A portrait of Barbara Altman Bruno

Alumna Reflects on her Role as a ‘Size Acceptance’ Pioneer

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Barbara Altman Bruno ’68, BA ’69, has donated her papers, which chronicle her decades as a leader in the body positivity and anti-dieting movements, to the Cornell University Library

By Beth Saulnier

Many American women have been dieting off and on for so much of their lives, they can scarcely remember when they started. Barbara Altman Bruno ’68, BA ’69, can, and vividly.

“My parents started watching what I ate when I was seven,” Bruno recalls. “It was the 1950s, and concerns had already started about Americans getting ‘fat and lazy’—all kinds of bad things about carrying extra weight.”

As Bruno explains, while her mother was very petite, she takes after her father, who was bigger boned and heavier set. “They wanted the best for me and wanted me to do well,” she says, “so they thought I ought to be thinner than I was.” Among the strictures they imposed: “My brothers could have whatever they wanted for dessert, but I had to have fruit.”

Two women holding protest signs in favor of size acceptance, in front of the White House
Bruno (center, in sunglasses) picketing the White House in the 1990s. (Photo provided)

Bruno would continue to diet throughout adolescence and young adulthood—including during her time on the Hill, where she studied art and English. She was in her late 20s when she had an epiphany after violating her diet (a low-carb regimen she calls “an early version of Atkins”) on her birthday by indulging in an English muffin.

“I was complaining to the person I was dating at the time, about having to give that stuff up the next day,” Bruno recalls. “And he said, ‘Do you really want to be on a diet?’ It was one of those lightbulb moments. For almost my entire life up to that point, it had been either deprivation or guilt. I realized I never wanted to live like that again.”

Five buttons supporting size acceptance
The Bruno archive in Kroch Library includes ephemera like buttons supporting size acceptance. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University.)

Bruno worked to develop a more positive relationship with food and with her own body. And she entered the mental health field—earning a master’s in social work from California State University, Sacramento, and a PhD in psychology from Columbia Pacific University. In the practice she established in suburban New York, she treated numerous patients grappling with issues related to dieting and body image.

A longtime activist ("I was at Cornell in the mid to late ’60s, and then I moved to Berkeley, so I always had picket signs”), Bruno became a leader in what would become known as the size acceptance movement.

She was involved with several organizations devoted to the cause in the 1980s onward, including helping to found the Health at Every Size movement, serving as education co-chair for the Association for Size Diversity and Health, and sitting on the advisory board of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a position she still holds.

The latter organization, she notes, embraces the word “fat” in much the same way as the LGBTQ movement has with “queer.” “It's owning it,” she says, “rather than trying to run away from it.”

A roll of toilet tissue with body-positive messages printed in pink
One campaign involved replacing rolls of toilet paper in women's restrooms with ones printed with messages decrying dieting. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

She and her compatriots lobbied politicians, marched, and held rallies and conferences—decrying discrimination against fat people, advocating for laws adding body size to protected classes like race and gender, and raising awareness about the damage caused by our societal obsession with thinness, such as depression and eating disorders.

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In 1996, she published the book Worth Your Weight: What You Can Do About a Weight Problem, which advocates ditching traditional diets—which rarely lead to lasting weight loss—in favor of being attuned to what your body craves, and letting go of an unattainable ideal of thinness.

“If you look at any almost anything in nature, you see that there are little flowers and big flowers, there are little dogs and big dogs—and there are little people and big people,” Bruno says. “This notion that you can't possibly be fat and healthy is ignoring that some people are thin and unhealthy, and some people are fat and healthy, and everything in between. So it's prejudice, and it’s stigma.”

A scholarly resource

Two years ago, after Bruno retired and downsized her home, she donated her papers to the University’s Rare and Manuscript Collections in Kroch Library. (She’s also a supporter of the student group Body Positive Cornell, and she participated in a symposium on the topic on campus in fall 2019.) While the materials became available to scholars in 2020, they haven’t yet been widely accessed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Housed in eight boxes, the archive includes dozens of clippings from newspapers and magazines chronicling the efforts of Bruno and like-minded people nationwide—such as a New York Times story in which she appeared in May 1990, headlined “Acceptance of Fatness Is Sought.”

This notion that you can't possibly be fat and healthy is ignoring that some people are thin and unhealthy, and some people are fat and healthy, and everything in between.

There’s also correspondence with legislators; stacks of academic journal articles that Bruno used for research; columns she wrote for various publications; programs from size acceptance conferences; Weight Watchers literature; copies of magazines and newsletters geared toward fat people and their allies; personal ads; flyers from body-positive social events; and much more.

While much of the archive comprises papers, it also includes audiovisual materials (which will eventually be digitized) and some ephemera like buttons, T-shirts, a yellowed packet of vintage diet pills, and a novelty pig figurine that oinks when you open your fridge.

Perhaps the most notable item is a bathroom scale, spray-painted a metallic hue, whose indicator dial is obscured by the message “You are worth your weight in gold.” Bruno created the piece of guerrilla art and shipped it to Oprah Winfrey at the height of the TV host’s very public dieting efforts (it was swiftly returned).

A scale painted gold with the message 'you are worth your weight in gold'
The archive's more unusual items include a gold-painted bathroom scale. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

According to Brenda Marston, curator of Kroch’s Human Sexuality Collection—whose subject matter connects with the Bruno archive, given the relationship between thinness and conventional notions of physical attractiveness—the materials will be invaluable to researchers across numerous fields.

“It’s part of an overall movement for human dignity and self-acceptance,” Marston says of body positivity. “It looks in depth at women's self esteem, at the way that women's worth in society is overly associated with looks, body size, and beauty. It challenges the message that so many girls get growing up, that they're only worthy if they're thin enough.”

Top image: Bruno, photographed on board a cruise ship during a recent vacation. (Photo provided)

Published December 14, 2021


Comments

  1. Dan Oliverio, Class of 1987

    I’ve had the privilege to meet and speak with Barbara at a couple of NAAFA conferences over the years. (National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance). Her wisdom and graciousness are truly inspiring. I’m glad Cornell will be home for such an important legacy.

  2. William Fabrey, Class of 1963

    A wonderful piece. I am familiar with Dr. Bruno’s work, and am thrilled that she is so well-spoken on this topic. I consider her to be a pioneer. I also believe that people come in all shapes and sizes!

    I was one of the participants in the fall 2019 HAES event at Cornell (I spoke about the early history of size acceptance, having founded the NAAFA organization in 1969), and I attended Cornell long ago, 1959-1962, when I transferred to another school with a work/study engineering program, which Cornell did not offer. It was wonderful visiting a campus that had changed so much in the last 60 years!

  3. Marguerite Bruno

    Congratulations Barbara!

  4. Margo Berger, Class of 1957

    Bravo, Barbara!

    I hope you continue your research and that your Collection
    will be digitalized so that it can be accessed !

    Perhaps there is a ‘Chapter’ to be featured in the Alumni Newsletter!

    Looking forward to continuing the conversation!

  5. Elaine Lee, Class of 1992

    As a current Board member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, I am very proud and delighted that Cornell
    Is the home for Dr. Bruno’s papers. I hope Cornell will continue to play an important role in scholarship and discussions about fat studies, fat liberation, and body size diversity for years to come.

  6. Ann M. Fagan, Class of 1980

    Dr. Barbara Altman Bruno is clearly an inspirational force and an unquestionable pioneer in size acceptance. Her personal experience, knowledge, empathy, and now her endless generosity in donating her work will be an asset for future generations.

    Thank you Barbara!

  7. Dan Radlauer

    Barbara, you are an inspiration! Congratulations on this recognition.

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