In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Most people have no idea that I used to be fat. Three years ago I weighed more than 250 pounds. Now I weigh half that amount. To this day I worry that I’ll wake up one morning and my size-6 pants won’t fit, or I won’t be able to slide behind the steering wheel of my car. Before I open my eyes in bed, my fingers reach for clavicle or hipbone, to make sure they are still there and not hidden in flesh.
When I was heavy, I dieted constantly with little success. If any weight came off, it came back in a few weeks. I tried Weight Watchers, Diet Center, and Nutri-System. I went to a clinic for eating disorders. I read diet books and magazines. I joined support groups. I took speed and antidepressants for their appetite-suppressing side effects. I consulted with weight-loss doctors and exercised obsessively. I fasted, I binged, and I tried to accept myself as fat and be happy with it. I wore the same pair of size-26 green denim pants almost every day.
I lost the weight with the help of a twelve-step program that told me I was helpless to control my addiction and needed to surrender to a higher power. I still weigh and measure everything I eat, consume no flour or sugar, and eat nothing between meals. What makes it easier is that I have no craving for food other than normal hunger. At parties, I no longer feel attached to the buffet table by a giant rubber band, or count how many times I have gone back for more, or hide twenty cookies in my purse.
Food did not make me happy, but it did make me numb. When I had a quart of ice cream and a book or the TV, the world around me disappeared. Food was my drug, my entertainment, my companion. It took the place of relationships. It dulled feelings of longing or passion. My size was both a fortress I could hide in and a prison to contain my bottomless rage.
Now, when I experience moments of acute pain, instead of reaching for an anesthetic, I close my eyes and surrender to the feelings. I have learned that these feelings will not kill me.
What haunts me still is my own face in a photo taken six years ago. A large woman with a double chin peers directly at the camera. She does not smile. I wonder where she is now. Then again, I sometimes feel she is with me everywhere I go.
Three years ago I lived in a huge flat in an overpopulated city. The bottom floor of my building housed a Starbucks, a Gap, and a 7-Eleven. Inside the Starbucks, I would sit at a table large enough for four (though it always had only one chair) and scribble volumes of notes about nothing. Outside the aquarium-like window, schools of pedestrians and taxicabs passed by.
At my thirty-first-floor office, I was greeted every morning by no fewer than twenty e-mails, all of them equally insignificant. My phone had the capacity to handle twenty-five incoming calls at once.
At lunch I would walk to the “food court,” where stalls offered everything from sushi to vegetarian burritos, and you had to order a ham sandwich by its individual components: type of ham, type of cheese, type of bread.
I now live in a small cottage in a tiny village in Sweden. There is only one grocery store in town, just a short walk down a single-lane dirt road from my house. The produce section has only what I need and nothing more. About twice a month they get fresh chicken breasts, and I silently rejoice.
We have a little bank, but the two tellers work only on Mondays and Thursdays. If a banking “emergency” arises on some other day, I can take out money at the gas station — unless it, too, is closed, which it often is.
I am writing this in my aptly named “dining closet,” which doubles as my office. I sit on a small wooden bench underneath a single window. Looking out, I see a light blanket of snow covering the ground.
It’s nice to live in a place that is more my size.
When I was fourteen, the first thought on my mind every morning was of food: plump, glistening hams and dripping ice-cream cones. And then the tears would come, and I would waver momentarily. I couldn’t do it. Not again.
But as I lay there, the steely control would return. The drill sergeant in my head would begin to bark orders: One half of one grapefruit for breakfast! No sugar!
I would slip out of bed and begin to do a hundred sit-ups — one for every pound I weighed. My tailbone would grind against the floor, but I felt only my bulging stomach as I touched elbows to knees. Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine.
I skipped lunch at school and waited to eat at home, alone, where I wouldn’t have to watch the other, weaker students cram food into their fat mouths. After school I had one orange, peeled bare, not even any membrane. How tenderly I lingered over this peeling ritual, prolonging the act of eating.
At dinner the drill sergeant would turn her head momentarily and allow me three items: one serving of meat — very small! — one serving of starch, and one serving of vegetables. Even this, I knew, was excessive. Soon, when I was stronger, I would eat only one item at dinner as well.
My period stopped. My mother took me to the doctor, who prescribed hormones.
