F.A.T. panel at New Haven Women’s Health Conference (1980)

Title (as given to the record by the creator): F.A.T. panel at New Haven Women’s Health Conference
Date(s) of creation: April, 1980
Creator / author / publisher: Fat Activists Together coalition
Location: New Haven, CT USA
Physical description:
 31-minute mp3 audio file
Reference #: VOFL-1980-F.A.T.-Panel-ALL
Largesse Fat Liberation Archive
Links: [ MP3 ]

After the First Fat Feminist Activists’ Working Meeting, 5 members of the coalition self-designated F.A.T. (Fat Activists Together) gave the keynote panel address at a feminist health fair being held concurrently in New Haven. This was the first time fat feminists had given the keynote speech at a feminist event. Recordings of the F.A.T. Panel are from this event. –Largesse

Audio recording of the Fat Activists Together panel at a New Haven Women’s Health Conference, April, 1980


Diane Denne: [00:00:01] My name is Diane Denne, and I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I came here to do this panel today, and I’m active in the Fat Liberation Movement. I’ve been an activist in Minneapolis for the last 12 years, and for me personally, while I’m here is I’ve been on  a diet almost all of my life up until the last two years. And I’ve been fat for the majority of my life, and this personally affects me. The first thing I’d like to start with is talking about why we’re doing this panel. The beginning – we want to support fat women and lesbians in being out of the closet, about being fat, about dealing with that oppression, and about starting to feel good about ourselves as being fat. We want to show thin women and lesbians why we need to deal with the behaviors and attitudes around fat oppression that these of- these issues affect all women, no matter what our size or weight. We want to show how fat oppression restricts all women, no matter what our size, that that we’re all conditioned to be afraid of being fat or getting fatter. First, I’d like to define fat, ask some questions about it, so you know a lot more about what we’re talking about. One is, where do you buy your clothes? Can you get your clothes in a regular store? Do you have to go to a specialty, specialty shop or a special department in a regular department store? Do others see you as fat? Do you see yourself as fat in relationship to other fat women? Does your weight hinder you in seeking employment, getting good health care, or enjoying your social life? Those are real important questions to ask. I’d like to define fat oppression: fat oppression is the systematic hatred, ridicule and discrimination against fat women in this society based on the belief that fat women are inferior to thin women and supported by all the social and cultural institutions in the society such as TV, radio, magazines, advertising and even family and friends. The woman on my left, far left. Her name is Judy Freespirit. She’s a feminist activist since 1971, working in the area of radical therapy, women’s health care, fat politics, and lesbian and gay rights, and, most recently, in the disability rights movement. She lives in Oakland, California, and is here this weekend to speak and to work at the first national meeting of fat positive activists, which took place yesterday here in New Haven. [00:02:43][162.0]

