The hate mail comes in batches — some short, some rambling, most laced with words unprintable here.
“Go be fat somewhere else,” reads one. “You are going to die ugly,” reads another. “Shame on you and your disgusting bodies.”
But it’s the other ones — “Thank you” and “I thought I was alone” and “You saved my life” — that keep Amanda Levitt going despite personal attacks (some refer to her vagina, she notes, shaking her head) and even death threats slashing with hate.
All this, because the grad student and founder of www.fatbodypolitics.com defends being fat.
No, it’s more than that, she corrected.
Because she defends the right not to be obsessed with numbers on the bathroom scale. The Wayne State University grad student defends anyone who doesn’t fit into the narrow margins society has prescribed for femininity and health. And she defends beauty in any shape and size.
It’s not always an easy sell in a world where clothing giant Abercrombie & Fitch has long refused to carry clothing in larger sizes.
Recently, actress Alyssa Milano was propelled into fat-shaming headlines when comedian Jay Mohr remarked about the “Charmed” star’s weight. Last year, a fitness enthusiast mom was banned from Facebook because of what some called a rant denouncing an ad suggesting heavy women can be sexy. Meanwhile, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has come under fire for trying to encourage vegetarianism by running ads of obese women or slogans such as “Lose the blubber: Go Vegetarian.”
Levitt, 28, takes to Twitter and Tumblr and other social media. If America is really getting fatter, as research suggests, she said, it’s most likely that an obsession with being thin and a culture of fat-shaming leads to yo-yo dieting and destructive self-hate, she said.
It’s something to remember as Americans stare into their mirrors and begin incorporating New Year’s resolutions.
Research suggests Levitt is tackling something systemic.
First, categorizing people as healthy only by body mass index and jeans size is misguided, health professionals say. “You can be a thin person and not be healthy at all, and you can have all kinds of healthy habits and not be thin,” said Liz Oliver, a registered dietitian.
There are more accurate ways to measure health: blood pressure and cholesterol levels and even the number of hours slept at night, for example, she said. Secondly — and this is where Levitt is concerned the most — oversimplifying health by body shape may fuel what some say is the last acceptable form of discrimination.
Studies suggest heavier job applicants are more likely than their thin counterparts to be passed over for jobs. Fat defendants may be more likely than thin defendants to be found guilty. Fat doctors are seen to have less credibility, according to some studies.
It’s reinforced in not-so-subtle ways every day, said Rebecca Puhl, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Consider some of the most popular shows or movies, she said.
“We see a very consistent pattern that overweight characters are often the butt of jokes where the thin characters and even underweight characters are the ones seen as funny and successful,” she said.
Even doctors — with all their education and the presumed better understanding of human nature because of the broad spectrum of patients they see — tend to have less trust that fatter patients will stick to doctor’s orders, she said.
Levitt sees the cruelty nearly every day on her laptop screen.
On one Twitter “campaign” recently, users were encouraged to take photos of fat women and share on social media as well as exchange jokes about dating fat women or watching fat women eat. Others chimed in with a discussion on health, blaming cancers, rotting flesh and other disease — in 140 characters or less — on fat.
Shamed early on
On a personal level, Levitt knows the pain that’s involved.
She was a child model, her pictures appearing in local toy ads. Pageants meant flights across the country, tony venues, dress-up and time spent with her mom, Cheryl, whom she calls her best friend. “I really liked being pretty,” she said. “I was constantly getting positive reinforcement for being beautiful.”
But adolescence reshapes bodies. A well-meaning relative took her aside one day: “You’d be so pretty if you were thin.”
“That’s when it cemented that something was wrong with me,” Levitt said.
It wasn’t until college that she was able to reframe her experience into one that had been manipulated by others’ expectations.
At Wayne State, she’s researching the hate mail and its effect on social movements.
Levitt recently addressed “selfies,” posting several of herself — blaring orange lipstick in one, an extended middle finger in another.
“Being visible isn’t mandatory; it’s a process that sometimes we aren’t ready for or want to be part of,” she said. “I still feel that way some days. The most important thing is living how you want to, not allowing others to attempt to change or dictate how you do it.”