In person, Oprah had the clearest skin Shoshana had ever seen. Her eyes were a dark liquid brown (the same shade as her own!) and her smile was a flash of diamonds. She analyzed Oprah’s body unknowingly; thinking about the female form was what she did for a living. Shoshana was astounded at the recent tabloid headlines that called Oprah “fat” and “hefty.” The reality was she was at least four dress sizes smaller than Shoshana, and looked more like a curvaceous aunt who wanted to hold everyone to her bosom than someone with a serious weight problem. Fucking media, she thought.
Sitting backstage in The Oprah Winfrey Show’s green room on the West Side of Chicago, sipping a paper cup full of mint tea, Shoshana let out a deep sigh. It was a cliché to state that Hollywood, and by extension American culture, was shallow and held ridiculous standards for female beauty, but as she watched the American icon on the monitor, five minutes away from being on national television, the truth hit home.
She looked down at her own body and imagined her stats being shouted into the microphone at a boxing match: And in this corner, weighing in at two hundred and fifteen pounds, standing five-foot-seven, with bouncy, achy, size-EE breasts … Shoshana Weiner! And the crowd goes wild.
She ran a trembling hand over her midsection, smoothing down the cute purple polka-dot dress she had paired with silver leggings and the purple headband with a sparkly sequin bow (a splurge at J. Crew!). She was a sucker for any accessory and loved loud, wild patterns. (She liked to think her personality was so outrageous, the rest of her might as well match.)
Her own touch calmed her quaking nerves. Her body was solid, strong. She was proud of her large breasts, small waist, and curvy butt. All of the walking she’d been doing lately was giving her toned calves. She was willing to bet that was one place people never looked: her calves. They were too busy checking out her gigantic boobs, probably. Her “Twins of Doom,” as she referred to them on her blog.
Shoshana was nervous about being on television, her round face shown to millions of people. She threw back a sip of the tea like a tequila shot.
“First time on TV?”
A middle-aged, tall, and slender black man approached her holding a clipboard and wearing headphones. He’d had his eyebrows waxed, and smiled with the whitest teeth Shoshana had ever seen. He had three squiggly waves shaved into the left side of his head. His expression was kind, and she wondered if he was sent in to relax her, like the opening act in a comedy show. There were only three guests today, including her. The first was Kirstie Alley, who was seated on Oprah’s yellow couch in a plum-colored long dress, one leg crossed over the other. The theme of today’s show was women and their views on weight; Kirstie was laughing, her bleached-blond head of hair thrown back, wide pink lipsticked mouth open as she told a funny story about dating younger men in their twenties.
A smooth voice tickled her ear: “This might feel cold,” the stagehand told Shoshana in a gentle voice, his hands comfortably slipping down the back of her dress, attaching some kind of black box with a wire to her thick waist.
“Just remember, talk regularly when you’re up there; this baby mike will make you sound perfectly clear to the audience.” He sounded affectionate about his microphone, as if he were proud of what it could accomplish. Shoshana appreciated people who took pleasure in their jobs, who felt pride in their work. In Hoboken, New Jersey, where she lived, she liked talking to the garbage man who picked up the trash on her street and learning from him the different fabulous items people threw away. Once, he told her, he’d found an engagement ring that fell out of a Raisin Bran cereal box.
“Oh … okay. Thank you.” She pushed some thick flyaway locks of hair out of her eyes and set down her tea on a nearby high table. It was whisked away a second later by another stagehand, this one blond and petite. It was as if the woman had been trained to anticipate Shoshana’s every move.
“Don’t be nervous, honey. A lot of our guests whisper their secrets to Oprah,” the male stagehand said, his dark eyes twinkling. He squeezed her arm and she smiled at him. Hey! It was working. He was definitely making her feel calmer. Palm tree waving in the wind on a tropical island, palm tree waving in the wind on a tropical island. Her sister Emily had suggested earlier at lunch that she project a calm image behind her eyelids when she felt nervous.
Suddenly her phone rang. The sounds of Lucinda Williams’s “Are You Alright?” filled the room, causing the other guest to stare at her. The call was from Shoshana’s mother, and she’d programmed her phone with this ring because her mother was always calling Shoshana and asking if she was all right.
“Mom!” she hissed. “What are you doing calling me now? I’m about to go on.”
“Honey, I know that. That’s why Em and I are calling. We snuck into the bathroom when Kirstie went on stage. She’s looking good, isn’t she? The woman is over sixty, you know.”
“I thought she looked just as pretty when she was a chunker.”
She heard a little chuckle come from the stagehand, but he quickly covered his mouth to hide it.
“Are people allowed to talk on the phone in here? Isn’t there some rule against it?” The other guest was standing nearby, with her arms crossed against her bird-thin chest. Shoshana saw the stagehand offer her a chocolate-chip cookie from the goodies on the table. The woman declined it by shaking her head so hard Shoshana feared it might slip right off her neck.
“Mom, I have to go. Just have that bottle of scotch ready for when I totally make an ass out of myself.”
“Shoshana Jane Weiner! That is why your sister and I called you. We wanted to let you know what a talented, beautiful, and smart woman you are. You’re going to knock their socks off out there. Just remember how many girls at home are watching and looking up to you. This one’s for the Fatties.”
Her mother always knew how to make her feel better.
“I love you, sis!” her sister yelled in the background. “Knock ’em dead!” Emily worked in a tattoo shop on the Lower East Side, had pink-and-black-striped hair, and (at last count) thirteen pierced holes in her body. She’d even had her belly button done, which impressed Shoshana to no end because Emily was a big girl like herself and didn’t exactly have washboard abs. Emily was also her best friend and lifelong confidante.
