Marilyn Wann is fat. Got a problem with that?
Photo: Barbara Ries
By Nina Schuyler
It’s Sunday morning at the swimming pool at Albany (Calif.) High School, and 15 large women are swimming laps, flutter-kicking with boards or dragging white foam barbells through the water. In the center is Marilyn Wann, bending at the waist and crunching her body in half to work her abdomen. When she climbs out a few minutes later, Wann doesn’t grab a beach towel to conceal her 5-foot-4-inch, 270-pound frame. Instead, she boldly displays her purple, white and yellow flowered two-piece suit, her midriff widely exposed, and smiles with an enviable, breezy confidence.
This weekly swim isn’t just about exercise and having fun. It’s also a political act.
“In a world that says, ‘We don’t want to look at you because you’re ugly,’ I’m saying, ‘I’m here, and I’m going to be physical and dress up in a way I think is fabulous,’ or what I call ‘flabulous,’” says Wann, ’88, MA ’89. Creator of the Fat!So? hot-pink ’zine, website and book, she is masterful at creating funny, irreverent ways to wake people up to their assumptions about weight. In her book, published by Ten Speed Press in 1998, she urges readers to say to others, “You’re looking good. Are you getting fat?”
Although the witty and articulate Wann earns her living as a writer and a public speaker, it’s her body that does a lot of the talking. She performs with the Bod Squad, a group of rotund cheerleaders who show up at public events to promote the notion that fat is beautiful. She used to belong to the Padded Lilies, a team of synchronized swimmers that appeared on the Tonight Show in 2000. “People who see these events take away a spirit of fun fat rebelliousness,” she says, “unless they have a toothache.”
On a more serious note, Wann says her work builds upon the legacy of civil rights movements challenging racism, sexism and homophobia. She worked to pass a landmark antidiscrimination ordinance regarding height and weight in San Francisco, and she regularly speaks to high school and college students about body image.
“The closet for a fat person is an unlived life, full of self-hatred,” says Wann. She goes on to list the stereotypes associated with fatness: stupid, lazy, smelly, undisciplined, gluttonous, sexually voracious, sexually ineligible, freakishly nonhuman. “These sound familiar. They are the negative attributes that every oppressed people has been labeled with,” she says. “They make it okay to mistreat people, and fat people are the last acceptable targets of discrimination.”
Such prejudicial treatment is fairly well documented. Two years ago in the journal Obesity Research, researchers reviewed several dozen studies on discrimination and obesity and concluded that fat people suffer from bias in the workplace, at school and by health care professionals. But Wann finds greater resistance when she takes a position contrary to medical doctrine: that a person can be fat and fit.
Every elementary school class has one, and Wann was it. The fat kid. Her mother, who also is fat, outfitted Wann in caftans made from colorful sheets. (“Please understand, my mother was not being intentionally cruel,” she writes in her book. “It was the seventies.”) Wann was shy, acutely aware she didn’t conform to the ideal body norm and, inevitably, called names like “One-Ton,” “Henrietta Hippo” or “Fatso.” She compensated as best she could by being thoughtful, funny and a very good student. “Growing up, I felt there were the people who got to do things, and then there was me,” she says.
That sense continued at Stanford, where Wann earned her undergraduate degree in linguistics with a focus on literature and a master’s in modern thought and literature. Then 165 to 175 pounds, she remembers only a half-dozen people on campus who looked like her. “I always joked I was Stanford’s token nonjogger. ”
Instead, it was her writing that she honed. As a freshman, Wann scribed for the Stanford Daily a series of George Plimpton-style features (adventures of a Domino’s delivery person; her stint rowing crew), then served as the columnist for “Bug Me,” answering readers’ questions. She later wrote a humor column, “Wannderings.” (When she secured her Fat!So? book deal in 1997, she was intimidated by all the text required until she thought of it as a series of humor columns.) Wann’s activism remained dormant at Stanford; then-president Donald Kennedy’s messages to “question authority” and “make a difference” flew right by her.
That all changed on one really bad day about five years after graduation. First, her boyfriend said he was too embarrassed to introduce her to his friends because she was fat. Then, Blue Cross of California refused to give her health insurance because of her weight (at 27, the freelance journalist was roughly 245 pounds). “I was stunned, hurt, outraged,” she writes in her book.
Slowly, she began to peel away the layers of cultural learning surrounding fat. She decided if a guy couldn’t accept her weight, he couldn’t date her. As for Blue Cross’s label of “morbid obesity,” it wasn’t a diagnosis, but discrimination. She decided to speak up, producing her sassy, hard-to-overlook ’zine, which instantly took off, showing up on Oprah and MTV and in USA Today, the Washington Post and Glamour.
