by Dawn and Mary E. Atkins
a daughter’s story by Dawn E. Atkins
I am the daughter of a fat woman…
a wonderful, imaginative woman who raised four children in an often hostile world. When I was a teenager I helped her starve herself. One Mother’s Day I gave her money to go to a hypnotherapist to lose weight. I did it because I loved her and wanted her to be happy. The world didn’t see her as beautiful as I did, and it was the only way I knew to help her.
Today I am a well-known “fat activist.” When I have spoken in public about body image, size discrimination, eating disorders, medical prejudice, the current research in weight and recovery, my audiences have listened intently – laughing, frowning, nodding, and shaking their heads. Most are average size people obsessed with their weight and their looks. And when time conies for questions, someone always asks, “Why would you, obviously a thin woman, be concerned about discrimination against fat people?”
The reason is my mother. She and I discovered the women’s movement at the same time, and I learned from her example to stand up to injustice in the world. Life should be fair, Mom taught me, even when it wasn’t. Unlike so many other daughters of fat women who carry the weight of their mother’s shame – no matter how fat or thin they are themselves – 1 chose to fight the injustice of size discrimination.
I have become a witness and a confessor. Every day another woman tells me her story of pain and prejudice. Sometimes I am the first person she has felt safe to tell it to: how her father beat her for not losing weight, how her mother died after stomach stapling. Women turn to me pleading for reassurance that there is some escape. I see the tears in their eyes.
And every day I confront the hate of bigots who put those tears there. I am the guest lecturer at the school where a 17-year-old boy tells me, “I don’t judge people, but those people who are fat and lazy just disgust me.” I am the witness at the public hearing on size discrimination when a man displays a blown-up sex doll wearing a padded shirt that says HIRE ME OR I’LL SUE.
I see the bodies. I count them. I read page after page of technical descriptions of how women are starved and mutilated. I hear the “mortality statistics” – estimates of women dead of eating disorders. 1 see their emaciated bodies piled up like cordwood.
I am the researcher who reads the studies and sees the lies. I am the one who knows which “obesity researchers” are on the take from the diet industry. I see how they manipulate the results for their own prejudice and profit. I read the diet-industry propaganda and financial reports and see how they make $33 billion a year with lies, shame, and fear.
As a child I didn’t used to like my body. My younger sister called me “hippo-hips.” I would never wear a sweater or shirt that didn’t belt because I was afraid people would think I was fat. I was the “geek” other children picked on in school, and one of their favorite taunts was “fat pig.” At times I was borderline anorexic, even though my mother encouraged me to love myself.
I never really “dieted”; I just went without food when I was unhappy. I was an outcast child, a thinker who didn’t know when or how to keep her mouth shut. I felt that if you didn’t speak up for what you believed, you were a traitor to yourself as well as others. This did not make me popular. I was always asking, “Why? How do you know that?” I drove adults and other children crazy with my need to understand.
When other children beat me for being different, my mother held me and told me she believed in me. She stood up to school administrators who didn’t want to deal with a child who would tell them when and why she felt they were wrong.
In eighth grade, when I was 13 and dealing with puberty, a boy began following me around school calling me names like “Miss Charmin.” In ’70s teen lingo that meant my breasts were either (a) squeezable or (b) stuffed with tissue. He followed me at lunchtime and sat across from me in art class tormenting me every day. I tried to avoid him and I begged the teachers for help. I asked the art teacher just to move me away from him. I told the teacher that if she didn’t do something, I would. My written appeal to her ended in the trash can, and she told me to sit down and shut up.
That was it. I told the boy that I was through taking it and that this was his last warning. He ignored me and continued. I remember pretending to go under the art table for a pencil, yanking the chair out from under him, then hitting him over the head with my art project (a board for string art). All my anger at the abuse and my desperation at the way I had been ignored went into that swing, one of the few acts of physical violence I have ever done. The teacher came unglued, screaming and ordering me to the principal. I uncrumpled the letter I had written to her and took it with me to the principal’s office.
An hour later, the principal was turning blue trying to make me see that “little ladies don’t do things like that.” Frustrated with my total unrepentance, he finally threatened, “Well, I will have to call your mother.” I smiled. I then got to watch him “Yes, ma’am’V’No, ma’am” my mother as she lectured him on the phone about sexual harassment and rape prevention. She told him in no uncertain terms that I was protecting myself and it was the school’s tolerance of that kind of behavior that leads to boys raping girls.
When the principal got off the phone, he told me to return to class; he said he would have to think of how to punish this offense and get back to me. He never did. The teacher moved me and the boy to opposite ends of the classroom, and the boy never spoke to me again.
My mother not only taught me it was OK to speak up; she backed me when I did.