Shoshana had never told her this, but Emily was the reason she’d started the Fat and Fabulous blog. At 315 pounds, she’d had shit shoveled at her by people her entire life. Elementary school, high school, neighbors, cousins … everyone seemed to think they were the first one to mention that maybe, they didn’t mean to pry, just worried about her health, of course, don’t take this the wrong way … but did Emily know she could stand to lose a couple of pounds? Sure, Emily was tough as nails and as a child would beat the living daylights out of anyone who teased her about her weight, but Shoshana couldn’t help feeling overprotective of her. Kids could be so mean. Shoshana remembered Emily being poked with a pencil in the third grade by Steven Myers, because, he said, “She probably can’t feel it.” Emily subsequently was suspended for two weeks, after breaking the pencil in half and stabbing Steven in the arm with it. (It had left a scar, which he still showed them. It was ironic because Emily would later date him briefly in high school, and soon grow bored and dump him.)
Shoshana watched her younger sister try every diet under the moon and stars. At one point she’d gotten down to 125 pounds, but it was the toxic result from a liquid diet that caused her to faint at work and have bright blue, Avatar-like poop. Then there was Atkins, which called for drinking straight whiskey, to avoid the calories in beer. After one particular night of too much fun in a West Village cowgirl bar, Shoshana rode with her sister to the emergency room to have her stomach pumped. In the end, the result was always the same: Emily put the weight back on, then hit a downward spiral of depression as a result of the shame and guilt.
This finally led Shoshana to start Fat and Fabulous, a blog that began as a simple battle cry and went on to pick up millions of loyal readers. Its popularity was the reason she was here today—Oprah’s producer had called two weeks ago to ask Shoshana to speak about the experiences she’d faced as a larger woman, as well as what her readers had gone through. Shoshana called her fans “Fatties,” affectionately, of course.
Her mother, Pam, had also been on yo-yo diets her entire life, starting in her teens when her bell-bottoms began getting more and more snug. She was the heaviest now since Shoshana’s father died several years ago, and she was a compulsive overeater. Today, her weight hovered close to three hundred pounds. Because Shoshana was always the smallest Weiner girl, her mother and sister tried to protect her from becoming large. She’d still been skinny up until she hit puberty at fourteen; Pam and Emily would dive at her if she opened the freezer on a quest for Häagen-Dazs, emitting that slowed-down, Hollywood freeze-frame “Nooooooooo…” when she’d select ice cream from the freezer.
Pam felt her own fat reflected poorly on who she was as a person—that she was weak somehow. Shoshana remembered one frigidly cold day last winter when her mother discovered she’d gained too much weight to fit into her winter jacket; and yet she refused to buy a new one. Shoshana and Emily had tried everything in their power to get her a new coat, even getting her a gift certificate from Bloomingdale’s for Hanukkah. Only Pam used the money to buy matching purses for her daughters.
They brought home catalogs from the few plus-size stores that existed. “So let me get this straight. You are going to freeze instead of buy a larger coat?” Shoshana had asked her mother, who only shook her head, the glitter of tears in her eyes. “Pick out something for yourself, girls. I don’t deserve to buy any new clothing until I lose this weight.” It was such a vicious cycle, because she never would lose it, and instead went around town with an open jacket, freezing. It broke Shoshana’s heart. She knitted Pam four scarves last winter, trying to keep her warm.
After starting Fat and Fabulous, Shoshana grew closer to her mother and sister than ever before—it was like she’d given them permission to open up about being big. She wrote a memorable post about the coat aversion and received hundreds of positive e-mails from her readers. One posted a similar story on the comments page; she’d felt too humiliated about being heavy to buy maternity clothing when she was pregnant. “I thought obese women didn’t deserve to wear them. I’m already fat, and being pregnant didn’t allow me to feel that glow that other expecting mothers do. Besides, you could barely tell I was pregnant anyway, because of my weight problem.”
Shoshana ached for this reader—unable to celebrate one of life’s greatest moments with fun, feminine maternity clothes. It was what kept Shoshana going, women just like her sister, like her mother. They deserved to love themselves. They deserved to have people not look at them like criminals because they were big. They might be Fatties, like her, but they were also Fabulous!
Shoshana stole a quick glance at the other guest; her blond head was bent as she pored over carefully typed notes. Shoshana sighed. She’d planned on just winging it.
“Three minutes!” the stagehand said, holding up three fingers and muttering quickly into his headpiece.
Shoshana squared her broad shoulders. Lifted her chin. Opened her purse and ran a swipe of pink gloss over her lips for the thousandth time. She was sure she single-handedly kept the lip-gloss economy running. Buying a small, sparkly tube or a lovely round glass jar with beautiful packaging was a cure-all to any bad day. Some people did drugs. She had a twenty-bucks-a-week pucker-spoiling habit, which she figured was better than a heroin addiction. Or gambling. Or even smoking cigarettes.
For luck, she stuffed into her mouth a Hershey’s Kiss, which had been sitting in her pocket since she’d left the hotel, and ignored the glares she received for this small act from the other guest. A woman should have a piece of chocolate every day. It made life so much richer. Besides, doctors say it’s good for your heart. At least the dark chocolate kind. But she’d just had milk chocolate. Oh, what the hell. Shoshana figured one day they’d come out with a study saying every kind of chocolate was good for you. She might as well not pass it up now, just in case.