Judy Freespirit: [00:02:45] I’d like to say that it’s really important to me to talk to women in general, but to health care professionals and paraprofessionals and workers of all sorts in particular, because I feel as if I am a creation of the medical establishment, and I would like for the medical establishment to stop creating the monsters that some of us have been told and become as a result of medical atrocities. There will be more specifics going in to by other people on this panel. I’m going to be just running down some of the discriminations. But I need to say, I need you to hear real clearly that the reason I’m doing this is because I need for this not to be happening to children what happened to me as a child. When I was eight years old, my mother took me to a diet doctor because – I’m 44 years old – and the fifties was the first..right after the Second World War, the field of bariatrics, of of diet, weight control, medical weight control, became a huge business, big economic plus. Doctors found that we were a tremendous market. And my mother took me to a doctor because there’s all this advertising publicity that was telling her she was a bad mother because I was fat. At the age of eight, I felt the way I look now. But in looking at pictures of myself as a child, I was not like I look now. I was a slightly plump child, but my mother was so uptight because of all the advertising and all of the medical stuff that was coming out, telling her that she wasn’t being a good mother, that she took me, being a good mother, to a doctor to take care of me, who put me on Dexedrine at the age of eight. And I was on various kinds of medication all the way through my twenties from the age of eight, off and on. I was the youngest speed freak in elementary school before speed was even popular. And I always hated that feeling of being hyper and not being able to sit still and not being able to study and all the other things that go with it. But the worst thing that happened, I think, is that my metabolism was really messed up with all the the drugs that were put in my body at that age as I was developing. And the result is that my body now is so efficient that it takes very little food to make me the size I am. The kinds of discrimination that we experience are….they’re constant, they’re daily. We’re bombarded from the time we wake up in the morning to the time we go to bed at night it’s real hard sometimes just to get out of bed and face all that there is on a day to day basis. We experience medical oppression. We can’t go to a doctor for a sprained ankle without getting told to go on a diet, which many of us here, as die (?) and so many of us don’t go for medical treatment because we’ve been so oppressed there. We find architectural barriers everywhere we go, as many disabled people do. The world isn’t made for us. Seats on airplane, seats on busses, turnstiles, theater seats. There was a period for two years where I didn’t go to a movie because I can’t sit in the theater seat. It’s as though, you know, the profit motive, which means that if you make smaller chairs, you can get more folks in, is more important than the right of people to be different sizes and to have access to everything that everybody else has. We’re oppressed by the psychological establishment, psychiatric establishment, with all sorts of theories about how fucked up we are. What’s wrong with us? We want to be pregnant, therefore we’re fat because it makes us feel like we’re pregnant. We don’t want to be sexual. We’re too sexual, that’s why we’re fat. And this is just I mean, you can read a million books about what’s wrong with us psychologically. And if we could just get it together and figure out what’s wrong with us, we could be cured, as many women can, of various kinds of women’s diseases. The social attitudes that we encounter on a day to day basis probably are the ones that we get most numerically. Every time you turn on a television, whether it’s a program or a commercial, we’re told we’re not okay. The images that are projected of fat people are humorous, sloppy. We’re one of the last of the minority groups that it’s still okay to laugh at and not feel that there’s going to be reprisals, although that’s coming [laughter], we haven’t yet started throwing bombs. [00:07:28][282.8]

Diane Denne: [00:07:28] It’s time. [00:07:31][3.3]

Judy Freespirit: [00:07:32] My time is up and I’m halfway through. Let’s go. Just give me another half an hour. We’re oppressed around clothing. We don’t have access to the kinds of clothing other people do. We’re oppressed within the women’s community by looksist attitudes, which none of us have overcome, including fat women. But we need to be all working on that, just not just us doing it ourselves. Because the input that we get from other women affects us. We’re discriminated against in hiring. We’re, we’re any job that says “front office appearance” means we’re not welcome. The diet industry makes a fortune off of us. We’re oppressed by messages that we’re not okay. And if we only bought these products, we would be. It just goes on and on and on. And people will be elaborating on this, so I’m not going to go on and take any more time. [00:08:19][47.3]

Diane Denne: [00:08:23] The next woman to speak is Aldebaran. She tried every diet that existed and succeeded in several of them up to eight years ago when she stopped dieting. Her identity as a fat woman and feminist fat liberationist came as a result of her life experiences, feminism and doing a lot of reading in medical nutritional journals. She has worked in fat liberation in Los Angeles and New Haven. She is also a science teacher and graduate student in engineering. [00:08:48][25.3]

