Keynote Address, March 13, 1999

Broadening Our Image

Paul Delacroix

Image: Paul Delacroix at the podium I'd like to thank Terry Early for inviting me to speak here tonight; I am honored to be singled out as an activist by someone who--in her own right--has done so much for size acceptance.

First and foremost, I am an artist, not a political firebrand. As my lifelong idol Peter Paul Rubens said of himself, "I am only a man who lives by the works of his hands." And I do not take my works--or myself--that seriously. However, I'm here to speak, and if you want opinions...I am full of them.

This has been a tumultuous season for fat acceptance--we've seen a lot of changes in the air. BBW Magazine has changed hands again, and is now under the supervision of fat activists. NAAFA's Executive Director is a newcomer as well, as is much of the organization's National Board. Size activism has made some Press recently, in the form of a protest against usage of fat jokes in advertising. And some significant inroads into safety issues have been spearheaded by Elizabeth Fisher, who has pushed for automotive seat belt extenders for all vehicles. This latter issue is one of enormous importance, in my opinion, because it isn't simply a matter of inappropriate seating--it's a matter of life and death. Seat belts do save lives, and it is unconscionable for automakers to exclude people of any size from being afforded such protection. This is a true nuts-and-bolts activist issue, and a very commendable cause, and I'd like to thank Elizabeth for her efforts in this cause.

As much as I love what I call "nuts-and-bolts" issues--as important as they are to fat activism--there are other issues which are spread shallower in the public imagination, but which are far-reaching in scope, in terms of affecting the lives of millions of people. The collective image of fat people in our culture is one such giant, far-reaching issue. Recently, out on the West Coast, we've seen some stirrings among size activists aimed at reining in jokes and demeaning imagery of fat people. In most respects, the protests against the fat jokes have been very successful. Because of these protests, a law including weight discrimination is being considered and discussed in the city of San Francisco. This is really a wonderful turn of events. If such a law becomes reality, size acceptance will have truly made a highly significant "small step for man, and giant leap for mankind."

However, what happens in San Francisco isn't necessarily going to spread like a brushfire throughout the rest of our society. San Francisco is an artistic, pseudo-intellectual city. It is a warm-and-fuzzy, touchy-feely sort of place. A weight discrimination law that passes in San Francisco isn't very likely to pass easily out in the rest of Middle America. I seriously doubt that one could ever pass here in Dallas, Texas, anytime soon. We hardly even have labor unions down here. But this really isn't about liberalism versus conservatism. It's far more a matter of public attitudes. And on that scale, there are a lot of regions out there that make even Dallas seem very much like a touchy-feely, warm, fuzzy sort of place, in its own right. I defy any of you to go to New York City--with a lot of big pink picket signs--and stir up a protest over fat jokes there, and get a dialogue started about the passage of weight discrimination laws. A culture that says to the rest of the world "Hey! You want a piece of me?" probably will not take a couple of dozen angry fat people very seriously. And therein lies the rub. There are millions of people out there who are filled with sarcasm, who view fat people as a target. To protest a fat joke is not necessarily going to silence these people. It may--instead--encourage them, by convincing them that fat people are not only safe targets, but thin-skinned, sensitive targets as well. Obviously, we're not necessarily talking about cerebral, sophisticated people here--but the truth is that cerebral, sensitive people are not given to making fat jokes in the first place. The loudmouthed people are the people we want to reach the most, and we should rip them a new perception. It is not enough to protest the fat joke; we must also attack the prejudices that are behind it. There are three categories of concepts alluded to by individuals who hate fat people, and that must be addressed in order to broaden the image of our people and our movement:

I. Aesthetics

There's an issue that size acceptance traditionally has not addressed, and it is one that at the very least should be seriously considered. The issue is one that segues with every other issue that deals with the social imagery of fat people. That is the Thin Beauty issue. There are many kinds of beauty, and that's a message we have to get through to outside society. It should be as high on our agenda as any other activist goal. I know that it's difficult to educate people in matters of taste, and it requires more subtlety than addressing theater seats or nuts-and-bolts issues, but the equation "Fat Equals Ugly" must be put to rest once and for all. If we want the morons to stop laughing at fat people, we must stop encouraging the perception of fat people as asexual, or otherwise physically unattractive. We live in a sex-obsessed culture. This is a society in which it is considered normal for the President of the United States to entertain a mistress in the White House. Instead of Norman Rockwell in our art galleries, we have the Mapplethorpe Exhibition. Instead of Little Lulu, we have comic book women who run around in stiletto heels, wearing a g-string. Instead of kid's shows like Leave it to Beaver we have South Park. Sometimes you have to get down there on the playing field in the mud puddles if you want to win a fight. You can't win it from the bleachers. Somebody's got to be the player, somebody's got to carry the ball, and trudge through the muck, and wallow around with them in the mire. As much as we would like to control the rules and conditions of the playing field, we cannot. The first step to overcoming prejudice is to develop a common ground. We must interact with them, so that even if we do not win, we can at least be partially understood.

