled the aisle. Her joy was immeasurable. Her being weighed three hundred and seventy-five pounds.
Peggy Williams, nee Greensfelder, is fat. She, many of the wedding guests and fully a third of the people in this country, according to medical statistics have endured a lifetime of diets, deprivation and suffering - sometimes with fatal results - in attempts to adhere to the Madison Avenue dream of slimness. But unlike the other seventy million fat Americans, Peggy Williams has chucked Madison Avenue and declared her independence. She is fat and proud of it.
She is part of a growing movement of fat people - well-represented at her wedding - who have declared war on a society which, they believe, has discriminated against fat people for more than 700 years on every possible level - social, psychological, medical and professional.
Peggy is luckier than most. She is now married to a man who adores her ample figure and enormous bosom. She holds a job she loves and is surrounded by friends and family who dote on her. She is also head of the Baltimore-Washington area chapter of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans.
There are many others who aren't so lucky. Like Charlotte Horowitz, who was kicked out of the Kansas City School of Medicine for being sloppy, hard to get along with - and fat. Like the kids who are being threatened with suspension at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma because they won't - or can't - lose weight and thereby achieve the "whole person lifestyle" ORU feels students need for a higher education. Like the five crew members who weren't allowed to meet Jimmy Carter when he made an inspection tour of their submarine docked in Florida last summer because they were too fat to be seen by their President.
Fat people across the country are rising in protests against the indignities they have been made to suffer just because they are fat; drab, ungainly clothing, unsatisfactory or nonexistent social or sexual relationships, inaccessibility of theaters because seats are too small, doctors who pronounce them healthy but insist they must lose weight, bosses who monitor their overweight secretaries' daily lunches and countless more putdowns that have left fat people at best demoralized, at worst, suicidal.
Today they are forming clubs for social encounters, moral support and court battles. They are rallying to help each other find sympathetic doctors, happy employers and future mates. They are coining new words ("lookism" - discrimination based on looks, "FA" - Fat Admirer), fighting for new laws against discrimination based on a person's size, and seeking to change the entire outlook of modern society.
Most important, though, and what is most starting about the fat power movement, is the change that enlightened fat people have rendered within their own minds.
"I'm built for comfort, baby, I ain't built for speed."
(Chester Arthur Burnett),
"Built for Comfort"
Linda Blackmon flits around her elegant Arlington house like a plump budgie. She is readying trays of canapes and crackers and dip for her first meeting of the local chapter of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans. For the occasion, she has donned a fashionable black Qiana pants outfit topped by a flowing, knee-length tunic. Her makeup is heavy, but very well applied. Her ebony hair twists into a tall braid, adding inches to her five-two frame. Although she is predictably nervous about entertaining this group of people, most of whom she's never met, her bearing signifies a self-knowledge and self-confidence.
Linda Blackmon may have known humiliation and ridicule aimed at her weight, but today she is no shrinking violet.
"You should see what some of the other members make for these meetings," she said of the elaborate table she was setting. "I heard that Judy makes the most marvelous cheese puffs. None of this is dietary, unless you consider the celery sticks and raw brocoli dietary. I don't believe in that. Eat what you want to eat. I do. And I don't overeat. I just don't diet, and I don't expect anyone around me to."
It is a frosty January evening. The snow has been coming down steadily for a couple of hours and there is speculation about the arrival of other guests. Linda does not know that the night will turn into one of Washington's worst winter storms and her club-member guests will wind up spending the night at her house.
In a gust of wind, snow and hilarity the first guests arrive. Peggy Greensfelder has had to be physically pushed up the steep driveway to the house. Debby, a shy, girlish young woman arrives wrapped in coat, hat and numerous scarves. As she peels off her layers of outdoor clothes, she passes among, the guests an exquisitely crocheted shawl in a butterfuly pattern which she made. Peggy's finance Russell arrives in a blizzard of snow, laughing and stamping at the front door. The guest ooh and aah over Debby's shawl. Judy Forlines has found a comfortable couch on which to rest her 400-pound frame, and she plans on staying there.
