A Fat Advocate and a Maintainer Walk Into a Bar: Interview with Shirley Sheffield, 2008

All these women who think they’re so fat, I bet they never think about if their ass would fit in a seat. That’s the line that’s drawn between a fat person and a person who’s only mentally fat.
— Fat activist Shirley Sheffield
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If a life of observing botoxed beauties fret over their butt size and mindfully avoiding uncomfortable booths weren’t enough, Oakland freelance writer Shirley Sheffield’s fat activist credentials also range far beyond her role in “Naked on the Inside,” a documentary I discussed last week. Fat all her life – she prefers the descriptive term “fat” to “obese” or “pudgy”– Sheffield grew into a life dedicated to self-empowerment and skepticism of the medical research industries. She’s also spearheads a fat-forward synchronized swimming group, The Fat Lillies, which has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Moreover, she speaks publicly and participated in “Naked on the Inside” as well as the documentaries “Weightless” and “Bouyant.”

Sheffeild, 58, also briefly worked with the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance; in the late ‘90s before pursuing the advancement of fat people on her own out and proud terms. And above all she takes a hearty belly flop into the mass of fat stereotypes safely perpetuated by modern society.

Even before fat activism, Sheffield donned her bathing suit at the beach, has a younger boyfriend genuinely enamored with her and her body, swims four hours a week (more exercise than many slimmer people conduct) and eats modestly.

Genetics didn’t dictate a thin body for her, society was stacked against her, and being interviewed nude in “Naked on the Inside” was her means of matching her walk to her talk of being at ease with your body and yourself. In the film, she discusses how she evokes a headstrong persona to hide her fears and insecurity, and throughout the film director Kim Farrant consistently showed Sheffield’s outgoingness give way to her emotions.

Though she’s proud of the film’s response, Sheffield says seeing the hours of footage condensed to her more emotional moments embarrassing. Despite her discomfort at the film demonstrating her softer side, Sheffield says the film has opened new avenues in her relationships with others.

It’s like you can change the way you feel by changing what you do, and I think that’s really true.

“I got an e-mail from a friend that saw the film that I’ve known for a long time, she’s not a close friend but she’s another fat activist and I’ve known. She said, I feel like I got to know you in a way I never had before,” Sheffield says. “I thought it was really kind of interesting because there was always an edginess in our relationship that I could never figure out what is was. I think she saw me as being hard and strong and scary. She saw that other side of me. It seemed like it opened up a path for us; next time I see her I think things will be different.”

In the film, Sheffield discusses growing up big but never realized she was fat until she began being the butt of jokes at school. Thanks to a headstrong grandmother’s guidance, Sheffield never let the jokes stop her from accomplishing what she wanted to do. But coming into her own with fat politics didn’t occur until a doctor’s visit.

This was unlike most of the doctors visits that Sheffield and most in fat activism regularly criticize – the kind of visit which prescribed “lose weight, you big wretch” to any ailment such as pink eye. The kind of traditional doctors visit that have made fat people wary of doctors visits, including myself back in the day. In her visit with Oakland doctor John Good in the late ‘70s, Sheffield noticed he never asked about her weight. Instead, Sheffield brought it up herself.

“’I’m fat. You haven’t said anything about my weight.’ He said, ‘Tell me this, is your family fat, is anybody in your family fat?’ I said, 'Well my paternal grandmother and my father.' And he said, “Well then, you come by it naturally, don’t you.’”

He prescribed the book <em>Shadow on a Tightrope</em>, which then led her to a rowdy, raunchy performance by the fat-focused theatre company Fat Lip. Finally, Sheffield found a pool with a designated time for fat women. In the locker room afterward, observing all these various bodies did Sheffield realize that they were beautiful, and that she was beautiful, too. Realizing that, her life as an activist was cemented. She would let nobody tell her different.

Fat Activism is born from the feminist idea that women, particularly, should never be judged by their appearance – including fat. The movement began in 1969 when feminist leaders were reluctant to tackle fat issues on their agenda, and has gradually grown as the country’s grown fatter. Sheffield explains that fat activism isn’t an excuse for sedentary behavior or thoughtless gluttony – the main argument is that despite social image of thin is better (always in between commercials encouraging you to eat more processed food, natch), a healthy quality of life is something that can be enjoyed by everyone, fat or thin. Most activists challenge media images, policies or discussion that implies that fat people are somehow flawed.

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Research released this week has found that fat has no direct correlation on people’s general health, something the movement’s argued for some time, they might be onto something. While she unwaveringly denounces any pressures from the medical community to lose weight, and has little patience for ads, diet centers and gyms mocking fat people, she also understand there are also many reasons and paths that fat people exist. In some cases, it’s genetic; in my case, it was masking other issues going on under the hood; in others it’s just lack of thought at grabbing a giant-size Slurpee everyday. And while Sheffield is extremely angered by the rise of bariatric surgeries (gastric bypass, stomach staples, etc.) she argues cause more health problems than they supposedly solve, she also doesn’t view wanting to lose weight as inherently anti-fat activist.

Rather, she demands the freedom to choose for herself, on her terms. “What we’re getting into is Quality of Life,” Sheffield says. “The thing that’s the lie is there’s a solution can be for everybody. That’s the thing that always pervades – diet, that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s not really the solution.”

“I feel like happiness is up to you. You can either be miserable or you can be happy, and if you choose to be happy, go after it with both hands and find it – whatever it takes to do it,” Sheffield continues. “If dieting happens to do something you need to do, do it. I just don’t want to see everyone on the planet feeling like that they have to spend their whole life obsessing about every morsel of food they put in their mouth because society tells them they have to do that.”

For Sheffield, happiness didn’t require a four-year weight loss quest; it merely involved slapping on a bathing suit and strutting her stuff on behalf of Fat Activism. And through her involvement, that headstrong no-holds-barred woman learned about acceptance, but also about being accepting.

“I was so tired of receiving hatred from people because I was fat that I was reflecting that hatred back.; 'Oh, you think I’m fat do I? Well, screw you!' was sort of my attitude,” Sheffield says with a funny-not-funny chuckle. “When I became a Padded Lilly I got so much love I’ve become so much more loving toward the world.”

“It’s like you can change the way you feel by changing what you do, and I think that’s really true.”

Russ Lane