The Wednesday Weigh-In

9th June 2010

The Wednesday Weigh-In

by Rachel

Margarita Tartakovsky of the blog Weightless interviews Cheryl Kerrigan, author of the new book Telling ED NO! and Other Practical Tools to Conquer Your Eating Disorder and Find Freedom.

Fat Lot of Good blogger Bri weighs in on a recent study that found that children whose mothers were chronically abused by their partners were more likely to be fat by age 5.  Because being fat is so much more pressing of an issue than being victimized by domestic violence.

Urban Outfitters removes what many are calling a pro-ana t-shirt from its website, but the “Eat Less” shirt remains available in stores.   Outraged?  Join the Girlcott Urban Outfitters group on Facebook.

Should appearance-based discrimination be treated with the same weight as we give to other -isms like racism and sexism?  That’s the question Deborah Rhodes tackles in her new book, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law. Read Dahlia Lithwick’s review of the book on Slate.

Just when you thought the insanity would never end…  It’s not enough that some parents lose custody of their obese children because of their weight.  Now a British animal welfare council has seized custody of an obese dog.  The pudgy pup Gucci is said to now be on a strict diet and exercise regime at a special canine fat club.

FEAST has launched its Around the Dinner Table Plate Drive through June.  The fundraising initiative supports the group’s mission, which is to empower families and support parents and caregivers in helping loved ones recover from eating disorders.

The British Mail’s Lucy Taylor ruminates on on how she gave up running and learned to simply enjoy the journey. contributor Karen Salmansohn looks at the Fox and ABC refusal to air the sexy new Lane Bryant lingerie commercials in a different light: “The fact that a TV network would find this Lane Bryant spot far more sexually enticing than Victoria’s Secret spots — which air all the time — simply shows they’re acknowledging the extreme sexiness of voluptuous women!”

Comments?  Any links to share?  Add your two cents in the comments below.

posted in Anorexia, Body Image, Body Politic, Body-Affirming, Eating Disorders, Fat Bias, Feminist Topics, Legal Issues, Mental Health, Non-profits, Politics, Pop Culture, Rachel | 12 Comments

22nd April 2010

Was your health insurance policy canceled after an eating disorder diagnosis?

by Rachel

Reuters, via MSNBC, today has an absolutely heart-breaking story on women whose insurance companies found ways to drop their coverage shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer.   WellPoint, which has the most policyholders (33.7 million) of any health insurance company in the nation, is one of the worst offenders — it specifically used a computer algorithm to target  newly diagnosed breast cancer victims and then triggered a fraud alert for aggressive investigation with the intent to find any pretext, no matter how flimsy or relevant, with which to cancel their policies.  Women who had paid their policies faithfully for years suddenly found themselves without insurance just when they needed their coverage the most.

The process of canceling one’s coverage shortly after a diagnosis of a life-threatening, expensive medical condition is known as rescission.  Insurance companies have used the practice for years and while cases of such have been well documented by law enforcement agencies, state regulators and even a congressional committee, laws restricting the unethical and illegal use of the practice aren’t enforced as they should be.  As one former federal prosecutor explained, “The industry just has these tremendous financial, legal and political resources that others don’t.  In my own state (Calif.), regulators are often afraid or unwilling to go up against them.”

According to the article, the two conditions that most commonly trigger rescission both affect primarily women: breast cancer and pregnancy.  Breast cancer can be costly to treat and pregnancy holds the potential for a child born with a disability, so policyholders with these conditions are scrutinized and probed more closely for possible rescission.  Other conditions are targeted, too.  Assurant Health was ordered by courts to pay millions of dollars in settlements after it was determined that they similarly targeted HIV-positive policyholders for rescission.

The article left me both enraged and curious…  Some 11 million people are afflicted by eating problems, ranging from anorexia and bulimia to binge eating, according to the NEDA.  And eating disorders can be very costly to treat, especially anorexia and in cases requiring in-patient treatment.  The self-pay cost at the Renfrew Center’s Philadelphia treatment center, for example, runs a staggering $8,050 per week!  We’ve heard of families suing their health insurance providers to cover more of the costs associated in eating disorder recovery — these suits, in fact, helped fuel the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 — but I haven’t heard of a case yet in which an insurance company targeted a person or family for rescission following an eating disorder diagnosis or request for coverage in the treatment of an eating disorder.