“Those aren’t going to make her period start again,” my older sister said. “Her period stopped because she’s too skinny. She’s anorexic.”
But my mother ignored her. What did her older daughter know, with her too-big hips and mouth to match? She’d always been jealous of her slimmer sister.
I smiled to myself. My sister would never get down to my size, no matter how many meals she vomited. She lacked self-control.
Meanwhile, in some dark corner of my mind, I wished that, just this once, my mother would listen.
Beverly Shores, Indiana
When I was sixteen years old, I went to fat camp. My mom had to practically drag me out of the car. Nine weeks was a long time to be away from my family.
“What are you doing here?” a very large girl asked.
Was she serious? “I’m here because I’m fat.”
I’d thought my bluntness would get a smile out of her, but it didn’t. She just looked down and quietly whispered, “You’re my goal.”
I couldn’t understand why she would say that to me. I was fat. Then it dawned on me: size is relative. Here, I was the thin girl.
I will probably never see that girl again, but I remember her words whenever I look in the mirror. “You’re my goal” will always be the sweetest, saddest thing anyone’s ever said to me.
Pittsford, New York
When I was twelve, while my friends were stuffing their bras, I wore blouses with double pockets, one on each side, to hide my abundance.
At fifteen, I went swimming in a cool, clear lake. I stepped out of the water onto the clean, bright sand, feeling purified and peaceful — until I noticed something hanging from my red beach umbrella. My eleven-year-old brother, Billy, had taken my size-36D bra, filled it with sand, and tied it to the umbrella’s metal spines. Everyone could see its big, sandy cups hanging like dirigibles in the still air.
“I’ll pound you!” I screamed. “I hate you!”
I wanted to run to my mother and rest my head on her billowy chest. She would have understood. But she had died of breast cancer when I was ten.
Humiliated, I covered my body with a long, loose blouse, folded my arms over my enormous mounds, and went home to tell my father what Billy had done.
“I’ll never be able to go swimming again,” I said. “Everyone on the beach saw it.”
I don’t know exactly what response I had expected, but it wasn’t knee-slapping laughter.
“What do you have in there?” my father asked, sticking a finger in one of my shirt pockets.
I cried myself to sleep that night, cursing my body and hating men. I wanted to wear a sign around my neck: Private Property. Keep Off.
Years later, I married a man twenty years my senior, who’d grown up during the “sweater girl” years of the fifties. “I’m a breast man,” Dave would proclaim to his buddies. He was known for what he owned: a Cadillac, a lucrative investment business, and an attractive wife with D-cup proportions.
Dave liked to press his clammy hands around my breasts, rub each nipple with his thumb, and suckle like a piglet. Greedy consumer that he was, he wanted quantity, of which I had plenty.
Dave and I divorced after five years. I’ve finally gotten men to stop pawing me, and I didn’t need a “Private Property” sign to do it. All it took was losing a breast.
Rancho Mirage, California
In 1937, during its annual Rose Festival, the city of Portland, Oregon, chose my mother as its Rose Queen. She wore a size-36 bra and had wavy brunette hair and a slim, pointed nose.
I am the daughter of the Rose Queen. People say I look like her. She has never said that.
A photo of me in sixth grade shows a girl with short, thick hair framing a chubby face. Although those pudgy cheeks got their share of comments from my mother, it was my hips that drew the most attention. Though I longed for the color-coordinated skating outfit displayed in a store window, I got a homemade skating skirt and my father’s long underwear — complete with an ample fly. “As soon as your hips are a little smaller,” my mother said, “we’ll buy that outfit.”
“Look what I got for you,” she said another day. My excitement at seeing a Macy’s shopping bag quickly faded when she pulled out a girdle.
In high school, I took over the sewing of my own clothes. Shopping for fabric, I went for the pink-and-purple flower prints. My mother bought me the navy blue. “You look slimmer in dark colors,” she said. The excitement of finishing a dress or a skirt and wearing it for the first time lost some of its spark when she commented, “It’s a shame about your hips.”
While my hips required slimming, my breasts were too small. As I tried on the dress I had made for the prom, my mother tugged at the fabric around the chest, hoping for a miracle. “A little more fullness here would make it hang so much nicer.”
College gave me distance from my mother’s criticism, though I still bought dark clothes to hide my hips, and even wore a girdle now and then. I grew my hair to a length where it would tumble and tried out for the lead in A Streetcar Named Desire. My obsession about my size diminished.