“All right girls, it’s time!” The female stagehand smiled at both women. “You’ll both be wonderful!”
“Thank you!” Shoshana said. She wasn’t sure why she was whispering like she was in temple. Oprah gave off a bit of a holy aura, perhaps. “I’m nervous!” she admitted to the other guest, who, not responding, set down her notes and brushed past, knocking into Shoshana slightly in her determined walk. Shoshana frowned, following her. She’d read the girl’s blog and knew her subject matter to be slightly militant in its message, but she didn’t know she would be the same way in person … Palm tree waving in the wind on a tropical island, palm tree waving in the wind on a tropical island.
The sound of the woman’s stilettos echoed in the hallway. Shoshana sometimes wore heels, but only on special occasions. Like … that time her landlady died and she went to her funeral. Six years ago. Okay, so maybe she really didn’t ever wear heels. But why did she need two plastic contraptions on her feet, designed to make her already-aching back hurt even more and push her Twins of Doom forward until she toppled head over heels? With her tiny, size-five feet, wearing heels would be like foot binding.
When she heard her name called, she immediately stood still, unable to walk another foot. She was frozen to the spot, the high-decibel sound of two hundred women clapping at once washing over her, a shower of noise. Since she’d started her blog five years ago after graduating from college, she’d never imagined it would take her to this moment. It had been just for fun, a lark, while she looked for her first job. Then it became her first job. Her only job.
“Oh, my god, are you having a panic attack or something? Maybe a sugar rush from all that saturated fat you consumed in the green room? Let’s go.”
Shoshana realized the skinny girl was screaming at her, which broke her daze. “Oh, don’t get your size-zero panties in a bunch,” she shot back, rolling her eyes and strutting past her, entering the soundstage first. She hadn’t gotten this far in life to be bullied by the prom queen. The prom queen could go fuck herself.
The floor was marked with taped arrows, and Shoshana followed them, the soft fabric of her dress swishing between her thighs. And—oh, my goodness! Suddenly there was Oprah, like a mirage in the desert. She prayed to the no-trip gods as she climbed several steps onto the stage and took a seat on a yellow couch next to Oprah’s brown leather chair. Shoshana immediately reached for the mug of water on the table in front of her. It was pure instinct; if there was food or beverage of any kind in her peripheral vision, she’d make a beeline for it. Having something to consume always felt soothing.
While bending toward the beverage Shoshana remembered millions of women were watching her at home, and she’d just given them a shot of her ample bosom. Great. She made a mental note to keep the girls in check, and fought the urge to apply more gloss. The tube was tucked into the right cup of her bra, along with the Hershey’s Kiss wrapper.
“Please welcome to the show Shoshana Weiner and Alexis Allbright.”
Tentative clapping now. The audience wasn’t sure yet how it felt about its guests. A sea of faces, mostly female. Some black, white, shades of brown. They wore red sweaters, shiny white pearls, and print dresses. They crossed their legs and folded their hands, pleased to not be waiting outside in the cold anymore. Some fiddled with jewelry. Others placed their pocketbooks beneath their seats and whispered excitedly to their friends and sisters seated nearby.
Oprah shifted her body toward one of the three cameras. Shoshana, having no clue which one to look at, stared at Oprah. She was mesmerizing. She seemed to sparkle everywhere, from her light blue eye shadow down to her expensive-looking peep-toe pumps. She looked like someone’s fairy godmother.
Oprah started her opening monologue: “Alexis and Shoshana have the two most popular blogs on the Web today that cover women’s weight issues. Next to my own, of course.”
A light scattering of laughter.
“With millions of hits a day, and a slew of advertisers and press hanging on their every post, these rising stars are two young women to watch. As Americans continue to obsess over celebrities and their ever-changing bodies, and contradictory studies seem to emerge daily from scientists debating health concerns in regards to weight, I thought we could have an open and real discussion about how women feel about their bodies today, as Alexis and Shoshana have completely opposite viewpoints. All I ask of my audience is that you listen to both sides before drawing any conclusions. I have to admit to you, you know my history and relationship with weight has been well documented by this show and the paparazzi, whether I like it or not…”
“So for someone like me, whose weight has gone up and down, this issue hits particularly close to home. I am not going to lie, this is a very sensitive show for me.”
Shoshana nodded her head. She hoped she looked encouraging. Her co-guest scanned the audience, making a visual connection with each member. Oprah turned toward Shoshana then, and it was like the sun shining on the side of her face, her smile was that warm.
“We’ll start with Shoshana. Now, is it true you refused a high-paying speaking engagement at a boutique in Manhattan because the store did not carry over a size ten? My producers tell me that story got picked up by many different newspapers across the country and a podcast as well.”
Deep breath. “Yes, that’s true, Oprah. I don’t mean any ill will toward the store, which actually had lovely clothes, but I asked them why they wanted me to speak about my blog to their customers if they didn’t carry my dress size.”
“I see. Well, that’s certainly understandable. Have you been asked to talk elsewhere since?”
“No, but if you know anyone who needs a motivational speaker, I could really use the money.”
The audience laughed. “You go, girl,” someone called out. Oprah changed the direction of the conversation.
“And how do you feel about blogs about women’s weight being called the ‘Fat-O-Sphere’?” Her melodic voice floated through the room, caressing the cheeks of her audience, relaxing her guests, except for Alexis, who looked like a cobra poised for the strike. Shoshana noticed her hair was so perfectly sleek it looked like a blond helmet. Shoshana’s long mane looked better when she didn’t brush it, thicker and more voluminous.