I think we learn to stand up to the injustice of the world through believing in ourselves and through the love of those who believe in us. In my research and activism about body image, I try to pass on the love and inspiration that my mother gave me: to show women that they are valuable and beautiful and deserve to be treated with love and respect.
Seven years ago I was always afraid of being fat or becoming fat. While I was researching a paper on the human body for an anthropology class, I learned that in places like Samoa and Africa fat women are regarded as beautiful. I wanted to know why. And once I put my feet on that path, my life was forever changed. I read books like Shadow on a Tightrope and Such a Pretty Face and I became angry. I learned that what my mother and I had been going through was not “natural” and was in fact linked to the oppression of women that we as feminists were fighting against.
The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. Suddenly all my papers for my classes were about weight and discrimination, and more anger built in me – righteous anger at injustice. When I began to study the diet industry and read the studies, I realized I had been lied to all my life. Finally I had to do something with my anger. I began teaching others the information I had uncovered. I found a way to make a difference.
I am now the proud witness when a fat woman who has hated her body and hidden all her life goes dancing for the first time. I am now the informed confessor the repeat dieter who has just “failed again” can go to and hear how to get off the diet cycle and find understanding, not condemnation. I now thrill to stories of triumph as women tell me the ways they have changed their lives and stood up to bullies and bigots. In 1992 I cheered with other fat activists and allies as we successfully changed the law in Santa Cruz, California, to make size discrimination illegal.
I want a world where people can be loved and respected in all their diversity. I want a world where I can find peace with my own body and where the women in my life can put their energy into changing the “world, not their bodies. I can now stand with my mother as she tells people that she will never diet again and that they should accept her as she is. I can now look at my own body with more love and understanding than ever before.
FATITUDE ADJUSTMENT BITF publishes a quarterly newsletter and a series of educational resources to promote positive body image; oppose size and looks discrimination; and provide helpful information about weight, eating disorders, diets, and rights. For a sample newsletter or other information, send postage and/or donation to: BITF, P.O. Box 934, Santa Cruz, CA 95061 -0934.
Dawn Atkins is founder and research coordinator of the Body Image Task Force (BITF) and research committee chair for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. She has a background in professional writing and anthropology and is currently in a feminist anthropology Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa.
a mother’s story by Mary E. Atkins
I have been fat off and on, from one diet…
to the next, for the last 20 years. I raised four daughters, I gained weight with the birth of each, and I gained weight after every diet.
A year ago I went to the hospital very ill. I checked into the emergency room around 10:00 a.m. and was ferried for hours from one testing site to another. My youngest daughter, Angela, accompanied me.
Angela was not only young and scared but also pregnant and exhausted. She tried off and on all day to reach my eldest daughter, Dawn, who was at a workshop. That evening I remember looking up foggily from bed as Dawn arrived like a whirlwind, hugged me strongly, and cried, “Why aren’t you dressed? You’re so cold!”
All day long I had attempted to keep myself covered with a sheet. None of the hospital gowns fit.
“What is it, Mom, the sleeves?” Dawn got a gown from I don’t know where. “O K , we’ll tear out the sleeves.” Rip, rip – and she dressed me, declaring to all medical staff within earshot, “My mother deserves to be treated with dignity!”
Much later, after surgery and intensive care, I was moved into a room. Once again there was no gown that would fit a fat woman. Dawn took two small-sized gowns, went to the charge nurse, and requested permission to take them home. “I’ll sew these two gowns into one and have it back by morning for my mother,” Dawn promised. She also told the charge nurse firmly that this was discrimination and that a patient would have difficulty getting out of bed and getting well if she did not have a gown to fit her.
“OK, I understand,” the charge nurse said, “but that’s not necessary. We do have large-size gowns. I’ll have them brought up immediately.” Dawn thanked her. Within a short time a stack of large-size gowns was placed in my room and I ¥was dressed.
Each day a member of the medical staff would ask, “Where did you get that gown?” One nurse said that not in three years had she seen large-size gowns; the physical therapist, not in five – and some of her male patients refused to leave their rooms because their gowns didn’t cover their buttocks. Each time I relished telling the story of Dawn’s activism.
After I was home and recovering, Dawn drove me to my first outpatient visit. Again no gown fit me. Dawn gave the nurse a mini-lecture on why they should have gowns to fit all sizes. Sometimes watching my daughter Dawn is like that old movie about Moses: She speaks and the waters part.
Even my surgeon became a convert. Each time I went for a checkup both Dawn and I worked on him. He began by calling me obese and asking me to go on a diet. But it got to the point that he thanked me for sending him brochures about fat people’s rights and how fat people should be treated in the medical field. He said he now understands that being fat is a “condition,” not a disease.
