I’m a big woman. I’ve been big, large, abundant, fat, obese, or whatever for a long time, decades. So, I have grown used to all those designations entail. I’m used to not trying to cross my legs because they won’t cross and every time they don’t, it’s a disappointment to me and probably to those on-lookers who were waiting to see if the feat were possible. I’m used to having perfect strangers check my grocery cart to see what a plus-size woman and family eats. I no longer feel the twinge. Of course I am eating healthy!
I’m also familiar with the fat-fit of clothing, and dodge frequent fashion bullets that seem to conclude that the size 20 top of a two-piece outfit means that pants or a skirt two sizes smaller should work. Checking the tags on these garments reveals that they are usually made in Thailand, where the country’s exquisite women are the size of Barbie dolls (minus the chest) and where the garment makers have no idea what a robust Anglo-Saxon female looks like. Factory workers at plus-sized manufacturers in Southeast Asia, I am told, actually believe they are sewing strangely shaped sails for large sea-going vessels. Then there are the designers who are wedded to horizontal stripes and tent shapes. What? I don’t look large enough?
Over time, I’ve learnt the benefits of dressing nicely, even expensively. As a strategy, fine fabric and a good cut culminate in an initial aura of benign normalcy. Great togs result in people at a gathering or party thinking, “Cool dress”, or “nice shoes” before the inevitable segue, 3.5 seconds later, into “She’s fat.”
As an American woman, and one who recklessly lived for years in the reigning runners’ Mecca of the U.S., Eugene, Oregon, I have been witness to the glazed-over effect in the eyes of males who dream of women whose navel is a staple, not women who navel is irrevocably lost. Lizards have an extra eye-lid, designed by nature to protect the eye from damage. Men in the 5-10K world of the Pacific Northwest have the same mechanism for protection from the over-size 12 female. Watching the figurative lid drop over baby blue or “don’t make my brown eyes” was a trick of evolution I grew to anticipate and accept as standard throughout my thirties and forties. Read no fault about men into this observation. I have standards, too, including, but not solely, teeth, at least two muscles large enough to qualify, a job, and positive relationships with Mom and sisters.
Being large ought to have doomed me to single-hood but fortune favors the brave and the Buddhist, and when I took on “the toughest job you’ll ever love” in the United States Peace Corps twenty years ago, I met a remarkable man. We were joyfully married for many years. Wedded bliss didn’t cure the girth, but it did eventually get me thinking about the long haul and how I wanted to be around to enjoy it.
Three separate elements have helped to slowly whittle away the pounds. The key ingredients were 1. breakfast, 2. walking, and, at one point, 3. India. I have always loved breakfast and not just because it was an excuse to have a great cup of coffee. It was an excuse to have a great cup of coffee and an almond, raspberry, or poppyseed scone of generous proportion. However, heading into middle age, I realized I didn’t need the standard American commuter breakfast anymore and so downsized to coffee, fruit and a small croissant. In India, I determined that with the croissant unavailable, a substitution of toast wasn’t strictly necessary, so, for seven months, I shifted to fruit, yogurt, and coffee.
I can’t offer enough praise and gratitude for the simple pleasures and benefits of ambulation. Over the years since I quit smoking, walking has been my fall-back form of exercise and regular companion, and frankly it has done more for muscle tone and stamina than anything else I have tried. At first, with the residue of tar still in my lungs, five minutes set me panting, but in Oregon and California, where a walking trail or track is usually close at hand, I persevered until my confidence and competence grew. Still, in those early days, a mile felt like a million, with back pain and sweaty pits the sole reward. Later, the 8-12 laps around the track at a school where I taught in Oakland, California became a regular ritual, and the back pain stopped, only to be replaced by rib aches. Walking faster, my runner husband told me, means swinging your arms more and torquing the muscles of the midsection.
Torquing? Me? Well, I never. I hardly noticed the first inches disappearing off my mid-section, but several of my students had noted the ritual on the track and one egged me on with, “You rock, Ms. Castleton”. Do they say, “rock” anymore? Well, he was a new immigrant and so wasn’t up on the most current teen speak. The gym coach had a more patronizing turn of phrase. “It is nice to see you working on your weight.” As pointedly as possible I said, “I’m not. I’m working on fitness.”
By the mid-aughts, I had progressed to 12+ miles per week. As a consequence, I’d dropped a full size and all of the sudden my desk chair became a roomy haven instead of a low-level police restraint. As the miles ticked off and one pair of Adidas wore out to be replaced by another, I was offered a teacher-training fellowship in India. Goodbye to that high school, with its beautiful track and 1700 students screaming in the hallways and writing words I didn’t know on the walls.