Years later I learned to laugh at my mother’s remarks. I even helped her stuff socks into the bodice of my wedding dress so that I could fill it out. But the clincher was her final comment before releasing me to walk down the aisle: “It’s too bad you couldn’t have lost a little weight in your nose.”
Kathleen Barry Albertini
Honeoye Falls, New York
I am a member of my local chevre kaddishe, the Jewish burial society. When a woman in our community dies, we prepare the body for interment. Ellen calls me about our next assignment. “She’s big,” Ellen says. “We’ll need all the help we can get.”
Only five of us are able to meet the next day at Carlson’s Funeral Home. The deceased is Betty Moore, eighty-two years old, a convert whose Jewish husband died about twenty-five years ago. Betty was a somewhat cantankerous person, at odds with the Jewish community since her husband’s death; she was thrifty, had no kids, only a few living relatives.
When we arrive, Betty is laid out in a tiny, closet-like space lined with metal instruments and bottles of chemicals. The air reeks of formaldehyde, death, and urine. We put on aprons and rubber gloves, take out the prayer manual, and get to work.
Custom demands that we wash Betty all over while one of us recites the prayers. We debate about how best to accomplish our sacred task without breaking our backs. Betty is so large it’s like bathing a small whale, and there are more than the usual breaches of etiquette before we have dressed the deceased in leggings, jacket, bib, and a headdress that covers her eyes (so she won’t be blinded by God’s light).
The real problem is the plain pine casket, which frugal Betty selected twelve years ago. Two of us are immediately certain she will not fit in it.
“I think,” says Becky, “that if we fold her arms and cross her legs, we can get her in.”
“How about putting her in sideways?” Pat offers.
I imagine Betty insisting, It’s my coffin, and I can get in it.
After a Talmudic-like debate, Carol suggests we call in Mr. Carlson, the funeral director, and ask his advice. Short and square, with a shiny light blue yarmulke flopping to one side of his head, Mr. Carlson eyeballs the situation and says, “If you try getting her in and she doesn’t fit, you’re going to have a heck of a time getting her out.”
This leads to another debate, in the fetid air of the cell, about whether to go with a larger, more expensive casket.
“We have the money,” Deborah says. “There’s extra in the community fund.”
“Let’s do it,” I say. By now we are nearly two hours into the burial ritual. All I want is out.
But first there must be another ten minutes of debate: Are we sure we have the money? Does Carlson just want to make a bigger profit? Finally we all agree to spend the money, and we hoist Betty up into her beautiful, spacious box with the mahogany veneer.
At our closing ceremony, conducted in the miraculously clean air of the funeral home’s guest room, Carol says, “You know, it seems just about right — perfect, really — that such a poor, angry woman should receive a luxurious casket as a gift from the community she fought with.”
Everyone agrees. As for me, I leave befuddled, irritated, head aching, spirit diminished, yet enormously grateful for the fresh air and sky.
Every so often, a woman and her toddler walk their dog past my house. Always the little boy is carrying a big stick, almost bigger than he is. He likes to poke at rocks and leaves with it. He scrapes it across the top of my garden wall. He uses it to dig holes in the earth. He drags it behind him or pushes it along in front.
When I first saw the enormous stick in his hands, I had to fight the impulse to run out of my house and take it from him. Every maternal instinct in me screamed, Sticks are dangerous! He’s too little to have that! He’ll poke his eye out!
Yesterday was freezing cold but sunny. The sun had made the ice on the ground slick. The little boy, bundled in a sturdy snowsuit, toddled along with his stick as usual, pushing, poking, pulling, and dragging. He crossed a patch of ice and fell backward with a thud. His mother, several paces ahead, didn’t see him fall. Worried that the big stick had somehow lodged in his eye, I grabbed my coat and started to run out to assist him.
Before I could leave, though, I saw him sit up and use the stick to push himself up to a standing position. It was such a clever thing to do. A smaller stick would have been of no use.
He fell again and had to use his stick twice more before he reached the edge of the ice. Then he ran off, stick in hand, to join his mother.
