Marilyn Wann must be one of the bravest women in the country. This 270-pound world traveler, aviator, Ivy League graduate and journalist is the Abbie Hoffman of fat power, a movement that seems all the more courageous for its utter lack of hipster cachet. By loudly and boldly proclaiming her message of fat pride in her irreverent hot-pink zine Fat!So? on talk radio and now in a book, Wann has shamelessly flouted our culture's most potent remaining taboo. She revels in her body, in fat culture, fat clothes, fat sex and fat community with a breezy confidence that's almost impossible for a typical neurotically weight-obsessed reader (i.e., me) to fathom.
Lots of writers like to pretend they're spurning cultural rules -- witness the floods of prose about sex work, incest, heroin addiction, s/m and mental illness. But in reality, copping to any of these things is as likely to increase a scribe's social status as it is to render him a pariah. Fat is different. Fat people don't even have subcultural coolness as a comfort. Not fitting into society's weight ideal really is likely to exclude one from both the mainstream and from the radical chic elite. Despite the recent flippant headline in W magazine, "Living Large: Fat Is Back," being a size 22 -- or a size 10, for that matter -- is far from fashionable.
Not that you would know that, though, from reading "Fat!So?" -- whose tireless cheerleading often succeeds in making it seem OK to be big. Wann forgoes the angsty musings of more "serious" books about appearance anxiety like the essay collections "Minding the Body" and "Beauty Secrets." Instead, "Fat!So?" is relentlessly fun, with features like a Venus of Willendorf paper doll (replete with nine cute cut-out outfits), silly songs and poems, even "Heroes and Villains of Fat History" trading cards. Section titles include "You, Too, Can be Flabulous!" "Why You Should Dye Your Hair Hot Pink" and "The Joys of Fat Sex."
It's not all frivolous, though. There are somber chapters about fat teenagers who commit suicide and battle stories from Fat!So? readers that are full of loneliness, shame and frustration. Some people will probably be surprised by the amount of good health information in the book, too. Like Laura Fraser's wonderful, muckraking anti-diet-industry book, "Losing It," "Fat!So?" makes a convincing case that most attempts at radical weight loss are futile. She urges readers to eat well and exercise regularly in the hope of getting healthy, not thin. Wann says she works out three times a week, and there's even a chapter written with her personal trainer, herself a size 14.
Perhaps the most refreshing part of the book is Wann's "Anatomy Lessons," photographs of nine different bellies, chins, upper arms or butts. Except for those who frequent nude beaches or spend a lot of time in health club locker rooms, most of us hardly ever see what real people's naked bodies look like. These pictures are calming and reassuring, though they can also defeat Wann's purpose. Sadly, instead of realizing that all kinds of bodies can be beautiful, I found myself thinking, "Well, at least I'm not that fat."
That may be the biggest problem with "Fat!So?" -- it's so ahead of its time that Wann's positivity can seem like wishful thinking. She calls on fat people to reclaim the word "fatso," just as gays have taken back the word "queer." "You're not overweight, not plump, not bloated," Wann writes. "You're fat! Combine the word fat with other words in new and unusual ways: sexy fat, fat and fabulous, fat pride. Use fat in a sentence: 'You're looking good. Are you getting fat?' 'I met a handsome fat man the other day.' 'Gee, I wish I could be fat like her.'" Learning to love fat is easier said than done, though, and it takes tremendous courage to remain impervious to the vicious loathing of an entire culture. Wann has that courage. Reading "Fat!So?" probably won't make you love your body. But it might inspire you to hate it a little bit less.