"I've got a bad back," she explains. "Once I'm sitting down, I need help getting up. It's a pain." There's some seriousness in her explanation, but it evokes knowing grins from the guests.
Linda's roommate, Sharon, a sleek, redheaded young woman, makes a brief appearance in the parlor, and, surveying the sizable crowd of people, ducks out after a quick hello.
The group repairs to the living room, a larger space than the small, comfortable parlor in which hangs a gold-framed copy of "Desiderata." A grand piano dominates the bright living room. Club members make themselves comfortable in easy chairs, a couch and on the floor. Linda is introduced and everyone offers a brief autobiography. They are all in the same age group, late twenties to late thirties. They are not all fat. Russell is an FA and Dick was once fat but now sports a slightly larger-than-average figure. Their jobs and personalities are diverse. What they share, and the reason why they are so enthusiastic about coming together this snowy evening, are common experiences as adults in a world made for thin people.
"Try getting seat belt extenders," says Judy. "I drive a Porsche.For two years, I've had seat belt extenders on order. What happens? Every time I go for a drive, I'm less safe than anyone else."
"Fat people can't go to the Kennedy Center," Peggy says in indignation. "Talk about discrimination. The seats are too narrow for us."
Some, like Dick, are defensive.
"At work, I don't let anyone hand me any stuff about my weight," he says. "They know what they'll get. They respect me."
Others, like Debby, have yet to overcome the feelings of guilt and self-hatred. At 29, she finally mustered the self-confidence to quit her parents' home and rent an apartment of her own - right around the corner.
"It used to be," she says in a shy, whispering voice, "every day, my dad would remind me what a disappointment I was to him because I was fat. Always, it was 'Loss weight, lose weight.' I couldn't. I kept trying diets," a note of anguish, "but I couldn't keep it off. Every day my dad was after me. Now that I've moved, he still does it, but at least it isn't every day anymore."
They speak of their jobs. Judy's is a success story; Debby loves hers despite the humiliation she endures from her boss. Most feel lucky they are able to work at all - jobs aren't easy to find for the fat, a painful irony for a group of people who find it more costly to be fat, like buying two seats on an airplane to be comfortable.
Judy Forlines works for a Bethesda outfit called Datacomp, after having run her own computer business with her husband for several years. She holds a middle-management position and speaks effusively of her boss, Jack Havas.
"There's a story for you," she says. "Jack is so great. I think they [Datacomp] are really actively taking part in this whole fat discrimination thing. When we go to lunch, maybe a group of us, with Jack, he checks out the restaurant first, to make sure the chairs are big enough for me and that there aren't anything but booths that I can't get into. He is really considerate and aware. He even got me my own special chair at the office - an executive-size chair."
Asked later about this enlightened view, Haves was self-effacing.
"I don't think of Judy just as being fat," he said. "Her weight was never an overriding thing in my mind. She's just used to discrimination. We don't discriminate here on any basis. As far as the chair is concerned, well, we get a lot of different kinds of chairs. We try to make our people comfortable."
Debby's story is poignantly different. She loves her job at a Baltimore city agency, she says, and she'd never quit. But for that job, she puts up with a lot.
"There are weight requirements where I work," she explained, "but they are aimed at the people who work in the field, not at stenographers. I was told I'd be promoted to secretary but I'd have to lose weight as part of the promotion. My boss bugs me all the time. He's fat himself, but nobody says anything to him about it. Once a week, he takes me through the stenographers' room to the back to weigh me. Every day, he checks my lunch to make sure I don't have any bread or something that he thinks might be fattening. He gives me such a hard time if I try to get anything like that. But he's really very nice about it."
Who ever heard of fat men heading a riot, or herding together in turbulent mobs? No, no, 'tis your lean and hungry men who are continuously worrying society, and setting the whole community by the ears.