Carolyn Graham Tsuneta
I stood in the sweltering dressing room of Mervyn’s, ill-fitting pairs of jeans slung over the door or entwined about my feet. It was the final week of summer before my sophomore year in high school, and my dream of sashaying back onto campus in a pair of slick Guess jeans was quickly giving way to the reality of relaxed-fit pants. I was pissed: pissed that I could tell as soon as a pair of jeans reached my knees that they wouldn’t fit; pissed that what would fit was bland and baggy; pissed at the number called my “size.”
“How’s it going in there?” chirped my mom, forever the optimist.
“We need to go, now,” I said. “My body disgusts me. . . . Our body disgusts me!” I had realized that I would always have my mom’s plump, hourglass form, and I was not even close to welcoming it.
“How do you tolerate your body, Mom?” I asked in the car. “I mean, is this how we’ll always be?”
She chuckled wryly, having probably said the same to herself in front of a mirror.
What she said next saved me: “You have my body,” she said, “and I have Grandma Theresa’s body, and she needed hers for all sorts of tasks in the Old World. Your body may seem awkward now, but you will come to appreciate it. See what works with it and what doesn’t, but don’t fight it.”
Later that night, still miffed, I sat with Mom and looked at old sepia images of ancestors with sturdy builds, strong hands, and, yes, big hips.
“This one came over here from the Azores and started her own bakery,” Mom said. “This one took care of the homeless after the 1906 earthquake, cooking soup in Dolores Park. . . . And this one farmed olives and raised three boys all on her own.”
Now, every time I hoist a pack on my back, or sling a mixing bowl at my side, or find my center of gravity on my snowboard and dance my way down the mountain, I give a nod to those ancestors.
I was taking the F train to the West Village in Manhattan. My end of the subway car was very crowded, but there were plenty of open seats at the other end. I worked my way down and saw why it was empty. A burly man sat there by himself, dressed entirely in black leather, complete with metal studs and a matching hat pulled down to shade his eyes.
Then I noticed a wiggling motion under his coat. He unbuttoned it and pulled out the smallest dog I’d ever seen. It was the size of a teacup and dressed in bluejeans and a flannel shirt. Passengers began to gather around.
A grin broke across the man’s face. “It’s a miniature Chihuahua puppy,” he told us. He said he fed the puppy the same food that he ate, and they even slept in the same bed. People leaned in close to get a glimpse of the tiny dog. As the train pulled into my stop, I asked the man about the bluejeans and flannel shirt.
“Oh, I make all his clothes,” he said. “These are nothing. You should see his pajamas!”
Brooklyn, New York
I had been an active member of an ecumenical women’s Bible study for four years when I was asked to lead a small discussion group. The program director came to my house to have me fill out some forms: just the standard information — name, address, age, church affiliation, weight.
Weight? I’d never been asked that before on any form except an insurance application. The temptation to lie was great, but if I couldn’t be honest in this situation, where could I be? I told the truth according to my bathroom scale.
After that, I was given a manual and asked to read it, but not to make copies or to show it to anyone else. I soon saw why. Again, most of it was standard, but three sentences jumped out at me: First, Catholics and charismatics could not be in leadership positions. Second, women who had been divorced or whose husbands had been divorced could serve only in administration or in the children’s ministry. And last, no director should ever have to speak to a group leader about her weight.
I immediately thought of the forgiveness of my Catholic friends, the prayers of my charismatic friends, and the wisdom of my divorced friends. These women were spiritual giants in my life. Could I ignore such blatant discrimination to have what I desired?
Apparently so. I decided I could accept the group’s rules, as long as they didn’t apply to me. And surely the weight rule didn’t apply to me. Being 186 pounds wasn’t a sin. Was it?
But after accepting the position, I was asked to step aside until “something” changed. I was shocked at their decision, but even more shocked at how easily I had ignored my conscience. God had told me what was right, but I had shrugged and walked away. No wonder He doesn’t say more.
© Brigitte Carnochan
My friends are trying on each other’s rings, comparing diamonds and checking to see how each would look flanked by a double band. Neither of them asks to try on mine.
Two years ago, my husband proposed to me on a cobbled street in Edinburgh, Scotland. My heart sank for a second when he opened the little velvet box. There sat a thin gold band, delicately carved, with a tiny inlaid diamond chip. Although it wasn’t the vintage, platinum-banded emerald cut I’d imagined, I was deeply in love and quickly decided it didn’t matter.
