Crystal Renn and Meme Roth are sitting across from one another onstage at the Cooper Union. The screen behind them reads, with the inimitable subtlety of phrasing for which broadcast news is famous, "Is It OK To Be Fat?"
Joining the two for the debate of this moot are Marianne Kirby, who co-wrote a book called Lessons From The Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting And Declare A Truce With Your Body, and Kim Benson, who wrote a book called Finally Thin!: How I Lost More Than 200 Pounds And Kept Them Off — And How You Can, Too.
A fat acceptance writer, a triumphant diet memoirist, the world's top plus-size model and eating disorder survivor, and a woman who once stole ice cream toppings from children at a YMCA: this, I thought, will be interesting.
The debate, the full two hours of which I was happy to witness, took place a couple weeks ago. But it's finally airing on Nightline's Face-Off tonight, at 11:35. Good Morning America ran a preview clip this morning, and aside from the stock b-roll — one of the best audience questions came from a woman who mentioned these kinds of news stories are always illustrated by "headless fatties lumbering towards the camera, [shot] from the shoulders down. It's this faceless army of the fatties, coming to get you" — it looks like they left in some of the best lines. And interviewed Dr. Linda Bacon, to boot.
The night before the debate, I bet Crystal one drink that she couldn't find a way to mention Meme Roth's self-described "little Coke problem" with a straight face. She didn't quite do it, but she did manage to call Roth, an Upper West Side publicist whose hobbyhorse is a one-woman publicity-release machine she calls the National Action Against Obesity, "fat-phobic." I so hope they leave that part in.
I also hope the Nightline editors retain the bit where Roth offered celebrities — "people like, I don't, uh, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez" — as examples of feminine bodily diversity and our collective triumph over the more emaciated high-fashion ideal.
"Right, but those celebrities?" said Crystal, "They wear the sample sizes that those models wear on the runways. So they obviously are either very similar in size, or exactly the same size."
Roth looked a little perplexed.
"I try not to think too much about what fat really is," explained Renn, when asked about whether there was such a thing as being too fat. "I try to think about health. You know, I found that, having had an eating disorder, I was so obsessed with numbers and percentages — you know, how many minutes have I been on the treadmill? How many calories have I consumed today? Whether it was five or less calories in a stick of gum, I would excuse myself and go to the bathroom and run in the stall. And I think that, you know, when you start obsessing about numbers you get nowhere."
Kirby, who blogs at The Rotund and contributes to the Guardian's Comment Is Free, also made some excellent points, like in the segment shown this morning, where she points out that it was her unhealthy 20 years of dieting that wrought havoc with her metabolism, and probably left her with a higher weight than she might otherwise have had.
"I worry when I turn on the television and there's constant negative messages about women's bodies at increasingly smaller sizes," she said. She also talked about classism, food deserts, health care discrimination, and used the word "heteronormativity," which were all awesome ways to subtly reframe the debate. "I think, if we were really, honestly concerned about the health of children, concerned about the health of adults in America? We would be focusing on healthy habits, instead of making it a 'war on obesity.' It would be, 'let's have a national action for healthful living,' 'let's have a national action for ... changing people's minds about brussels sprouts, 'cause they're awesome.'"
Roth, for her part, spent a lot of time criticizing her overweight family members. "My father used to do sprint track runs with me, and now can barely walk from one end of the Wal-Mart to the other. My mother has type 2 diabetes, my grandmother — it is tragic. She went from the point of being voluptuous, chubby, fat, obese, to morbidly obese, to being a woman who stares out the window at a hummingbird feeder, who a few years ago decided it was too much effort to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. So I do know obesity takes people."
"Yes," said Crystal, "but I also know where thin takes you."
But probably the best part came when the tension between Kim Benson, whose stance was extremely nuanced and moderate, and Roth came to a head. There were a couple times when Benson said flat-out that she disagreed with Roth. (Not surprising, considering being asked to join Roth's side in a debate is kind of like being asked to back up Dick Cheney on a moot like "We are in Iraq because of 9/11," or something.)
Roth didn't buy Kirby's argument that the health effects of obesity are often overstated, and that people can be healthy at any size. Roth, as is her wont, started spouting statistics about how obese people have brains that are 4% smaller than average, and how obese people are at higher risk for everything from gallstones to cancer to giving birth to a child with spina bifida — "This is the mainstream science!" she said "There are reams and reams and reams of data that tell you about the chronic illness that is the destiny of the obese!" — to heart disease to erectile dysfunction.
A look crossed Benson's face. "Well, I never had erectile dysfunction," she deadpanned.
I don't know about you, but I'll be watching. With popcorn. And lots of butter.