Thank you for the opportunity to speak. I'd like to talk about how I got started in size acceptance. Then I'll reminisce a little bit about the early years of NAAFA and the size acceptance movement. Then I'll tell you how some of the real people I've known have been affected by the movement.
Around the age of 14, I came out of the closet as an FA when I went to my mother and pointed out a picture in a magazine of a woman who was perhaps a size 18. I told my mom that I thought the woman had a perfect figure by my standards. After she regained her composure, she explained to me that the woman was pretty but "very overweight" and that if I thought that was attractive, I must be going through a phase. (The phase has so far lasted 54 years, and I'm still counting.)
After that, I came to face a total lack of acceptance on the question of my taste in women, from family, from friends, and from society. In fact, there was virtually no recognition in the media of the existence of others like myself, and I felt pretty isolated. I noted that there was plenty of books and articles written about gay men and women, but almost nothing about those whose sexuality involves attraction to a larger partner. I began to read anything I could find on the subject, and came to the opinion that there was a huge gap in the world's understanding of fat people and their admirers.
When I dated in high school and college, my dates were always plus-sized girls and women. The one exception was when a thin female friend and I both wanted to go to a certain prom, and neither of us had dates, so we asked each other to the prom! But it never would have occurred to me to think of her as anything other than a friend.
In 1964, I married a very plus-sized woman, named Joyce. In living with her and getting to know and understand her issues, I became very angry at the way that she was treated every day of her life. For example, when we were engaged, and applied for a marriage license, blood tests were required under New York State law. She went to a new doctor in her community to receive a blood test, and was shown into his office. He asked why she was there, not having been informed by his nurse. Joyce replied that she was engaged to be married soon, and needed to obtain a blood test. The astonished doctor replied, "Who would want to marry you?" When Joyce, between her tears, told me the story on the phone, I don't need to tell you how I felt. Fortunately for both myself and the doctor, I was in a distant city, and did not own any firearms.
Events like these set the stage for an anger that built up inside me, anger that was later to be put to use productively.
I leapt out of my chair, galvanized by the thought that I had discovered a kindred spirit, and the truth had finally come out. I thought it would be a great idea to order some reprints of the article from the Post, and give them to those friends and relatives who had been unsupportive throughout the years, and perhaps anyone else I bumped into who needed convincing. But I was told by Curtis Publishing that reprints were available only in quantity, with a minimum of 500, for around $80, which was big money in those days. So I thought, maybe I could get together a few other people, including Louderback himself, to place a single order for the reprints.
The moment I thought of "getting people together" I realized that ordering reprints was just a start, and I was onto something big. I remembered that in the U.S., most everything that gets anything accomplished is done through an organization, and I realized that it was up to me to start one, since nobody else had. My next thought was to fear that I could find nobody who would take the idea seriously, and the thought after that was to realize that for me to be driven by that fear would be counterproductive. I decided that once I had the thought to start an organization that might have the potential to help so many people, it would be morally dishonest to walk away from it.
In February, 1968, I wrote to Mr. Louderback with my ideas for the NAAFA organization, and he responded that he liked the idea, and that I should flesh it out a bit more. He and his wife agreed to meet with me and my wife, and at that meeting, we all agreed that if I could find a sympathetic attorney, come up with a Constitution, and round up some friends to serve on a Board, we could start an organization.
So thereafter, Louderback was awarded a small advance to write the book Fat Power, and I put plans to NAAFA on hold for a year, while I helped him with some of the research for the book. My thought at the time was, people will take us more seriously if we have a well-researched book that espouses our positions on the role of fat people in society, and how they can be healthier and happier. The book was published, and did not make much of a splash, but I consider it to be the "bible" of the size acceptance movement. Most of what he said, more than 30 years ago, has withstood the test of time, and is still valid. It's out of print for many years, but you can order a photocopy from NAAFA's book service department.
In the early spring of 1969, I sought out an attorney referral from the county bar association in Long Island, New York, and I prayed that I would be taken seriously. I was, and got an appointment with lawyer named John Trapani. The moment I walked into his office, I knew I had come to right place. His secretary (Eileen Lefebure, who ended up becoming one of our Co-Founders) was fat.