But just because we haven’t heard of one doesn’t mean that the practice doesn’t exist.   In the case of the women with breast cancer, one woman seemed to become aware of the pattern only after joining a breast cancer support group in which four of the five women in the group saw their policies canceled as the result of their diagnosis. State agencies can and do conduct audits on health insurance providers, but companies like WellPoint have fought “vigorously” to keep incriminating information from prying government eyes.  An investigation last year by the House Energy and Commerce Committee determined that WellPoint and two of the nation’s other largest insurance companies — UnitedHealth Group Inc and Assurant Health — made at least $300 million by improperly rescinding more than 19,000 policyholders over one five-year period.  But when committee investigators asked for contact information for some of the records grudgingly produced by WellPoint, the insurance company refused to give it.   Investigators then suggested that WellPoint itself could inform the ex-policyholders that a congressional committee had interest in their case and WellPoint declined to do that as well. If you aren’t aware that a pattern of criminal behavior exists, that you’re a victim of it and that there are others like you, how do you even know to fight back?

I’m curious as to whether anyone here has had their insurance policies canceled as the result of an eating disorder diagnosis or even because of their weight or other health conditions.   Share your health insurance horror stories in the comments below.

posted in Eating Disorders, Legal Issues, Mental Health, Rachel, Recovery | 7 Comments

25th January 2010

Fight now or pledge allegiance to the United States of Exxon

by Rachel

An Examined Life will continue this week, but I wanted to bring to your attention a very important matter with political implications for all Americans.  Last week the Supreme Court effectively deregulated the American electoral process by striking down a century-old ban against corporate spending directly on political campaigns in federal elections.  With that 5-4 decision, the court, in essence, has transformed the highest offices of the land into an auction to be controlled by the likes of Exxon, Big Pharma and Wal-Mart.  The ramifications of the decision cannot be overstated.  As the New York Times sums up in its excellent editorial:

As a result of Thursday’s ruling, corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.

…The majority is deeply wrong on the law. Most wrongheaded of all is its insistence that corporations are just like people and entitled to the same First Amendment rights. It is an odd claim since companies are creations of the state that exist to make money. They are given special privileges, including different tax rates, to do just that. It was a fundamental misreading of the Constitution to say that these artificial legal constructs have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have to speak out in support of a candidate.

This decision touches upon nearly every facet of Americans’ lives, but in particular for readers here, it has the potential to affect causes near and dear to our hearts.  A quick rundown of what may loom in the near future:

  • Corporations like Johnson & Johnson, who have huge and multiple stakes in the weight-loss industry, have long fought to fight to have obesity classified as a disease, for if obesity is a disease or a mental illness, government and private insurance will be forced to cover products and treatments for its treatment.  Groups like the American Obesity Association–which is supported by the pharmaceutical industry and commercial diet-mongers like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and also advocates obesity to be classified as a disease–have gone so far as to argue for “fat taxes” to be leveraged against fat Americans.  In 2008, Johnson & Johnson alone posted annual sales of $63.7 billion.  If the company directed less than 3 percent of those earnings to political lobbying, they will have spent more than the combined 2008 presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain — which in itself was more than double the amount spent by both candidates in the 2004 election.* With the court’s overturn on corporate electoral spending, how long before corporate interests masquerading in doctor’s smocks are allowed to dictate treatments and taxes that support only their bottom line ?
  • Proposals have already been made to develop and adopt national standards for company-run “wellness plans” with tax incentives and credits given to companies based on whether or not their employees meet “wellness objectives” such as weight, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and other arbitrary levels of health as defined by people with no otherwise right to peek into your medical file.  Corporations, of course, like this proposal because it offers them a relatively inexpensive return on investment — simply adopt a government approved wellness plan and then either not hire or fire those employees who don’t meet the new government health standards.  With the court’s overturn on corporate electoral spending, how long before corporations lobby their candidates of choice to make this proposal the law of the land?
  • Last year, Congress finally passed H.R. 1424, which among other things provides equity in the coverage of mental health and substance use disorders by ensuring that group health care plans do not charge higher co-payments, coinsurance, deductibles, and impose maximum out-of-pocket limits and lower day and visit limits (provided that they offer mental health coverage).  The bill is set to take effect this October.  With the court’s overturn on corporate electoral spending, how long before Big Health Insurance Corporations lobby Congress to enact laws and amendments that erode at this coverage