Shoshana decided to match Alexis’s body language, leaning toward Oprah and crossing her legs at the ankles. She wanted to be taken seriously.
“Oprah, first of all let me say thank you so much for having me on your show. Today’s show is not only about weight, but also about women’s feelings, which matter more to me than anything else in the world.”
She got some applause then, which encouraged her. Her voice grew stronger.
“The Fat-O-Sphere is a title journalists, including myself, have given to a group of blogs that have exploded over the Internet in the last five years. They grew out of a worldwide frustration at the way women’s bodies are viewed as objects to be criticized in the mass media. We are taking back the word ‘fat,’ if you will.”
“So you’ve got this blog, and you call it Fat and Fabulous?” Oprah asked. “Does that mean that you condone unhealthy eating habits?”
“I’m so glad you asked that. Not at all. I have a new columnist, Dr. Amanda Weber, who is a nutritionist with Columbia Hospital, and she posts once a week with healthy, yummy recipes that are great sources of nutrients and vitamins and calcium for women of all sizes.” She spread her hands, gesturing to make her point. Her mother, Pam, always joked Shoshana had inherited this trait from an Italian grandmother on her father’s side. “Now, when I say ‘fat,’ what I really mean is healthy at any size, which is my motto.”
She glanced quickly at her mother and sister in the front row, who were nodding their heads. Emily gave her a fist pump.
“And what about this campaign to ban Girl Scout cookies by Ms. Allbright here?” Oprah asked, shifting gears now to include Alexis.
Shocked inhalation from the audience.
Shoshana shook her head. “I feel the most sad about this, because as a child, being in the Girl Scouts was such an empowering experience. It was girl power! Selling cookies gives the sense of entrepreneurship and business skills at a very young age.”
“I’m going to let Alexis respond, too,” Oprah said. “Let’s open the floor to Alexis Allbright, a writer living in New York City, who runs Skinny Chick, a blog about her life in New York and her dietary habits.”
Alexis’s blue eyes gleamed. Unlike Shoshana, she lived for debate. Her parents had fought her entire life, her father was a trial lawyer, and she had once thought she wanted to be a lawyer herself.
“Oprah, let me first echo Shoshana’s words that I am also grateful to be on your show. I’ve watched it since I was a little girl, and I think both Shoshana and I can agree that you have done wonders for women’s self-esteem. Now let’s start out with the facts. Thirty to forty percent of today’s children are projected to develop diet-related diabetes in their lifetimes, and the National Action Against Obesity called once again this year for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies. My question for Shoshana is, if you think the Girl Scouts should be allowed to continue to sell items to neighbors for ‘self-esteem,’ why don’t they use a healthy product, like vitamins, energy bars, or protein powder? Why does it have to be cookies, which are filled with fat, artificial flavoring, and empty calories?”
Shoshana smiled. This was an easy one. A softball. “I think children are supposed to eat cookies, first of all. It’s almost like a right of passage. Cookies are delicious. Protein powder is not.” She leaned back on the couch and reached for her mug, taking a hurried sip of water. She felt satisfied she’d given just the right answer. Score one for the Fatties, she thought.
The audience burst into laughter, some women on the right back section standing up and clapping. The cameraman panned across the front row, where many people were nodding enthusiastically. For Shoshana, the room began to take on a soft glow.
“I’d like to introduce a message I came up with myself, which I’ve titled ‘secondhand obesity,’” Alexis said a little too loudly, to try and wrest the attention back to herself. She tipped her head, and her stylish, straw-blond hair swished along her jawline. She wore a sleek black suit jacket with matching pencil skirt. Her blouse was gray silk, and very low-cut, exposing a bony chest. She had small earlobes with tiny gold Celtic knot earrings that endeared her to Shoshana somehow.
“Please tell us what that is,” Oprah said. “It sounds horrible!” Her tone was jocular, but Alexis nodded vigorously, ignoring the laughter of the audience.
“It is horrible!” she said. “If you’re overweight you are already very sick. Gravely sick. Ask any doctor and they’ll say you are putting yourself at risk for heart disease and death. Shoshana is spreading a dangerous message.”
At that, Oprah shook her head slightly. Alexis realized she’d gone overboard and quickly backtracked and tried less dramatic wording.
“Secondhand obesity is a fat lifestyle and fat body passed down from parent to child. Fat parents make fat children; it’s as simple as that. If your father hands you a lollipop, or, as I like to call them, death sticks…”
Shoshana snorted, and then covered her mouth with her hand to stop the rude noise. Alexis pretended she hadn’t heard.
“… to calm you down after a fall on the sidewalk, that’s secondhand obesity. If dinner at your house consists of macaroni and cheese and chocolate pudding and cornbread and stuffing, then you’ll give the same dangerous foods to your own children when you become a parent. It’s a terrible cycle, and with my blog, Skinny Chick, and that’s a trademarked name, people, I’m trying to help Americans make healthy eating choices.”
Silence in the studio. The mechanical sounds of cameras lifting into the air, turning on their axes.
“I have to admit, I really love macaroni and cheese,” Shoshana began. “Oh, my god, on a cold winter night, your roommates are out, you climb onto the couch and put on a chick flick, preferably one with Matthew McConaughey shirtless, pour a glass of wine, and dig into a bowl of creamy mac ’n’ cheese … That’s my version of heaven, and I can’t imagine denying myself a pleasure like that.”
