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Five minutes to deadline and adrenaline surges through my gut. Eyes on the screen, I pound the keys with my usual vigor, stopping only to sip my Rhumba Frapuccino Venti -- Starbucks' malted-rich, soda-fountain-sized coffee drink that tamps down a leaning tower of reader mail. A perfect marriage with the cinnamon-dusted apple pie from the Little Pie Company down the street. Mmmm . . . Nobody could beat their pie crust. And they got the chunky consistency of the apples just right. Texture. That's what perfect apple pie is all about. I turn back to the computer, dropping a few flakes of crust between the keys. The phone rings.
"I'm fed up, you hear me?"
I jerk the phone arm's length from my ear, but the voice rockets. "I can't look at myself anymore. I'm fat and --"
"Wait, please I --"
"I'm desperate . . . No one understands . . ."
"I do, but --"
"I'm all alone and unpopular. None of the friggin' diets -- "
" -- Listen, I'll call you back," I insist, wagging my foot. "I'm just on --"
"So what do you suggest, huh? You say live with it and love it, but how am I supposed to love fat dimpled thighs that are like, so repulsive, you know?"
"Deadline. I'm on D-e-a-d-l-i-n-e! Eat some comfort food, and call me in the morning." I slam down the phone, and check the clock. Minutes before deadline I finish, hit the send key and feel the familiar rush of having dodged another bullet.
I lean back, exhale and reach around to close the button on the waistline of my skirt. Time for dinner. I reflexively tap out Tex Ramsey's extension --1-8-4-5 -- the year that Texas was admitted to the Union. I know he arranged that, but how? As it rings, my eyes sweep the corkboard wall speckled with bloodred pushpins piercing ads for dubious achievement products: Dr. Fox's Fat-Blocker System, Appetite Suppressant Brownies and Seaweed Thigh-Slimming Cream. A magazine article, "Ideal Weight is an Ordeal Weight," takes center field, with a quote from Phyllis Diller: "How do I lose unwanted pounds? I undress."
Framing the perimeter is eye candy: Brad Pitt on the cover of Vanity Fair, his tanned, sinewy torso sheathed in a sleeveless white undershirt; a Marlboro Man, weathered complexion, cowboy hat tilted provocatively shadowing soulful green eyes; James Dean, the prototype haunted bad boy in Rebel Without a Cause.
Dreamboats. That's what girls used to called alpha hunks like that. Taut, archetypical physiques, suggestive gazes that held your eyes promising long steamy nights of . . .
"Tex," I say, coming up short. "Dinnerce soir?"
"Mmmmm. Virgil's?" I ask, naming a popular joint in the Manhattan Theater District.
"Great, pick me up."
Dinner plans on short notice. No pretense. No frantic search for something to wear: "Does this skirt make me look like the back of a bus?" Why couldn't romance be as easy?
I ring Tamara, my assistant and trusted confidant. "What are you doing?"
"Answering your fan mail."
"Do I have to call the producer from AM with Susie back?"
"You dissed her when she called."
"I was on deadline --"
"-- she's doing a show on the fat phenomenon."
"Get her on the horn, I'll grovel for forgiveness." I turn back to a talk I'm preparing on the traumas of extreme weight loss, prompted by the story of a surgeon who was not only overweight but also a smoker. Facing the upcoming wedding of his daughter, he went on a crash diet, quickly dropping fifty pounds. The morning of the wedding as he dressed to go to the church, he slumped to the ground suffering a massive heart attack. His death was caused by the drastic diet, doctors ruled, not his excess weight.
The intercom beeps, "Wanna play cover girl for the Lands' End plus-size catalog?"
Another beep. "Wanna talk to a South Carolina group about leading the next Million Found March?"
"Not in a million years."
I search my mail for readers' stories on the perils of extreme weight loss. It's one thing to champion fat acceptance, but another to convince readers. Actually, a tiny microcosm of them sits right outside my office.
The cherubic Arts secretary is slightly -- but only slightly -- over her ideal weight. Still, every bite is contemplated, measured out and then double checked using both the imperial and metric systems.
"It's simply a matter of sheer willpower," she says.
I want to strangle her.
