Now This is Success: The Journey Towards Fat Acceptance

My art teacher told me that this is what we think of when we think of success.

Meanwhile, this is what success actually looks like.

This is the norm for people finding their way into fat acceptance. It is these twists and turns, the joys and the fears, the successes and failures that Patsy Nevins is going to share with us. Most of you probably know Patsy Nevins from her occasional comments on fat blogs. Patsy Nevins is a mother and grandmother, older and disabled, and a true Mainer. She is fat and proud of it and staunchly anti-healthist. She is no stranger to life below the poverty line. Best of all, she has been involved with fat acceptance since its beginning and has uncommon perspective on the state of fat rights. In a world that often lacks the participation of those most in need of a voice, especially those who are poor and who aren’t members of the PhD crowd, I wanted to give her the chance to speak and to give you the chance to hear her words. She is what you might call a fat acceptance radical. You might not agree with her and you might find her views strident, but I think having a voice like hers is critical to the movement. She has the historical perspective and the passion that we need to see and I hope you will gain from this exchange.

I am pleased and honored to introduce Patsy Nevins as the official co-blogger for the Dead of Winter team. She will be a regular contributor and I already have several posts in the queue written by her. This is her debut and I hope you enjoy.:)

Note: I will be moderating comments and I will jump in if I feel I have something to say, but all comments should be directed at Patsy since this is her work.

 With that, let the bodies hit the floor.:)

I am from a fat family, the fat mostly coming from my mother’s side of the family.  My naturally thin father, who often ate twice what my mother did while ridiculing her for her fat, killed himself with alcohol and tobacco at age 63. My mother lived to be 85, her mom 90, her brother 94, virtually all her aunts and uncles well into their 80s, etc. I had a fat sister who was, in our dysfunctional, abusive family, more like a mother to me than my own. She died nearly 9 years ago, but not of fat. She died from smoking 3 packs per day for over 50 years, of lung cancer.  She remarked, with a slightly bitter humor, a few months before her death that she had to wait until she was dying to find a doctor who told her that her fat was a ‘good’ thing, that she had lived 5-6 years longer than she would have had she been thin.  However, our family, like most people, considered fat to be bad, ugly, unhealthy, a sign of gluttony & laziness & something that we ‘should not be’, even though we all were, & were moreso after every attempt at weight loss.

In my teens & 20s, I constantly fought the battle of the bulge.  I have exercised all my life. It started at age 9 with walking, when my parents & I moved from Charleston to Bangor for 4 years. Over the years, I have had at least three separate periods, of about 4 years each, when I increased my exercise from normal levels to 4 hours per day, the ‘exercise’ diet.  After the birth of my first son, I went through a 3-year period of exercise bulimia combined with dieting, worked myself half to death, tried to be everything to everyone, & managed to stay at 125-128 pounds (I am just under 5’6″) for over two years.  I began to rebound, hitting 170 pounds for the first time, then started trying to diet again, hitting 156 before discovering that I was pregnant again.  I weighed 193 when my second son was born, got down to 168 during the intensive first year of breastfeeding and, to the best of my knowledge, never weighed less than 168 again, getting to about that 8 or 9 years ago during my last 4-year period of compulsive exercise.  For years, my weight was generally 180-185, perhaps 190 after a very icy winter when I could not get outside to walk as much as usual. (I have cerebral palsy & now arthritis, increasing balance issues, so I fall easily).  I started exercising 4 hours daily again and, in 4 years, managed to lose 18 pounds.  In the 8 years or so since I went back to regular exercise, with aging & finally finishing menopause, I have become undeniably fat, fatter than ever, about 220 pounds now.  I have also finally come to the point of accepting who I am & the body I live in, content to be myself & not fight my genes, metabolism, hormones, and history any more.  I spent years reading books about compulsive eating, only to discover that my eating habits had always been normal; it was the culture we live in, the media, the diet industry, who all tried to convince me that I ate ‘too much.’

Almost, But Not Quite: Pushing the Boundaries

I heard of NAAFA in the late 70s, long before computers (or at least long before people had them in their homes and there was an internet) and read and studied what I could find.  Then, in 1980, I started reading BBW, Big Beautiful Woman Magazine.  It was a first step, even as I know realize, a very small one.  BBW was about being pretty, sexy, appealing, being able to get the man you wanted, to dress appealingly, use make-up well, GET A MAN…you get my point.  They preached that you didn’t have to be thin to be worthwhile or to be loved, you didn’t have to live on a diet, but there was also quite obviously a cutoff point. If you were larger than, say, a 22 or maybe 24, you had ‘let yourself go & had better to do something to get into better shape’.  A few years later, I found the first REAL fat acceptance/liberation magazine and gained much support from that.  Then in the late 90’s, as Radiance was going bankrupt, I got my first computer, discovered the Net, & found Marilyn Wann’s Fat!so? Gabcafe and began posting there.  I also bought every issue she ever published (6) of her Fat!so? zine and her book.

I became more fat accepting along the line, but back then, I somehow believed that there was a magic line of ‘acceptability,’ that if anyone got over 300 pounds or so, he/she must have really had an eating problem, must be unhealthy, etc.  Don’t ask me how I then…or a lot of people now…came to believe that losing weight and getting to a ‘healthier’ size should be any easier for people over 300 pounds than for someone under 200, or how it should be any less natural or genetic. I don’t know, but I know it was the message we were picking up.  Most of all, we seemed to be getting the constant message that being fat was okay ‘as long as you are healthy and have ‘good’ numbers’.  In her book, Marilyn herself asked, “Want to be healthy & live longer? I can tell you the answer in 4 words.” Rather naively, I think, she stated, “Eat right & exercise.”

