People’s dignity should not depend on their weight

During National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb. 27 to March 5), we hear a lot about the devastation that anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating can wreak on the lives of our citizens. However, what we often miss is a sense of how our hostile attitudes toward fatness and fat people fuel disordered eating.

Today’s media make examples out of those who conform and those who transgress. A host of programs centered around bodily transformations — from “The Biggest Loser’’ to “The Swan’’ to “Extreme Makeover’’ — remind us that fat folks should not exist as anything but the ghosts of “before” pictures.

There’s a certain logic here: “Epidemic” is one of those words that seems hard to argue with; it instantly confers the status of seriously ill health on all those it affects. But after a lifetime of being fat, I have begun to wonder whether obesity itself is always the plague it’s been made out to be. If we can tell a different story about fat lives, one that takes into account the contradictions, we might end up creating better health for everyone.

I started getting fat around puberty, although I started to diet two or three years before that time.

During high school, I went to Weight Loss Clinic and lost 40 pounds, all of which I gained back. By my first year of college, I was over 200 pounds and, awed by Oprah, began a liquid diet. Finally, at 22, I became a vegetarian and an obsessive devotee of the Stairmaster and lost 100 pounds.

I started grad school at 23 with a slimmed-down body and a new interest in fatness, the force that had shaped so much of my energy. I wanted to know more about people who were strong enough to cast aside diet mentality and live in the present. I did research on the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance and other groups that encouraged fat people to stop suspending their dreams until they lost weight.

In the 12 years since my last diet, I have gained back many of those hundred pounds I lost at 22. But I’ve also gained confidence, health and a sense of well being, and I’ve learned enough not to squander them.

Being “out” as a fat person mostly makes me feel good, and no, I’m not delusional. It’s very rewarding to speak to college students about fat oppression.

Critics of my brand of fat empowerment say I couldn’t possibly be healthy, and to willingly choose to remain fat must be immoral. It’s tough to avoid being baited, but I have to remember that health should not be a moral issue.

Sometimes fatness is healthy, and sometimes it isn’t; sometimes people can control it, and sometimes they can’t. To let one’s dignity hang precariously in the balance of these dichotomies is a spectacularly bad idea. Those educators, nutritionists and medical personnel who recognize this truth have perhaps the most to contribute to changing those fat-phobic attitudes that fuel disordered eating.

Kathleen LeBesco is an associate professor of communication arts and interim chair of the Division of Humanities at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Her column was made available through KRTcampus.