Hello to India, with its Himalayan scale of diversity, digestive issues, cow dung, exotic draperies, and, alas, no husband whose work demanded he stay behind in California. Walking in India was problematic, but portion control was easy. Who wants to cook for one, anyway? I lived near the Moghul-style architecture of the University of Lucknow campus. Housed on the grounds of a female-student hostel which housed 600 other women, my digs were the back half of a very colonial manse. The two vast rooms of my
apartment, each 30×30, but excluding the occasional rat, was comfortable from a security view point, with 25 foot ceilings and salamanders scaling the walls to eat mosquitoes and other varmints I didn’t want to contemplate. Unfortunately, the hostel was also adjacent to a thoroughfare so busy that the traffic literally screamed along from 7am to 10pm. Mind numbing. Horns of every tone and decibel range hurtled sound in all directions, breaking the infrequent lull with a riot of discordant noise.
Indian traffic has its own rhythm, somewhere between scarifying swerves and screeching brakes. If you’ve seen that classic cartoon of larger fish ready to gobble up one slightly smaller and that one poised to ingest is tinier cousin, then you will understand why the pedestrian is on the lowest rung of the traffic survival ladder, with bicycles next highest, followed by rickshaws, two-wheelers, four-wheelers (known in the West as cars), service vans, mini-buses, municipal buses, and transport trucks. These last, cement-shaking behemoths push all before them like a baleen whale after krill. Thousands of each variety of vehicle inhabited the road outside my compound. They are joined, with perilous frequency by wandering cows, water buffalo, horse drawn carts, and the ubiquitous scrawny dangling-nippled canine.
Someone probably had to campaign heavily for India to be known as the home of the Taj and elegant saris rather than for its seemingly unending line of skeletal bitches, milk spigots dragging the pavement even as one remains captive in the mouth of a still-hungry pup. Dogs are everywhere, and in such numbers that Bob Barker would gasp at the affront to his cry to spay or neuter your pets. The problem is, India’s dogs aren’t pets, they are populace, belonging only to themselves and their progeny and surviving in an environment of easy-access garbage and free-sex.
In India, the walking regimen gave way to dancing in my apartment to 60s, 70s, and 80s hits and clambering up on and down from rickshaws, avoiding protruding screws and unsheathed wires in the process. Rickshaws come in two varieties, new and very old. The very old might not be much older than the new but something seems to occur almost maliciously overnight to the shining, just-off-the-showroom-floor rickshaws, those with gleaming brass studs spelling out the name of a loved-one on the back cushion and marbled plastic upholstery stretched tight and clean across the seat. As soon as the first morning after sale, there are cables struggling to hold the passenger seat onto its perch, inner-tube tire strips fastening the canopy down in back, and wires crossing and weaving in an attempt to fix the driver’s bicycle seat in place. I learned to look for new rickshaws, thereby evading restorative protrusions that grab fabric and leave unsightly rents. Props to rickshaw wallahs, or drivers, though, these men work hard for every rupee, so I tipped well.
The Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University, who, during my stay, was given an Integrity Award by a grateful academic community, asked, “You ride a rickshaw? Why did you not call the car?” This from the man who insisted I be driven the one block to my house after an evening event at his. Anyway, I didn’t want to share my whole “fit or bust” tale, so I merely replied, “I have a better view of the city from a rickshaw.” “Oh yes?” he queried bemusedly. We both let it drop for lack of common ground. So, while my agility in mounting and descending rickshaws improved mightily over time, I continued to be the only Europeanesque face I noticed in a rickshaw in the entire town of 2 million.
In addition to dominating in the area of rickshaw use, I also became the “apple queen” of the local supermarket, where, because I did not cook, apples and limes were often the only produce purchases. The clerks of the produce department handed me a large plastic bag as soon as I came into view. I filled it with apples, which they duly weighed and priced and then I moved on to the insecticide department. Two apples a day keeps the doctor away and they provided fodder for my innards. Other features of a balanced diet in foreign climes were found in soup, sandwiches, eggs, and eating at my friends’ homes, who, through no mutual planning, accounted for 1-2 dinners per week. Depending on the household, the offerings might be strictly veg or non-veg, but delicious either way. I never realized people actually ate kurd, let alone that they could do so many tasty things with it. There’s also a standard dish with chick peas in a great onion/spice sauce that I am still hoping to master. Indian food has its share of greasy or over-oily dishes, such as those served at the hostel’s mess hall, but the folks I met were health-minded and served foods with a bouquet of flavor and little unnecessary fats or sugars.
When I flew home to California a few months into my fellowship, I discovered, mostly by the way I fit into the airplane seat, that I’d lost some inches and pounds. No danger anymore in having to ask for a belt-extension, which was a victory I kept to myself. More than that, when I grew tired during one 15 hour leg, I could turn easily to my side in the seat and fall asleep.
I haven’t stopped being a large, abundant, 12+ woman, but I am a lady always in transition and often in motion. You will know me by the Buddha-like expression of peace on my face and by several fewer chins.