NEW YORK – Unashamed of their size, fed up with fat jokes, and angry at the national obsession with dieting, overweight activists are mounting a feisty protest movement against the medical establishment's campaign against obesity.
"We're living in the middle of a witch hunt and fat people are the witches," said Marilyn Wann of San Francisco, a militant member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (search). "It's gotten markedly worse in the last few years because of the propaganda that fatness, a natural human characteristic, is somehow a form of disease."
The association, known as NAAFA, holds its annual convention starting Wednesday in Newark, N.J., bringing together activists for social events and workshops on self-acceptance, political advocacy and the "fat liberation" movement.
"I hope we can be a viable force of sanity in the midst of hysteria," said NAAFA spokeswoman Mary Ray Worley of Madison, Wis. "I've found allies in all kinds of unexpected places, but overall there's a lot of animosity. Some people act like obesity is the next worst thing after terrorism."
The convention comes as the movement is scrambling to counter federal government pronouncements that obesity is a "critical public health problem" costing more than $100 billion and 300,000 lives per year.
Jeannie Moloo, an American Dietetic Association (search) spokeswoman who counsels overweight clients at her nutrition practice in Sacramento, Calif., empathizes with the activists' fight against bias, but says they should be wary of oversimplifying obesity-related health issues.
"Some people can be overweight all their lives and not end up with diabetes or heart disease or hypertension," Moloo said. "But the majority are probably going to develop one of these life-altering conditions."
Fat-acceptance groups were dismayed when federal officials announced last month that Medicare (search) was discarding its declaration that obesity isn't a disease. The policy change will likely prompt overweight Americans covered by Medicare to file medical claims for treatments such as stomach surgery and diet programs.
"Obesity is not a disease," insisted Allen Steadham, director of the Austin, Texas-based International Size Acceptance Association (search). "All this does is open the door for the diet and bariatric surgery industries to make a potentially tremendous profit."
Most fat-acceptance activists endorse the concept of eating healthy food and exercising regularly, but they oppose any fixation on losing weight and contend that more than 95 percent of diets fail. They also decry the rapid growth of stomach-shrinking surgery; the number of such procedures has quadrupled to 100,000 annually since 1998.
Wann depicts bariatric surgery as "stomach amputation" that imposes anorexia on patients and exposes them to long-term risks. Kelly Bliss, a self-described "full-figured fitness instructor" from Lansdowne, Pa., predicts that future generations will disapprovingly look back on stomach surgery as "comparable to lobotomies."
Bliss, who coaches clients by phone and in fitness classes, subscribes to a philosophy called "health at every size" — preaching that health, fitness and self-esteem can be achieved independent of weight.
"There's a war on obese people, and I'm treating the casualties — people whose hearts are being ripped out," Bliss said.
NAAFA and others have tried to combat what they see as rampant discrimination against fat people, but progress has been sporadic. Southwest Airlines, for example, resisted protests targeting its policy of requiring large passengers to purchase a second ticket if they can't fit in a single seat.
"People want to fight for their rights, but there's a lot of shame involved," Steadham said. "It takes a whole lot of determination to stick through it to the end."
A few cities, including San Francisco, explicitly outlaw weight discrimination. Michigan is the only state to do so, but its Civil Rights Department said only five of 1,696 job discrimination complaints filed in 2003 involved weight.
Walter Lindstrom, a San Diego attorney specializing in weight-discrimination cases, said overweight plaintiffs usually must prove that acts of bias against them are covered by federal laws prohibiting discrimination against disabled people.
"These cases are more difficult from a proof standpoint, and also because you're dealing with a very unpopular class of clients," Lindstrom said. "Juries are generally disgusted with your average size-related plaintiff. You have to get past that, and have them see the plaintiff as someone with a true medical problem."
Many fat-acceptance activists were heartened by this year's publication of "The Obesity Myth" by University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, who contends that diet promoters, drug companies and weight-loss surgeons have whipped up an irrational panic over weight.
Campos shares many of the activists' views but says their effectiveness has been limited.
"The movement has found itself marginalized by drawing its membership and leadership from the far extreme of obesity," he said. "It will be more successful if it can attract the two-thirds of Americans who are being told by the government that they weigh too much — the I-want-to-lose-20-pounds crowd who are starting to feel a certain amount of resentment from the constant haranguing they're getting."