Bigotry plagues fat people from school to workplace Ridicule is constant in complex disorder

November 22, 1992|By New York Times News Service

Aleta Walker never had any friends during her childhood an adolescence in Hannibal, Mo. Instead, she was ridiculed and bullied every day. When she walked down the halls at school, boys would flatten themselves against the lockers and cry, "Wide load!" But the worst was lunchtime, she said.

"Every day there was this production of watching me eat lunch," Ms. Walker said. She tried to avoid going to the school cafeteria. "I would hide out in the bathroom. I would hide out behind the gym by the baseball diamond. I would hide in the library."

One day, schoolmates started throwing food at her as she sat at a table at lunch. Plates of spaghetti splashed onto her face, and the long, greasy strands dripped onto her clothes. "Everyone was laughing and pointing. They were making pig noises. I just sat there," she said.

Ms. Walker is fat. And, like most fat people, she has been dogged by ridicule and abuse throughout her life. She has felt discrimination on the job. She is constantly subjected to rude remarks and ugly noises, like pig grunts or moos, when she goes out, and she has had a hard time making friends.

Despite the consistent findings by obesity researchers that most people have little control over their body weight, researchers find and fat people confirm that society continues to deride fat people for their condition.

Studies have found that fat people are less likely to be admitted to elite colleges, are less likely to be hired for a job, make less money when they are hired and are less likely to be promoted. One study found that businessmen sacrifice $1,000 in salary for every pound they are overweight.

Fat people tell researchers that they are accosted on the street by strangers who admonish them to lose weight. Often, their children are ashamed of them. Studies have shown that even many doctors find fat people disgusting, and some refuse to treat them.

In a recent study of formerly fat people who had lost weight after intestinal bypass surgery, researchers at the University of Florida reported that virtually all said they would rather be blind or deaf or have a leg amputated than be fat again.

"Overweight people have a condition that is unacceptable in our society," said Dr. Kelly Brownell, an obesity researcher at Yale University School of Medicine. And, he added, unlike the blind or the deaf, fat people are told that they could be thin if they really wanted to. "It's kind of a double punishment," Dr. Brownell said.

Dr. Albert Stunkard, an obesity researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed: "There's that implicit assumption that you really could lose weight if you settled down and stopped being such a fat slob."

Fat people are the last group that it is acceptable to discriminate against blatantly, said Dr. Esther Rothblum, a psychologist at the University of Vermont who studies the social consequences of being fat.

Sally E. Smith, the executive director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, an advocacy group in Sacramento, Calif., said Michigan was the only state that prohibited discrimination against fat people.

Fat people have sued employers and sometimes won on the basis of discrimination against the handicapped but not on the basis of discrimination against the obese, Ms. Smith said.

An estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of Americans are obese, defined as 25 percent or more above their ideal weights. And most have tried and tried again to reduce. Often the fatter they are, the more desperately they tried.

Ms. Walker, 36, went on her first diet when she was 12. An osteopath prescribed amphetamines and 500 calories a day.

In the intervening years, she has tried virtually every weight loss program that has come along -- the Cambridge Diet, the rice diet, the Dr. Atkins Diet, Weight Watchers, Optifast (twice). But every time, she would gain back the weight she so painfully lost. "I currently weigh about 300 pounds," she said.

In April, Ms. Walker and other fat people were, in a sense, vindicated by a conference called by the National Institutes of Health.

The group of experts looked at data on success rates of weight loss programs and concluded that diets, including expensive commercial diet plans, had abysmal success rates in the long term, with virtually all dieters regaining the weight they had lost.

The panel wrote: "There is increasing physiological, biochemical and genetic evidence that overweight is not a simple disorder of willpower, as is sometimes implied, but is a complex disorder of energy metabolism."

But these findings are hardly new, obesity researchers said. For example, Dr. Jules Hirsch and Dr. Rudolph L. Leibel of Rockefeller University discovered years ago that when obese people lose weight, they often have symptoms of chronic starvation -- they feel cold all the time, are always hungry and are obsessed with food. Women stop menstruating. The formerly obese feel an overwhelming compulsion to eat until they are fat again.

Those few who do manage to keep the weight off usually do so by making it a career to stay thin. They become Weight Watchers lecturers, for example, and fanatically monitor every bite of food.

Dr. Susan C. Wooley, director of the eating disorders clinic at the University of Cincinnati, said it was one thing to say that most dieters fail to lose weight and keep it off and another truly to accept, emotionally, that fat people cannot help it. Scientists themselves are as guilty as the rest of society, Dr. Wooley said.

"It has been clear in the scientific community that diets fail, yet scientists have been extremely reluctant to let go of diet programs," she said. "Why should we expect the general population to be any quicker than scientists in releasing prejudice?"

Scores of studies have documented the social and emotional cost of being fat. Fat people, with their stories of rejection and humiliation, confirm what the cold statistics say.

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