It’s 9:15 a.m., and a fat lady in a billowing black skirt has come to talk about body image. Slide images click onto a screen: sleek-bodied women selling cigarettes, selling cosmetics, selling low-calorie fudge pops.
“No woman looks like that,” she intones. “This is totally inappropriate.”
The words wash over the seventh-graders, catatonic at this hour anyway. Some wonder idly: What is it with this fat lady? Is she jealous of those hot numbers? A dozen or more slides later, the lady disappears and then returns: this time svelte in a long-sleeved black dress with a gold-tasseled belt that accentuates her slender waist.
“What happened?” says Jasmine Lopez, sputtering. Jasmine, like the other 100 seventh-graders in the media center at East Hartford (Conn.) Middle School has been jolted awake. “Did you change your clothes? Did you change your hair too?”
Lisa Berzins, a psychologist and eating disorders expert, smiles. The fat suit she has been using in her talks since 1994 has worked its magic once again, jarring loose the preconceptions kids carry around about fat people.
“How many had a different reaction to me when I was fat?” Berzins asks.
Almost every hand goes up.
“What was that difference?” she asks.
The kids are honest. They tell Berzins they were less comfortable talking with her when she was fat. They say that they might not want to be seen with her, that they might be embarrassed to be with her.
Jasmine explains that as a fat person, Berzins was simply a lot less appealing.
“It seemed like she was dull,” Jasmine says, “that she didn’t have much to live for, that she was lonely.”
Matthew Rondinone, another student, says he noticed that when Berzins was fat, “the kids were slouching. They weren’t paying attention.” But when she was thin, “everybody was sitting up tall. Their eyes were glued to her.”
He says this happens all the time in school: Kids don’t have much interest in fat people, but if it’s a skinny kid, they listen up.
Only half-joking, Quinn Clark, a student in the front row, tells Berzins, “When you were big, I didn’t want to touch you.”
Berzins responds, “Exactly. Not only do people not want to touch you, they don’t want to be with you.”
This is all part of the discrimination that overweight people often face, Berzins says. It’s as real and as wrong as discrimination based on race, religion or gender, but it is seldom addressed.
The fat suit, made up partly of a sleeping bag and other stuffing, snaps on beneath her clothes and gives her the roundness of a person weighing 220 pounds.
Although weight and body size are major preoccupations among much of the population, the subject continues to be of greatest concern to middle-schoolers, particularly to girls whose bodies are changing at a rapid pace.
Janet Roberts, the nurse practitioner at East Hartford Middle School, says that as girls make the transition into young womanhood, they frequently become “extremely upset” about the natural weight gain of 10 to 15 pounds.
Pressured by the media images of skinny models and by the perception that boys prefer thin girls, many girls begin dieting. Along the way, they sometimes develop eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
“It’s such a shame because [adolescence] should be a time when girls are celebrating the changes that happen in their bodies,” Berzins says. “Instead, they begin a lifelong battle with weight.”
Boys, too, are often are preoccupied with their weight, Berzins says. For them, being too thin is as great a problem as being too heavy.
Berzins’ presentation is aimed at helping kids understand the way their ideas about body shape and size are influenced by the media and to help them become more comfortable with their body size, whatever it is.
“Of course you all know that the media uses advertising as a way to get you to buy their products,” Berzins tells the group. “But probably you haven’t really thought about the way that they do that.”
As she clicks through slides of women baring portions of ultra-slender bodies, Berzins explains, “Look at the way they use thinness and a certain body to make women feel kind of insecure about their bodies.”
The message women get, she says, is, “You don’t look quite so good as you are, but if you buy this product, then you will look more like the person in this ad.”
Berzins says studies have shown that a girl’s opinion of herself and her body declines after viewing magazine pictures of models. Other studies have shown, she says, that while there is no difference in the rate of depression among girls and boys before puberty, 15-year-old girls are twice as likely as boys at that age to say they are depressed.
She tells the students that people often make eating a moral issue.
“You say, ‘All I’ve had today is a salad and an apple, I’ve been so good,’ ” Berzins says. “Or, ‘I’ve been so bad, I ate a whole box of cookies. Tomorrow, I’ll be good.’ ”
Several of the seventh-graders say they know girls who are on diets who probably don’t need to be. Damaris Diaz says she is not on a diet, but she knows of girls who don’t eat breakfast and lunch because they don’t want to get fat.
Student Maritza Burrows says she plays a lot of sports and doesn’t worry about her weight.
“I feel like I’m in shape,” she says.
“Be as healthy as you can in the body you have,” Berzins says. “Eat your food and go out to play.”