In response to the ruling, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fl) has filed five campaign six campaign finance bills to secure the people’s “right to clean government.”   The bills have names like the Business Should Mind Its Own Business Act and the Corporate Propaganda Sunshine Act. The first slaps a 500 percent excise tax on corporate spending on elections, and the second mandates businesses to disclose their attempts to influence elections. More details are available on the congressman’s Web site.  Grayson’s also created an online petition to support these bills moving forward and becoming law.  I urge you to lend your support in rescuing democracy.

* The candidates spent a combined $1.7 billion in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, according to Bloomberg.

posted in Fat Bias, Legal Issues, Mental Health, Politics, Rachel, Recovery | 13 Comments

11th November 2009

Calorie counts: Coming soon to a restaurant near you?

by Rachel

We’ve discussed the pros and cons of posting calorie counts on restaurant menus before.  Now Politico’s Glenn Thrush points out a little known provision in the House health care bill that would mandate such conspicuous calorie-counting.  He writes:

Buried deep in the House health care bill is a provision, likely to raise nanny-state hackles, requiring fast-food chains and vending machine owners to notify customers of calorie counts — by conspicuously posting nutritional information on menus or machines.

The provision — Section 2572 — requires retail food establishments “part of a chain with 20 or more locations” to list calorie counts “on the menu board including a drive-through board,” as is currently required in New York City and other localities.

A “vending machine operator shall provide a sign in close proximity to each article of food or the selection button” that includes similar data.

The idea is popular among progressives and public health types who think it could reduce obesity, hypertension and diabetes rates — particularly among inner-city folks whose diets are disproportionately composed of cheap, tasty, calorie-loaded Big Macs, Whoppers and Chalupas.

But conservatives and libertarians see it as a major encroachment of the nanny state that has no place in a bill that’s supposed to address affordability, insurance industry abuses and expanding coverage.

The provision basically merges the language in the LEAN act, which I endorsed because it makes nutrition information — and not just calories –  available upon request, and the more stringent, in-your-face MEAL act, which robs consumers of the choice of ignorance and is limited solely to the posting of calories.  Studies show that since posting calorie counts on menus in New York, patrons consumed about 106 fewer calories per purchase.  At that rate, it will only take the average consumer, oh, one month to lose a single, solitary pound — and that’s assuming that they’re not overindulging their bodies’ energy needs at other times through the day.  Frankly, I doubt that anyone chomping down on a 1,500-calorie, double-cheese-with-bacon Angus burger is all that concerned about caloric intake or how healthy what they’re eating is.  Your thoughts on the provision or its place in the health bill?

posted in Food News, Legal Issues, Rachel | 34 Comments

16th October 2009

“Colossal” loophole in health care reform bill bad for fat people

by Rachel

The Washington Post has spotted a disturbing loophole in the health care reform provisions passed by the Senate Finance and Health committee. Under current regulation, incentives based on health factors (smoking, weight, cholesterol levels, etc…) can be no larger than 20 percent of the premium paid by employer and employee combined.  The current legislation, which, of course, is backed by major employer groups and opposed by labor unions and national health groups, would increase that limit to 30 percent, and it would give government officials the power to raise it as high as 50 percent.  In essence, the new law would allow for the financial punishment of fat people, who are already punished in that they are paid considerably less than thin people in comparable positions.  According to the Post:

President Obama and members of Congress have declared that they are trying to create a system in which no one can be denied coverage or charged higher premiums based on their health status. The health insurance lobby has said it shares that goal. However, so-called wellness incentives could introduce a colossal loophole. In effect, they would permit insurers and employers to make coverage less affordable for people exhibiting risk factors for problems like diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

“Everybody said that we’re going to be ending discrimination based on preexisting conditions. But this is in effect discrimination again based on preexisting conditions,” said Ann Kempski of the Service Employees International Union.

A single employee whose annual premiums cost him and his employer the national average of $4,824 could have as much as $2,412 on the line. At least under the health panel’s bill, the stakes could be higher for people with family coverage. Families with premiums of $13,375 — the combined average for employer-sponsored coverage, according to a recent survey — could have $6,688 at risk.

