Heavy Mettle

"Being fat is not a moral crime"

"Being fat is not a moral crime"

"I'll have a cappuccino with nonfat milk," says Naomi Boak to the skinny kid behind the pastry-stuffed counter at Minnehaha Coffee near her home by the Mississippi River. Tubs of ice cream and sandwiches flank her on both sides. A rotund older man with a "Mauer 7" baseball cap reads the morning sports page, and streams of svelte young women—professional dancers, perhaps—flit in and out of the joint, talking on cell phones and to each other. Boak, a smart 54-year-old New Yorker, is dressed in a stylish red blouse and skirt, and few would describe her the way she does herself: obese.

"That's because we're so out of scale now," Boak says. "You're questioning whether I'm obese; I dress right and I don't schlump around because I'm fat. But we're so used to seeing people who are 300 and 350 pounds that you look at me and say, 'Well, you're overweight, but you're not obese.'"

Boak stands 5-foot-3 and weighs a little over 200 pounds. "I am technically obese," she says. "My top weight was around 235; that was just after graduate school. I've never gone back to that, but I've been down to 105. If I'm between 140 and 150, I'm in good shape. Healthy-looking. Normal."

Her use of the word "normal" begs the definition of that word in an age when it's abnormal to be thin. Is she truly obese? Yes, she says. Or, "fat." "People are afraid to say 'fat,'" Boak says. "No one likes to be called fat. No one likes to be fat. It's a word we're shying away from, which is why we're going to 'obese.' In one way it's a [form of] derision, and in another way a euphemism, because we don't want to say 'fat.' Scientists have been using it for years; it's just now that the rest of us are falling under it."

When it comes to obesity, Boak speaks from personal and professional experience. Growing up as an only child in New York and New Jersey, she was "the only fat kid in school." She recollects taking vacations with her parents down South and crying all the way back home, knowing she was returning to the barbs of her schoolmates.

"I was tormented," she says. "I recently asked someone who's working with kids if it's any better, and he said it's worse because there's more fat kids. It's a lot easier to prevent obesity than it is to treat it. You prevent it in pregnancy and early adolescence, and in understanding food, and getting kids to get joy out of moving their bodies."

Tell that to Boak's tormenters of the '60s, when so few of them were fat. Now one-third of all Americans are overweight, and the media is bloated with stories, alarms, and fixes, from President Clinton's initiative to get pop out of schools, to Fast Food Nation and Supersize Me! and glossy cover stories that cater to thinner-than-thou socio-economic demos.

The numbers, from the National Center for Health Statistics:

  • Between 1962 and 2000, the number of obese Americans grew from 13 percent to 31 percent of the population.
  • 63 percent of Americans are overweight with a Body Mass Index (BMI) in excess of 25.0.
  • Childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled in the past two decades.
  • According to the most recent U.S. Surgeon General report, obesity is responsible for 300,000 deaths every year.

Lost in the new obesity story is the experience of how society treats the obese. America needs its scapegoats, and if last year's model was smokers, this year's is fat people. And Boak, an Emmy-winning documentary maker at Twin Cities Public television, who reports that her BMI is 41, is currently at work on Life in the Fat Lane: What No One Is Telling You About Losing Weight, which will air nationally on PBS in April of next year.

Boak and her crew have spoken to several sources for the film, including a couple who works at Microsoft in Seattle, which has created corporate programs for all the obese programmers who sit at their computers all day. She interviews an obesity activist from California, a comedian-actress who maintains a certain weight so as to do fat jokes, and a 500-pound Palestinian-American teenager in Queens.

"We follow him as he decides to have bypass surgery, and he's really articulate," says Boak. "It's a fight with his family, because they think that's the easy way out. And that's not an easy way out for anybody; it really is the last resort. We follow him in the streets of New York, and you can see him being harassed because he's fat. Doing stories on a number of people going through this experience, you see similar reactions. One person in the film says you don't have to point out to someone that they're fat. You know you're fat, but someone manages to tell her once a day."

Boak has spent half her life as a fat person, and admits that she compares herself to her thin self. She used to run three miles a day, but arthritis in her hip prevents her from doing anything much more strenuous than walking her dogs two hours a day. It's been a lifelong struggle, which taught her some hard lessons when she was attending college at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

"Nobody was fat there," she says. "Everyone was active and lean, and I had lots of male friends and no boyfriends. I found myself attractive and sexy, but no one else did. So I lost weight and had boyfriends, and when I gained it back, I didn't. It hurt. I was ashamed to go out and do things. I used to go out to the tennis courts and hit balls in the morning by myself so no one would see me. There are all sorts of complex things about feeling like a failure.

"Being fat is not a moral crime. If you just put on a fat hat for a while, and let your ears open up to things that are said in the media, or things that people say day-to-day, you'll hear that moral tone about being fat. And fat people get used to that. They almost don't hear it. It's terrible. It's an unforgiving condition; it's with you all the time. The stigma is horrible."

Then Naomi Boak, fat kid-turned normal young adult-turned fat adult-turned spokesperson for the obese, stands up from her nonfat-milk cappuccino. With a slight hitch in her hip, she moseys over to the ice cream tubs and pastry counter to have her photograph taken in an unapologetic full-body portrait—not the way society's scolds want her to be but the way she is.

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]