Weight Stigma: Breaking it Down with Advocate and Activist Marilyn Wann

by Jennifer Jonassen

One of my biggest heroes in the struggle against fat hatred is unquestionably Marilyn Wann. Her first book, FAT?SO!, was positively revolutionary to me. I initially found myself drawn to the title as I painfully remembered that “fatso” was about the worst thing you could be called on the playground at lunch, and I was, many times throughout my childhood. Reading her book was the first time I considered the possibility that I was equal to everyone else, that I was worthy and entitled to respect. For many years I have considered Marilyn Wann the Gloria Steinem of the weight equality movement.

In person, Marilyn Wann is warm and incredibly understanding. In addition to being an indefatigable warrior and champion of human rights she is also one of the funniest people I know. I was recently blessed to have an opportunity to speak with her about some of the issues we face today including bullying, First Lady Michelle Obama’s controversial “Let’s Move” campaign, and U.S. healthcare. Ms. Wann’s story begins one important day where she faced a “double whammy” of discrimination and rejection. The catalyst events of that day led her to write FAT?SO! and to become the knowledgeable and inspiring leader she is today.

MW: I had what I called my Really Bad Day and I don’t think I’m the only person who has ever had a day like this. In 1993, I was having dinner with this guy and in the middle of dinner he said that he just realized that he was embarrassed to introduce me to some of his friends because I was fat. It really hurt my feelings. I was angry at him and outraged at being excluded. Then, I came home from that experience and opened a letter from Blue Cross California telling me that I would not be allowed to buy health insurance, not at any price, because of my weight. According to them I am morbidly obese. That was a double whammy.

JJ: What was your first step?

MW: I’m inspired by Audre Lorde, a feminist African American lesbian poet. She said that your silence does not protect you. So, because of that really bad day, I decided to come out as publicly as possible as a proud fat person. I started a zine called Fat!So? and then after five or six issues of the zine I got to put together a book proposal and write a Fat!So? book.

JJ: And Fat!So? is still in print today?

MW: Yes, it has been in print for 11 years and people are really enjoying it. I think it’s proof that people of all different sizes have these moments of being excluded for who we are. We all feel like we’re the only person who is alone and everyone else has some magic secret, when in fact we are all having that experience. So we have this solidarity in this alienation.

JJ: Do you think discrimination has gotten worse or better?

MW: I think it’s possible that levels of weight-based prejudice and discrimination have gotten worse. We are just now starting to get basic data on weight discrimination. I do know that for children it is getting worse. Children face more hatred from their peers and the anti-obesity campaigns against fat children are terrifying. The government-sponsored campaigns are also promoting fat hate. But I do also think that our resistance is better. The grassroots community of people—of all sizes—are saying that this is a stupid kind of prejudice that gets in everybody’s way and wastes our lives. I think we are finding more strength and more fabulousness!

JJ: Do you have any thoughts on why this form of prejudice is getting worse?

MW: I do think that weight prejudice got really heated maybe a hundred or more years ago out of a combination of a lot of different industries jumping into the public [realm]. Advertising, medicine, insurance, the government, and all kinds of major forces in our society, like the media, all jumped into public awareness for different but self-interested reasons. Weight discrimination is really driven by health beliefs. Health beliefs around weight are not neutral or beneficial: they really are very dangerous and they justify discrimination.

JJ: What can we do to fight against this discrimination?

MW: I don’t think it’s necessarily an incremental battle where you have to fight every step of the way against overwhelming odds. I think it’s a battle where we can use leverage, where things can shift on one idea or one zesty comeback or one powerful confrontation. So I have the hope that although we are incredibly outnumbered we actually have a really powerful position.

JJ: Why do you think the anti-obesity campaigns are not including information about HAES (Health At Every Size), NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), or input from you or other scholars? It seems to me that these campaigns ultimately end up becoming more damaging although that probably isn’t their intention.

MW: Well, I think they may have good intentions but if they were behaving like scientists they would certainly notice the data doesn’t support their approach. The approach of telling everyone to just eat better and exercise more and they’ll be thin has been tried a million billion times by a million billion people, and it doesn’t produce the results that everyone is hoping for. People lose weight and feel better about themselves for a little while and then gain it back and continue feeling bad about themselves. So whatever good intentions there may be, [their intentions] are also shaped by fear of social ostracism.

JJ: Let’s talk about the Let’s Move Campaign, which is First Lady Michelle Obama’s major project.