Oprah laughed along with her audience. “Girl, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that, too,” she said. She turned to Alexis. “Is that really so bad, to enjoy macaroni and cheese? My trainer says everything is fine in moderation.”
“I do admit to eating it in college like the next girl, but the average box of macaroni and cheese is chock-full of preservatives, dehydrated cheese powder, and dyes. Look, my blog is not just about looking great in a bikini, although I certainly give you a ton of advice from trainers and chefs for that! Accepting yourself mentally as obese might help your self-esteem, but I can assure you it will not help your chance of living into a ripe old age. I know my message isn’t as soft or cuddly as Fat and Fabulous, but I am very concerned with the things I heard Shoshana say today, and I’d like to show a slideshow I videotaped while walking down Sixth Avenue in Manhattan yesterday afternoon.”
“Sure, queue the videotape, Bryan,” Oprah said to a stagehand just to Shoshana’s left.
A hush fell over the audience and stage as the same screen that had been previously displaying pictures of Kirstie’s weight changes over the years now lit up behind Oprah. Images flashed on the screen of heavy people walking around Manhattan, shot from the neck down, their flabby arms waving down cabs, underwear lines showing through their sausage-tight stretch pants, holding the hands of their chubby youngsters. Shoshana felt her heart constrict. Any of these women in the video could have been her, going about her daily routine. She hated these Fattie videos constantly shown on the news to depict the American fat problem as an epidemic comparable to the plague. Come on! Anyone looks like crap when they’re headless.
She also felt angry that these people had been violated, but from the expressions on everyone’s faces in the audience it was clear they felt quite the opposite. Americans are drastically overweight as a whole, and there was a lot of truth in what Alexis was saying. Action had to be taken. As the images continued to light up the stage, the audience grew rapt. Probably the millions watching on their couches at home, too. Shoshana imagined a stay-at-home mother in Kansas City reaching inside a Fritos bag, her hand suddenly freezing before the chip made its way to her guilty mouth. She looked over at Oprah, who was watching the video carefully, her face the epitome of openness, not showing where her opinion lay but everything about the firm set of her mouth proclaiming: I am presenting both sides! I am avidly listening to both of my guests and letting my audience figure out how they feel for themselves.
Shoshana was suddenly struck by how good Oprah was at her job, not being judgmental in the slightest. She felt the odd sensation of jealousy course through her. Sometimes it was exhausting being the face of a cause. The truth, the real, down-and-dirty truth, was that Alexis, horrid witch that she was, did present some good ideas and arguments. Shoshana really was an easygoing person at heart, and unable to be militant for her cause. Sure, she’d devoted her life and career to helping big girls like herself feel better about the way they looked in a size-fourteen halter top, but she didn’t always feel up to the task of being the leader of Fat Nation, when really there were so many different types of fat that sometimes it was really unfair that she had to include all of them under her belt, almost like a president being ashamed of Florida, or parents not really loving all their children equally.
Some people weren’t just fat, they were obese, and when Shoshana received their e-mails full of self-hatred and lines about wanting to hang themselves with a rope or throw up their lunches, she had to meet extreme head-on with extreme, so she assured them they were beautiful. With 91 percent of all college-aged women admitting to dieting, and anorexia causing more deaths per year than any other mental illness, something had to be done. She’d picked up the expression “God doesn’t make junk” from a priest who lived next door to her mother, and she quoted Father O’Reilly from time to time to her readers. She felt the expression covered everyone, and gave great comfort.
And yet sometimes … sometimes when the door to her bedroom was closed or she was in the shower, alone, she could relax enough to be honest with herself. The fact was that she exercised daily. And, although she ate a lot, and didn’t deprive herself of some of her favorite desserts and junk food, she also tried very hard to have a balanced diet, with servings of wheat, fruits, proteins, and vegetables. She power-walked every week with her sassy friend Nancy. She swam every Sunday, twenty laps, at Stevens University. She drank lots of water throughout the day. Why should she have to include people who stuffed their faces night and day with McDonald’s and Breyers, and then expected her to cover their butts in her general argument of loving one’s self?
The answer was that if she didn’t stick up for the heaviest women, clinically obese women, if she didn’t tell them they were not pieces of shit, people like Alexis Allbright would make not only the five-hundred-pound people want to slit their wrists, but the two-hundred-pound people feel they had no place in society, either. It was all or nothing and she was most certainly all in, but sometimes being the leader of a movement was not all fun and games. Sometimes she wanted to lie down and throw up her feet and read a junky novel, skip writing her daily blog, and buy a frickin’ Lean Cuisine for dinner once a week at Shop Rite without worrying that she might run into someone she knew who would snatch it out of her hands, hold it over their head as evidence, and shout, You see? Shoshana Weiner is a fake! She’s a phony! She’s watching what she eats. She’s just like them!
But then she would sit down to watch mindless television, and be dumbstruck by shows like Bridalplasty, where brides-to-be, who should be reveling in being themselves (after all, why did the guys propose to them in the first place if not because they liked their looks?), instead are so filled with self-hate that they’re getting lipo at twenty-five and having their noses broken and stitched back together to win a free wedding.
Shoshana blinked. She realized she was in Chicago. Onstage. With Oprah.
“We’ve seen Alexis’s video. I’d like to open up the floor to my audience to find out what they think,” Oprah said, turning her body. She had on a beautiful blue and green glass bead necklace that shone under the bright lights whenever she moved.
