Oprah calls it an "Aha! moment," as if a single occurrence, like waking up, can impel someone to change. A sinner is usually caught in the act of sin before "seeing the light," a drug addict often hits bottom before embarking on recovery; but people are stubborn -- it is rare that the proverbial camel buckles under the weight of the first straw.
If that "Aha! moment," then, is the cherry crowning a misery sundae in which each spoonful of ice cream and shard of almond represents shame and disappointment, my moment would have to be when I fell in my sister's back yard.
It was a warm, sunny afternoon in July, and the entire family, along with Heather's in-laws and a handful of her friends, had turned out for the barbecue. Unseasonably dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, I had taken respite from the heat with a glass of chilled chardonnay in the shade of the gazebo. As I sat sipping my wine, a motion at the base of the wooden fence caught my eye. I scanned the grass until my eyes fell upon a squirrel, the fur on its head gathered in a miniature mohawk. I rose from my chair to get a closer look. Because my eyes were locked on the hilarious-looking rodent, I missed seeing the three small stairs leading down from the deck. My right ankle turned and I stumbled, after which my left ankle turned, and so on, until finally, after a few seconds that felt like minutes, I landed five steps away -- my cheek against the fence, my legs beneath me, and the glass of wine still clutched aloft in one hand.
The fall wasn't the bad part. At first, I was merely stunned, trying to make sense of what had happened. Then, as heads turned to discover the source of the commotion, as eyes and hands fell upon me to gauge the extent of my injury, it became apparent to everyone that, like that ancient woman in the cheesy commercial, I'd fallen and couldn't get up. I remained on the ground, sniveling and wiping away tears, refusing offers of help, for 15 minutes. My father and David eventually assisted me, all 270 pounds of me, to stand and hobble to the nearest chair.
Being fat sucks. When you're fat, people look at you with pitying glances or, even worse, relief. The alleviated expression on most women's faces wouldn't be easier to read if it were written across their foreheads in bold type: "At least I don't look like that." I don't blame them. It's human nature to seek a short reprieve from feeling bad about yourself, even if achieving this means taking a moment to be happy you're not as bad off as someone else. In an Associated Press article, the director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, Dr. David Katz, was quoted, "If you're just a little bit heavy and everyone around you is quite heavier, you will feel good when you look in a mirror." There is nothing more comforting to an insecure woman than having a fat girlfriend. Like most corpulent women, to compensate for an unappealing appearance and to protect my psyche, I developed an impenetrable inner strength and an acute sense of humor. Slimmer, emotionally weaker women were drawn to me like squirrels to a birdfeeder -- in one fell swoop, I could make them both laugh and feel better about their thighs.
Conversely, there is nothing more revolting to most men than having a fat girlfriend. Don't get me wrong, I got laid plenty -- guys may be horrified at the idea of dating a fat chick, but they can benefit greatly from befriending one. Devoted, "pretty-'n'-plump" girls make their male friends feel desirable, even cocky, something an ego can get used to. I was the behind-the-scenes gal, the one to call late at night, the friend with privileges on off-peak hours. I was a safe-looking wingman the boys could take dancing when pursuing more socially acceptable partners; the last-resort sex at the end of the night when nothing panned out. I was appreciative for the attention I got, like an untouchable in India who is resigned to her predetermined caste. Sometimes, to see where my body fit into the bigger scheme, I would surf the fat-fetish porn sites to find how other large women negotiated their heft in various positions. Words like "eager" and "grateful" were always used when describing the chubby stars. The unlikely chance of rejection is one of the main draws for men who have a thing for large women. (I'm talking white men here -- in my experience, black men tend to appreciate ladies with a little extra "junk in the trunk.") Even so, sex wasn't the problem.
The most mundane tasks can be daunting for a plus-sizer. For me, the only thing worse than my hundred daily struggles was the possibility that somebody might witness one. When traveling by plane, rather than ask for a seat-belt extender, I would drape what little of the strap would reach around my generous belly and hide the buckle under a book, into which I would stare with exaggerated rapture so as not to be questioned during seat-belt checks. I hated shopping with friends and walking into stores like Express and the Gap, where the largest pants on the rack were at least six sizes smaller than the ones I wore. I once entered a high-end clothing boutique downtown and received a dismissive glance from the size zero salesgirl, a sort of "Sorry, there's nothing for you here." I ended up buying a necklace I couldn't afford, realizing only in retrospect that I'd splurged to save face.
Anybody who tried to help me only made me feel worse. Each time someone offered me advice on slimming down, what I heard was, "You're not adequate." My parents seized the prom as their last opportunity to save me from striding fully fat into the real world. "You know, Barb, you have three whole months before prom," said my well-meaning father, the idea being that if I lost weight, a boy might ask me to go with him. I resented the premise that I didn't stand a chance the way I was, even when it proved true. I attended the dance with a friend's brother, who'd politely accepted my last-minute plea to bring him as my date, granted I pay for the affair, to which I wore the muumuu equivalent of a little black dress.