In February 1999, Wann, 33, with 30 supporters, staged a protest against the billboard, catching the attention of the city's Human Rights Commission. After testimony from Wann and other advocates, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that makes it illegal in San Francisco to discriminate against people in employment, housing or public access—theater seats, for instance—because of height or weight. On May 26, Mayor Willie Brown signed it into law. Tom Ammiano, president of the Board of Supervisors, who pushed for the measure, credits Wann. "For years," he says, "fat people said they'd been denied housing or a job, but there was no law to help them. Marilyn took the lead and said this cause is legitimate."
Wann, who is 5'4" and 270 lbs., has been speaking out against mistreatment of the fat—a word she prefers to "obese," which she says implies a medical condition; or "overweight," which suggests that there is a correct weight—ever since what she calls her Very Bad Day. In 1993, Wann, a freelance journalist, was devastated when a man she was dating told her he was embarrassed to introduce her to friends because she was so heavy. Humiliated, she went home, only to discover a letter from Blue Cross denying her health coverage because of what it termed her obesity. A nonsmoker who had no history of illness, Wann then decided that the time had come for a revolution.
The next morning she began composing the first issue FAT!SO?, a fat-advocacy newsletter that tells subscribers "how to be sassy and not apologize for your size." After she distributed it to bookstores, the orders and letters began pouring in (circulation is now at 3,000). In 1998, Wann published a book version of FAT!SO? Says Sondra Solo-vay, author of Tipping the Scales of Justice: "Fat people are so battered by the images and words used to define them that they sometimes don't feel they deserve the same rights and respect other people do. Marilyn, by the way she leads her life, really dispels those myths."
Living large didn't always come easily. Growing up in the bikini-clad beach culture of Orange County, Calif., Warm, who weighed 160 lbs. by the time she was 14, faced ridicule from other children and even family members. "It was really tough," she says. "I took on the identity of the fat kid." The only child of homemaker Ella Lou, 76, and Harold, 78, a retired commodities trader, Wann says she wishes the law had existed during her own childhood. "There would have been one thing in my world," she says, "that said it wasn't okay to be mean to me." While studying literary theory at Stanford, Wann notes, she rarely spoke up in class. "I thought that thin people deserved airtime because that's what the media says."
Wann is making up for lost airtime. In an interview last month on CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, she showed up in a hot-pink bikini, part of the uniform she wears when she performs with the Padded Lilies, a synchronized swim team for fat women.
"I'm never going to be 130 lbs.," says Wann, who believes size is genetically predetermined. "There's variability based on environment, but it won't turn a Saint Bernard into a dachshund. Why would you want everyone to be exactly the same anyway?"
Thanks to the publicity generated by her triumph, Wann travels the country lecturing about fat awareness and fat acceptance. In her free time she bikes, does aerobics, relaxes in her one-bedroom San Francisco apartment and spends time with Jeff Beeson, 27, a database manager and her boyfriend of two years, whom she describes as "a handsome fat guy." And though she admits that she still struggles with issues of body image, Wann says she's convinced her cause is a good one. "To me," she explains, "it makes so much sense—judge me on my merits, not my measurements."
Michelle Bowers in San Francisco