Going for the big laugh' Making fun of obese may be 'last safe prejudice'


IN HIS NEW comedy, "The Nutty Professor," Eddie Murphy plays Sherman Klump, a kindly 400-pound scientist who invents a serum to make himself thin. He gulps down a "DNA restructuring" formula tested only on rats and metamorphoses into Buddy Love, an obnoxious womanizer who is as brash as Sherman is timid. When the potion wears off, Buddy, of course, balloons into Sherman again.

Audiences have reacted with side-splitting laughter, but many Americans probably won't be entertained.

Although Sherman, as Buddy, gets his revenge on a fat-basher at one point and the movie ends with a heartwarming speech by Sherman about the importance of being yourself, it is preceded by one fat joke after another, including repeated scenes of Sherman and his large relatives eating like pigs.

"A lot of the stuff is not even funny," says Carolyn Schmidt, president of the Chicago chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a 5,000-member advocacy group based in Sacramento. Murphy "clearly doesn't understand how hurtful the world can be to people who are large. Somebody as big as [Sherman] certainly didn't get that way by sitting around and eating all the time. They got that way by being born with a different metabolism.

"When the poor man is trying to get in a chair in the dean's office -- that's every large person's fear -- the audience were all laughing at that. They were also laughing when he was shown at home listening to some music that he liked and moving around. Everybody does that. But they thought it was hilarious, like a buffoon or clown went home and acted like a human being.

"It was good that the thin character didn't play to the stereotype that life is wonderful when you lose weight, but whole parts of it played to the stereotype of what people imagine life is like for someone who is fat. It's ridiculing people, not ridiculing beliefs about fat people.

"I was pretty uncomfortable walking out of the theater, wondering if someone was going to say something to me, given the reactions of the audience."

Esther Rothblum, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, who studies the social consequences of discrimination, says that "being fat is the last area where people feel they can be quite biased, quite discriminatory in a way that they can't be with other groups."

Others, more bluntly, call it "the last safe prejudice." Activists say that those who are larger than average face discrimination in employment, education, housing and access to medical care and insurance.

William J. Fabrey, a thin man who writes a quarterly media column for Radiance: The Magazine for Large Women and helped found the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance in 1969 to do something about the discrimination his fat wife had to face, says that "the media -- particularly Hollywood and the tabloids -- reinforce stereotypes [about fat people].

"The large actor or actress is often used as a sight gag to get a quick or cheap laugh."

But Fabrey says that "a few Hollywood writers are beginning to see that fat people are people like everyone else." He cites the 1994 film "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" as an example of progress. The sensitive story of a small-town teen-ager burdened with responsibility for his younger, retarded brother and single, housebound, obese mother was improved, according to Fabrey, the input of large-size actress Darlene Cates, who battled to keep her character from being portrayed as "a sideshow freak."

"The fact that producers were willing to listen to her says something."

In a society obsessed with looks, especially thinness, fat people face discrimination and cruelty on a daily basis that no other segment of society would tolerate.

It goes beyond dirty looks and smirks. Some people feel free to make rude comments to those who are large, to take items out of their shopping carts, to offer unsolicited advice about losing weight, sometimes anonymously, or even worse, to make ugly noises as they pass on the street.

"There's this myth that if we really wanted to, we could be thin," says Sally E. Smith, the association's executive director. "That the reason we're fat is that we're out of control, we're gluttonous. That if we only exercised a little willpower we could be thin."

These anti-fat attitudes continue even in the face of growing evidence that fat people can't help it. A panel of experts convened in 1992 by the National Institutes of Health to look at success rates of weight-loss programs concluded: "There is increasing physiological, biochemical and genetic evidence that overweight is not a simple disorder of willpower, as is sometimes implied, but is a complex disorder of energy metabolism."

"It's very clear from studies of adopted children that weight sort of runs in families," says Audrey Ruderman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "The weights of adopted children more closely resemble those of their biological parents, even though they were exposed to the eating habits of another set of parents. There's a genetic component."

Activists and other observers say that a variety of sources spawn anti-fat attitudes.

"I think that it's the influence of the fashion industry, the media -- especially television and movies -- and the $40 billion diet industry," says Miriam Berg, president of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination in Mt. Marion, N.Y. "The diet industry has a lot to lose if people were to start feeling OK about themselves."

Attitudes about body size and self-worth are formed early in life.

"There are psychological consequences for fat children who tend to get picked out as victims and find it harder to make friends," says Sherri Lantinga, a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who is completing a dissertation on anti-fat attitudes.

"Other children are brought up not to like fat people. A father might comment, 'Why are you playing with that fat kid?' And some studies have shown that when parents are telling stories they will make a parenthetical comment about a fat character. Little kids are new to the world and they're looking for information, so they pick up on these little things parents are saying."

Rebecca Jedlicka, vice president of the Chicago chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance and a schoolteacher, says that "there's a great deal of bigoted material in children's literature. The fat child is shown either as a bully or a slovenly, lazy oaf. Those basic stereotypes are what children learn and that's how others feel.

"How many times have you heard the words 'fat' and 'ugly' linked together? People for some reason fear being fat, and I don't think it has anything to do with health. I taught [kindergarten through 5th grade] in a school building and one of the most [popular] books in the library was an outdated calorie book. These little girls -- nobody over age 11 -- were checking out this book constantly and they weren't doing it for a school project."

The relentless bombardment of images of unrealistic "perfect bodies" from movies, television and magazines takes a toll on many Americans' self-image. Very few people can measure up to the Barbie doll ideal.

When researchers at the University of Florida surveyed people who had lost large amounts of weight after intestinal bypass surgery, they found almost all said they would rather be blind, deaf or have a leg amputated than be fat again.

Meanwhile, scientists have come up with a fat substitute, olestra, for use in snack foods and a new diet drug, dexfenfluramine, for the seriously obese. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the drug and the fat substitute, but activists against size discrimination have expressed doubts about their safety.

"The diet drug was approved despite its serious side effects, some fatal side effects," Berg says. "The reason is because there is a social prejudice against the overweight to the extent that they say it's such a dangerous thing to be fat that it's better to take a drug with a fatal side effect."

In 1987 when Rothblum and her colleagues at the University of Vermont surveyed 445 association members, 80 percent of whom were at least 20 percent over the average weight for their height, they found that more than 60 percent of the women and 40 percent of the men believed they had been denied a job because of their weight. Of those who were employed, a third believed they had not been given raises or promotions because of their weight.

Michigan is the only state in the country with a law that protects the employment rights of fat people. On the books since 1977, the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of height and weight.

LeeAnn Lodder, project manager of an employment discrimination project at Chicago's Legal Assistance Foundation, says that the project originally intended to look at discriminatory hiring in terms of race and gender. Weight will be added because initial testing showed evidence that weight can be a barrier to employment.

"We found that, particularly with positions that involved a high degree of public contact, the treatment of a black woman and a white woman, both of whom were heavyset, was markedly worse than that of the black women in any other pair," Lodder says.

"It's not a protected class that we could go after in the same way as discrimination based on race or gender, but the courts in recent years have begun to address the issue of whether hiring discrimination based on obesity constitutes an unlawful form of disability discrimination" under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Jedlicka cites the case of Patricia Mullen as "fat discrimination carried to its worst extreme." After Mullen, a 500-pound Chicago woman, died in her home in May, neighbors and family members allege that police left her unclothed body in full view of onlookers for hours, made crude comments about her size and jiggled her body with their shoes. Once the body was at the morgue, more than 17 funeral homes refused to handle it.

"That's every fat person's worst nightmare," says Smith. "People talk about that a lot."

Connie Lauerman's article was distributed by the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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