A Pretty Face but a Bulging Figure? a Sympathetic Author Explains Why You're That Way

updated 05/12/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1980 01:00AM

For two years Marcia Millman, 33, traveled around the country interviewing overweight women for her book, Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America. She talked with members of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans and Overeaters Anonymous and visited teenage diet camps. Fat people, Millman concluded, are ostracized by society "because everyone fears being out of control, and they are thought to be out of control. People don't want to be near them." Born in New York City, Millman earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis and is now a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Single, she lives in San Francisco and admits to a personal weight problem. While writing a book on American hospital care, The Unkindest Cut (PEOPLE, March 7, 1977), she gained more than 20 pounds and noticed that friends began "pitying me. This was annoying. Women who had been through SDS, women's lib and the gay movement couldn't stretch their minds to understand that fat people are also oppressed. "Now back down to a size 12 (although she will not reveal her weight), the 5'5" Millman explored the psychological aspects of being fat with Martha Smilgis of PEOPLE.

Why do women get fat?

We always think a woman overeats because she has a problem or that she uses being fat in a self-destructive way to punish herself. But in some cases women have naturally plump bodies and can't slim down, or have just developed bad eating habits. Then these women get a complex about being fat because society has such restrictive standards of what's acceptable. They turn to food out of frustration and anger because they feel unfairly treated. Not everyone starts out with a psychological problem, but once you have one it is very hard to escape.

Are you saying American society makes women fatter?

The society's whole stress on physical appearance produces the problem. There is one criterion of what's acceptable, and when you fail in that respect, you give up. Twenty pounds overweight may not really be a problem, but our society is making it a problem. These women get depressed and then wind up with a 100-pound problem.

But aren't there positive signs that society is becoming more tolerant—the recent use of plump models in advertising, for example?

There is some flexibility, but there is also a counterbalance. Large models notwithstanding, the concerns of adolescence are being extended into the life cycle. There used to be a lot of emphasis on looks until someone married. Now, with marriage so unstable, people are in the sexual marketplace indefinitely. So someone 40 years old can find herself suffering just as much being overweight as someone 17.

Why are people so obsessed with being thin?

The ideal is always the thing that is scarce. In a society where there isn't enough food, the fat person is the ideal. In our society it is harder to be thin. Also, people's standards of what is beautiful are usually associated with the wealthy, and in America thinness is associated with the rich. Seven times as many lower-income women as rich women are fat.

Are fat people out of control?

Many gain a sense of self-control through their weight. For a woman who feels her marriage is lousy or she is unloved, being fat allows a sense of control. She can maintain the fantasy that when she loses weight she will be loved—that it isn't something else wrong. Take the woman who gains five pounds and rationalizes that her husband will want to have sex with her again when she loses the five pounds. She has an illusion of control. Or the woman who gains 50 pounds and says that when she loses the weight her life will be perfect—she'll get the job and the perfect husband. Weight is something she can do something about when she chooses to. The rationale is: I'm being rejected because I want to be rejected, and when I choose not to be, I won't be.

Who are "closet fat admirers"?

Men who seek out only fat women for sex. People think fat women are desexualized, but in a way they become exaggerated versions of a sex object. A number of overweight women told me that when white men did not find them attractive, black men did. Perhaps this is the way black men even out the balance of power. In any case, the largest women are the most hotly pursued—those under 200 pounds are seemingly at a disadvantage. The women explain that sometimes these "fat admirers" have a funny relationship with them—viewing them as mothers or whores. They like to get lost in their flesh or feel they can treat these women badly because they will have to take what they can get. For these women this situation may be better, of course, than not having anyone at all find them sexually attractive. If a man insists on a woman who weighs between 100 and 110, isn't that as much a fetish as a man who wants someone over 300 pounds? Some men think they must have a thin woman to look important in people's eyes.

Why are fat children at a special disadvantage?

Parents often communicate to fat children that they are ashamed of them. If you are a fat child you often don't get the unconditional love from parents that children need. The love is conditional on losing weight. Fat children also develop a feeling that it is only weight that is keeping them from becoming fantastic. They develop the fantasy that when they are thin their lives will at long last be perfect. Later on, when they do lose the excess weight and life doesn't change all that much, they give up and gain back the weight.

Are fat camps good for children?

If fat children are with kids like themselves, their identities can emerge. They are seen for more than their weight, and there is less teasing. The problematic side is that it reinforces the identity of being fat. It segregates them from normal society. Moreover, the kids feel they're in prison, and it's natural for them to eat the minute they get out. Fat people are surrounded by others who want to change them, and it doesn't really work. You can only change when you choose to change.

Why do fat people binge on food?

Bingeing distracts them from the things that are making them anxious. It is a way of not thinking. Any kind of compulsive activity works the same way. Something makes you anxious and you don't want to think about it, so by focusing on something else compulsively it takes your mind off the other problem. Women often binge to soothe anger or to distract themselves from sexual desires.

Why do you say that bingeing is a form of self-punishment?

Some women said they felt they had to make a choice between being successful at work and being really attractive. So they punish themselves to allow for success at work. For others, it is a way of saying "no" to being a sex object. They are protected by the fat that bingeing produces. Of course, if they felt they had more freedom to say "no"—to make a conscious choice—they wouldn't have to penalize themselves.

How is fat a different problem for men and women?

A man can be 30 pounds over his ideal weight before people see him as fat. If a man has accomplishments, the weight doesn't detract from him as much. In fact many male athletes become overweight. Because women are evaluated more in terms of physical appearance, a woman can be incredibly successful, and if she is overweight, people will think her life is a failure. Also, women themselves are more preoccupied with weight, such as the size 10 who wants to be a size 8. How many normal-size men are suffering because they wish they were thinner? Interestingly, among gay men there is now a small subgroup known as "chubby chasers"—men who are attracted specifically to fat men. These men are considered by the general gay community to be as strange and perverse as are men attracted to fat women in American heterosexual society.

Why do so few diets work?

Few people conquer their psychological problems, and the focus on dieting just distracts people from the problems that may have caused the weight in the first place. Until people understand the meaning weight has for them, how can a diet work?

What is your advice?

Get in touch with how you are using fat in your life. You can suffer as much if you are a size 10 trying to be an 8 as a 16 trying to be a 12. It isn't the pounds but the meaning they have for you. Be aware of society's narrow standards and decide if it is worth the sacrifice to be thin, to go through what it takes. Find the weight you can live at without anguish and too much self-sacrifice. Accept yourself there, and buy clothes that fit. You can communicate that you are attractive even if you are not thin. But it requires self-acceptance. Realize that losing weight may not be the answer to all your dreams and stop wasting your life or hating yourself for 10 or 20 pounds.

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