With his help, and with hers, I drafted a constitution and bylaws, going through 3 drafts in the process, rounded up the few friends I had left who didn't think that this was a harebrained scheme, and we all met on June 13, 1969, to sign and ratify the constitution. NAAFA was born that day!
Well, I can tell you that I was pretty naive. Louderback, being more mature, said he thought that our task was harder than demolishing a brick wall, but I believe that all we had to do was to put the truth in front of rational people, and in a few short years, size oppression would be a thing of the past. But I soon realized that we faced major problems convincing most people to even listen to the message. And our main opposition was not intellectual truth, but the emotional reactions of people who had invested a lifetime in believing themselves and others inferior because of weight.
We faced serious opposition from our friends and our parents, and even my own wife was doubtful that it was worth trying. She went along with it for the same reason that some women take up golf--because they won't spend much time with their husband otherwise. My parents were openly hostile to my efforts, feeling that I was wasting my time and energy on a fruitless project. (It wasn't until the 1980's that they began to see and even respect what we were trying to do, after I got quoted in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal several times.)
The reaction of many thin people at the time was: "If you fatties don't like the way you are treated, why don't you just lose the weight?" Most fat people said something like, "If I listen to you, I will have one more lame excuse not to diet!"
Early conferences held by NAAFA were nothing like they are today. People sat around at tables avoiding conversation, looking suspiciously around, not really believing that the other people in the room had anything in common with them. We persisted, holding fashion shows for larger sizes, booking guest speakers who said positive stuff about size, and encouraging people to make friends, which they began to do.
We found out that the need for social interaction with others who don't disapprove of your body was so powerful that we could not attract members without offering it, so NAAFA-Date was born, and we started holding dances and mixers in several cities. Some in NAAFA, including Mr. Louderback, respectfully withdrew from leadership when that happened, because their vision was primarily one of activism and education.
Historically, groups of oppressed minorities that try to better themselves by forming organizations, tend to expend nearly as much energy fighting internal battles as they do in fighting the outside enemy, and NAAFA was no exception. Through the years, this has happened time and again, and yet--a lot of good was accomplished, and many people's lives were powerfully affected by the endeavor. And today, the size acceptance movement includes NAAFA and a number of other groups that focus on various aspects of the problems of fat people.
Getting NAAFA going caused me to make some tough career choices, have new experiences, and develop new friends. In 1969, I had to leave most of my old friends behind who did not understand why in the world I would do what I did. My career choices, then as now, were dictated by the fact that in the 9 to 5 workaday world, an engineer cannot ask his boss for an hour off to line up some people for a Phil Donahue show. I was forced to work as an engineer for small companies who respected my technical skills, and who were willing to put up with frequent disruptions in my schedule. Eventually, I became a consultant, paid by the hour.
I had new and amazing experiences for an engineer. I got to meet and/or talk with scientists like the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, TV personalities like Steve Allen, Regis Philbin, Phil Donahue, Joan Rivers, Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, Hugh Downs, and so forth. I was the first "fat admirer" (FA) to speak about my taste on national TV. I invented the term "FA", since one way to keep someone down is to avoid having any term in the language that describes him or her.
Being in the leadership of such an organization is very hard on marriages. My first wife Joyce and I divorced in 1977, although once we got over the initial hostilities, we resumed our friendship. In 1980 I met my second wife, Nancy, in NAAFA, and got to know her as a volunteer on one of its committees. Later, after we started the Amplestuff company, we got to add "product activism" to our list of endeavors.
Life was never the same for me or my friends or my wives, after NAAFA.
As a super-sized woman, she always suffered from low self-esteem, even with me around. She would tell me, "I know you find me attractive, but you are the only one in the world who does." When the first FA other than myself started complimenting her at NAAFA events, she change it to "You two are the only ones in the world who do." She really never recovered from a lifetime of oppression as a large person in a fatphobic society.
She was angry at NAAFA for adding pressures on our marriage, but eventually came to think of NAAFA as worthwhile. When she was dying of cancer in 1993 and I showed her NAAFA's wonderful 25th anniversary video, she was happy, and said to me, "we did the right thing." She died believing that what she had participated in, during its earliest years, was important, and that she had done something good. And indeed she had.
