KALI MEISTER is the immediate past Writer in Residence of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Libraries, coordinating the Writers in the Library series for 2008-2009. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., and is a published playwright and cross-genre author as well as a performance poet. She is the founding managing artistic co-director, along with Jacques Durand, and playwright/actor in residence of the Last Gasp Theatre Company here in Knoxville.
They give out 500 wristbands; I am #433. It's March, and we've been waiting on this Nashville sidewalk since 8:30 a.m. to audition for The Biggest Loser, NBC's reality show dedicated to depriving fat people of food and the support—or enabling—of friends and family until the contestants either lose weight or have a nervous breakdown (or both). At 3 p.m., hundreds of people without wristbands realize they may not get an audition. Without warning, the people behind me rush the door, shoving, knocking people over. Obese people are stacked on top of each other. It's like I'm at the main stage of Pudgapalooza and the headlining band has just kicked into gear. Geraldine, my new friend as of this morning, wristband #432, grabs my hand and pulls me into the building. So I make it this far, but I still haven't acknowledged I belong here.
I don't look in my mirror in the morning and think, "Now there's a fat person." I am, however, reminded of my weight when I stand from my bed in the morning and am struck immediately by pain in my knees, hips, and back; they might buckle under the weight of my own girth. There is the daily humiliation, struggling with my big body to fit into my car. I am again reminded just how pudgy I am when I drive over railroad tracks and my back and midsection fat bounce so fiercely that my breathing is interrupted. Every day I am made painfully aware that I am, as Buffalo Bill says in Silence of the Lambs, a great big fat person.
Yet, I have a sort of reverse bulimia. I look in the mirror and see a skinny person, the same person I was in college, who weighed between 160 and 200 pounds. By all clinical definitions, however, I am morbidly obese. (Medical dictionaries define morbid obesity as being 20 percent or more over an individual's ideal body weight.) The weight goal for me is 200. At the audition, I weigh 378. Making it onto the show seems like the method of weight loss for me; I'll have a doctor, a dietician, and a personal trainer at all times. How hard could it be to stay motivated if others are doing all the work for me?
The Line Forms
I did not automatically jump at the idea of auditioning for The Biggest Loser. When my friend Julia e-mailed me that the Nashville TV stations were all announcing an open call for the show, the first thought that crossed my brain was standing on a livestock scale in front of a camera wearing nothing but spandex shorts and a sports bra. Second thought: the screaming. Four months of my life being screamed at. Can I handle being tired, hungry, moody, vulnerable, weepy, half naked, and sore in front of millions of people just for the sake of being thin?
I take an inventory of why I should do this: I have type 2 diabetes, hypothyroidism, degenerative arthritis, a family history of cancers and heart disease, and a father whom I shared all these all these same medical conditions with. He died at the age of 40. At 38, the idea of being dead in two years seriously keeps me awake at night. Within an hour of receiving the e-mail, I had bought a bus ticket.
Television stations in Nashville had advertised that no one would be allowed in line for the audition before 7 a.m. and auditions would begin promptly at 10 a.m., running until 5 p.m. The line I join extends a little over two city blocks, beginning at the Wild Horse Saloon and ending just past the entrance to B.B. King's Blues Club. I have never seen so many chubby people together in one location. It is 33 degrees. I am quickly brought into conversation with three women who had separately entered the line just before me. Geraldine is a marathon runner in her early 30s whose body is clinging to the weight she gained during her last pregnancy. Victoria, a young woman in her early 20s, wants to wear a bra from Victoria's Secret. (For those who are unaware, you can have huge breasts and wear Victoria Secret's bras, but you can't wear them if you have a large, barrel-like chest.) The third woman, Kathleen, is a 52-year-old professional reality-show contestant, a sharer who thinks highly of herself and blurts about it. For the first hour of the wait I'm an unwilling participant in an extensive diatribe about how the foster puppies Kathleen had helped save from a puppy mill had died of parvo hours before the audition.