Wann’s metamorphosis had begun. She became a cheerleader, a synchronized swimmer and a hip-hop dance performer. She appeared on TV news shows with the title “fat rebel” under her name. “I’m not interested in people accepting my fat, but in fat people’s rights,” she says. And now she has joined a small but growing number of advocates and researchers who are taking on the medical establishment’s pervasive message that fat kills.
There are two camps in the debate about weight and health. The traditional medical stance, shared by many policy-makers, is that being overweight itself is a major health problem, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and sleep apnea. In the other camp, the health culprit is not fat per se, but a sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet.
Camp One’s message is becoming louder as Americans get heavier. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in January that the percentage of adults who are obese increased from 19.8 in 2000 to 20.9 in 2001. (Many researchers categorize people as “overweight” or “obese” using the body-mass index, a calculation that relates weight to height.) That same month, researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that obesity cuts between five and 20 years, depending on race and sex, from the lives of people in their 20s. And in April, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that 14 percent of deaths from cancer in U.S. men and 20 percent in women are attributable to increased body mass.
The establishment’s answer? Lose weight.
“If you are overweight or obese and lose 10 percent of your body weight, your risk of developing health problems diminishes substantially,” says Virginia physician Denise Bruner, board chair of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians.
Not so fast, say those in Camp Two. Many obesity studies show only correlation, not causation. In other words, they demonstrate that people at higher weights have greater incidences of certain health problems; the researchers or others then attribute the increased health risk to the increased weight.
Wann is quick to point out that few obesity studies consider the subjects’ diet and exercise habits. She admires the work of Steven N. Blair, director of research at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research. In a 1999 study, Blair and his colleagues found that fit men, whether lean, normal or obese, had similar death rates over an eight-year period. “Lean men in our study had increased longevity only if they were physically fit; furthermore, obese men who were fit did not have elevated mortality,” wrote the researchers. The lesson, says Wann, is that “anyone who walks, swims, rides a bike, dances on a regular basis is doing a huge benefit for their health, even if they don’t lose weight.”
Camp Two also asserts that doctors haven’t necessarily explained why people are fat or whether they can do anything to change their weight permanently.
“People’s weight is a combination of genetics and living in an environment that now tempts you with food at every turn,” says Gail Woodward-Lopez, a nutritionist and health educator who serves as associate director of the Center for Weight and Health at UC-Berkeley. “It doesn’t help that we are discouraged from being physically active because of time, safety and cost constraints.”
Wann concurs that genetics plays a significant role. She cites a study showing a weight difference of only 10 percent between identical twins raised in different environments (and, anecdotally, notes that she inherited her mother’s fat figure). “So the best you can do is change to healthy habits,” she says, “and whether you gain or lose weight is beside the point.”
She certainly walks the walk (and swims the swim). Wann completes four to five hour-long workouts a week, and can carry on a conversation immediately afterward. She eats primarily vegetarian fare (in her book, she recommends “that one meal you eat each day is stuff that you have to Wash & Chop™”). And she insists she’s healthy by standard medical measurements: her blood pressure is 110 over 70; her blood sugar and cholesterol levels are in the normal range.
But what about someone larger—say, 500 pounds? Could she be fit? “The numbers on a scale are an inaccurate way of predicting health,” says Wann.
Camp One adamantly disagrees. “That 500-pound person is a walking time bomb metabolically,” says Bruner. “The joints are working harder; so is the heart. At the very least, a person that size has sleep apnea, which increases the risk of sudden death because of irregular rhythms of the heart. Fat-rights advocates shouldn’t minimize the fact that obese people die prematurely.”
William L. Haskell’s work may help resolve the feud. A professor emeritus of medicine who works at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention, Haskell is reviewing 12 studies conducted at research clinics to determine the relative roles of fitness and fatness in the development of heart disease and diabetes. While his report isn’t complete, Haskell has drawn some preliminary conclusions. “When I look at the data, the people with the best long-term health outcomes are reasonably lean and engage in regular physical activity,” he says. “But if you have trouble losing weight, don’t give up on physical activity, because being active and overweight is better than being overweight and inactive. Still better, though, is being active and not overweight at all.”
But, Wann argues, that may not be possible—or even desirable—for everyone. She points to the phenomenon of the yo-yo dieter, citing studies indicating that 95 percent to 98 percent of those who shed pounds gain them back within five years. Her book contains a timeline showing the health risks of popular diet drugs from the last 100 years.
Wann has dieted only once in her life, a week of eating white rice. She became so irritable she decided it was no way for an intelligent human being to live. “In my political worldview, the intention of eating to produce weight loss is counterproductive and does more harm than good,” she says. While she denounces dieting, she advocates healthy eating. “Honoring one’s own appetite, not denying the body’s reality, with food that is nourishing—now that is health-enhancing.”