Then there's fashion reporter Justine Connors, a former model who works in a Fortuny-swathed cubicle down the hall. She isn't fat, just obsessed with it. Every nugget of food is eyed as a bullet destined to destroy her reed-like shape. The only other thing you have to know about her is that she swears thong panties and stilettos are comfortable, a physiological impossibility, as I see it. When the office was chipping in to buy her a thirtieth-birthday gift, my suggestion:
"Why not a gift certificate for a colonic?"
Tamara is yet another veteran waist-watcher whom someone at the coffee cart once described as a slightly overblown version of sultry model Naomi Campbell. She's category three: Lost. The New York Lotto slogan is her own. "Hey, you never know." Tamara's bookshelves are a Library of Congress for the overweight, holding every weight loss tome ever published. It starts with golden oldies, like the quacko The Last Chance Diet, by Robert Linn, advocating a liquid protein regimen that the U.S. C.D.C. later pronounced could lead to sudden death; Triumph Over Disease by Jack Goldstein (stop eating altogether); The Rice Diet by Walter Kempner (nutritionally unsound, but lowers blood pressure); the U.S. Senate Diet (no promise of a Congressional seat); The Prudent Man's Diet, by Norman Jolliffe M.D. (became the basis for the Weight Watcher's diet); Live Longer Now by Nathan Pritikin (tough to follow); The Amazing Diet Secret of a Desperate Housewife (you don't want to know); The Paul Michael Weight Loss Plan ("If your intake of carbohydrates is low, some of the fat will pass right through your system without being broken down and stored in adipose tissue" -- "Pure nonsense," said Consumer Guide magazine); and on and on, up to and including prestigious tomes of today such as Eat, Cheat, and Melt the Fat Away, and The Zone.
Tamara can leave any diet bigwig on the mat with her grasp of diet lore, but all for naught. None of the regimens work for long, and the proof hangs limply in her closet. Dresses starting at size 12, barreling out to 18. Yo-yo couture.
A copy editor pokes his head into the office, jarring me from my thoughts. "You sure the fat doctor you mentioned is affiliated with Yale?"
"Let me check '"
I press play on the VCR and am about to fast-forward it, but I freeze. What's wrong with this picture? Instead of a medical conference, the screen explodes with an odd menagerie of Great Danes, goats and horses jumping, panting, pushing, heaving, whining and neighing in the midst of sexual delirium.
"What in the world?" I pop out the tape: Mammals Mating.
Barsky -- that animal!
I peer into the newsroom to make sure Alan Barsky is there, then grab the Yellow Pages and phone a West Village sex boutique. For the next hour, I monitor the newsroom until I see a delivery man hauling a carton in his direction. The bold black typeface reads: Condoms for Small Peckers: One Gross. Over the hush of the newsroom, a single voice rings out.
"What the hell is this?"
I ring his extension and at the sound of his voice, I sing the Marvin Gaye song "Let's Get It On."
Time to get serious, and I turn back to my work. I make a note to do a column on the down side of exercise -- in rats, anyway. Science News reported that rats who were forced to run on treadmills had lower antibody levels than the ones free to run at will. Of course. Can't trick the old immune system. If exercise makes you miserable, you might get thinner, but your killer cells pay the price.
Another column I'm sketching out looks at the pressures of dieting on women as a form of oppression. By starving, they put themselves at a distinct disadvantage to their energetic, burger-and-fry-packin' male counterparts in the workplace. In effect, dieting is political suicide. It not only reduces women's stamina, but also leaves them handicapped because they crave satisfaction.
That hits close to home. After living under the tyranny of a diet binge, I once walked into a chocolate shop and bought a giant replica of the Statue of Liberty. Bitter chocolate. First I bit off Ms. Liberty's head, then I devoured the rest of her. It felt . . . liberating.
Reggie, the mail carrier, empties a canvas sack of letters on my desk. "You really read all this crap?"
"It's my bread and butter."
From the day I started the column, the mail was my window on the world. Hard to imagine that it's been only four years since giving birth both to the column and the realization that in losing -- again -- the war against fat I've fought all my life, nature has the upper hand. The size-sixteen rack was my destiny, and the only real choice I had was whether or not to accept it. But instead of looking at fat in terms of defeat, my publisher and I used it as a springboard to offer America a fresh take on obesity. As I made that quantum leap to fat acceptance, I've been crusading to carry overweight America with me. What I never imagined was that I would become not only a columnist but also a "Dear Abby" to the weight challenged.