And sexuality, at least, is something that they can understand. Thin allies and FAs could lend their voices to such a cause. It is very difficult to argue to a set of self-aware fat people that they're "ugly" when it becomes obvious that some people prefer them to the "norm."

II. Health Risks

My dear, sweet kind diabetic grandmother lived to be 85--I certainly had never known her to be anything but fat, at any age. I remember hugging her as a child and feeling how soft and round her arms were. My other dear kind grandmother--also diabetic--was supersized most of her life, though slimmer in recent years. She's still alive and kicking, and very lucid, in her mid-80s.

The awful truth that we must face--and it is awful because with its knowledge comes responsibility--is that the great health dangers of obesity touted by the medical profession amount to little more than a great Health Myth. Study after study confirms an inconsistency in the blanket supposition that "fat is unhealthy"--but physicians continue to repeat it anyway, like a mantra, and it disseminates through them into society as a whole. Physicians will, in all likelihood, continue to repeat the mantra as long as physicians themselves tend to be reed-thin in their own right, with loved ones who are equally thin. Because what the Health Myth comprises is pure, blind prejudice disguised as scientific fact. It is the purest of all the prejudices we face, and the most damaging. We can challenge this prejudice if we have the courage, but it will be the hardest fought of all our battles. It is far, far easier to shrug and simply say "I know my being fat is unhealthy, but diets are 98% ineffective." As long as we continue to take that approach--as long as we turn away from actual fat advocacy, in favor of Diet Denial--people will continue to try new and dangerous alternative ways to lose weight . . . and people will continue to die. The Health Myth is the head of the beast. We must eventually take it by its horns.

III. Overeating

Most likely we will never have true size acceptance until the average person comes to understand that very fat people do not grow to be the size they are from visiting McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts. Some fat people overeat, and many do not. Some have never really experienced the Joy of Eating during their entire lives--their entire lives have been a haze of psychological punishment and pressures concerning food. It is indeed a cruel irony when people who have suffered a lifelong history of dieting abuse are chided as gluttons and pigs by dull-witted thin people. Michael Fumento springs to mind. There are clearly a lot of people in our culture who believe that supersized people derive from supersized fries, burgers, and milkshakes. There is a vacuum of public education out there on this issue. If you look at a cross-section of population in mountainous regions, there is often a very low incidence of obesity in such places. Central Colorado, for example, has almost no fat people to speak of--despite the fact that most of the residents weren't born there originally. IMHO, the reason why isn't because they are all a bunch of aerobics instructors, mountain bikers and skiers. The reason why--I feel--is because the metabolism burns faster at very high altitudes. Locals who live at such altitudes gradually adjust to the faster metabolism in order to get through day to day activity. Altitude requires a good deal of exertion just for equilibrium. Hence, residents of cities like Georgetown, Colorado, lose (or maintain) weight naturally, because they burn more calories at rest or play than a person of identical build would in Gulfport, Mississippi. This is one of many potential causes of human diversity in build. Some people are naturally fat, some are naturally lean, and some are influenced by outside environmental factors. The majority of people assume that fat is caused by overeating. The assumptions need to be challenged, and it is not our place to disprove assumptions. We should demand proof, instead, from those who demean fat people. The burden of proof is on them. The time has come for us to advocate fatness--not merely to take umbrage at its criticism. We have allowed ourselves to be defensive for far too long. The motto of the size acceptance movement should not be "Fat can also be beautiful, too." It should be "Fat is beautiful." Similarly, we should not half-heartedly mutter "Fat can be fit" or "Fat can be healthy." We should pronounce it as being such before the World. Let those who would dehumanize our people stand before us, and prove exactly why fat is unhealthy.

And I would add a third motto for consideration--"Fat is human." To be human is to have soft flesh and skin, and fat. All humans have it--some more than others. But fatness is a universal human quality.

Some fat people overeat. Many do not.

Some fat people eat lots of fatty foods. Many do not.

Some fat people have slow thyroids. Many do not.

Some fat people are "couch potatoes." Many--in fact, I would say most--are not.

Some fat people are unhealthy. Many are not.

There are many differing causes for obesity, just as there are many different causes for most types of human diversity. Obesity is not a disease--it's a natural human condition. Let's stop treating it as a disease.

And let us demand that the rest of the world recognize fat humanity.

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