Back home, I took the ring to the jeweler’s to be sized. The woman behind the counter lifted her eyebrows. “Isn’t that a dainty little thing,” she said. I told her that my fiancé was European, as if carats and clarity weren’t important there.
Whenever I told someone of my engagement, the first thing they did was ask to see my ring. They’d make comments like “It’s really nice,” and give me a smile that said, I’m sorry. Annoyed, I felt as if people were judging my fiancé, one of the most loving and generous people I had ever met, by the size of my ring.
Last week my eleven-year-old cousin and two of her friends slept over. We watched movies, played games, and dressed up. My husband built a fire, cleaned up the pizza-making disaster in the kitchen, and entertained the girls with tricks he’s taught our cats.
On the drive back to her house the next day, my cousin asked to see my ring. She fingered it gently and sighed.
“Of all the rings I’ve seen,” she said, “I like yours best.”
Amy Wolgemuth Bordoni
St. Charles, Illinois
Twenty years ago I lived near an army base. At a singles party, I met a six-foot-four government crime-scene investigator. On our second date, I discovered that he was ten years younger than I. He told me this didn’t bother him because his grandfather had married a woman ten years his senior.
We continued to date and make out, but every time we got ready to climb in bed, he would sit up and say, “We have to stop.” I grew frustrated. I was a horny single mom and needed love!
The next time we got to the big moment, I told him it was make love or else. Reluctantly he unzipped his pants, and out came a one-inch penis. He looked sad, and I felt like a heel. I never said a word and did my best to fake it. The sex wasn’t very exciting. We continued to date for a few months, but we just kissed after that.
I have a theory now as to why his grandfather married a woman ten years older: she was a wise woman who could appreciate a good man for what he was, and not reject him for what he lacked.
I wish I had been so smart.
Elizabeth C. Burgess
Asheboro, North Carolina
I sighed deeply and opened the catalog on my kitchen table. This was my maiden voyage into the realm of plus-size clothes, and I was not happy about it. I didn’t buy the “big is beautiful” propaganda. I just knew that I couldn’t buy clothes in regular sizes anymore.
As I flipped through the glossy pages, something rankled me. It wasn’t the fashions, which I admit were pretty and reasonably priced. It was the models wearing them. None of these women had ever worn a size 22 in her life. There were no bodies that looked like mine in that catalog, nor in any competitors’ catalogs either.
After grudgingly ordering a starter wardrobe, I spent the afternoon cleaning out my closet. Five large garbage bags of my “thin” clothes went to Goodwill that day. I hoped that UPS would show up with my rush catalog order soon. The only things left hanging in my closet were my wedding dress — a little peasant-style number in a perky size 10 — and my one-size-envelops-all master’s-degree robe. I had visions of shopping at the supermarket clad only in a billowing, faded graduation robe and ratty gray sweat pants.
My transformation to large-size woman had been gradual and insidious. After the age of forty, I grew steadily larger, in spite of my low-fat vegetarian diet, regular gym workouts, and six-days-a-week martial-arts practice. My various doctors, mostly women, hounded me constantly to lose weight. Every checkup brought humiliating lectures and patronizing suggestions to do things that I was already doing. With my tae kwon do training, I could probably have taken out any of those skinny little white-coated ectomorphs with one roundhouse kick to the head. And boy, did I want to.
The myth of the jolly fat person is just that: a myth. I resented fat jokes and bristled at comments friends made about other large people. I despised the line my devoted husband fed me about there being “more to love.” How could I possibly be fat when I worked out regularly and ate like a Buddhist monk? A new doctor, a laid-back hippie type who actually talked to me for an hour at my first checkup, surmised that my weight gain was probably genetic. Dad’s legacy to me was his perverse sense of humor, his curly hair, and his propensity to attain sumo-wrestler proportions in middle age. Both his sisters were big women who referred to anyone less than 250 pounds as “petite.” I’d been doomed from birth.
It wasn’t fair. To me, my size was an affront, an insult, a humiliating disgrace that I could do very little about. Who wanted to be a fat middle-aged woman? Yet there one was, staring back at me every day in the mirror. I was so wrapped up in my weight I wasn’t enjoying life anymore. I quit my job. I quit my church. I quit volunteering. I quit everything except tae kwon do. Punching, kicking, yelling, and beating the bejabbers out of my opponents in sparring classes was my therapy.