Aldebaran: [00:08:52] I wish that there was some way that I could convey to you the amount of pain and horror that many fat women who are not politicized experience. A question that I’m always wondering about and always coming to the same answer to is why, with so many women feeling horrible about their weight, and that includes women who feel they should lose 5 pounds, as well as women who feel that they should lose 400 pounds, why is it that there is still scarcely a murmur of discontent about how fat women are treated? About our out front civil rights deprivation, if nothing else. I mean, the fact that there are actually state civil service agencies which have written into or had written into their policies until very recently and are now being challenged on the basis of handicap discrimination policies barring the employing of fat people. Not leaving it up to the individual employer’s whim, actually barring them. And I will just say that I ran into this several years ago when I was still dieting and applied for a job as a typist and was told I was too fat and it was state – it was the company’s regulations and not their own whim. And I could not challenge it, the Fair Employment Practices Commission told me that I should go on a diet. And of course, I was. I was in Weight Watchers at that particular time. Anyway, that’s past history. Question: why is it that with with this stuff going on, you hardly hear a word of protest? And I think that the best way that that I can answer it is that at present these problems of fat women are seen not as political problems, but as medical problems. And as not needing a political solution, but as needing a medical solution. Now, we hear everywhere the idea that we’re sick, that we need doctors, and that that’s the way to help us. We hear it from our – we hear it from media, certainly. We hear it from you people. We hear it – by you, I mean everyone in the culture, I’m not meaning to single anyone out. We hear it from family. We hear it in schools, we hear it everywhere. That there is something wrong with the way we eat and that this wrongness with the way we eat makes us physically unhealthy. And it seems to be scientific because it is, suppose – it is certainly uttered by the same people with the white coats who invented antibiotics and all those other wonderful scientific medical things, and so it must be true. Furthermore, so many cures seem to be available ranging from the, you know, going on a low calorie diet to going into psychotherapy to find out why we allegedly stuff ourselves so much to getting exercise. And if those things don’t work, or if we are too weak willed to go in for it, then we can have our jaws wired shut and publicly show how we are imprisoning our bodies and preventing us from misbehaving around food. If we don’t want to have our jaws wired shut, we can have our intestines cut apart and bypass surgery, a very, very dangerous operation with a 10% mortality rate. We can now the latest thing is gastric stapling. We can have staples put in our stomachs so that we cannot eat food. This is being done at present at Yale New Haven Hospital. It is considered the last hope for the morbidly obese. Why do we put up with this? I’d like to read you a statement which was given to me by a woman named Betty Schirmer, who’s a lesbian from Los Angeles who is involved in the fat liberation movement. Approximately two years before she became involved in 1973, Betty had an intestinal bypass, and she told me -these are her words – “When I went in for the operation, the doctors warned me that one person out of every ten who had the bypass dies. The week that I had the operation, I heard about three people who had died from it. One of them was a 13 year old girl in a city near where I live.” Now, later in the same interview, she told me, “When I had first asked for the operation, I was so depressed and so oppressed about my weight that I felt maybe it was best that I did die if I couldn’t do something about it. I had tried every possible way to lose weight.” I think that Betty’s statements really are sort of the limit to which we all finally get as long as we stay in this system of believing what they tell us about us as fat women. A more common statement is what I heard from a cousin of mine recently when I told her about what I do. And she said, “Fat people don’t need liberation, fat people need medical help.” And the reason why she said this was because she was in the middle of food binges. The food binges and eating problems, nutritional problems that many of us seem to have are very largely a fabrication of the nutritional deprivation we go through, trying to live on 900 calories a day. And most fat women spend their lives trying to lose weight, contrary to stereotype. You hear over and over again, people say, “I’ve been on every diet possible.” The fact is that the failure rate of reducing diets is 99%. Now, what it gets down to is that they tell us that the reason why we’re fat is because we’re eating more food than slim people and that we should be dieting because that’s a way to get less food into us and that if we eat normally afterwards, we’ll be slim. This has been researched since the early 20th century and in every single study, and there have been at least 100, attempting to document excess calories in fat people, particularly women, they find that there is no correlation between calorie intake and weight. Meaning, and I wonder – this has to be heard very carefully – because this could be interpreted many ways. They find there are fat people who eat a lot and there are slim people who eat just as much. There are fat people who eat very little and there are slim people who eat just as little. And what actually happens is that so many of us have – start off life being fat people with perfectly normal size appetites, and then we attempt to starve ourselves and we take diet drugs and all that. And it’s alters our metabolism so that we end up getting even fatter on moderate calorie intakes. And every diet that we go on increases our weight successively. And I say this as a just to echo what Judy said, almost any fat woman who has lived a life of dieting is a creation in one way or another of the medical profession. That includes our size – we have gotten fatter and fatter and fatter with every diet, not because we are weak willed, but because this is a natural metabolic response to calorie deprivation. Secondly, regarding our health, any attempt that has ever been made to court – to actually prove that being fat causes illness has failed, and a confusion of third factors. That is, there are very fat people who are healthy and there are moderately fat people who are devastatingly ill with the so called fat diseases. And what seems to be the one persistent factor that comes through in every study is that people who go on diet after diet, which is inevitable with a 99% failure rate, dieting like this, this yo yoing, causes atherosclerosis, increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, causes kidney disease, gallstone problems, diabetes, and on and on and on. Not to mention just keeping us away from doctors because we’re so ashamed, we don’t dare go back when we gain the weight back. [00:16:37][464.5]

