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Lecture Notes: living large 

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Minna Bromberg started dieting when she was eight. "It was self-initiated," she says. "I didn't like my body. I think it had a lot to do with the feeling that other people would like me better if I were smaller. Although it's interesting when I look at pictures of myself now. I was chubby, but I wasn't a particularly large kid."

She kept trying to lose weight, with little success, until she was 15. Then, in a magazine for large women called Radiance, she read about the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a 30-year-old human-rights organization and support group.

"The message that there were ways to like my body the way it was, instead of waiting for it to be a particular size, was something I could hang on to," says Bromberg.

Four years ago, as a student at Simon's Rock College of Bard in Massachusetts, she traveled to Connecticut to attend a Fat Feminist Caucus meeting. At one workshop, "Growing Up Fat," people talked about their experiences. "I met a lot of people who had it much worse than I did," she says. "You get gym teachers who tell you you'd do better in class if your body were different and doctors telling you that it's unhealthy for you to be the size that you are."

Politicized, Bromberg moved to Chicago in 1997 to work on a PhD in sociology at Northwestern, focusing on health activism. Now 25, she volunteers for the Lesbian Community Cancer Project and is active in the local NAAFA chapter. "My interest is finding a way for fat women to be more aware not just of the health risks but the fact there's not a lot known about what the health risks are. So many fat people have dieted, it's hard to distinguish the health risks from weight from the health risks of dieting."

Bromberg took up guitar ten years ago. She plays in local coffeehouses and has put out a couple CDs. Many of her folky, upbeat songs are political; some, like "The Bathing Suit Song," are about size. Sometimes she's inspired by her fans. "I was selling tapes and CDs after a show at a conference in 1996," she remembers. "A woman I had never met before came up to me and said, 'Your next album needs to have your picture on it. The world is ready.' And she walked away." Bromberg's latest album, last year's The World Is Ready, features pictures of her on the front and back covers and in the liner notes.

Still, Bromberg says changing attitudes about weight happens one person at a time.

Occasionally total strangers will buttonhole her to suggest a favorite diet. "Some are well-meaning and just want to help," she says. "But the message certainly hasn't spread all that wide in society that it's not acceptable to invade someone's privacy that way. I tell them I like my body the way it is and that I'm working on other, nondieting ways to make sure I'm as healthy as I can possibly be."

More often small children will comment innocently on her size. "Kids will say, 'Look how big that woman is,' and you'll hear the parents sort of shushing them up. I try to turn to them and smile or say 'Look at how little you are,' which is to make it what the kid thought in the first place--an exclamation of what they saw that day. They don't mean it as a moral judgment, but they're immediately being told by their parents that this is something to be ashamed of. When in fact if you were wearing a shirt that was a color they'd never seen before, they would comment on that too.

"The most important thing is that people need to be accepting of their own bodies, and then become more accepting of others'. They shouldn't draw lines--this person is fat, this one isn't. People of all sizes need to treat their bodies in a more loving way."

Bromberg will facilitate a panel discussion with representatives from the Chicago Women's Health Center and the Chicago chapter of NAAFA at Tuesday's free Fat Women's Health Workshop. It's at 7:30 at Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark. Call 773-262-9031 for more information. --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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