WALNUT CREEK, Calif. (MCT) — Alyssa Russell of Pleasant Hill, Calif., went through what she calls the "whole hating my body thing" when she was a teenager. But, these days, the 20-year-old student has shed those negative feelings. She's big, beautiful and proud.
"I've actually prayed for bigger hips," says Russell, who used to be 257 pounds, but, through healthy living, has found her comfort zone at 216. "I don't want to lose weight because I don't want to lose my curves."
Despite a national war on obesity and a culture obsessed with weight loss, there are many women who love their bigger bodies and don't apologize for them.
Most actually prefer "fat," the term size-acceptance activists first reclaimed during the civil and women's rights movements, says Marilyn Wann, San Francisco author of "Fat! So?" (Ten Speed Press). Reclaiming the word "fat" is about getting rid of shame and moving on with your life, says Oakland's Amanda Piasecki, founder of the community blog, Fatshionista.
While the self-actualization is not new, it comes at a moment when researchers are touting weight-neutral, health at every-size programs, and images of big women are more prevalent in mainstream media. Recently, Fox debuted its plus-size dating reality show, "More to Love," and recently "Drop Dead Diva," about a vapid model who dies and comes back to life in the body of a larger woman, premiered on Lifetime. Fat activists have mixed feelings on the messages behind such programming, but plus-sized women such as Amanda Tobias, 23, of Pleasant Hill, think they are great.
BREAKING THE MOLD
"In all dating shows, the women are thin and look the same," says Tobias, who works at a plus-size clothing store. "At least in this one ("More to Love"), we see a variety of sizes. We see the average American woman."
Wann says she would rather see more fat characters integrated into regular television programming.
"We all want to be happy, successful, and have cool clothes, dates and feel attractive," Wann says. "It's a false prerequisite that you have to be thin to get those things."
Wann's book was first published 10 years ago after, she says, she was denied health care for weighing 235 pounds. And it is has been almost 10 years since she and other fat activists fought for — and successfully added — weight and height to the anti-discrimination laws of San Francisco.
Much has changed since then. Fat-friendly resources, including plus-sized clothing retailers and specialized fitness groups, have helped fat women advance, Wann says. Community blogs such as Fatshionista also provide a forum where women can talk about their fat bodies in a way that is safer than normal conversations, says Piasecki, who founded Fatshionista in 2004. Plus, women say, big clothes are simply cuter now.
"Everything used to be shapeless or boxy," says Dana Roeting, a Millbrae, Calif., plus-sized model who has worked for Liz Claiborne and Jones of New York. "Now there are trendy clothes available for people up to size 30."
It is this process of self-actualization that is at the core of Jeanne Courtney's work. The marriage and family therapist runs Love Your Body at Any Size workshops out of her El Cerrito and San Francisco offices. Through nine steps similar to the stages of grief, she helps women let go of internalized fat phobia and self-hatred to accept and love their bodies.
"When you exude confidence, people are attracted to that," says Courtney, who has worked through her own issues of size acceptance. "We're all neurotic and scared enough about being attractive. But for women who are actually fat, there is a real exhilaration when they find people who are truly attracted to them."
Size acceptance started at a young age for Margarita Rossi. The 26-year-old credits her parents, who laid a foundation for her to question the status quo, she says.
"They helped me realize that there's nothing wrong with me, and I don't need to change myself to make other people feel more comfortable," says Rossi, who is a size 26. She lives in San Francisco and is a moderator on Fatshionista. "In our culture, people think women's bodies are subject to comment. But I have lots of people who are supportive of me and a loving boyfriend. I know that I'm not alone."
While size acceptance is important, the risks associated with being overweight or obese aren't going anywhere, doctors say. The American Medical Association defines a person of normal weight as having a body mass index between 18 and 25.
"If you're in that range, you are far less likely to suffer from hypertension, coronary artery disease, or diabetes, which are leading killers of people in this country," says Amanda Williams Calhoun, a Richmond gynecologist and medical director of the Women's Health Research Institute at Kaiser Permanente Northern California.
