SAN FRANCISCO — Frances White is not plump. Nor is she stout, stocky, tubby, paunchy or pudgy. Frances White is fat. F-a-t. Fat.
We may speak openly of this because White has accepted her weight. Her goal now is to get you to accept it too.
White, 51, carries 350 pounds on a 5-foot, 8-inch frame. She has always been heavy. Destined, she says, to be a large person from birth. She was put on her first diet before age 10. Then came thyroid pills, exercise programs and more and more diets.
To her relatives she was an embarrassment. You'll never marry unless you shed some pounds, they warned. Her friends were little better, unable to fathom why she couldn't slim down.
At supermarkets, common strangers behaved like food police, criticizing items in her shopping cart. And then there were the taunts, the oinks and the stares--society's constant, humiliating reminders that she literally didn't fit in.
"It's very painful, being fat in our body-obsessed society," says White, membership coordinator for San Francisco's public television station, KQED. "There's this cruel perception that we're always eating, that we're all lazy, sloppy and sickly. Your life is just miserable unless you find a way to cope."
Frances White has found a way to cope. She has become a disciple of "fat liberation," a promoter of the idea that it's OK to be large in the land of liposuction and liquid diets.
This might seem a heretical notion, considering our culture's obsession with firm fannies, no-fat cuisine, waif-like fashion models and the adage that "you can't be too rich or too thin."
But the ideology of fat acceptance is, in fact, finding favor in America--not just among the heavy but also among many health professionals, obesity researchers, psychotherapists and civil-rights advocates.
"Fat people suffer tremendous painful social consequences because of their condition," says Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "We need to relieve them of the blame for their excessive weight and promote the message that very few of us can attain society's beauty ideal."
Last month, the cause received a hearty boost from new findings suggesting that some people are genetically predestined to be obese. Researchers at Rockefeller University in New York say they have identified a gene responsible for secreting proteins that signal the brain when the stomach is full, thus indicating that it's time to stop eating. When this gene is defective, the signal is not sent or received and obesity results, the scientists believe.
"You have to attend to (obesity) as an organic problem, not a behavioral problem," says Rudolph Leibel, a leading obesity researcher at Rockefeller University. Losing weight, in other words, is not always a question of willpower.
Government statistics show that 33% of Americans are obese--defined as more than 25% above their ideal body weight. Studies have linked obesity with numerous medical ailments, including hypertension, diabetes, certain cancers and coronary heart disease.
But many fat activists--and a small band of experts--question such studies, contending that researchers have failed to distinguish fat people who exercise and eat sensibly from those who don't.
"There are many fat people who lead healthy lifestyles and I believe they are at considerably lower risk for these diseases," says Joanne Ikeda, a UC Berkeley nutritionist and expert on pediatric obesity. "But the studies don't address this question because the scientific community assumes that all fat people are lazy gluttons."
Leading the charge against fatism is the National Assn. to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), a Sacramento-based group founded by a man angered by the bigotry his fat wife faced. The organization lobbies for fat-friendly legislation, operates a legal research and defense fund and designs educational programs to fight "fat phobia" and anti-fat messages in the media.
In recent years, the group has persuaded greeting-card manufacturers to come up with "fat-sensitive" designs and pressured national restaurant chains to install wider seating in new outlets. Last summer, members made headlines with a demonstration at the White House, where they chided President Clinton--who had been considered an ally because of the flak he took for gaining weight on the 1992 campaign trail--for ignoring fat people in the debate over health-care reform.
"Fat people are becoming empowered," says Sally Smith, NAAFA's executive director. "We are coming out of the closet and realizing that you don't have to put up with second-class treatment, and you don't have to put your life on hold waiting to be thin."
Support groups and anti-diet organizations are popping up from coast to coast, preaching the merits of "size diversity" and fighting the perception that fat people could get trim if only they would really try.