[Benton County, Ark.] benefits administrator Thomas Dunlap said incentives on the scale the Senate is contemplating could prompt some workers to leave employers’ health plans or quit their jobs.

I am all for health care reform, but this is reform we neither need nor can afford.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is now responsible for merging the provisions passed by the Finance Committee with those passed by the the bill passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee before the final bill goes before the Senate for a vote.  I urge you to contact him and your state’s senators and ask them to reconsider and remedy this disastrous loophole.

posted in Fat Bias, Legal Issues, Rachel | 14 Comments

15th September 2009

Mom indicted for starving daughter to death

by Rachel

In a truly strange and sad case to come out of New Jersey, Ermina Errico, 62, was indicted Wednesday on one count of neglect stemming from the death of her 25-year-old daughter Emily Errico two years ago.  The indictment alleges that Ermina Errico exerted extreme and severe control over her daughter’s life almost from birth, strictly regulating her food intake and prohibiting her from interacting with classmates outside of school.  Emily was kept under tight reins in filthy living conditions most of her life, and was forced to wear trash bags for clothing.  When she died, neighbors said they didn’t even know she still lived at the home.  According to the Associated Press:

The girl still managed to succeed academically and even attended nearby Kean University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in computer science technology in 2003, according to a university spokesman. Yet even though she lived on campus, her father would bring her meals daily, Romankow said.

After college, Emily returned home to live with her parents. In December 2004 she visited a nutritionist who recommended follow-up visits, but Edward Errico canceled those appointments. It was the last time Emily left the house, the indictment alleges.

She was found on the floor of a bedroom dressed in sweatpants and a plastic bag fashioned into a halter top. The cause of death was malnutrition and anorexia nervosa, and the autopsy revealed that she suffered from brain atrophy and excess fluid in her lungs and brain.

(Side note: Emily Errica is a classic example of the effects of starvation on the brain.  If you saw the recent study which suggests obese senior citizens have greater degrees of brain atrophy than their leaner counterparts, you might then relate the degeneration not to their body size, but to the fact that fat people are more likely to have periodically starved dieted than non-fat people.)

Back to the case at-hand…  If convicted, Ermina Errico faces up to five years in prison.  But Edward Errico already pleaded to third degree neglect and was sentenced to probation and psychological counseling, so it’s likely that she might also get off with as light of a sentence.  There’s still a lot of unanswered questions in this case that may never be resolved, but my only question is: Why were these parents charged only with neglect instead of the more appropriate charge of manslaughter?

posted in Anorexia, Family Issues, Legal Issues | 13 Comments

20th August 2009

Can you be bullied into anorexia?

by Rachel

In what is being hailed as a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, a Pennsylvania mom is suing Pittsburgh Public Schools claiming that her daughter developed anorexia as the result of being bullied about her weight by a group of male students, and that the school did nothing to stop it. The federal lawsuit filed Friday on behalf of an unnamed mother states that the woman’s sixth-grade daughter began to be bullied in 2006-07 by three boys who called her “fat.” ABC news reports:

The girl was in a program for gifted students, made straight A’s and was active in community and volunteer programs, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit contends a guidance counselor did nothing to stop the bullying. The next year, in seventh grade, two other boys joined in the daily harassment.

“Some other students tried to shame the boys about the conduct. However, no faculty member or other school official intervened,” the lawsuit said. By February 2008, the girl entered an inpatient treatment program for anorexia nervosa because “her weight was dangerously low.”

The girl’s mother contends school officials harassed her when she tried to home-school the girl, who now attends private school.

If Columbine and the sad case of Megan Meier has taught us anything, it’s that bullying is nothing to be taken lightly.  But, as in the case of the Columbine shooters, to say that bullying (or video games or absentee parents or black trenchcoats) are to blame for behaviors taken to extremes is an oversimplification, at best.  From the lawsuit, it appears as if this girl was a prime candidate to develop an eating disorder anyway — many with anorexia are standout students with type A personalities, as Lynn Grefe, CEO of NEDA, explains in the ABC report:

“With eating disorders, we say you’re born with a gun and life pulls the trigger,” said Grefe, who has never heard of a school being sued over such a scenario.

Generally, people who develop anorexia already have issues with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive or perfectionist behavior. Bullying could trigger anorexia in those people but not others who are taunted about their weight, Grefe said.

