The last thing Lake Merritt pedestrians expected to see on a recent Thursday afternoon was a fat, vibrant woman inviting them to step onto a scale. "Would you like a free compliment?" Marilyn Wann called out to a group of teenage girls on the concrete path. She motioned to the scale, which she'd covered with pink paint and sparkly silver paper. Silver pipe cleaners across the bottom spelled "YAY!"
A lanky girl with long braids pulled into a ponytail eyed the glittery object with suspicion. "I do not need to know my weight," she said defiantly.
"Oh, this won't give you a number, only a compliment," Wann said, her vintage aluminum-framed glasses glinting in the sunlight.
"What is it?" the girl asked.
"It's a Yay Scale."
The girl squinted at it for a moment, still clearly confused, then shrugged and stepped on. The dial spun and came to rest.
"You're gorgeous," Wann announced.
"Ooh, that's nice," the girl replied with a grin. Soon her friends had all clambered on to take their own Yay readings.
"What are you doing this for?" asked one who'd just been declared "fine!"
"I'm part of a group of people who try to encourage good nutrition and fitness, whatever your size," Wann said, handing each teen a slip of pink paper listing five body-positive Web sites.
Within an hour, several dozen people had collected such spontaneous flattery. A father and his teenage son riding their bikes: "What a way to make a guy's day," the father said after being deemed sexy. "And look at that my son is fine!" A toned jogger in her twenties whose face initially fell when she realized the scale wouldn't divulge her weight: "Yummy," she read with a smile, after stepping on anyway. "That's better than 140, right?"
A few people recognized Wann, who proselytized body acceptance in a black T-shirt and her signature hot-pink attire of pedalpusher jeans, suede loafers, and a purse: "Are you Marilyn?" a young woman asked. "The one who wrote Fat!So?"
"Yes, that's me," Wann admitted, blushing so her cheeks matched her bubblegum-hued MAC lipstick.
"I love that book," the girl gushed before asking Wann to autograph the handout. "It really helped me!"
At 39, Wann is the uncontested queen of the modern American fat-pride movement. The San Francisco resident carries around a hundred or so pounds more than the US government thinks she should. When she was denied health insurance in 1993 based solely on that fact, she launched a protest zine called Fat!So?, which evolved into a book that has sold fifteen thousand copies, which in turn inspired a popular Web site, all of which have given way to a thriving speaking career. Wann began making Yay Scales five years ago, and now offers them up via word of mouth and, soon, through VoluptuArt.com, an online shop stocked solely with body-positive art that will be run by Richmond therapist Nomi Dekel.
Wann is many things: "Flabaliscious," according to a pal's testimony on her Friendster page. An avid exerciser who hits the gym twice a week, then changes into a two-piece suit to swim laps. The rare woman who has dieted just once in her life. And a huge fan of the F word: "It's not about size, it's about fat. So let's call it that." But she is first and foremost content with her body. And she says she's in excellent health as is her fat, thriving 82-year-old mother.