June 6, 2002, Episode Five:  Fat and Fit, The Stigmatization of Fatness

Jennifer Portnick loves aerobics.  The 38-year-old San Francisco resident stood out in her Jazzercise class, performing routines so well, her instructor asked her to audition for a position with the company.  Portnick did so, but was not initially accepted by Jazzercise as an instructor. It wasn’t her skill, her stamina, her techniques, her sense of rhythm, or her talent that kept her from acceptance.  It was how she looked.  At 240 pounds, the five-feet, eight-inch Portnick was told by Jazzercise that she should go on a diet and aim for a “more fit appearance.”  If she lost the required weight in 6 months, she could work for Jazzercise.  Portnick told Jazzercise that such a goal was unrealistic.  Then she did not take “no” for an answer.  In September of 2001, Portnick filed a complaint with San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission alleging a violation of the city’s “fat and short” provision that bans discrimination based on size. What has followed has been a flurry of debates in the press across international boundaries about the truth of the fatness/fitness dichotomy. Can one be fat and fit? On May 6, 2002, International No-Diet Day, Portnick's attorney, Sondra Sovonay announced that Portnick and Jazzercise had reached a satisfactory agreement with the Human Rights Commission acting as mediator. The provisions of the agreement were not made public, but Jazzercise has released a statement that they have abandoned their "fit appearance" requirement stating "recent studies document that it may be possible for people of varying weights to be fit. Jazzercise has determined that the value of 'fit appearance' as a standard is debatable."  During this show, we examined the stigma of fatness. We began by talking to Jennifer Portnick who took time a few weeks ago from her busy schedule of talking to mainstream media such as Good Morning America and People Magazine to speak with Pattie from her San Francisco home.

Why do we even need to talk about fat and health? This may seem like an odd question amidst the current multi-national campaigns against obesity.  But is obesity really a "disease"?  Lots of vested interests are making a great deal of money because of the medicalization of body size.  Is treatment of obesity a new kind of phrenology?  We spend some time discussing other ways to view fat than as ugly, unhealthy and lazy.   

Writing is one of the few ways stigmatized people have to voice their concerns.  Goffman suggests that stigmas are ways in which certain groups of people are regarded as less than human.  People regarded in this manner must find ways to "manage" their "spoiled identity."  Justice seeks to eliminate the spoiled identity entirely, assuring that all human beings are treated as human beings.  Thus, prose and poetry can be a powerful tool in the quest for justice because nothing is more human than our most profound feelings, our deepest emotions.

updated April 2004:  We now have a website dedicated to fighting the stigma of fat people and calling for universal accessibility for people who like to travel, including people of size.


Being Fat means being hated. The Dictionary of Sociology defines stigma as:

Quote. Any physical or social attribute or sign that so devalues an actor's social identity as to disqualify him from full social acceptance. … Different implications follow for the stigmatized person according to whether the stigma is visible (the individual is obviously discredited), or hidden (the individual is potentially discreditable). The latter allows a greater number of options to the stigmatized person to manage his or her stigma. But in both cases the actor's problems lie in finding a means of limiting, or even turning to some advantage, the damaging effects of the stigma. Close quote.

Goffman, the social psychologist who wrote extensively about Stigma writes that stigmas allow people to think of others as less than human:

Quote. The attitudes we normals have toward a person with a stigma, and the actions we take in regard to him, are well known, since these responses are what benevolent social action is designed to soften and ameliorate. By definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human. Close quote.

Fatness is one such stigma in the western world. It is a marking that allows people to poke fun at the fat person, to be mean to the fat person without much misgiving, to give the fat person paternalistic and unsolicited advice and to regard the fat person as lazy, ugly or stupid. Fat stigmatization leads to discrimination in jobs, in medicine and in the market place. Many fat people feel shame. Some fat people find ways to cope with the shame. Goffman writes:

Quote. During mixed contacts the stigmatized individual is likely to feel like he is "on", having to be self conscious and calculating about the impression he is making, to a degree and in areas of conduct which he assumes others are not. …[The stigmatized individual] is likely to feel that the usual scheme of interpretation from everyday events has been undermined. His minor accomplishments, he feels, may be assessed as signs of remarkable and noteworthy capacities in the circumstance. … Persons who have a particular stigma tend to have similar learning experiences regarding their plight, and similar changes in conception of self - a similar 'moral career' that is both cause and effect of commitment to a similar sequence of personal adjustments. Close quote.

Fat people aren't supposed to talk about fat until AFTER they have lost the weight… 

[[insert Before and After by Pattie Thomas]]

Audre Lorde wrote:

Quote. Every Black woman in America lives her life somewhere along a wide curve of ancient and unexpressed angers. My Black woman's anger is a molten pond at the core of me, my most fiercely guarded secret. I know how much of my life as a power feeling woman is laced through with this net of rage. … How to train that anger with accuracy rather than deny it has been one of the major tasks of my life. Close quote.

[[insert Rage by Tish Parmeley and Ticked Off by Pattie Thomas]]

Audre Lorde also wrote:

Quote: The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us - the poet - whispers in our dreams: I fell, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implimentation of that freedom. Close quote.

[[insert My Size by Debora Iyall]]

A special thank you to Tish Parmeley who wrote Rage and recorded it  for this show and Debora Iyall who wrote My Size and allowed us to share it with you for this show. Before and After and Ticked Off were written and performed by Pattie Thomas. Tish's website is  www.fatshadow.com  Debora's website website is www.iyall.com 

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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