“The person’s often a real high achiever, and if you put those people in a situation and then their world comes crashing down, they get triggered,” Grefe said.

The fact that these circumstances behind the filing of the lawsuit existed at all is tragic, especially if the school knew about the bullying and did little to nothing to stop it.  Weight-related bullying may not in itself cause anorexia, but from personal experiences, it can result in depression, poor self-esteem, emotional issues, bad grades etc…  One of the primary reasons I participated in a post-secondary program (in which I attended college classes) my senior year of high school was because I wanted to get away from what was for me daily harassment about my weight.  I won’t say that the harassment itself caused my later eating disorder, but it was certainly the largest motivator in my decision to begin dieting, which rapidly escalated into anorexia and bulimia.

Fortunately for the mom, she doesn’t have to *prove* that the bullying caused her daughter’s anorexia.  She filed the suit alleging the school’s failure to protect the girl under Title IX, a federal anti-discrimination law.  The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that peer-on-peer gender harassment violated Title IX if the school should have stopped the abuse and a student lost an educational opportunity as a result.  And regardless of whether or not the bullying caused anorexia in this girl or if the disorder simply lie dormant in wait of a spark, a 12-year-old girl was attacked daily for two years because somebody thought she was fat and deserved to be punished for it.  I guess we can only be glad that she ended up in an inpatient treatment program and not the morgue.

posted in Anorexia, Fat Bias, Feminist Topics, Legal Issues, Mental Health | 33 Comments

19th August 2009

Should digital airbrushing be regulated like tobacco?

by Rachel

In my post on audiences’ reactions to the spinetingling gaunt Rachel McAdams, reader Lori reacted to a comment I quoted from another blog by pointing out:

I find this so frustrating, because we don’t seem to grasp the reality that most women are not going to be both really thin AND well-endowed without surgical enhancement. Sure, some women are naturally built that way, but not many, and to have this expectation that women will be both really thin but then also well-endowed and not showing too many bones when naked is so oppressive. I guess I’m less surprised at people gasping at how thin a naked actress is than at the fact that many of them think the same actress looks just perfect when clothed.

I thought of Lori’s comment when I read this story about the svelte actress Keira Knightly who was airbrushed several cup sizes larger in the latest campaign for Coco Mademoiselle perfume.  Keira, whose slimline form certainly fits the Hollywood mold but whose cleavage is decidedly lacking by Baywatch standards, has had her busoms digitally altered twice before: in U.S. posters advertising her 2004 film King Arthur and again for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  On her latest digital breast augmentation, she told the UK Telegraph:

“They painted my **** on me for the films, which is extraordinary because it’s kind of a dying art form. In the past, they used to have whole sections of the studios devoted to bosom make-up. And I loved it, completely loved it. Because it was the first time in my life I had big **** and I didn’t even need surgery,” she said.

I think it’s worth noting here that A) even “perfect” women aren’t “perfect”; and B) even “perfect” women don’t think that they’re “perfect.”

Keira’s latest photoshopping comes as the British parliament furiously debates airbrushed advertising in magazines.  As part of a new policy on women’s issues, Liberal Democrats have suggested that all images be accompanied by a messaged indicating if they have been doctored.  The party is also calling on the Advertising Standards Authority to ban altered pictures on publicity material aimed at the under-16 crowd and insists that cosmetic surgery advertisements and information leaflets be required to also carry success rates.  An ASA spokeswoman responded by saying that such a regulation would be infeasible as “all ads are altered and enhanced.” On the other end of the spectrum, Vogue editor Alexandra Shuman has said that her magazine frequently has to Photoshop models to appear larger and healthier because because the unrealistic sizes sent to them by designers had forced them to hire models with “jutting bones and no breasts or hips”

In the U.S., of course, any similar attempts to regulate the airbrushing of images would be met with indignant cries about free speech! and Orwellian censorship!.  But is the digital manipulation of images so very different from already regulated Big Tobacco campaigns that target children?

