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Can one blog post spark a national debate? It happened yesterday, when Marie Claire writer Maura Kelly published a story titled "Should "Fatties" Get a Room?"
The post was first published on the magazine's web site as well as on Yahoo! Shine, a content-sharing partner with Marie Claire and several other female-oriented websites.
Kelly's piece centers on the question: "Think people feel uncomfortable when they see overweight people making out on television?"
It's an issue raised by viewers of the new CBS show "Mike and Molly," about a heavy-set couple who met at their Overeaters Anonymous group. After considering the question herself, Kelly answers yes.
"I think I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other ... because I'd be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything," she writes. "To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room."
That statement sparked a tirade of angry comments, 28,000 emails to Marie Claire, and a call from the magazine's readers for Kelly to be fired.
"Do you think all of the people who read your magazine are a size 6?" wrote one reader. "People like you 'contribute to the obesity problem' with being so shallow," fired another commenter. "I have an overweight little girl who does not sit in front of the TV for hours, or constantly eat. She is adorable, smart, funny and will be a wonderfully productive member of society," added one angry mom on Shine. Another reader dripped with sarcasm: "Dear Maura Kelly, I sincerely apologize for my disgusting body and all the various rolls of fat on my person."
[Photos: The cast of 'Mike & Molly']
Over at the women's web site Jezebel, blogger, Sadie Stein was also outraged by Kelly's post. "What the hell were they thinking?" she writes. "As if the title 'Should Fatties Get a Room? (Even on TV?)' wasn't bad enough, there's the article itself."
After watching the public outcry boil over in a matter of hours, Kelly posted an apology to readers. "I would really like to apologize for the insensitive things I've said in this post…a lot of what I said was unnecessary. It wasn't productive, either," she writes. While content updates and redacted facts may be common in blog posts, it's rare to find an apology on an opinion piece.
Her apology has triggered a second wave of reactions from readers. Some commenters think she should stand her ground, while a majority feel her sentiments are too little too late.
"While I do respect her apology and am glad she did it, I'm still disappointed by the article's shortsighted-ness," says James Zervios, director of communications for the Obesity Action Coalition, an advocacy group for obesity education. "You'd never see an article like that about a cancer patient. It saddens me that those who suffer from obesity aren't treated with the same respect."
Zervios worries Kelly's message that over-weight people are "gross" sends a damaging message to the 93 million Americans affected by the epidemic, many of them children. "It's bad enough that magazines Photoshop people's bodies to look more unattainable, now you have a writer at one of them saying they can't stand to look at an obese person. A young over-weight girl should never have to read that kind of article."
He also takes umbrage with another statement Kelly makes: "I think obesity is something that most people have a ton of control over. It's something they can change, if only they put their minds to it." Kelly, who goes on to cite specific dietary regimens for weight loss, takes a cavalier approach to weight loss that irks several readers.
"It's not something as simple as you shouldn't eat certain foods," says Zervios, pointing out psychological and biological factors that play a role.
In her apology, Kelly agrees. She also points out that she herself has struggled with eating disorders, which may have clouded her judgment. "A few commenters and one of my friends mentioned that my extreme reaction might have grown out of my own body issues, my history as an anorexic, and my life-long obsession with being thin," she writes. "As I mentioned in the ongoing dialogue we've been carrying on in the comments section, I think that's an accurate insight."
While some detractors consider Kelly's confession a sympathy ploy, projecting personal body issues on others is a very real phenomenon. "A lot of people struggle themselves with their weight, and the same people that tend to get very angry at themselves for not being able to manage their weight are more likely to be biased against the obese," said Marlene Schwartz, Yale's Food Policy director, in a 2009 Newsweek article citing her research on the topic.
But Zervios blames the media at large for the growing intolerance of the over-weight. "I think the word 'fatty' should be stricken from magazines and TV in general," he says. "Anytime obesity is brought up in pop culture people think it's okay to go for the jugular."
Marie Claire editor-in-chief Joanna Coles is also concerned with the way obesity is tackled in media. But in an interview with Fashionista yesterday, she points to the show, "Mike and Molly," not Kelly. "I'm concerned about a show that makes fun of large people."
Clearly, it's a topic that's ripe for debate. Today, Coles opened up the discussion to her stable of Marie Claire writers, with the launch of a series of counterpoint posts to Kelly's original piece. The first counterpoint, posted today by Leslie Kinzel, is called "Yes, Fat People Exist: A Vote in Favor of More Diverse bodies on TV." It's already received it's own mixed bag of comments.
As for Kelly, whose inflammatory statements launched the debate, Coles says, "Maura Kelly is a very provocative blogger. She was an anorexic herself and this is a subject she feels very strongly about."
That's one thing everyone can agree on.