Joe McVoy, a psychologist and eating-disorder specialist in Radford, Va., recently formed a network of physicians, dietitians, therapists and others who advocate fat acceptance and healthy living for the obese. The Assn. for the Health Enrichment of Large People, he says, was born of his frustration at seeing his fat patients diet endlessly with no enduring success.
"For the last five decades, we've been telling fat people to lose weight, and that once they did, everything would be OK," McVoy says. "Well, dieting as a long-term solution doesn't work . . . So we've locked these people in a whirlpool of feeling bad because they're fat, and feeling worse because they fail at dieting."
But some are bouncing back in the war against fatism with litigation. More and more heavy people have begun to bring claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act and other laws.
A Cookeville, Tenn., woman who sued a movie theater after she was barred from bringing her own chair to a showing of "Jurassic Park" recently settled her case, receiving a sum her lawyer called "very satisfactory."
Pam Hollowich, a 400-pound Los Angeles woman, sued Southwest Airlines after she was "humiliated" by a ticket agent who allegedly pulled her out of line and ordered her to buy a second seat. "It was terribly traumatic, degrading," she says. "I was the fat lady who held up the plane." Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart called the charges "totally untrue," adding, "we do everything we can to accommodate people of all sizes."
Other lawsuits have challenged hiring practices and discrimination by landlords who reject prospective fat tenants, telling them they might crack the floor or break the toilet. "Over the last year, we've seen a dramatic increase in these cases," says James Goodman, senior attorney at the Persons With Disabilities Law Center in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, legislation that would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of size has recently come before several state legislatures. So far, only Michigan has adopted such a law.
"Fat people are the last acceptable targets of bigotry in our country," says New York Assemblyman Daniel Feldman, who plans to reintroduce his bill next year. "There are widespread, systematic patterns of discrimination against them."
Research confirms his assertion. While it has become taboo to insult a person's race, gender, sexual orientation or religion, surveys show many people think little of mocking the obese.
Fat people also appear to suffer in virtually all aspects of life, from employment to relationships, health care, education and economic status.
One researcher asked a group of college students who they would be least inclined to marry. The obese ranked near the bottom, with the students preferring to wed embezzlers, ex-mental patients, cocaine users or shoplifters.
The question of why fatness is such a stigma is a complex one.
Some experts believe contemporary attitudes are linked to the Puritans, whose lifestyle was dominated by control, stoicism and self-denial. Fat people look indulgent--unwilling to hop on the treadmill and do what it takes to get in shape.
As for fat people themselves, many regard their condition as the worst curse imaginable. Colleen Rand, a University of Florida obesity researcher, asked 47 formerly obese people whether they would rather be fat again or suffer some other disability. Ninety-one percent said they would rather have a leg amputated, while 89% said they would rather be blind.
The personal stories of fat people echo the scientific data. Gary Raymond, a 49-year-old San Bernardino resident who has tried countless diets--plus abdominal surgery--to lose weight, recalls the purchasing manager's job he got, and then lost, he says because of his size--385 pounds.
For Terry Nicholetti Garrison, a radio advertising saleswoman in Ithaca, N.Y., fat prejudice began in adolescence and followed her into the convent, where she was forced to wear a corset beneath her habit because her hips were said to sway too much when she walked. For five years, she lived with red slash marks on her body from the corset's stiff stays.
"I've made over 100 unsuccessful attempts to lose weight--pills, diuretics, amphetamines, every single diet, hypnosis--and still people tell me that all I need is a little willpower," says Garrison, 49, who is 5 feet, 3 inches and weighs 210 pounds. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph! If I worked as hard at becoming a millionaire as I did at losing weight, I might not be driving an '84 Sentra that's rusting away beneath me."