A young black woman with a buzzed head, dark blue pencil skirt, pretty ruffled white blouse, and squarish jaw stood at a microphone in the aisle. “I am a surgeon and have three young children. I am also a single parent and have a hard enough time being home for my kids. If I want to give them a Twinkie for dessert sometimes, is that really so wrong?”
The audience clapped in encouragement.
“What’s your name?” Alexis asked.
“It’s Liza,” the woman responded, looking slightly surprised she’d been asked.
“Would you give your child a cigarette, Liza?” Alexis asked calmly.
Someone gasped. Shoshana looked around, only to realize it had been her.
But Alexis wasn’t finished.
“How about heroin? Of course you wouldn’t. But you’d give them a Twinkie. I find it sad that Americans give their children candy as a reward. What about a fresh, sweet carton of raspberries? How about a quarter, to put in their piggy bank?”
“Isn’t that philosophy a little strict?” Oprah asked, raising her perfectly plucked eyebrows.
But Alexis was on a roll. There was a gleam in her eyes. “Obesity is killing us, and the prime suspect is junk food. Now, if you’re asking me to set a killer loose in your home, fine. But I’m not going to stop until our taxes cease going to fund obese patient care, and people stop dying from premature diabetes and heart disease. I will not relent, even a little bit. I feel it is my duty to keep people healthy, and therefore, allowing secondhand obesity for kids is a no-no on my blog.”
“I don’t know about you, but this conversation is really making me want to go eat a Twinkie,” Shoshana said dryly.
Rainfalls of laughter from every row.
She continued. Funny was her strong point. It always had been. In school, Shoshana was friends with every single group, from the jocks to the skaters to the cheerleaders. If she could make a person laugh, that person wouldn’t judge her for her size. Wouldn’t call her mean names behind her back. Would see her as a person, a funny person.
“I mean, how many times did the girl say ‘Twinkie’?” Shoshana continued. “You’d think they were paying her for subliminal advertising or something.”
More laughter, filling the room, bouncing off the walls. Oprah was smiling and nodding, encouraging her.
“Look. When I see Blake Lively, Nicole Richie, and Paris Hilton in magazines in designer gowns with their rib bones literally sticking out the sides, it breaks my heart, because I know for every picture in a magazine there is a young, easily influenced girl looking at it and just reaching puberty, starting to have emotions, and feelings toward her developing body. And I know, just as you do, that seeing those so-called ‘glamorous’ images truly can alter a young girl’s perspective. Suddenly her curvy thighs and full breasts aren’t so beautiful and exciting anymore. She wants rid of them. She wants to look like the celebrities in the fancy dresses and the models selling sexy products like perfume and clothing and sunglasses the kids at school are wearing. It’s not a flaky concept. I assure you, it’s a split-second look at those pictures and then down at her own body, an instant that can alter her belief system. Now she hates the way she looks. She idolizes these girls, and will do anything to look like them. Including starvation and jeopardizing her health. How many of us have to die of anorexia before we say enough is enough?”
Strong clapping that filled the room.
Alexis waited until the noise dimmed down. “You are leaving out the medical details of what goes into making a person overweight. There are many studies that say how much fatter Americans are becoming every year.”
“And you are leaving out the fact that some people are born big-boned, and can’t help being big,” Shoshana shot back. “How do you think reading your blog makes those people feel? They can listen to your advice to work out ‘just thirty minutes a day’ or try one of your fad diets, and they’ll still be larger than you find appropriate. It’s not their fault, and yet you continue to place blame over their heads. What do you think reading Skinny Chick does to their self-esteem?”
Alexis said something, but it got lost in the clapping, and she waited again until it started to die down. Oprah smiled at her audience, pumping her arms slightly for people to reel it back in, to remember that she had another guest on the stage who should have the platform again, even if her message was the unpopular one.
“Shoshana is leaving out a very important detail,” Alexis said quietly yet deliberately, like a great director building tension for an explosive scene. “One that she purposefully keeps from the readers of Fat and Fabulous.”
Anticipation hung in the air like a spider’s web.
I do? Shoshana thought. I am? Suddenly her stomach dropped. Oh, no. Surely she wasn’t going to go there. No one would be that cruel.
“Her father died of a heart attack,” Alexis said in a syrupy, faux-concerned voice. “Four years ago. He was only forty-nine. He was mowing his front yard and simply dropped dead right there. It was a preventable tragedy.”
The smell of freshly cut grass. Emily playing Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” in the living room. She’d just applied lotion on her hands, and when she raised them to her mouth the smell of vanilla was overwhelming.
A hush had come over the room.
“At the time of his death he was over three hundred fifty pounds,” Alexis finished quietly.
Her father lying in the sharp green grass, right hand still clutching the mower’s handle. Sweat stains on his gray Rutgers T-shirt. Cicadas humming all around her. His brown cigar, still lit, lying next to him. His wide face, the one she loved so much, seen hovering over her when she was in her crib, grimacing when she hit him on the thumb with a hammer when she was five, breaking into a smile from the stands at her high school basketball game, was now still and beet-red around his beard.
Shoshana finally looked up, into Alexis’s ice-blue eyes. How could someone with eyes that beautiful be so awful? So this was the face of evil, she thought. She was unable to speak. It felt like a hand, perhaps a very skinny and pale one like Alexis’s, was wrapped around her throat. If she opened her mouth to speak she’d burst into tears. Her vision blurred as she desperately fought off crying.
Alexis saw her opponent weakened and rattled off her final statistics to drive home her point. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of America’s children are overweight and seventeen percent of teenagers are clinically obese. That’s more than three times the rate of a generation ago. Did you know there is a link between cancer and obesity? The American Cancer Society claims one hundred thousand lives lost to obesity-related cancer a year.”