Diane Denne: [00:16:40] Next is Marcia Duvall, who’s a lesbian feminist from Somerville, Mass, who teaches math and has been fat most of her life, except for five years, during which she lost 75 pounds and gained 90. She stopped dieting two years ago and has been active in the Fat Liberation Movement for over a year. She’s still struggling to give herself permission to eat and wants to expose the diet industry for the brainwashing it uses on us. Believing that knowledge is power, she will speak about the extent to which the diet industry goes to try to control us. [00:17:08][28.0]

Marcia Duvall: [00:17:12] I’ve been on and off reducing diets of almost every kind for roughly 25 of my 33 years. And from my own experience and from talking with other women: fat, skinny and in-between who have gone the same route, I’ve drawn two conclusions about weight loss diets. The first one is that almost every woman is obsessed with them at some time in her life. And the second one is they don’t work. No matter where you look, the statistics point toward the fact that keeping off weight is a losing battle. The most optimistic figure I found was a 94% failure rate over a five year period. That means that with people who managed to lose all the ways that they want to over a five year period, they’ll get back to the way they started out as and usually more. And this is an optimistic figure. Others say that only one person in 100 will keep that weight off. And at what expense? Both financially, in many cases, and emotionally. I’m speaking from my own personal experience because several years ago I lost 75 pounds and gained it all back and more. In our society, thin is good. Fat is bad. It’s also considered that anyone with enough willpower, whatever that is, can diet and lose weight. Therefore, for a fat person, dieting is good, not dieting is bad out there in society. When you limit what you put in your mouth for some ultimate goal: thinness. And this goal has nothing to do with how you feel about eating and how your body feels at the present time. The deprivation, the starvation feeds into the feeling that you are bad. What we’re about here is about feeling good, about loving ourselves. And this is why we question the practice of weight loss diets for most women. Now, what is this diet industry? And why should we take the time to talk about it and to examine its role in our lives and its influence on our self-image? By the diet industry, I mean the complex structure of producers of diet foods, literature, medicines, gadgets and all kinds of diet groups, clubs and health professionals whose main reason for existing is to help people, mostly women, to lose weight. We’re here at this conference because we’re committed to questioning the patriarchal health care system and developing our own alternatives. The women’s health movement has been vocal concerning many medical issues where women have been oppressed. I would like to add to that list the urgency of examining the diet industry as a means of realizing how far the pushers of thinness at any price will go. And that just as we are taking back our reproductive rights and other rights of control over our own bodies, we must take back our right to look like who we are. For anyone who might doubt that dieting is big business this list of the different ways that the diet industry profits from our fruitless attempts to lose weight may shed some light. First of all, there are the diet specialists. There are doctors among whom are pill pushers, the doctors who push speed, hormone injections, psychologists among whom are behavior modification therapists. There are hypnotists, acupuncturists, ho do other good things, but also sometimes they tell people that putting a staple in their ear (?) can make them lose their appetite. And all of the above and others who are writing magazine articles and books. You just go – when you go through your grocery store, go to any place that sells magazine. On the cover of all those women’s magazines are the latest diet blurb, dieting will sell magazines for these people. And the sexism can be pointed out by looking at men’s magazines, you see nothing about dieting. Every year there’s a new fad diet book. There’s a whole range of diet surgeons from the cosmetic surgeons who actually cut off fat and tighten skin to those who wire mouths shut, perform the stomach stapling or intestinal bypass operations, which have a much higher risk than other operations. There are the diet support groups: Weight Watchers, Tops Diet Workshops, Overeaters Anonymous. There are the figure salons, there’s the weight loss clinic, weight loss resorts and summer camps. One of the newest fads is cellulite treatments. Diet medicines sold over the counter that anybody can buy, throw their money away. There’s also the function of cigarette smoking is keeping weight down. A lot of women – the first thing I think of is if I stop cigarettes, I’m going to gain weight. The diet food producers, there are several brands of diet foods. The sugar substitutes, which it’s been shown in studies that sugar substitutes have no effect on weight loss diets, interestingly enough, and also that it costs ten times as much to make soft drinks with sugar as with sugar substitutes, and you pay the same amount for those. There’s Metrecal and Sego. And perhaps the most dangerous, which is liquid protein, to which upwards of 58 deaths is directly attributed. Well, this list just shows that although it’s proven that people do not keep off the weight, they lose through dietary deprivation. The vultures are more than ready to make a buck off us. Let’s stop feeding them and start feeding ourselves. [00:22:59][346.8]