The four of us take turns with bathroom and food breaks while the other three hold our places in line. Groups of people begin to yell cheers and initiate a wave through the crowd. People dance with each other to keep warm. Two hours into the wait, I take my first bathroom break at Sbarro (my personal choice for grossest bathroom in the world). While I'm gone, Geraldine tells me, some guy named Intern Adam, a local disc jockey from 107.5 The River, drives by in a car throwing Krispy Kreme doughnuts at the group out of his window.
Later that afternoon, Intern Adam prances his petite butt up and down the street, having his picture made with people in the line. I hide behind my giant pink umbrella. I have fears my enormous backside might be featured on the radio station's website, with a caption reading something along the lines of, "This lady was the tubbiest of all the tubbies."
Several local personal trainers walk through the line and offer motivation and support—and pass out business cards. Many motorists honk car horns and yell words of encouragement. Every hour, a man with coolers of Coke Zero hands free cans to anyone who wants them. In hour three, a restaurant down the block got the bright idea to sell small cups of hot soup for only $6.50 each. I nibble at the homemade pecan turtles hidden in my purse.
Because I'm Fat
I could share many horrifying but funny stories—funny because, as everyone knows, fat people are jolly. The reveal of my favorite fat Kali story features me, Kali, sitting my round rump in an office chair with arm rests on the side, waiting to be interviewed for a job at a doctor's office. When I stand up, the arm rests have melded into the cellulite on my hips and the chair is latched to my butt like a giant abstract tail. I could have walked across the office and still had the chair attached to me. I laughed because when you're fat you have to develop a sense of humor and a thick skin.
I didn't get the job.
The shame I feel because I don't physically fit into the world is the worst. I miss the joy of amusement parks and would love to ride roller coasters at Dollywood, but doing so would require me to either lose 100 pounds or have one of my legs amputated. Even if I could wedge myself into the seat, everyone in the park would stare as employees pull the shoulder restraint down across my chest, watching the strap squeeze me like Play-Doh through the Fun Factory. And don't think I haven't noticed the looks of disdain and the exasperated sighs I get when I sit next to a thin person on an airplane. This shame is multiplied by the embarrassment of having to ask the waifish flight attendants for a seatbelt extender.
I am amazed at how many people are quick to offer me unsolicited weight-loss advice. I've become accustomed to this in friends and family but still find it a tad disconcerting when strangers feel inclined to dish out judgment and diet and exercise tips. They are especially expressive when I'm grocery shopping. Once, while picking up a bag of Oreos for an office party, I was educated by a too-tan munchkin of a woman on exactly how many miles I would have to do on a treadmill just to burn off one row of the double-stuffed cookies. I wanted to tell her that at the time I hadn't eaten an Oreo in more than three months, but it's always pointless with these people. They never believe me. I've tried everything. I've lost and gained weight back so many times my butt has déjà vu.
For some reason, being fat allows people to speak to me like my IQ is 50 points lower than it really is. It comes up in conversation nearly every time I speak with any of my plus-size girlfriends. Physicians are especially guilty—I've had numerous arguments with doctors who talk to me about weight management as if I'm a moron. Most are men my size or larger, and they seem shocked to discover I exercise at least four times a week for at least 20 minutes and that I am not living on a diet of buckets of deep-fried Colonel Sanders chicken, copious bags of cheese curls, and boxes of Little Debbie snacks.
I have learned to better defend myself and I will not allow myself to be verbally assaulted by strangers because of my weight. While walking to my office in Hodges Library, I received catcalls from out the third-floor window of one of the dorms. A young man yelled "fat bitch" as I walked the sidewalk below. I stopped. I heard giggling. Then, again, the phrase "fat bitch." I yelled up to the open window, "Hey, you little bastard, you wanna come down here and confront this fat bitch?" It wasn't until the glorious silence after my outburst that I noticed the group of future university students and their parents participating in a campus tour just feet away from me. I'm trying to find balance and grace while exerting my self-esteem.
My True Weight
Once we avoid the stampede and slip inside the Wild Horse Saloon, we only wait two more hours to audition. There are chairs to sit on and an open bar, and it's warm. A casting agent comes around handing everyone forms to fill out. I steal glances at other people's paperwork. According to her forms, Elizabeth, a girl filling out papers at my table, stands 5 feet 2 inches and weighs 120 pounds. I ask her about her weight-loss goals and she is passionate about her need to lose 10 pounds that have plagued her since she finished college three years ago.