MW: The Let’s Move campaign has this goal of “solving the childhood obesity epidemic within one generation.” That’s a terrible goal. There are ways that they qualify it but basically what they are saying is we don’t like fat children in our society, we don’t want there to be any fat children. Now there have always been fat children and there will always be fat children, so by having that goal they’re not changing the reality that fat children exist. They are just adding shame and blame onto fat children.

JJ:  I know from experience that it is incredibly difficult and painful when your weight is targeted at a young age in school.

MW: I think that there’s this notion that weight loss goals are good and I don’t think that they are good. I think they are very discriminatory. Because they know that when people lose weight the majority gain it right back. And the majority of people are still going to [have] the natural body shapes that they were born to have. And so it’s kind of a utopian uniformity goal: the world won’t be good until we’re all the same body shape. I find that very creepy. Why do we even want that?

JJ: Can you explain the difference in approach that HAES takes?

MW: Well, I think Health At Every Size offers the possibility for reclaiming the joy and benefit from proper nutrition and good eating and the joy of moving and being physically active. We can reclaim behaviors that have been attached to weight loss goals and they can really be good for us. I think that when you have the Health At Every Size approach it celebrates weight diversity and health. We can revolutionize the way we think about health, weight, food, eating, and fitness if we stop torturing ourselves and each other.

JJ: There must be a correlation to bullying and these campaigns I imagine…

MW:  It’s hard to gauge yet without studies [but] childhood for fat children can be hellish. We [NAAFA] recently [learned of] a tragic story. This teenage girl who was of average weight moved to a new town and she was picked on for her body and size and her nose. She was so harassed for her weight that she wouldn’t even eat on the school grounds. She had one new friend and she and this friend committed double suicide.

And this has happened before. These tragedies are horrifying and there are other children who will think of killing themselves. Their lives are permanently hindered. Their feeling of worth in the world is permanently damaged from being bullied and teased. We know that’s going on. There is kind of an attitude that bullying or teasing is somehow a necessary or required part of growing up. And I think that it’s just adults being fearful and cowards because this is not necessary. This is something anyone can stand up to. There is even a wonderful book by an eight-year old girl in Chicago about how she didn’t choose to be fat and she shouldn’t be teased for it. I think it’s up to all of us as human beings to stand up against hurtfulness. I go out and I give talks in schools.

JJ: You visit schools a lot. What is that like?

MW: I go in as a really fat person saying, “Hi, I’m a really fat person and here’s my story. Here is what it has been like for me and I don’t agree with being mistreated and I don’t want any of you to be mistreated for who you are. You don’t have to be fat or thin or whatever—you just have to know that all of you are fine as you are and you don’t have to take that.”

JJ: What kind of response do you get?

MW: I think its really powerful for children of all sizes and ages to meet a happy fat person and to meet a fat person who is not willing to blame everything bad in their world on their weight. It’s important to meet someone who is trying to challenge weight-based prejudice and stereotypes. It’s really powerful for kids just to see you. When I meet with children I don’t use Power Point, I don’t show videos. I want them to see a person like me because they’ve probably never seen a person like me. It’s just a little bit of contrast to the fat hate which they see everywhere. So it’s really powerful just to be with them. Kids have a great sense of fairness. They get really angry at unfairness in the world and I think that’s a great quality.

JJ: Is it hard standing up against these discriminatory beliefs?

MW: Sometimes when you stand up to this stuff more of it comes toward you. But it’s not like this hatefulness wasn’t already there. I think of it as information. If I speak out publicly about being a proud fat person and people make hateful comments, I look at it like these are people I did not want to be friends with anyway. And it’s good to know that they can be on the outside of my healthy boundaries and not be let in. And their hatefulness is proof that I need to say what I’m saying.

JJ: A lot of people feel that their hatefulness is justified since the issue is tied up with healthcare.

MW: I think we need to call people on that. For example, if somebody isn’t wearing a seatbelt and they get into an accident, well maybe that person doesn’t get a paramedic and we just leave them on the side of the road to die. That is the logic behind that thinking. There’s a lot of fear mongering from the public health establishment about these so-called alleged costs of healthcare for fat people. But all that is based upon the assumption that your weight can somehow predict how healthy you are and how long you are going to live.

JJ: Do you think if fat people were allowed to purchase healthcare [in the U.S.] that it would decrease tax dollars going to healthcare?

