COVER

PROUD TOK BE BIG

BARBARA WICKENS January 11 1999
COVER

PROUD TOK BE BIG

BARBARA WICKENS January 11 1999

PROUD TOK BE BIG

COVER

BARBARA WICKENS

The message came through loud and clear. In September, when Hollywood’s Camryn Manheim won an Emmy for best supporting actress in a television drama series, she held the gold statuette high over her head and boldly declared: “This is for all the fat girls!” The statement helped propel Manheim, who portrays lawyer Ellenor Frutt on ABC and Global’s The Practice, onto People magazine’s bellwether year-end list, “The 25 most intriguing people of the year.” Broadway Books will publish her autobiography, Wake Up, I’m Fat, based on her 1995 one-woman play of the same name, in May. And countless people have written to the 37-year-old actress or stopped her on the street to thank her for her gesture. Thrilled as she is by the reaction, however, that is not why she did what she did. “I was doing it for myself,” Manheim told Maclean ’s. “Winning an Emmy was the culmination of a long struggle.”

Like many large people, Manheim says she fought for years to get her weight under control, damaging both her body—she was addicted to amphetamines at one point—and her psyche. Many casting directors, looking through the loopy lens of thin-obsessed Hollywood, magnified her problems, telling her she would never find work. “I felt that I had three choices,” she says. “I could either destroy my spirit, I could change myself so I could learn to love myself, or I could love myself just the way I was. Well,

I tried to destroy my spirit with drugs, and I tried to lose weight and I almost killed myself. So I was left with what I think was the most difficult choice, loving myself just the way I am. That’s my goal and I’m close enough to enjoy my life and laugh everyday.” Encouraged by the Sacramento, Calif.-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, Manheim used the word “fat” at the Emmys deliberately. “If we are going to say that being fat is not bad and it is simply a characteristic of somebody,” she says, “then we have to say it loudly and we have to say it with pride.”

As the self-declared “poster girl for fat acceptance,”

Manheim is at the forefront of a movement gaining momentum throughout North America. Groups like NAAFAhave lobbied for years to lighten the crushing load of prejudice society piles on the obese. Other organizations have followed suit, including the Torontobased Canadian Association for Size Acceptance (CASA), founded just over a year ago by NAAFA’s Canadian representative, Heléna Spring, a large-sized nurse. The groups’ message: although most modern societies have legislation prohibiting racism, sexism, religious intolerance and discrimination against the disabled, the obese are still fair game. “It’s the last socially sanctioned form of discrimination,” says Toronto writer Kerry Daniels, founder of Heavy Girl Press, a quarterly magazine that promotes fat acceptance.

The notions that fat people are lazy, have no selfcontrol, are by definition unhealthy or could lose the

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weight if they really wanted to are just myths, say those who advocate acceptance. The public, in general, may take a lot of convincing. One 1993 Harvard School of Public Health study found that, compared with thinner women, obese females were 20 per cent less likely to marry and 10 per cent more likely to be living in poverty. That was regardless of how and where they grew up or of how they had scored on achievement tests as teens.

Still the lobbyists have one plus on their side: demographics. With increasing numbers of baby boomers hitting their 50s, many are putting on the pounds known as middle-aged spread. It is the marketplace—not social conscience—that will likely nudge attitudes along. And there are signs that it is already happening. Newsstands are offering fashion magazines, such as Mode, aimed at the 30 per cent of North American women who wear size 14 or larger. And more so-called plus sizes are available in department stores and specialty shops.

In some cities, dating services have sprung up to cater to large people. More to Love, a Canadian feature film to be released next summer, tells the story of a heavy woman who finds selfacceptance and then true love with a handsome—and average weight—man she meets at a social club. For director Paul Lynch, who wanted to show that large women have lives that are as rich and varied as their slender sisters’, it was important that the actress who played the lead role of Maryanne be attractive. “This is not in any way a freak show,” says Lynch. “This is a romance.” After trying unsuccessfully to find a Hollywood actress to fit the bill, he heard from Louise Werner, a five-foot, 9-inch, 229-lb. former model who lived in Santa Monica, Calif. The Swedish beauty, who studied with the late famed acting coach Lee Strasberg, had been unable to find work when she could not lose the 110 lb. she had put on in two pregnancies.

Still, getting the film made took four years, says Lynch, who explains the entertainment industry’s fat phobia made it difficult for him to find a backer. Toronto’s Crystal Films Inc., which was interested in producing a low-budget art film, finally took on the project. Of course, it’s not just in Hollywood where fat is reviled. In Canada, the satirical biweekly Frank routinely refers to Mike Duffy, the Ottawa-based host of CTV’s Sunday Edition newsmagazine, as “The Puffster.” Because of a pending lawsuit, he declines comment on Frank. Duffy says, however, that while “it is clear to anybody who has their eyes open” society is biased, being heavy has not been an issue in his TV career. “I’ve been lucky because I’ve had bosses who were prepared to ignore that and allow me to be a journalist.” Perhaps no one has been as cruelly savaged as singer Rita MacNeil. In her new autobiography, On a Personal Note, the Nova Scotia entertainer writes that despite all her achievements she could never escape the issue of her size. “My appearance was usually an issue, no matter if I was interviewed for television, radio or print. I was a ‘heavyweight challenger for the title of pop queen,’ an ‘unlikely star.’ ”

Celebrities are humiliated publicly—but they also receive support from their fans. Ordinary heavy folk are more likely to suffer the reproaches and insults in silence. But it is time to draw the line, says CASA’s Spring. “If I hear someone muttering behind me about how fat I am,” she says, “I turn around and politely say, You said it to my back, now say it to my face.’ They usually back down.”

Meanwhile, there is a bit of a backlash developing towards the emaciated image promoted by the wraithlike Kate Moss and her ilk. In recent months, many fashion publications have declared “the supermodel is dead.” A similar uproar occurred after Calista Flockhart, the slim star of FOX TV’s hit comedy Ally McBeal, looked especially gaunt at the same Emmy Awards where Manheim took home her statuette. Reacting to reports that she was anorexic, Flockhart’s publicist denied the actress was ill and declared she would go home and eat “a bucket of chicken.” But the rebuttal did little to calm the controversy that raged in the entertainment media for weeks afterward. A sign, perhaps, that thin is not quite so in any more. □