Someone booed her, but she ignored it, continuing with her facts: “There’s a great book out there called The Fattening of America. Its authors cite that over the past three decades, only decades, American obesity rates have more than doubled. It accounts for ninety-three billion dollars in health bills a year. So you can boo me all you want. The numbers speak for themselves.”
“Are you okay, honey?” Oprah asked Shoshana. “I could see that might not have been something you were ready to talk about on national television.”
She’d done CPR on him, and how odd it had been to put her mouth on top of her own father’s gummy white lips. She’d put one hand over the other, pumping on his huge chest she’d pressed her face against so many times as a child when he’d give her a bear hug. One of his eyes was half open and it terrified her, like a monster in a horror movie. She’d dripped tears on his face, finally screaming, “Help!” over and over again until her mother ran outside, the screen door flapping and slamming behind her. She had been in the middle of baking a cherry pie and had flour on her hands and an apron which scattered like confetti as she ran toward her husband and daughter. “Oh, Bill!” she’d screamed.
“Yes, I’m fine, thank you.” She’d finally found her voice. She tried to conjure up her calming image. Palm tree waving in the wind … Oh, to hell with it. God! Why was she such a wimp? She wished she had something on Alexis, something to trip her up and expose her. But she had nothing, nada, zilch. She wasn’t really much of an arguer anyway, had always hated fighting and avoided it at all costs. Combine that with her nervousness about being on TV and she was lucky she’d managed to get out two words up here.
Oprah was a professional and knew when it was time to wrap things up. “We’re going to go to commercial. When we get back we’ll have our resident personal financial consultant, the wonderful Suze Orman, back to help us curb those shopping sprees.” She leaned forward toward her audience, a twinkle in her eye. “I’m going to hide my checkbook under my seat, just in case she tells me I’ve been spending too much. I suggest you do the same! We’ll be right back!”
The cameras panned away. Alexis turned toward Oprah. “I’ve always wanted to know what happens when you go to commercial,” she said, as if nothing were odd, as if she hadn’t just struck a blow to Shoshana.
Oprah smiled at both her guests. “Thank you for coming on the show, ladies, my assistant will see you back to your families.” It had been a good segment, having these two bloggers on. Her producer had suggested it, and she’d been glad to implement both the popularity of weight blogs and women’s issues at the same time. She’d thought Alexis had been the perfect villain and Shoshana the hero.
Shows didn’t always work out this smoothly, but today had. Oprah had known the information about the girl’s father, she had excellent researchers on her staff, but she’d chosen not to use it, and wasn’t sure how she felt about Alexis doing so. On the one hand it created tension, which always makes for good TV, but she wished Alexis hadn’t brought up Shoshana’s father’s death; it obviously had been devastating for her. She’d clammed up ever since. And clamming up made for very bad TV.
A woman wearing black jeans, a blue button-down shirt, and a Yankees baseball cap approached the stage. A large black apronlike belt was strapped around her middle, and she began touching up Oprah’s makeup, quickly taking out brushes and an eyelash curler. “How’s your niece doing?” Oprah asked the woman. Shoshana and Alexis didn’t get a chance to hear the specifics of how this particular child was feeling as the same skinny guy with the clipboard and headphones who had been with them in the green room was now offering his hand to both girls, and Shoshana accepted, feeling the soft material of the couch beneath her palms as she stood up.
Emily and her mother were waiting in the green room. They arranged happy looks on their faces for Shoshana’s benefit. When they saw their daughter and sister walk down the hall, they squealed and ran to her, covering her with kisses.
“You were amazing!” Emily yelled, hugging Shoshana so hard she nearly fell over. Shoshana put her face in her sister’s neck and inhaled her original scent of patchouli oil and strawberry bubble gum. Emily’s eyes flashed as Shoshana realized she was glaring at Alexis, who was retrieving her purse from a small locker. She sat down on a couch and changed into much higher heels.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Emily spat from across the tiny room. “You obviously have some serious mental issues.”
“Em, shush,” her mother said, embarrassed. She hated conflict, like Shoshana. But Emily hadn’t traveled around the world as a roadie for the Dropkick Murphys or tattooed half of Manhattan to let some horrible woman show her big sister up on TV.
“Rumor has it my sister’s blog has twice the readers yours does,” she spat at Alexis, who was still struggling with the strap of her flashy Miu Miu pumps. She had a Hello Kitty Band-Aid wrapped around her heel.
“Close,” Alexis said calmly. “She has five million, I have three. And I read her blog every day. I’m a big fan of her writing, it’s smart and witty.”
Emily was momentarily silenced. “Well, whatever,” she said finally. “That was still a dirty move to bring up our father. Obviously you don’t have any family values or else you would never have mentioned his death just to prove a point.”
Shoshana and her mother were both beet-red by now. They held Emily by each arm and tried to escort her out of the room, so they could get back to the Four Seasons and rest before their flight back to New Jersey in the morning.
Alexis walked right up to Emily and looked her in the eye. “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I felt it pertinent to mention that although fun to read, your sister runs a dangerous blog that suggests unhealthy ways for young women to live. Accepting yourself as fat is an unhealthy notion. I did not bring up your dad to upset any of you, but because it was important information for Shoshana’s readers to know, and she doesn’t ever talk about it on Fat and Fabulous.”