Diane Denne: [00:23:03] Ok, next will be Judith Stein, who is a lesbian feminist who has been active in the women’s health movement for the past six years. She is co-director of Women’s Community Health Center, a feminist self-help health center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and currently sits on their advisory board. She co-founded the Boston Fat Liberation Group – Lesbians Group, excuse me. The Consciousness Raising and Support Group and organized the Fat Dykes Group at the 1979 Michigan Women’s Music Festival. She co-organized the first fat-positive feminist working meeting, which was held here this weekend in New Haven. [00:23:37][34.0]

Judith Stein: [00:23:39] I worked in the self-help movement for a long time, and during that time I learned some things about the women’s health movement. And some of this also applies to women who are feminist, who work in straight health care settings, but who in some way, either through their individual action or, however, are trying to alter the traditional health care provided. So, I was real glad to see the number of women who work in health care here. These are some of the things that I think are characteristics of the women’s health movement in general. One is that we have learned to take information about medicine, about health, about the facts of our bodies from women ourselves. And we have learned to distrust the doctors, the popular media, advertising, and learn to look for profit motive in things like birth control, cures for vaginal odor, things like that. We’ve learned to respect women’s experiences and to validate them. We know we’re not crazy when we have menstrual cramps and we know we’re not sick when we’re pregnant. And we know that menopause is a normal function of aging. Those are things that we’ve learned as women in the women’s health movement. And we’ve learned them by being skeptical, by questioning the doctors, the authorities, what we’ve been taught as women, by questioning our socialization. And, most of all, by listening to each other and validating our experience by going back and looking for the sources to see where the medical information comes from and what the bias might be, where information about vaginal odor and its relation to vaginitis comes from a company that produces a vaginal deodorant spray, and that’s not uncommon. And that high level of skepticism of what the doctors tell us about our bodies, our health, our lives is, I think, the key hallmark of the women’s health movement. It’s what’s allowed us to work actively and develop support groups for each other on certain issues where we need them, to develop low trauma abortion techniques in early pregnancy. To learn about herbal remedies for vaginitis, herbal remedies for menstrual cramps. To learn about what our cycles are so that we can control if and whether we get pregnant without use of artificial devices. And that’s because as women in the health care movement, we ask questions and we distrusted what we had learned. Now, let’s look at the women’s health movement and its relation to fat liberation. I want to give you just a couple of examples of where that same skepticism, that questioning and that absolute integrity of trusting women’s experience has fallen absolutely on its face across the board, almost without exception, in a feminist health movement that’s now 15 years old. By the way, I just want to say, I’m going to speak about specific situations. These are not – I’m not singling these groups out as particularly bad or the most careless or the far end of extreme, rude or unsupportive behavior. Because they’re not, they’re the ones that I know about and could think about in preparing this. Health Right is a newsletter that serves the women’s health movement. It’s based in New York City. I don’t know how many of you familiar with it. Health Right has requested – has lost manuscripts from fat liberated publications written from a fat liberation perspective twice. There’s a certain amount of carelessness that those of us in the women’s health movement have experienced from state bureaucracies that we know is deliberate. I have questions about a certain level of carelessness that causes manuscripts dealing with fat liberation to be ignored, lost, disappeared, or dealt with with absolute disbelief. And I have one other story about feminists in the health care movement. A group of women I know, we’re staying in a house in Washington, D.C., last fall with the National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. That