But, Williams Calhoun adds, BMI is a starting point. When she meets overweight patients, she tries to understand what — genetics, a sedentary lifestyle — led to their weight issues. Then she asks women five questions: Are you exercising four to five days per week? Are you eating a balanced diet? Is your blood sugar normal? Is your cholesterol normal? Are your periods normal?
HEALTH, NOT SIZE, MATTERS MOST
"If they answer yes to all those questions, then I am really not that concerned about how much they weigh," she says.
The answer to disease reduction and size acceptance may be health at every-size programs, which are based on adopting good habits for the sake of health and well-being rather than weight control. Respecting the natural diversity of body sizes, eating by honoring internal cues, and finding joy in physical activity are all tenets of the movement, says Linda Bacon, nutrition professor at City College of San Francisco and author of "Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight" (Benbella).
"Lots of people feel like they have to lose weight to be happy," Bacon says. "The change comes when people start to value themselves. And the way you're going to start adopting healthy habits is when you think you're important enough."
Ari-Asha Castalia of San Francisco knows this kind of self-love. Over the past year-and-half, she has lost 84 pounds through healthy living, and she continues to lose. Yet, Castalia, 48, has always believed in self-esteem at any size, she says.
"Long ago, I decided that I was going to wear nice clothes, have a cute haircut and nice makeup. I was going to walk around the world like I belonged here," Castalia says. "So many of us are waiting to be a certain size so we can do something. If I want to go to the beach, I'm not going to deny myself the pleasure of being in the water until I reach a certain weight. I do not feel disempowered as a fat person."
STEPS TO SIZE ACCEPTANCE
Don't put your life on hold. Do something that you've been telling yourself you'll do after you lose weight. It might be a trying a sport, buying a new outfit, applying for a high-profile job, or asking somebody on a date.
Swear off dieting. Food addiction, or compulsive overeating, is often a reaction to dieting, which can be an addiction in itself. Many people find that when they stop restricting food, they also stop abusing or overusing it.
Be a subject, not an object. Women's bodies have been scrutinized for so long in our society that it's easy to lose sight of what it's like to live inside them. Use deep breathing, meditation and movement to help you experience your body from the inside out.
Ask for support. Tell health care providers that you don't think weight loss dieting is realistic or healthy, and ask them not to make it part of your treatment plan. Ask what medical advice they'd give a thin person with the same complaints or conditions. Ask friends to avoid diet talk or deprecating remarks about your body or theirs, even if mutual commiseration about struggling with your weight has been a bonding experience in the past.
Move your body. Research shows that women who are exercising are happier with their bodies and their size, regardless of whether they're losing weight. Find out what forms of exercise you enjoy. Try movement that's not a prescribed regimen but simply a part of your life, such as dancing or walking. Check with a doctor about any new exercise plan. One who's familiar with the concept of health at every size will have ideas about which exercises large bodies can do and benefit from.
"Health At Every Size" (Benbella, 2008). Backed by scientific data, University of California Davis nutritionist Linda Bacon poses that you don't have to be thin to be healthy. "Health at Every Size" touts a weight-neutral program geared at size acceptance, eating healthfully and according to hunger cues and physical activity. www.lindabacon.org.
"Fat! So?" (Ten Speed Press, 1998). Fat activist Marilyn Wann tackles fat, "the last American taboo," with eye-opening essays and sassy graphics. Based on the underground 'zine of the same name, the book teaches that you shouldn't have to apologize for your size. www.fatso.com.
National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. A nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to ending size discrimination in all of its forms through advocacy, public education and support. www.naafa.org.
Fatshonista. The Live Journal community blog was founded in 2004 to provide a fat-positive environment where fat, politics and fashion intersect. The community has 6,000. Lesley Kinzel and others blog about the issues at www.fatshionista.com, an outgrowth of the Live Journal community.
Source: Jeanne Courtney's Love Your Body At Any Size workshops. (c) 2009, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).