After a while, I leveled off at approximately eighty pounds over my ideal weight. Having finally gotten through the shock, denial, and anger stages, I gave up the quest to be thin, quit the gym (which I had always hated anyway), and started walking outdoors. I adopted a lively, goofy-looking mutt from the animal shelter to be my walking partner. Instead of worrying about losing weight, I set out to maintain fitness.
Around this time, I moved from a glamorous big city to a funky little university town where no one had known me as slender. To my new friends I had always been a plus-size person, and they liked me that way. Best of all, they never let me put myself down because of my size. When I said I resembled one of those fat little stone goddesses with the gigantic boobs that archaeologists are always digging up somewhere, one of my friends told me that I was a living, breathing earth goddess, and that I was beautiful.
Beautiful at size 22. What a revelation.
I now accept — grudgingly at times — the idea that I will never be slender again. Evolving into an earth goddess hasn’t caused me to lose my intellect, my whimsical point of view, or my sexuality, however. I just take up more space on the couch.
ElizaBeth H. Evans
Until I went to college and started to date men, I wasn’t aware that I have large hands for a woman. On walks to the restaurant or the movie theater, our fingers would interlace, and my date would say, “Wow, you have really big hands,” and often, “You know what? I think your hands are bigger than mine.” This invariably led to a request to hold my palm flat against his, just to make sure that his hands were, in fact, bigger. One man who pressed his palm to mine actually said: “Wow, you’re a freak!” I started to keep my hands in my pockets.
My first winter in Manhattan, I went without gloves because I could not find a pair that both fit comfortably and looked elegant, like the sort of long, close-fitting gloves that Audrey Hepburn would wear. I refused to wear mittens or, for that matter, men’s gloves. I studied the delicate, finely boned hands of women sitting next to me on the bus, their slim fingers resting on their handbags.
That summer, I enrolled in a pottery course. I had worked with clay before, but never with a potter’s wheel. I liked the feeling of the wet mud squeezing through my fingers. Toward the end of one class, my instructor watched me working contentedly. “That’s a wonderful shape,” he said, examining the clay pot I was molding as the wheel spun. “Your pots are very sturdy. It’s those nice, big hands of yours.”
New York, New York
© Rita Bernstein
I wasn’t aware of my size until I was twelve and my mother began talking to me about losing weight. If I lost weight, she assured me, I’d be more “popular.” Somehow, I came to believe that losing weight would solve whatever problem I had. This left me in a bind, however, because I eat when I’m upset, and when I have a problem, I put on weight instead of losing it.
I’m studying photography in graduate school, and for a recent project I chose to do a series of self-portraits documenting my relationship with my house. Due to a divorce and a business failure, I can no longer afford my mortgage, and the bank is about to foreclose. I wanted to photograph my home, and myself in it, before I had to give it up forever.
I also happen to weigh more now than ever before. Taking these self-portraits, I had to look at myself repeatedly as I am, rather than as I will be when I lose weight and my problems are magically solved. But there’s no fantasy future in these pictures. There I am in the basement, standing by the bin for my composting toilet. That’s me, wearing wrist braces, holding an exotic vase in front of me. Here I am standing beside the front door with all the unraked leaves of autumn around me.
I know that someday I’ll look at those photographs and think, My, I was unhappy then. Look how fat I was. I’ll remember how I felt when I chose what to wear for the photographs. I’ll remember the things I loved, and hated, about my house. But most of all, I’ll remember how I was able to accept myself as I was: not as a fat person, disgusting and ugly and weak, but as a very sad woman who was losing something precious and doing the best she could.
Saralyn F. Fosnight
I was hired to take Florine’s place. She had beaten cancer a few years earlier, but now it was back and had metastasized to her bones. She was gaunt and frail, but her blue eyes still danced, and she never complained.
Florine taught me everything I know about being a medical secretary. She taught me a lot about life, too, and what’s really important.
One afternoon at lunch, while I was fussing over my salad, I commented to Florine that I needed to lose some weight. She smiled wistfully and, in a calm voice, said, “After all the years I spent dieting, I’m finally the size I always wanted to be.”
Meriden, New Hampshire
My mother was a large woman. Almost all of her ten sisters wore size 16 or above. Their breasts jiggled when they walked, and their hands sculpted the air when they spoke. They laughed loud and sang louder, even if they couldn’t hold a tune, because every woman had a right to sing, and my mother and her sisters loved music, especially Al Green and Barry White.