A 24 hour fitness billboard advertisement featuring a space alien hovered above the tall buildings in downtown San Francisco: “When they come, they’ll eat the fat ones first.” Angry about the ad, Wann sent out e-mails to rally the fat community. To the song “The Way You Make Me Feel,” about two dozen women paraded in front of the fitness club on Van Ness, waving signs that read, “Eat Me!”
Press coverage of the 1999 event caught the attention of the San Francisco board of supervisors, which called for hearings by the city’s human rights commission. In May 2000, the supervisors adopted a height/weight antidiscrimination ordinance, joining three other jurisdictions: Michigan; Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Washington, D.C. “This was a huge victory,” says Wann. “We had people testifying that at job interviews, they were told they were highly qualified but the company didn’t want fat people working for it. We are still at that early stage where people think it’s okay to say things like that. We are pre-Stonewall,” she says, referring to the 1969 Greenwich Village riots often considered the beginning of the gay rights movement.
Wann frequently invokes the language of civil rights movements, urging fat people to “come out” and to reclaim the word “fat” (as has been done with “queer”) so no one can use it against them ever again. But how much is size like sexual identity? Like race? Leaders in the African-American community have objected to Wann’s use of civil rights language, complaining that while race is immutable, weight is not. She counters that religion is not immutable, and yet it is protected from discrimination. As for the validity of her “coming out” analogy, “Is it a secret that I’m fat?” she queries. “No. But for most of my life, I’d been living in a kind of closet—never wearing sleeveless or revealing clothes, never trying out for cheerleader.”
In one of the first cases under San Francisco’s ordinance, a friend of Wann’s, 240-pound Jennifer Portnick, filed a complaint in September 2001 against Jazzercise Inc., which refused to sell her an instructor franchise until she complied with the company’s “fit appearance” requirement. Jazzercise capitulated the following April, acknowledging, “Recent studies document that it may be possible for people of varying weights to be fit. Jazzercise has determined that the value of ‘fit appearance’ as a standard is debatable.”
In celebration and to commemorate International No Diet Day, the fat community partied at Justin Herman Plaza. Members of the Bod Squad, Wann included, grabbed their hot-pink and silver pom-poms and cheered, “Three-five-seven-nine, love your body, it’s just fine.” Plus, “Two-four-six-eight, we do not regurgitate.”
Nearly a year later, as the room thumps with Sir MixaLot’s “Baby Got Back” (“I like big butts and I can not lie”), Portnick stands on a stage in the basement of the Miraloma Community Church. Wann is in her usual front-row spot, wearing form-fitting black exercise pants and a fuchsia and orange sports bra. When the music switches to “Set Me Free,” Wann and the others sing and clap, waving their arms overhead, traveling right and left, then punching the air. There isn’t any mention of “no pain, no gain” or “working till you drop”; this is about having fun, about movement, about being fit at any size.
That’s one of the messages Wann happily and frequently takes into the classroom. It’s late afternoon on a Wednesday at City College of San Francisco, and the halls are crowded with noisy students. The 24 students in Sex and Gender in American Society entered Room 267 slack-faced and yawning, but now they are sitting up in their chairs spellbound and slightly shocked. Wann has just announced, “I’m so excited to be here to talk to you about fat!”
Wann has been speaking to high school and college students for almost a decade, ever since she read about several fat teens who committed suicide because they were tired of the teasing. It hit too close to home. “I felt I had something that might stop that from happening again,” Wann says.
At the City College class, she writes “fat” on the chalkboard, draws a thick line beside it, then writes “thin.” The students call out stereotypes associated with the two adjectives. “Which side of the line would you rather be on?” she asks. The choice is obvious. Thin means smart, sexy, in control, fashionable, successful. And fat? Well, the opposite. Wann’s point is apparent, too: we’ve made weight a moral and character issue. “I’m interested in erasing that line,” she says.
Afterward, a young man comes up to her, tells her he’s never thought of these things before and thanks her for coming. Wann beams. She can’t erase fat prejudice single-handedly, but comments like those suggest she’s made a start.
Reaching the next generation has become particularly important to Wann. She’s planning a book for teenagers, tentatively titled “Fat!So? Rebel Handbook for Teens,” because it’s something she wishes she’d had when she was growing up. And she’s pondering a fat camp for kids—not for losing weight, but for being flabulous. It’s a fitting next chapter in the story of a fat kid who stopped feeling bad about herself and learned to love her size. “Who knew,” Wann muses, “that a shy little fat girl in a cul-de-sac could actually get attention and have people change their lives?”
Nina Schuyler, ’86, is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
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