Read the rest of this entry »

posted in Body Image, Fashion, Health, Nutrition & Fitness, Legal Issues | 26 Comments

9th July 2009

You can’t even pay people to lose weight

by Rachel

MONEY MOTIVATES PEOPLE TO SLIM DOWN” blared the headlines after a 2007 study indicated that financial workplace incentives encouraged employees to lose weight and more of it.  That study, authored by RTI International and researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, concluded that of the 200 overweight employees who participated in the experiment, those who were paid the most amount of money lost more weight than those who were paid less or not at all.  Obesity experts cheerleaded the study’s findings as a way to encourage more employers to dangle financial carrots in encouraging employee weight-loss and businesses have followed suit.  Even the federal government is now getting into the game.  Congress is currently seriously considering proposals that would provide tax breaks and other incentives to companies who financially reward employees to lose weight and/or penalize fat employees who don’t.  The fact that companies might just simply fire and not hire employees who don’t meet “healthy” weight standards doesn’t seem to be of much concern to the proposal’s backers.

In the never-ending phenomenon otherwise known as the “obesity paradox,” a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds just the opposite: losing weight is so hard you cannot even pay people to do it.  This study included 2,407 overweight and obese people enrolled in weight-loss schemes at their workplace and divided them into three groups:  Group A was offered $60 to maintain a weight loss of 5 percent; those in Group B paid $100 with the understanding that the money would be returned upon losing 5 percent of their weight with bonuses for more pounds shed; and Group C, a control group, was offered only $20 as a reward for just staying in the program for one year.  The results?

The group that was offered $60 lost an average of just 1.4 pounds, while the controls lost 1.8. Those who made the $100 deposit dropped an average of 1.9 pounds more than the controls, but, the authors write, people motivated enough to risk their own money would most likely have lost weight with any program.

…One of the authors, John Cawley, an economist at Cornell, said that while money was ineffective in these cases, there is surely some amount of money that would persuade most people to lose weight. But no one knows what that amount is.

Studies about weight are endlessly contradicting with the conclusions reached often dependent on the sources funding them, so the discrepancies in the two studies aren’t surprising.  I don’t know the financial backers of either of these studies, but the money trail aside, it’s interesting to note the length of time in which participants were evaluated in each study.  In the 2007 study — which found financial incentives to be effective in encouraging weight-loss — employees were evaluated after just three months.  In the second and more exhaustive study, employees had to maintain a weight loss of 5 percent for at least one year before they qualified for any financial incentives.  It’s little wonder that the first study was so “successful.”  As studies show, diets do lead to short-term weight loss, but these losses are often not sustainable or maintained.  The second study gives a much more accurate picture at the ways in which financial weight-loss incentive programs fail in the long run.  In fact, the second study not only indicates the ineffectiveness of bribing employees to lose weight, it also suggests that these promotions might actually be counterproductive by encouraging employees to crash diet, which has been shown to be far more dangerous and unhealthy than being fat itself.  So, in effect, companies trying to save money on health care costs by compelling employees to lose weight might actually be driving up costs instead.

The second study is not without its flaws — its authors acknowledge that theirs isn’t a randomized, controlled experiment.  Most salient, however, is the assumption researchers seem to reach in that the reason for the dismal results is because employees simply were not “motivated” enough to lose weight and keep it off and that there exists some dollar figure or economic carrot that would see results.  Perhaps the overwhelming failure of the experiment indicates that it’s not a matter of a lack of want in losing weight and keeping it it off as it is an inability to do so.

posted in Fat Bias, Legal Issues | 12 Comments

15th January 2009

Plus-size entrepreneur faces stiff opposition

by Rachel

The salon I visit is located in a mall and across from a Victoria’s Secret shop. Each time I go in for a root touch-up or a cut and style, I pass by a double storefront window display brimming with ridiculously-thin mannequins in various stages of undress and sexy lingerie. There are more than 1,000 Victoria’s Secret stores across the nation, located mostly in malls and strip malls often populated by families and children. The chain’s annual runway shows — and their revealing, fasting-to-be-thin models — often make the headlines of newspapers and magazines across the globe.

So, why would a woman who wants to operate what is essentially a Victoria’s Secret-like shop for plus-size women be accused of being “unclassy” and face stiff opposition in setting up shop?

That’s the accusation and justification lodged by Redford Township, Mich. officials at Rochelle Allen, owner of Fancy Lingerie Plus, a plus-size intimate apparel shop specializing in the sale of undergarments, girdles and pantyhose. Allen hopes to open a brick-and-mortar shop to complement her burgeoning online business. Because of the nature of the products sold and clientele served, the shop would serve customers individually, by appointment only.

