- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

NEWARK, N.J. — Nancy Marshello is not the typical obese American. She works out in a gym four times a week, eats “moderately healthy” and abstains from smoking or heavy drinking. And she likes to call herself fat.

“It’s just a descriptive term to me. I don’t consider it to have a negative connotation anymore,” said Ms. Marshello, who carries about 270 pounds on her 5-foot-2 frame.

She was one of several hundred bulky participants at an annual convention this week of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Sacramento, Calif.

While government officials and public-health advocates are calling obesity an illness and an epidemic that causes 400,000 deaths annually, the convention-goers, mostly middle-aged women, embraced their extra pounds.

Nashville, Tenn., resident Kristie Rigdon Agee said the group helped her stop “yo-yo dieting,” which drove her weight to as much as 365 pounds.

“I was put on a diet at the age of 8. I think if I had just been taught to have a healthy relationship with food instead, I would have been large but not as large,” said Mrs. Agee, who has dropped down to 348 pounds.

The 27-year-old singer said steady exercise and a simpler meal plan have helped stabilize her weight. “I have lost and gained 100 pounds rapidly, and it is extremely painful. I’d rather be healthy at this rate,” she said.

The participants at the five-day event were not apologetic for their bulk, with several sporting buttons reading “Big is Beautiful” and “Beauty Comes in All Sizes.” Thinner members mingled among plus-size advocates to lend support.

But the group “can’t ignore the science,” said Judith S. Stern, co-founder of the American Obesity Association, a Washington nonprofit institute.

Obesity has been shown to trigger diseases and conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and certain cancers, Mrs. Stern said.

NAAFA spokeswoman Mary Ray Worley, who weighs 350 pounds, said the organization encourages fat people to consult with their physicians on setting up healthy eating and exercise patterns. But the group does not support dieting or weight-loss surgeries such as stomach stapling.

“Plus, many of those studies have not indicated a direct correlation between body size and morbidity and mortality,” said Mrs. Worley, who added that obese people can be healthy.

Mrs. Stern said she supported the group’s efforts to help obese individuals, who often are isolated.

Along with the convention’s advocacy and support workshops, participants cut loose with a fashion show, pool parties and dances.

“The problem is, they absolutely reject the idea of obesity as a disease,” Mrs. Stern said.

Anyone with a body-mass index of 30 or higher is considered obese, and those with an index of 25 to 29 are considered overweight. A healthy body-mass index is between 19 to 25.

Obesity-related illnesses already are expanding the nation’s heath care expenses and costing businesses an estimated $17 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, who recently released a book disputing those numbers, said the obesity crisis has been exaggerated by officials who are funded by weight-loss surgeons and pharmaceutical companies.

“What we’re seeing in this country is a moral panic” for overconsumption that has targeted larger individuals, Mr. Campos said in a speech Thursday.

He pointed to the recent decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to allow Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly, to cover obesity as further discrimination against fat people.

Carole Cullum, a San Francisco lawyer and NAAFA co-chairman, said the policy change will pressure more obese people to have “risky operations that have a high rate of failure.”

Besides its opposition to weight-loss surgeries and dieting, the group also lobbies for cities to outlaw discrimination based on a person’s height or weight. Only a handful of cities and Michigan have such laws.

The organization, with an estimated 600 members, does not align itself with any particular political group and members have mixed feelings about the recent spate of obesity-related lawsuits that have tried to blame the fast-food industry for America’s weight gain, Ms. Cullum said.

While overweight participants spent most of the convention talking about size acceptance and ways to advocate greater equality in their homes and workplaces, they also engaged in some aerobic workouts.

“I think one of the greatest misconceptions is that all fat people are lazy and overeat all the time,” said Ms. Marshello, 47, before the Pilates Plus class on Thursday.

Ms. Marshello, who has been regularly working out for a year and half, said her weight has stayed the same, but her body composition has changed to include more muscle.

New York fitness instructor Sandy Schaffer, who weighs 280 pounds, said the key to being fat but fit is to becoming active.

“It is my belief and passion that if you move, you will feel better no matter what size you are or shape you’re in,” she told a group of 20 overweight men and women at the start of the class.

Alexandria dietitian Hope Warshaw agreed that people with 20 to 30 pounds more than “their ideal body weight” can be healthy. But additional pounds bring health risks and put more strains on muscle joints.

“In my heart, I want to see acceptance of people with different body sizes, but not at the cost of their health,” Ms. Warshaw said.

The Pilates Plus participants did a series of stretching, toning and strengthening moves. Not all could stand for the exercises, but Ms. Schaffer encouraged them to test their limits.

Forty other husky members tested their limits yesterday when they ventured into Manhattan to put on a “fat liberation” demonstration.

The mostly female advocates, taking up part of St. Vartan’s Park on the corner of 35th Street and First Avenue, donned grass hula skirts, tiaras and flamingo headbands to illustrate their acceptance of their flab.

They threw around beach balls and participated in a self-defense exercise before dancing the “Hokey-Pokey fat liberation” song.

Then they stepped on a scale modified with supportive words like “stunning,” “pretty” and “beautiful” instead of numbers.

“It takes a lot of patience, but it’s very liberating when you can be happy with your size and live your life instead of obsessing over diets,” Mrs. Worley said.

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