The Human condition: The 'wrong' sort of fat

Dawn French is 'too cosy', Jo Brand is 'too self-deprecating' and Susie Orbach was 'mistaken'. Kate Hilpern meets Charlotte Cooper, fat rights actvist
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IMAGINE that because of the way you look, you are perceived as lazy and stupid. Imagine that this appearance affects your prospects for marriage, employment and further education. Imagine that even if you exercise regularly, you will be labelled unhealthy and weak-willed. And imagine that your chances of receiving health care are reduced because your appearance is considered a self-inflicted lifestyle disorder which is responsible for almost all your medical complaints. In fact, you may not want to leave your house for fear of the reactions of others. Some people point at you in the street. Others laugh. All this because you are fat.

Fatphobia, fat activists argue, is the last socially-acceptable prejudice in Britain. According to ORIC (the Obesity Resource Information Centre), fatness is overwhelmingly perceived as a state to be avoided at all costs, if only because anti-fat attitudes are estimated to be at the same stage that racism was some 50 years ago. So where are all the pressure groups and the demonstrations for equality? Fat is a feminist issue, isn't it?

This month, the Women's Press publishes Charlotte Cooper's Fat and Proud, which claims to articulate the rights and demands of fat women. Cooper's intention is to reclaim the F-word as a positive instead of insulting term and to insist on an end to fat-hatred: "This hatred oppresses all women in terms of their constant dread of becoming part of that hated group of fat people," she argues. "Yet this is a subject that has been largely disregarded or misunderstood by feminists."

To the insensitive reader, the fact that her book shares the rhetoric of the civil rights and feminist movements is unavoidably comic. "I was born in 1968," she begins solemnly, "about the same time as the fat rights movement. I have reached maturity alongside the movement, and this book represents a coming to power for both of us." In her conclusion, she worries about divisions within fat rights: "There is some ambivalence towards smaller fat people within the movement, who are regarded as less oppressed and therefore less able to assert a claim on fat liberation." It's all disturbingly reminiscent of the splinterings of a Seventies left-wing caucus, a sort of Tooting Popular Front for the large. Is the politicisation of fat really necessary?

Julie Smith a psychotherapist who has weighed 18 stone in the past, believes fat is a psychological - not a genetic or physical - matter. And with 16 per cent of British women suffering from obesity, it is one that she claims is not helped by women like Cooper. "Fat isn't about feminism. Most of the time, fat is emotional baggage. And of course that doesn't mean they should be discriminated against. That's why we need to work towards a fat indifferent society, certainly not one where fat is represented as a good thing or something that requires additional rights."

And anyway, what about feminist and psychotherapist guru Susie Orbach? She was responsible for ground-breaking theories about women and weight as far back as the Seventies. Not so, says Cooper. Like Julie Smith, her mistake is contextualising fatness either as an eating disorder or a disease - both of which are ultimately deemed as "curable". "Food and body shape are locked together in people's minds, and so eating disorders offer a popular interpretation of fat people," she says. "That was Susie Orbach's mistake. Her theory was that if women are fat, it's because they are compulsive eaters. That is, we eat in secret and use food to deal with emotional difficulties. We have a self-hating attitude towards our bodies, which causes us to abuse ourselves with food. But eating disorders are behaviours, and although they can be characterised by weight changes, people of all sizes experience them. Fat, on the other hand,is not a behaviour but a body shape. In fact, these attitudes are why we need to get rid of the word "obese", which is Latin for "having eaten". Fat isn't just about food. It's also about genetics."

Helen Jackson, a barrister campaigning for a law against size discrimination at work, knows this all too well. "At 11, I weighed 11 stones. My GP told me to control my appetite. But I wasn't over-eating, I just wasn't destined to be a sylph. In the last two years I've weighed around 22 stone even though I go walking and work out." Nevertheless, remarks Cooper, some fat people have grasped the eating disorder label with gratitude because it shifts responses to one's body from blame (gluttony and laziness) towards pity (sickness). Besides, if you're not considered a compulsive eater, the chances are you'll be deemed "diseased" - an even less favourable option.

"I can't help noticing the endless headlines about the supposed new epidemic of obesity which defines fat people as carriers of disease and nastiness," remarks Cooper, who believes that contradictory evidence also deserves examination. Research publicised in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, reveals weight fluctuations can be more dangerous to good health than weight itself. The risk of dying from heart disease was 70 per cent higher in those with fluctuating weights than in those who were stable, regardless of their initial weight. Above all, studies suggest that the fit live longer than the unfit, even if they are overweight.

But ORIC reports that doctors, medical students, nurses, nutritionists and psychologists are all likely to share the moralistic view that fat people are weak-willed,ugly, less competent and less likeable. "In the meantime," says Cooper, "you get icons like Germaine Greer revealing that you can have the best feminist credentials but still be a bigot." Consider her comment to the Guardian in 1994, when she recounted how she watched "a hugely obese German mother push aside her delicious Italian meal, snatch up the chocolate ice lollies that her children had abandoned on the table and literally push them one by one into her face. Under the table her vast thighs were moving spasmodically in a grotesque version of orgasm."

But, says Dr Susan Jebb, obesity scientist at the Dunn Clinical Nutrition Centre, fat activists are extremely unwise to reject every piece of research suggesting that being overweight is a risk. "Being obese is not inevitable and obesity is always a health risk. If you are seriously overweight, you are seven times more at risk of developing diabetes and at least three times more of having a heart attack." In fact, it is estimated that behind the pounds 30m spent in the UK on treating obesity lurk the hidden, bigger costs of treating strokes, arthritis, back trouble and some cancers.

While in America, fat rights groups are militant and even thin-hating, in Britain, the movement tends to focus on simple legal issues. Helen Jackson campaigns for change in the workplace. "One girl of a mere 10 stone 2 was rejected by a airline as being over its weight limit," she laments. Similarly, Diana Pollard, co-ordinator of the Fat Women's Group and the National Size Acceptance Coalition (SIZE), is campaigning for improved public access in Britain. "It's a human rights issue. Take fixed seating in cafes and some public lavatories. Anyone who is tall or pregnant - as well as fat - finds huge difficulties accessing many of them."

Permanent change will be gradual, claims Cooper. "It's unrealistic to expect otherwise, particularly since the movement is consistently criticised as being non-unified." But then, even Cooper is quick to dismiss Jo Brand as "too self-deprecating" and Dawn French as "smug and cosy". "Her frocks are like tents - the cover-it-up ethos. She represents the establishment - she has nothing to do with me," she told The Big Issue. Is it wise to dismiss these performers when they represent two of the first positive role models for fat women?

For Janice Bhend, editor of Yes! a magazine for large women, this diversity can cause significant editorial difficulties. "We cater for seven-year- olds to 70-year-olds, for size 16 to size 30 plus, for those with eating problems and those without. And so it goes on. The only common denominator is size."

A society in which women are no longer made unhappy by their fatness is, at present, no more than a pipe dream. In one recent American study, large numbers of women said they would rather be dead than fat. Which is ironic, claims Cooper, when you consider that losing weight by any means possible might just kill you anyway.

'Fat and Proud' is published by The Women's Press on 12 February at pounds 8.99. You can write to SIZE at Suite 147, 56 Gloucester Road, London SW7

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