I'm twenty-five years old and fat. I've been trying to lose weight since I was six. I diet and diet, lose a few pounds, and then gain it all back. Everyone makes fun of me. My parents nag me all the time about controlling my eating, and it drives me insane. They say they'd stop if I just lost the weight, but I can't. What should I do?
Women of all sizes, shapes, ages and temperaments now seek me out as a sounding board, shrink and diet counselor. But so do some censorious health experts who insist that I'm in perpetual denial, advising me to get my "fat head" out of the sand. Either way, the calls and letters never stop. Yes, I'm popular -- at least with readers.
Popularity, of course, is a rare commodity for the overweight, and sympathy is, well, slim. We're blamed for lacking willpower, and self-control. Few can fathom the intractability of the problem. Ironically, the overweight resent each other. One reader said:
Even though I'm heavy, I still feel that I can control myself and can lose weight if I want to. But other overweight people disgust me. I think that they're just indulging themselves, and not showing any self-control.
There is no shortage of themes. Overweight infiltrates every part of one's life, from bedroom to boardroom to the altar. But who said life was fair? Remember what the jury did to jean Harris? No, she wasn't fat, she was just mad. Okay, okay, so she killed a man, but you know, not so terrible -- after all, he was a diet doctor. In some circles, women thought she deserved sainthood. Personally, I'm not against killing certain men. I doubt that there is any woman over thirty who hasn't already come across at least one guy who deserves a toxic martini.
My phone rings nonstop, and even though I'm no longer on deadline, I try to avoid answering it. But where is my so-called secretary?
"Tamara? T a m a r a?" It's futile.
"Maggie, my name is Robert Clancy. I'm an executive producer with Horizons Entertainment in Los Angeles."
Ugh. "What can I do you for?"
"We're starting production on a new blockbuster movie called Dangerous Lies. We're all very excited it about it. It's going to be a very, very big film about a diet doctor in a weight-loss clinic who has to care for women obsessed with becoming thin . . ."
"Sorry, I can't take the lead. I've already committed to playing Scarlett in the remake of Gone With the Wind . . . "
"Cute . . . but . . . the movie's cast, Maggie. What we'd love to do is hire you as a consultant."
"To coach our lead actor about the milieu of the overweight world and bring him up to speed on the mind-set of weight-obsessed women . . ."
What? No overweight women in Los Angeles? He had to call me? But to be fair, maybe there were some before they were all forced out of the city limits under the cover of darkness by a death squad of diet police.
"Look, Bob, I'm pretty tied up here with the column and --"
"Of course, I understand, but this wouldn't take that much of your time, maybe just a couple of weeks."
"Weeks?" I start opening the mail.
"We pay pretty well . . . would you just consider it?"
"Mmmm . . . I doubt it, but leave me your number." I grab a Chinese menu and jot it down along the border next to the two-red-chili-peppers rating of the Orange Beef. "I'll get back at ya." Tamara walks in, as if on cue.
"Run that past me again," she says.
"They want me to fly out to Hollywood. Do you love it?"
"I hope you told them that I'm free to go as well. How much moola?"
"Not enough to get me on a plane."
Celebrating the Gift of Ampleness
Like an overprotective parent who lends you the family car with spare tires in the trunk, nature is looking out on your behalf. Natural selection provides a surplus, and the reason is obvious. Just listen to former Yale surgeon Sherwin Nuland.
"An injured creature is more likely to survive and reproduce if it has a surplus to fall back on." The human body is made with an abundance of cells, tissues, even organs. "We really do not need two kidneys or such a huge liver, or more than twenty feet of small intestine."
While Voltaire might not have been thinking about the fleshy woman when he said, "Le superflu, chose tr�s n�cessaire" -- the superfluous, that most necessary stuff -- his words make biological sense too. The generous female body is the fertile one. Anorexics don't menstruate, well-fed women do, a fact that tells us that we need sustenance to nourish our children and continue the species; reserves to carry us through periods of disease; and ample stores to sustain us in case of starvation. So bless your flesh. Look at your generous, sensuous, nubile body as a miracle of scientific engineering, a delicate, responsive, harmonious creation designed to perpetuate life and keep the human spirit burning.
At the very least, your lush human fat cells now come with a newer, higher price. Stem cells, harvested from fat, represent the new frontier for scientists in search of high-tech treatments for disease.
Copyright © 2004 Deborah Blumenthal