Sandy Szwarc joined the Fat!So? Gabcafe 3 or 4 years after I did.  I started reading her posts and reading the studies and articles to which she referred us, starting reading the articles that she herself, after hellish fights, got published.  We became friends and exchanged emails and she sent me more materials to read, some in email, more in snail mail.  I began to read what others, including those who espoused fat acceptance, were writing with more awareness, with a critical eye.  Through Sandy, I met a lady who was among the founding mothers of the Fat Underground in 1970 and who was also, for years, a member of NAAFA. She told me that healthism was rampant in the early days, that there were all kinds of rules, extreme concern about keeping up appearances.  In the early days of NAAFA, women were encouraged to be neat, well-dressed, coiffed, discreetly made up, to conduct themselves as quiet, self-effacing women, not to gain weight, and in general to do everything possible NOT to be a fat stereotype.  The fat feminists who founded Fat Underground soon tired of this attitude and split off from NAAFA and went out on their own.  However, even here, healthism was found. There were still people who insisted that they had to PROVE they were not lazy, gluttonous fat slobs, that they were healthy, exercised, ate ‘right’, etc.  This lady herself, Karen Stimson, wrote an article about healthism in 1983.

It’s Not Just About the Fat Anymore

She and Sandy opened my eyes.  I began to read and watch all media very carefully.  I read a book Sandy recommended to me called The Great Cholesterol Con and read there and other places about what a bill of goods we are all being sold by the media, the diet industry, and a $500 billion a year pharmaceutical industry.  As much as 40 years ago, CEOs of pharmaceutical companies were telling their boards that they were not satisfied with selling drugs to sick people; they wanted to market to healthy people.  We now have a pharmaceutical industry which is allowed to advertise its products and which, if it has its way, will have every man and woman over 50 in this country on at least 12 different prescriptions.  I learned that, when people (including the majority of fat activists) yap about their ‘healthy numbers’, they are basically buying the lies; all the ‘numbers’ have been lowered to sell more drugs and it becomes harder and harder for people to have numbers which measure up (or down, as I should say).  Most people have no reason to be concerned about cholesterol. In many countries, they never screen for it. The only people for whom it is a problem are the 4-5% of people with a condition called familial hypercholesterolimia.  Statins are extraordinarily powerful and dangerous drugs with very serious side effects, helpful to maybe 10% of men and totally useless for women.  I learned that there is no proof whatsoever that fat CAUSES any health problems.  More to the point, I learned over time that there are no ‘super foods’, there is no way of living, of eating, or exercising, which guarantees perfect health or longer life.  We are being sold a bill of goods and the majority of fat activists buy it hook, line, & sinker.

I recalled my own experiences and the people I have known, my own family.  I have known so many people who did not exercise, who ate a high-fat diet, and did at least some drinking and/or smoking. (My mother did not smoke, but had emphysema from inhaling my father’s smoke for more than 43 years). I could not have told you how many servings of fruits and veggies they had daily, and they lived to a ripe old age, in spite of doing everything  ‘wrong.’  I also thought of all those of whom I have known who have done everything ‘right’ who died early anyway.  Sandy sent me studies which showed, over periods of years, NO difference in overall health, occurrence of specific diseases, or mortality rates between those who regularly ate 1 or 2 servings of fruits and veggies daily and those who ate 5 or more.  I would read more things insisting it should be 7 or even 9 and realized that people were being arbitrary, pulling numbers out of thin air, desperately trying to find answers to immortality which do not exist.  I began to see more and more instances in which anyone who died before the age of 90 would be questioned. People were wondering what he or she did ‘wrong’ not to live longer.  I came to see that I pretty much agreed with Sandy about almost everything.

I used to post occasionally on Big Fat Blog and there were some heated ‘health’ debates on there.  There was one woman on there who was…one of the 5%, someone who lost weight & kept it off…I talked about my relatives, especially my grandmother, who loved chocolate as much as I do, ate only real butter, fatty meats, put 4 spoons of sugar in a cup of coffee, and cooked with lard, but lived to be 90.  It was the breaking point for me and BFB as it was done then when that woman answered, “Patsy, if your grandmother had cooked with olive oil instead of lard, she’d have lived to be 110.”  What really scared me was that I sensed she really believed it.  She and the others who insisted we should eat like Paleolithic people (despite their having a life expectancy of less than 40 years) pushed me over the edge…To me, fat acceptance is a human rights issue. We all deserve rights, respect, access, the right to live as we see fit and not be bullied or discriminated against, because we are HUMAN, not because we live in a way to ‘deserve’ it.  If I never again hear or read, “But we can all agree that Let’s Move! is good for ALL children,” or “We can all agree that Americans eat too much processed food, or just eat too much, period,” it will be too soon.

Moving into the Future (or Lack Thereof?)

I fear that FA will continue to spin its wheels and get nowhere, that fat hatred and thin worship will continue to rule our culture and become more deeply entrenched.  Fat activists are not militant enough, not loud enough, and at least 98% of fat people in this country still swallow the Kool-Aid and genuinely believe that they are lazy, gluttonous, unhealthy, being fat is all their fault, bad, and ugly. They believe that any day now, they will whip themselves into shape.  Certainly, unless something major happens to move us beyond where we have gotten in 43 years, things will not change, even if I follow in the footsteps of my fat maternal relatives and live into my 90s.