Allen wants to open a shop in Redford., a largely middle-class area of about 51,000 people, but her efforts there are being stymied by township officials who have been giving her a hard time for months about places where she could open shop. Allen says she originally looked at a location across from City Hall last year, but officials vetoed that idea. Understandable, in a sense, but when Allen tried to open in a space that used to be an adult entertainment store, the city said that she would not be able to sell any adult toys, books, magazines, games or videos and mandated that any mannequins in the windows would need to be “properly covered.”

Now Allen wonders if there’s any space in Redford where she can do business, unobstructed and harassment-free. As reported in Click On Detroit:

“I mean, if I open up my store in Redford, are they going to try and ticket my customers? Tow their cars away? Are they going to put speeding traps up?” Allen said. “I have to look at things like that but I also look at it as anything worth having is worth fighting for. I’m going to continue to fight.”

The Detroit News reported on Monday that Allen’s battle began in August, when she appeared before the township’s Site Committee seeking approval for the location across from City Hall. One day after the “heated meeting” — in which an “angry mob” hurled insults at Allen — the township building chief, Allan Hoard, was suspended and was later let go — the Detroit News story on this is now available only by purchase, but you can still read a cached version here. Some people speculate that the firing came because Hoard said Allen’s shop met township rules and that there was no reason to bar it from opening.

The story does not specifically name the fact that Allen’s is a plus-size shop as the reason for township officials’ objections, but the fact that Allen alone is facing so many objections and obstacles certainly raises questions as to why she’s being singled out. Redford is a suburb of economically-depressed Detroit — shouldn’t officials be encouraging new business and entrepreneurship? The location Allen hopes to open in was a former adult entertainment venue — why only now have township regulations on adult-oriented businesses become more stringent? A look at Allen’s website, which carries all of her apparel plus some other intimate body products, shows that her business isn’t so very different from, say, Victoria’s Secret. Victoria’s Secret has multiple locations in the vicinities around Redford — why is Allen’s shop being treated differently?

There are other forces at play, especially from those conservative numbers of Redford folk who are convinced that Allen’s is a sex shop. Allen, who is black, also believes racism is a factor. The Detroit Native Sun reports this exchange between Redford Township Supervisor Roger Miles Handy II and Allen during the August meeting:

“Take that to 8 Mile. We don’t want your type of traffic here,” Handy allegedly yelled.

“What do you mean my type of traffic? I assume it’s the color of my skin,” replied Allen.

And I thought Cincinnati was conservative. Even here Larry Flynt’s Hustler store is located just one block from the city’s convention center and only several blocks from City Hall. One local Redford business owner and Hoard supporter charged that Handy “runs this town like a dictator.” Perhaps this is among the reasons why he was defeated in the August primary. His term ended in November, but Allen’s battle wages on.

Allen said then that she planned to file a discrimination lawsuit against Redford, claiming the attack was racially motivated. The editorial in the Detroit Native Sun opines that Handy was not referring to Allen’s race, but that his comment was more associating Allen with “porn and strip clubs.” Even giving Handy the benefit of the doubt, I fail to see how an intimate apparel shop that, at most, may show lingerie-clad mannequins qualifies as either. Valerie Lockhart, the Sun’s executive editor, publisher and writer of the linked editorial had this advice for Allen:

“Instead of playing the race card, deal yourself a new hand. Present full figure women in a respectful manner – free of fishnet body suits and peek-a-boo bras. Then you’ll not only be able to play in the game, but can win the game as well.”

I wonder if the term “full figure” women is key here for Lockhart. Does she object to all lingerie, or just that for plus-size women? Is showing “full figure” women in a “respectful” manner a euphemism for cover-up-your-fat? Does Lockhart raise the same objections to Victoria’s Secret and their line of bras and lingerie as she does to Allen’s line of Just My Size and Playtex bras and baby doll nighties? And since when has being treated with respect and equal, non-biased consideration become a “game”?

Regardless of the motivations of township officials, harassing a would-be business owner and threatening her clientele — now that’s unclassy. For shame, Redford, for shame.

posted in Fat Bias, Legal Issues, Race Issues | 17 Comments

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