"Knickerbocker's History of New York"
Debby said her life changed after she joined the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA), and her friends and fellow club members attest to the changes. The Baltimore-Washington chapter of NAAFA, like the national association, is largely a social group. Founded by a Fat Admirer, Bill Fabrey, about ten years ago, NAAFA is a support group, a social group and an information center. More recently, the group has gone political, taking strong stands in defense of individuals whom they feel have been mistreated because of their weight. But the thrust of the organization is to make members understand that they are not alone and that they should feel no shame or disgrace because of their weight.
Local chapters follow the customs set early by Fabrey. Dances are held, outings, picnics and theater trips organized. Monthly meetings are as much a chance to get together socially as they are business sessions. A national convention is planned in Alexandria for Memorial Day weekend. If there is any "consciousness-raising" per se going on, it is incidental to the therapy. Mostly, members learn the meaning of self-confidence through social interaction with others like themselves.
NAAFA is the largest organization of its kind, boasting thirty chapters across the country and a doubling of its membership in the last year after a slow growth for some eight years. But it is not the only fat group. The Los Angeles-based Fat Underground, its Connecticut-based offshoot Fat Liberation Front and a few scattered groups around the country have taken an active militant-political stance in battling society on the question of fat.
"Being fat is natural to fat people," said Sherry Fram, a member of the Fat Underground collective. "Most of the research that's been done on the obese has been with people who've been on diets most of their lives. Our research of studies leads us to believe strongly that the stress brought on by repeated dieting would affect the findings. We are actively against diets. Our stand is that it is more harmful to the body to force it into an unnatural, thin existence when it actually is naturally to be fat.
"We are made to believe we have a choice," Farm continued. "If I had a choice, would I be fat today? Of course not. Fat people do not have a choice. I dieted all my life until a couple of years ago. I believe that if I hadn't dieted, I would not be as fat as I am today. The fastest way to get fat is to diet. When you lose weight, you almost always gain it back - and more."
To make this point, militant fat groups Fram's distribute medical and political literature. They also function as consciousness-raising vehicles for fat women who refuse to turn themselves into sex objects as the only alternative to the oppression they feel.
While NAAFA's primary aim is to change its members, Fat Underground and FLF are attempting to change society.
Sudden death is more common in those who are naturally fat than those who are lean.
Aphorism No. 44
In all maladies, those who are fat about the belly do best. It is bad to be very thin and wasted there.
Aphorism No. 35
So much for the ancient writers.
Dr. Jean Mayer
Overweight: Causes, Cost and Control
The most relentlessly furious controversy regarding obesity concerns health. Is it safe to be fat? Is it safer to diet?
The medical ups and downs on the subject of obesity can be linked quite directly to permutations in fashion and society. It was right after World War I that obesity first became a stigma. Until the turn of the century, being fat was always considered a sign of health, wealth and well-being. After World War II, Metropolitan Life came out with standardized height and weight charts - the same charts used today by all doctors - and fat was suddenly more than just verboten, it was un-American.
Over the years, obesity has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, back aches, kidney troubles and malnutrition. Today, research is not only minimizing many of the connections, but also shattering numerous pre-conceived notions doctors have about obesity.
"Bariatrics, the study of obesity, was never considered a real medicine," said Dr. Abraham Friedman, a Florida obesity specialist. "It was just a matter of dieting. A nutritionist could do the same. Now, bariatrics is becoming a recognized field of medicine. One of the things doctors are discovering is that not all fat people should lose weight."
"Have you heard of the yoyo syndrome?" asked Dr. Maria Simonson, a specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Obesity Clinic. "It is worse to lose and gain, lose and gain. Many obese people will add weight when they gain it back."
Stress of any kind is extremely harmful to the body. For the obese, this stress intensifies if they subject their bodies to the abuses of repeated dieting.
"You should feel comfortable," Simonson said. "If you are comfortable with your weight, healthy physically and psychologically, I do not believe it is necessary to lose weight."
Fat men and women bemoan the fact that there aren't more enlightened doctors like Simonson and Friedman. They are used to being diagnosed as being completely healthy but told they must lose weight.