evening before the march, there was a big discussion, there were a lot of women staying at this house. And the discussion began because a number of these women were fat women and fat liberationists who’d met each other at the music festival in Michigan. And we’re having a sort of reunion. So naturally enough, the conversation turned to issues around fat, fat politics and in an audience of feminists and among a group of feminists, therefore a political event, there was discussion about fat oppression and fat liberation. Women went to bed, got up the next morning, went to the march, and later heard about a conversation. And the particular thing about this was that it also involved the physician’s assistant who carried great credibility because she was a health provider. And that woman’s remark was, “Perhaps we should really lay the oppression on thick on fat women. Maybe we really need to oppress them because then it’ll get so bad they’ll lose weight.” So, I don’t – I don’t think that’s an untypical attitude. There has been from the women’s health movement, from individuals in it, from women’s health centers, from feminist health providers, an absolute unwillingness to question the medical information about fat. Even feminists and political women who know that it is not cool to talk about fat being ugly will still absolutely at their bottom line, say, “But it’s just not healthy. I mean, I know. Look at this woman or this woman or this woman.” That’s lies. It’s the same lies that we were taught about birth control, about menstruation, about sexuality, about pregnancy, vaginitis. It’s lies from the same source, the same people for the same motive, profit and control of our lives. So, what do I want from the women’s health movement? What do we want as the fat liberation movement? What should all of you want for all of us as women trying to control our lives? It’s really very simple. What I want from women in the healthcare movement, from women as health care consumers, from women who relate with health care providers, is to apply the same skepticism that we have learned to apply to what we are taught about our lives as women in all of those other areas. To what we learn about nutrition, to what we learn about fat, to what we learn about the connection between food and weight, which has got to be one of the grossest and most widely believed lies that’s controlling us. If we were to begin to apply that same skepticism, if as a whole, we were to begin to apply those – that same respect for women’s experience and listen to fat women about what our experience has been. If we were begin to apply that same skepticism to medical texts and read research that’s come from the fat liberation movement, we really could begin to make some changes in what the experiences of every fat woman and every nonfat woman walking into a health care setting. Concretely, what does this mean? And I’m going to be real brief. In women’s health centers in the New England area, there are women in the Boston area who are willing to do training – in service staff training for health care providers. There is a lot of literature, much of it including factual information with documented sources about which contains truth about food, about fat, about diets, about diet remedies. That’s all available. Women working in health care have to take it upon themselves to go back to their health care settings and begin to kick ass. Because that’s what it’s going to take, is to go back and say, just as we began to learn about all of these other things, we know a lot of lies about fat and about food, about weight and about diets. And those lies are oppressing women and killing them. And we have to begin to change that. Women who don’t work in the health care field, who go to health care centers, need to look around and confront the lies that come up in the same way that you would look around and confront lies that come up in your individual dealings or from things you see on the wall or interactions in a waiting room that are oppressive to you as a woman. That oppression is oppressive to every woman because it keeps us in panic about the size and shape of our bodies until we, all of us, begin to change that and I think that the women’s health movement is the absolute logical first place to start. Not the only, but a good first place because those women have had a practice of being skeptical – that that’s something that every woman can do in health care settings. [00:23:39][0.0]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.