When Dawn was younger, she frequently got in trouble for questioning teachers’ methods, especially if she saw favoritism or sexism. She took electronics in junior high – the first girl to do so in that suburban Oklahoma town. She had to threaten the school system with a lawsuit if they didn’t let her (they had suggested she repeat home economics instead). The things she put up with in that class were a true horror story – from daily slut-jokes to being told she shouldn’t touch the equipment because she might break it. She came in before and after school to do the experiments and received straight A’s. They paired her with a D student who suddenly made C’s by Working with her. Dawn became the teacher’s star example of what he could do with a girl! On ground she had broken, three more girls took electronics the next year.
The school is lucky they listened to Dawn, because when she fights you, she can make life very uncomfortable. Once our neighborhood was having a dispute with city hall because they were taking away the only commuter bus we had to the city. Dawn asked me if we wanted media attention, and I said sure. You should have seen the looks on the adults’ faces when all the TV stations, radio stations, and newspaper reporters showed up at our small-town city hall. Dawn was only 17 but had learned the value of taking your fight public.
When I joined the National Organization for Women in the mid-’70s, Dawn was there with me. Together we went on many marches for the Equal Rights Amendment. Dawn learned along with me how to organize and how empowering demonstrations can be.
Dawn had lived all her life with a mother who was on one diet or another and, by today’s standards, was always overweight. When Dawn began researching weight-loss clinics for an investigative journalism class in college, 1 remember her coming home and telling me again and again, “These people are lying – these people don’t make sense and what they are doing is unfair.” This only made her investigate more, and the more she found out, the more she realized the diet industry did not know what it was talking about and women’s lives were being destroyed by the lies.
Dawn interviewed me over and over about how I felt and about the discrimination she had witnessed during her years of growing up with me. When she began her research she was fat-phobic. By the time she graduated, she was a “fat activist.” And I got to learn along with her. I read all the papers and went to her lectures.
I never would have become involved in the cause of fat acceptance in my own behalf if my own daughter Dawn had not first become so passionate about it. Never did I imagine how strengthening it would be, how much my own self-esteem and life would be enriched. I think I would have continued in my many organizations as an activist, but I would always have been on a diet, coming off a diet, o r wishing I was on a diet. What a waste of energy, time, and money! Knowledge really is power. Dawn went out and got that knowledge and brought it back to me. And I have confidence that if Dawn found o u t tomorrow there was a safe, good way to diet, she would tell me immediately. She would tell everyone.
Eventually Dawn got involved in educating NOW on size issues. She and I went to the national NOW convention in 1990 to work on passing an anti size-discrimination resolution. We met lots of big, beautiful women who were members of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) – they had a booth right next to our NOW table. So we passed out little purple ribbons to people to wear if they supported the resolution. Well, Dawn got excited and off she went. She lobbied from morning till late night and personally passed out hundreds of those ribbons. Anyone not willing to support the resolution was met with a very persuasive argument. The resolution – which had failed the previous year – passed without a single vote of opposition.
Dawn came home from that experience and formed the Body Image Task Force, originally part of the local NOW chapter but today an independent organization. Dawn designed a T-shirt for the group: images of goddesses of all sizes with the words ALL WOMEN ARE BEAUTIFUL. It reminds us that . , , women come in all shapes and sizes and have since the beginning of time. Whenever you go out with Dawn you can expect a few uncomfortable moments. At a restaurant she’ll check out the chairs and seating for large-size people. In a movie theater she’ll do the same. She has been known to make a “scene” if it is for a good cause. And woe to whoever posts anti-fat notices or flyers! Dawn will protest loudly to the management and follow up with a letter stating why the poster was discriminatory and what could be done about it.
Sometimes I see and feel such anger and rage coming from people Dawn confronts that I get cold all over. But Dawn walks through it all carrying her knowledge of what she believes is right like a shield in front of her. It does make a difference, and it gives others courage.
By watching Dawn, I’ve also learned some of the things people who love and support activists can do for them as they fight on the front lines for people’s rights. We can see that they believe in themselves – even when times are very dark. We can support their right to fight – even when we can’t or don’t want to. We can help keep their self-esteem high – even when many people are trying to pull them down.
And dare I say the rest? – make sure they eat and get plenty of sleep. I know, I know, I’m a mother. But sometimes my daughter the activist gets so busy and involved she forgets.
Mary E. Atkins is a board member of the Body Image Task Force, a member of NOW1 working against violence against women, and a volunteer for Women’s Crisis Support in Santa Cruz. She is also a member of Media Watch and Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom and a trained volunteer for the Santa Cruz Conflict Resolution Program.