Emily, Shoshana, and her mother stared at this tiny, thin woman with that fashionable clothing and sad face. Shoshana held on to her mother and sister, her hemp purse held tight against her frame. She felt a white-hot rage, and, being a good-natured, friendly girl, it was hard for her to tell anyone off. She finally came up with a comeback, but her voice shook: “I feel sorry for you, really. You seem very unhappy.”
Alexis opened her mouth, her expression pained, and held out her arm as if to ask them to hear her out, but the three Weiner women turned and sashayed out of Oprah’s studio, arms entwined, hips swinging. They signed out with security, thanked everyone on set, and were whisked into a limo parked directly outside. The driver had a menorah stuck with suction cups to his dashboard, which made Shoshana smile. She watched the city fly by outside her window, people walking through gray slush, clutching shopping bags, their faces flushed red with the cold. Stores had holiday lights strung throughout, giving the streets a cheery glow. Hanukkah had passed last week, and Christmas was just around the corner. She had to remember to buy gifts for her roommates. Maybe before her flight in the morning.
As the doorman greeted her and her family, Shoshana realized suddenly that she was exhausted. “Being a superstar is tiring,” she said once they’d passed the ornate lobby in a flash of sound and faces, taken the elevator to their room, and flopped onto the gigantic feather bed. It was late, and outside her window were star-shaped ice crystals. A soft powder of snow had fallen, bathing the room in a periwinkle light. There was laughter on the sidewalk, someone ringing a bell for holiday collections, the honking of the street bus.
Emily jumped into bed beside her, and their mother wearily sat down in the middle of both daughters.
“Let’s order ridiculously expensive lobsters off the room service menu and watch cheesy porn,” Emily squealed.
“Emily, don’t be crass,” Pam said, getting up and changing into pretty pink flowery pajamas. “Besides, I don’t want to put it on the hotel room’s bill; I know Oprah is paying for it.”
“Mom, she’s like a zillionaire,” Emily said, rolling her eyes. “Besides, her assistant told me to when we were backstage. I believe her exact words were, ‘Live it up in Chicago!’”
“And lest we forget, it’s not every day we get to stay in the Four Seasons,” Shoshana said, pinching Emily on her large behind. In retaliation, her sister slapped at her hand.
Pam saw she was up against a losing battle. “Well, all right, but just the dinner, girls. Not the, er … other thing.” Pam and her husband had dutifully saved all their earnings, socking money away for their girls’ educations. She rarely spent money, and never on herself. When her husband had been alive he’d take her to dinner for their anniversary and she’d feel so guilty about the cost of the food she would debate between three possible menu items for nearly fifteen minutes while the waiter stood there patiently. Bob used to tease her that her autobiography would someday be titled I Should Have Had the Fish. She smiled now, remembering.
Emily was working the sleek white phone by the bedside. “I’ll have three lobsters, two bottles of Dom Pérignon, and a bowl of chocolate-covered strawberries,” she trilled.
“Emily Anne!” her mother hissed, mortified.
Shoshana laughed and leaned back against the plush bedding. She reached into her pink laptop case and pulled out her computer, plumping up some pillows behind her back and pressing the power switch. One of her many girlfriends, Nancy, was updating posts on her blog while she was away. Shoshana had written about a recent New York Times story about how stored fat could help safeguard against certain diseases, and she wanted to check if she’d gotten a lot of responses. She watched her mother and sister bicker over whether to watch Eclipse or The Switch. After a few minutes the bellhop came with the food on a silver tray, and left after Emily flirted with him, turning his cheeks pink.
Shoshana scrolled through the message boards on Fat and Fabulous. The usual, from Skinny Chick readers, who thought Shoshana was spreading a “dangerous message,” but for the most part the results were overwhelmingly positive. She even saw that a doctor, a man from a hospital in Boston with the screen name “Dr. Bill,” had posted that he thought the article should be republished in a medical journal he ran. Having more positive comments than negative always made for a good day. She thought briefly of Alexis, who was probably on a flight home now or maybe alone in her hotel room eating carrot sticks, and whether she suffered from the same torture of reading through her message boards daily and being besieged with negative posts. The girl struck Shoshana as the cliché tragic case, the popular girl with a hidden resentment for other women and who therefore hid behind her eat-healthy blog to spew hatred for anyone different. But what she couldn’t shake was the feeling that Alexis hated herself more than anyone else.
She was interrupted in her thoughts by a flying pillow that bounced off her head. “Come on, Shoshana, can’t you turn that thing off for one fucking day?” Emily yelled, as she drank champagne straight from the bottle.
“Language!” Pam exclaimed.
“But I agree with your sister, Shosh. Let’s have some girl time. You’ve done enough today to raise women’s spirits.”
“Okay, you both are right. I’ll sign off. Looks like a lot of readers are going to watch the Oprah segment in the morning; I just hope they don’t think I was a total douche.”
“What’s a douche?” Pam asked.
“It’s a feminine hygiene product,” Emily responded dryly.
“Emily! I know that,” Pam said, exasperated. “Your sister was using it in a different context.”
“Anyway, sis, you were fabulous,” Emily said.
“Fat and Fabulous,” Pam chimed in, giving her oldest daughter a pinch on the cheek.
Sandwiched between her mother and sister, eating lobster off a plate with a gold ring around it, Shoshana still could not shake her thoughts about Alexis. She may have beat her in the argument on Oprah, but wherever she was tonight, she couldn’t be as happy as Shoshana felt right now with her mother and sister, her two best friends in the world.
Copyright © 2011 by Kate Rockland