She was born after 1969, and grew up in a household with NAAFA members as parents. She came up to me at a recent conference, introduced herself, and talked about her years in such a family, and how it colored her outlook. She came to the conference as an attendee, herself a plus-sized woman. I had only remembered her as a 5-year-old girl! I was thrilled to see a new generation who did not know what it was like before size acceptance.
She was always shy and withdrawn, and blamed herself for being fat. She assumed she could never find a man, but fortunately, she became active in a fat support group. She improved her self-esteem, and came to believe that she was born to be fat. She gradually accepted her body. She did not find a man in the group, but did outside, with her new self-esteem. The last time I talked to her, she had a good marriage and a child, with another on the way.
He was always teased about his weight, and went on countless yo-yo diets. He was initially discouraged by size acceptance activities, because so few big men attend them, but he kept coming, and found a woman who was OK with his size. They married, and he became "Dad" to her kids from a previous marriage.
She joined a size acceptance club looking for romance. She never went to any workshops, she never improved her self-esteem, she only found romance (sex, actually) with exploitative men, and she never made any female friends. She stopped attending events, and never understood the reason for the movement. We offered her the tools, and she did not take and use them.
She was afraid to get involved in size acceptance because most social activities are oriented for straight, heterosexual people, and she is a lesbian. However, she persisted, attended events, including some for women that welcome diversity in sexual orientation, and she found a female lover who became her long-term partner, for whom weight was not an issue. (We should not exclude anyone due to their sexual preferences, religion, gender, race, age, or any other similar reason.)
They are both fat, and have been married for a long time. They felt no need for size-friendly social activities, but they come to major events from time to time to renew old friendships and hear about new ways of staying fit and healthy at their sizes.
She is not fat herself, but has a fat sister whom she desperately wants to help. She is angry at the way her sister is treated, and she buys all the size acceptance magazines and books, and she accesses the web sites in the hope of getting her sister to feel better about herself. So far she has not succeeded, but she helps the movement in various ways, including making donations to several organizations. However, she rarely attends events because, as a slender woman, so many people challenge her reasons for being there. We should not care about the size of her body, and we should welcome support from any ally.
He is an in-the-closet FA, on the fringes of the size acceptance movement. He is gradually coming out of his shell, but it is tough going, because he fears what his friends and family would say if they saw him dating a fat woman. He has always been shy, a loner. We may not be able to help him much.
She is fat, has been in an abusive marriage in which her weight was used as a club against her in countless battles with her philandering, alcoholic husband. But she divorced her husband several years ago, and has made new friends in her size acceptance support group. She has come to realize that her size was never the real issue in her former marriage. She feels as if a great weight has been lifted from her shoulders.
She is conflicted about her weight. She has learned that chronic yo-yo dieting over the years, combined with a strong genetic tendency to gain weight, has kept her at 300-400 pounds most of her adult life. She has come to accept her body, but her knees hurt and she feels that she should try to lose some weight for her health and mobility, even if it is only 50 pounds. She is not optimistic about keeping it off once she loses it, and she senses a lack of support from some of her size acceptance friends about trying to lose weight. She has decided to accept those things in size acceptance that she agrees with, but follow her own path about losing weight. She needs our support--after all, she is the one who has to live in her body!
She has always been a fat woman and is currently having an affair with a married man whose wife is thin. He is a closet FA who married a socially-approved woman to please his parents and his buddies, and is now both he and his wife are paying the price. Penny has given up trying to get him to terminate his unhappy marriage, but meanwhile she is finding ways of building up her confidence and self-esteem so she can find a new partner someday. I hope she succeeds.
She is only 17 years old, and cannot remember there ever having not been a good choice of plus-size clothes, information, and size support services. However, her friends and classmates sometimes tease her, and she wishes there were size acceptance activities more oriented for her age group. She likes to visit the website of radiancemagazine.com, which she considers a lifeline.
She became a psychotherapist specializing in weight and eating disorders. A large woman herself, she told me that she knew about NAAFA from the age of 13, and although she never attended any activities, or joined the organization, despite being a plus-sized teen, it was a comfort to know we existed, and it helped her to form her eventual career choice.
The people I have spoken about are just a handful, but we have influenced many thousands of lives, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, without knowing who they are. Mostly, their lives are better because of what size acceptance has done and is doing. That is why we must continue.