I’ll never forget meeting Marilyn Wann at the NAAFA Convention a few years ago. Actually, I’ve completely forgotten what we talked about, but I remember what it felt like to talk to her. It was kind of like meeting an indie rockstar whose small but devoted following you’re a part of, and that rockstar turns out to be just as cool and awesome as you had always imagined. Indeed, I had more than one conversation that weekend with people who had just met Marilyn and were blown away by her combination of humor, friendliness and genius.
Okay, yes, I’m a Marilyn Wann megafan. I bought the album, the poster, the tee-shirt, and the deluxe, Japanese import double CD of never-released, spoken-word, B-sides. (Speaking of which, if you don’t have her book, Fat!So?, you have my leave to purchase same immediately, and preferably, per Marilyn, keep it in your bathroom for intermittent reading.)
But Marilyn wasn’t always the outspoken advocate and fat pride warrior that we know and love today. When I interviewed her this week (you can listen to the full interview here), she told me about her journey into activism: “In my mid-twenties, I had come across the book Shadow On A Tight Rope which is an anthology of writings by radical, feminist fat activists from the”¦ ’60s and ’70s, and I think that book”¦ is still really powerful. I had gotten the concept of size acceptance, but I hadn’t really started living it yet.” But then she had what she calls her “Really Bad Day,” where a guy she liked told her he was embarrassed to introduce her to his friends because she was fat, and then she got home and got a letter saying she was being denied health insurance because she was morbidly obese. “I’m really glad I had that really bad day, because it meant that there was no turning back for me. I was not going to waver.”
Since that day, Marilyn has been a consistently strong voice in the movement against fat oppression. At the same time, her activism always seems to have a sense of humor and fun. She told me, “We have to use humor and we have to use performance”¦ I’m really inspired by other movements where people have resisted oppression. All of these movements have got the feeling of being more fabulous than the oppressive way of thinking.” To Wann, this level of fabulousness helps people out of the quandary of both internalized and external fat oppression and shifts the power dynamic. “If you hold a pom pom, and you get a whole bunch of your friends of all sizes who are rad about weight issues to hold a pom pom with you, and you all shout, ‘Give me an F!,’ people will give you an F. That’s a kind of a power.”
I was curious to find out Marilyn’s take on depictions of fat people in new shows like Huge.* Though she admits to not having watched them, she’s not all that pleased. “My fat gut impression is that I don’t trust them. I don’t think they’re radical or rebellious. At the very best, they have the intention of making fat people feel better about the awful, fat-hating world we live in, but I don’t think they’re taking on the system of fat hatred.” She was particularly annoyed with the way the television show Hung missed the point when copying a protest that she had organized against 24 Hour Fitness in San Francisco, “the inaccuracies of the TV representation are pretty maddening to me,” she said.
The original protest actually led San Francisco government officials to investigate the issue of weight discrimination and pass legislation preventing discrimination on the basis of height and weight in San Francisco. To date, only a few cities and the state of Michigan have passed a similar law. So I asked Wann if she had any recommendations for people who wanted to change their local laws. “Try to connect with [or create] your own local body liberation or fat pride community”¦ Build some community. Do fun things. Connect with other communities and try to get them to be conscious of fat oppression.” She believes that this process of community and connecting around these issues is key.
Marilyn also noted how powerful it is to “come out” to others as a fat person who doesn’t diet and believes in body liberation. “What we anticipate people’s reactions to be is really negative [and] isolating, [but] the near total majority of the reaction is that people say, ‘Wow, I can really see your pain, I can really see my own pain. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get rid of this painful thing?’ Or they say, ‘Yeah, but what about heart disease?’ And then you can say, well, weight isn’t a very good predictor of health and even if it were, what we should all do is eat our veggies, play outdoors, and have friends.”
*This post first appeared on my blog in July of 2010, when Huge was actually new.
Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. Go to http://www.bodylovewellness.com/free to get your free download – Golda’s Top Ten Tips For Divine Dining!