07/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is Fat the New Black?

Most Americans say they would have no problem voting for an African-American for president.

What about voting for a fat candidate for president? Would you?

[The obese William Howard Taft doesn't count -- he was president nearly a hundred years ago, when there was no YouTube, and prosperous men ate eight-course meals. His surname is an anagram for Fat-T.]

More than ageism, and now at least as much as racism, fat-ism is running amok -- worse now than it was in the 1990s, and vrtually unprotected by any laws. Women feel the sting of its stereotypes more than men, so says a recent Yale study on the subject, and it holds the overweight back from getting jobs and getting raises and promotions in the jobs they do have. Another Yale study two years ago found that rather than be fat, nearly half of the people surveyed would give up a year of their lives. A third would rather be divorced than fat, and one in five would rather be childless than fat.

Maybe all this is why the National Associadtion to Advance Fat Acceptance is in Los Angeles for its big annual press conference today. California has been especially receptive to extending protections to women, minorities and gays -- maybe it's fat people's turn to demand the same.

Rebecca Puhl, who heads community and weight stigma initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, says that where other public biases -- race, gender, age -- are now taboo, weight weight discrimination still gets a pass, in part because people assume the fat "lack self-discipline,'' are lazy, or have other character flaws.

If NAAFA is making its case in LA, it's putting itself into the lion's mouth. In some ZIP codes around here, a woman who wears a size-ten dress [two sizes smaller than the national average] is regarded as a blimp on legs. Actresses get respectful reviews for being brave enough to wear a fat suit and ugly themselves up. A New Yorker cartoon of recent vintage shows an outline of the US, all in white except for two tiny black regions -- LA and Manhattan. The white key reads ''too fat'' and the black key reads ''too thin.''

Michigan has a longstanding law against fat discrimination, and Massachusetts, says Puhl, is considering one. Maybe California will indeed be where NAAFA wants to make a stand. NAAFA will also need to sort out fat's many mixed messages in order to sell its own effectively. Is fat genetic? Environmental? The fault of poverty? Of full-frontal ad campaigns for junk food? Of high-fructose corn syrup sweetener? All of them? Is it possible to call for ''fat power'' if you also argue that the society, or the individual, has the power to control it? And as Puhl points out, fat people themselves are nearly as likely to buy into the stereotypes about themselves as their thinner brethren are.

I'm be really curious to see how an anti-fat discrimination measure would fare in the California Legislature -- and how long it would take for someone under the big dome in Sacramento to let slip a chubby joke.