When my mother went out on a date, I would perch at the end of her bed and watch her dress, her caramel breasts spilling into a massive white-lace bra with wide shoulder straps and four rows of black metal clasps. She’d turn her back, and I’d hook it for her. The bra lifted her breasts and created cleavage that awaited a dusting of talcum and a spray of cologne.
Over this, my mother would put on a gold-lamé dress with three-quarter-length sleeves. Then came the big-woman pantyhose, ultra sheer, ultra black, with a little bit of control to make things look just so. Her size-11 shoes were also gold, with four-inch heels.
Afros were big in the seventies, and women who weren’t endowed with a head full of nappy hair resorted to wigs. My mother’s wig was chestnut, to favor her yellow-brown skin, and it sat on a big white styrofoam head, like a soldier waiting to be called to active duty. She would spray the wig with Afro Sheen, brush and shake and otherwise “fix” it, then pull it down over her head and secure it with bobby pins that she kept in her braided hair beneath.
With an old towel wrapped around her shoulders, my mother would then “put on her face” — the stark red lipstick, the rouge, the eye shadow, the little pink-and-green tube of Maybelline mascara, the fake lashes. The finishing touches were the loopy earrings and gold-plated bangles that tinkled when she moved and made me think of fairies talking.
Her preparations complete, my mother would strut before the mirror, admiring hips, buttocks, big legs, breasts: something to hold on to, something to shake, to take up room. Then she’d pick up her purse and go downstairs to meet her man, who would be appropriately moved by the sight of her. Sometimes they would have a drink before they went out — something strong and amber poured over ice — and they would laugh as if they knew what was to come.
They would go out somewhere big and mysterious, someplace that swallowed her until she came home in the early morning and emptied herself out of all that sparkle and sheen and became a woman in a cotton nightgown — my mama. I would come to her bed and fall asleep for the second time to the sound of the music on the radio and her breathing next to me.
Lillian T. Burch
Like Genie Zeiger [Readers Write on “Size,” August 2003], I am a member of my community’s Jewish burial society and have practiced the Jewish tradition of tahara: preparing the dead for burial. Zeiger’s comments about the deceased’s size (“Betty is so large it’s like bathing a small whale”) and description of her as “a poor, angry woman” violate every mandate of tahara.
Judaism holds that our bodies are holy receptacles into which God places a soul and that our bodies remain holy even after death. In keeping with these beliefs, great care and respect are accorded to the deceased, and those of us who perform tahara are required to approach our task with great solemnity and reverence. Admittedly, dressing and lifting a large woman who was “cantankerous” in life is physically and spiritually demanding. Tradition implores us, however, to overcome our mundane prejudices and judgments. At the end of the procedure, we recite a prayer asking the deceased for forgiveness for anything we may have done that hurt or offended her.
Preparing a body for burial is an intimate act. The Torah teaches care and respect for all that this world contains. While this teaching is often hard to live by, it is based on the belief that small acts of generosity can heal the greatest wounds. Tahara is supposed to be one of those acts.
I thoroughly enjoyed Lillian T. Burch’s memories of her large-sized mother [Readers Write on “Size,” August 2003]. My own mother stood six feet tall, weighed around 260 pounds, and wore a wedding band large enough to slip a quarter through.
The women in my maternal grandfather’s Scottish-German family all have a distinctive trait that’s candidly referred to as the “Rettinger ass”: cartoonishly generous hips supported by sturdy peasant thighs and topped by thin waists. My earliest memory of my mother is of sitting in her lap, which was expansive and pillowy and had room for my two brothers and me, and the cat, too.
When my mother hugged you, you felt hugged, and when she smacked you, you knew it. Her big hands were good for both fixing the pipes under the kitchen sink and knitting sweaters from wonderfully thick yarn. My mother was not a delicate flower — she was a gorgeous, abundant tree. When she laughed — which was often — it sounded like an unapologetic wind echoing through the forest. No thin woman could have laughed like that.
My mother accepted her body and would often say, without self-pity or regret, “I know I’m fat. It used to bother me, but I don’t care anymore.” Truth is, if my mother had somehow magically shrunk in size, she wouldn’t have been my mother. This November marks the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. I would give anything to sit in her lap or hear her hysterical laugh one more time.