MW: There are a lot of fat people who simply aren’t allowed to buy health insurance, like me. And so we’re not costing anyone anything. For most of my adult life, I have had to pay my healthcare out of pocket. I was not a burden on anyone. And it’s really quite painful to know that people would rather have you die than have access to healthcare. You know, in many cases if a fat person goes to visit a doctor they are going to get a lecture rather than proper medical care treatment. That means that fat people are not getting the same quality of care or the same amount of healthcare than other people … and so we may get sicker because of that and that is very sad.

I find it interesting that we have skepticism about all different kinds of other topics. We’re willing to be skeptical when the government tells us we have to go to war, we’re willing to be skeptical of the advertising industry when they say “this is the best product”; we have some awareness that the information might be motivated by self interest and we question it. And it’s super interesting to me that people are really afraid or unwilling to be skeptical or to question the [relationship between] health and weight. I think that is because there is so much social pressure that if you don’t go along, you are going to be mocked and ostracized. And nobody wants to be mocked and ostracized so we’re refusing to even consider questioning the beliefs.

JJ: You find fun ways to get the message out. Can you tell us a little about the “flesh mob”?

MW: Recently I organized a bunch of people to interrupt an obesity conference on International No Diet Day. A place where people were convinced that if you are fat that means that you have to have all kinds of health problems. This particular conference was held to convince healthcare providers to buy weight loss products to sell. Basically a way to make money off of an oppression. And promote fat oppression. So I organized people to interrupt that conference with a dance party, which I called a “flesh mob.”

We had about 15-20 people show up at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon … and my friend came up with a song that was similar to the kid’s song: “Heads Shoulders Knees & Toes” but instead of the children’s version, we made it syncopated and added a funky dance. The words were: “Chins Bellies Hips & Ass.”

JJ: Love that!

MW: We went into this conference room and we started playing the music and dancing and we stopped everything that was happening. The guy who was talking is a big promoter of fat hate. He was the guy responsible for lowering the BMI definitions of “overweight” and “obese” back in 1998.  He takes a lot of money from diet drug companies. He takes a lot of money from Weight Watchers and other diet companies. He basically goes around the world promoting huge, ineffective, dangerous money-making fat-hate systems. And because he’s considered a medical expert he gets treated with respect. And I don’t think that anyone has interrupted him and shaken their fat ass at him and said, “You can’t have this one. This body is not susceptible to your judgment.” And to have about 20 of us doing that was really fun! When the security person came in we danced out of the room the same way we danced in. I would really like to see our community come up with more of these fun, irreverent activities that directly interrupt fat hate. Fat hate deserves to be interrupted. It deserves to be questioned.

For more about Marilyn Wann and her activism, visit her website Fatso.com (“for people who don’t apologize for their size”).

Editor’s Note: Ms. Wann will be publishing a 2012 FAT!SO? dayplanner, which will raise funds to create a community center called the Weight Diversity Action Lounge or WDAL. For more information checkout www.voluptuart.com.

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5 thoughts on “Weight Stigma: Breaking it Down with Advocate and Activist Marilyn Wann

  1. I have MS and was misdiagnosed several times. I was told all of my pain was due to my weight, even my sudden blindness, which thankfully was not permanent. Finally I got a doctor who thought I was crazy and said she wanted to MRI my brain. They found lesions. Then a spinal tap, and guess what? I have MS. I had been complaining about pain and numbness and memory loss for years to at least 20 doctors. I was always written off for being fat. Going without propper treatment for years as my disease progressed. People will always find a reason to discriminate against what they don’t understand and to make themselves feel better. It is easier for them than to actually improve themselves or educate themselves. Discrimination is based on the laziness of the discriminator.

  2. Quote: “You know, in many cases if a fat person goes to visit a doctor they are going to get a lecture rather than proper medical care treatment. That means that fat people are not getting the same quality of care or the same amount of healthcare than other people …”

    Applause for this insight!

    I went undiagnosed for a chronic condition that had nothing to do with my weight for four long years. It wasn’t until I ended up in the hospital that the problem was discovered. That could have been prevented had my previous doctors seen me as a person rather than as “fat person”. I shudder to think of how many of the same tests were run on me – thyroid, blood pressure, sugar… and each time my numbers were healthy. I sometimes think they didn’t even bother to look at my history. They took a look at me and my weight chart and that was that…

  3. She seems like a very intelligent and inspirational woman.

    Body discrimination is never good and we need to step back and recognize it when it happens and take a stand against every body policing comment, no matter whose mouth it comes from.

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