"If I walk into a doctor's office," said Liz Fisher, executive secretary to the NAAFA, "and you walk into that doctor, and we both get diagnosed with the exact same problem, or we are both pronounced identically healthy, he'll still tell me I have to lose weight."
Still, many doctors feel justified in counseling their obese patients to lose excess weight.
"It's certainly a complicating factor," said Dr. Norman Lindenmuth, director of the George Washington Hospital Health Plan and a man who has seen many, many obese patients in his practice. "You have to be prone, usually through heredity, to such illnesses as heart disease and diabetes. But the obesity is definitely seen as a complicating factor.
"Beyond that," he added, "obesity in itself is not life-threatening. What it will do to the person as he gets older is cause him discomfort in getting around. The obese person often experiences degenerative arthritis, gall bladder problems, he may fatigue more easily."
Even Drs. Friedman and Simonson concede that obesity, especially extreme obesity, can be dangerous. Dr. Friedman, in his book, Fat Can Be Beautiful, includes his own diet, with the admonition that weight regulation can even be more important than weight loss. Both doctors see weight loss as treatment for many diseases.
"A person who is fat," said Dr. Simonson, "if he shows any sign of deterioration of health, he should lose weight. One of the first ways to treat arthritis, for example, is to lose weight. Same with some forms of diabetes, heart diseases."
"What is so depressing for the doctor about treating the obese," Dr. Lindenmuth said, "is the success rate is at the very best one in twenty. More often it is far less than that. And that's for keeping weight off one year.
"But," he added, "treating the obese is a very nice business to get rich in."
"I don't give a damn," Peter shouted. "I want a lot of everything. I want forty acres of color and smell. I want fat women, with breasts as big as pillows. I'm hungry I tell you. I'm hungry for everything, a lot of everything."
Sexual relationships are a problem for the majority of fat people, but it is particularly serious for fat guys, especially gay men. In a society where slim is king, within the gay movement, fat is worse than a sin.
"I have to tell you," one gay man said, "I hate fat people. It is my one prejudice, and I don't mind admitting it."
"You often see in the men's rooms of gay bars," another gay man noted, "you know, the old 'For a good time call . . ." But a lot of times underneath they write 'No fats.'"
"Gay people are more into body beautiful than straight people," commented Washingtonian Bruce Pennington, otherwise known as Aurora Borealis.
Gay Fat Admirers, internally known as "chubby chasers," are shunned and ridiculed.
But slowly, fat gays are organizing. There's a small nucleus of a group in San Francisco. Nothing overt or organized is going on locally, but NAAFA's Bill Fabrey noted that about five percent of NAAFA's membership is openly gay.
"Some straight guys have gone gay to find satisfaction when they were avoided by women for being fat," Fabrey said.
The actual physical aspects of sex can be somewhat of a puzzle to fat people who are inured to think of themselves as somehow not normal. Liberated fat men and women will quickly say that sex can be as normal and fun for the fat person at it is for the non-fat. Some of the fat pride books that have come out in the last few years contain explicit sex manuals.The best is Dr. Friedman's Fat Can Be Beautiful.
"People laugh at the idea of making love to a woman who weighs three hundred pounds," said one male FA. "It's no different from making love to a slim woman, except maybe so after."
As the wedding festivities stretched into late afternoon and the silver-fountain pounds bowl of orange-colored Manhattans lost its fresh chill, the guests were still showing no signs of leaving.
Everybody agreed that Peggy and Russell made the perfect couple. They epitomize what many of the fat people at the wedding that day would want to achieve.
In talking to Peggy, one gets an overriding sense of self-confidence emanating from her. She seems to be afraid of very little. More than most people, she has set out to get just what she wants out of life, and more than most people, she has achieved it.
Sitting in Linda Blackmon's living room several weeks before the wedding, Peggy was asked what were the advantages of being fat. She'd been leaning back comfortably against her fiance. At the question, she thought for a minute and then drew herself up. She leaned forward, eyes flashing, her bosom thrusting out to emphasize what she about to say:
"You know what the best thing is about being fat?" she asked rhetorically. "It gives you a sense of power."