My hand pauses when I reach the space requesting my weight and my weight-loss goal. This is the first time in years I have thought about my weight loss in one whole number. In the past I was inclined to think in 10 to 15 pound increments. If I could lose 10 pounds then the next five would come right off, then I could focus on 20 more. When I thought like this, I didn't need to address my weight as one problem. The ideal weight for a 6-foot-tall woman is between 160 and 180 pounds. With pen in hand, I tally and realize I need to lose 200 pounds. I need to lose more than what many of the people auditioning for the show actually weigh. This knocks the wind out of me faster then a trek across the University of Tennessee campus from Hodges Library to Ayres Hall. How the hell did I get here?
My weight had become such an overwhelming problem for me that I had become numb to the idea of doing anything proactive or realistic about it. That was how I got here. I've already tried it all. My mother, so afraid that I was too fat, took me to a doctor whose weight-management plan for his patients included prescribing water pills, metabolism pills, and a form of street-grade speed that I found out during my senior year of high school was called "yellow jackets." I was 17 and weighed 190 pounds. After three weeks on the drugs, I couldn't sleep. I spent one night in the kitchen scrubbing the tiles with a toothbrush before cutting the lawn with a pair of toenail clippers, but I'd lost 15 pounds. To say the pills made me erratic would have been an understatement. I was like a Rubenesque Anne Heche on a triple espresso. But I was skinnier and that was all that mattered.
Exercise is an issue for me for odd reasons. In 1991, I was hit by a car and raped late one evening while I was out for my evening walk. The event stopped me in many ways. I completely gave up on my body. I was scared to leave the house. Because my mind associated an increased heart rate with trauma, exercise sent me into anxiety attacks for several years after the rape. My rapist beat me and pulled me out of his car, trying to lift me to the trunk of his car. He couldn't lift my dead weight and opted to kick me into a nearby ditch. My weight saved me that night.
It took 10 years of therapy to overcome my fear of being outside at night and to allow my heart rate to increase without experiencing fear and anxiety attacks and to not see being fat as protection from ever being raped again. Now I can associate exercise with feeling good and healing my body, mind, and spirit, but I'm not perfect and will never be truly healed. I am, however, proud of the work I have done to get this far. I know I am emotionally strong. I can work out if I make it fun and concentrate on not being the 20-year-old woman who was raped. I'm not that girl anymore.
I've tried the cabbage-soup diet, the grapefruit diet, the green-tea diet, Nutri System, and WeightWatchers with varying results. But I never keep the weight off. I've had bulimia, anorexia, and exercise bulimia. Before my experience with the diet drugs, I used to run five to 15 miles a day, while also taking laxatives. I kept a tablespoon in the leg of my sweatpants while out on my evening runs; when I was too tired to run anymore, I'd find a secluded place to stop and force myself to puke by holding the spoon down my throat. I was 6 feet tall and even with all the exercise and the bulimia I was still unable to weigh less than 180 pounds. I was convinced I was Jabba the Hut. All I was missing was Carrie Fisher wearing a metal bikini at the end of a leash. Now I look at pictures of myself then and realize how delusional I was. I would love to be that weight again. I was a beautiful young woman.
The craziest method I ever tried to lose weight was a subliminal tape. My mother and I shared the tape and listened to it as we lay in our beds at night hoping the tape's calming messages read by a soothing voice over the sounds of ocean waves crashing would inspire weight loss. I was 16 and shared a bedroom with my 6-year-old sister. The voice on the tape repeated that hunger was my friend and that I should drink eight refreshing glasses of water everyday. My mother and I did not lose an ounce of weight but my sister nearly stopped eating. It wasn't until one morning during breakfast when my sister sat wide-eyed staring at her bowl of oatmeal and announced that hunger was her friend and how she must drink eight refreshing glasses of water that my mother and I retired the subliminal tapes.
At 38, I no longer feel the same pressure to be thin and beautiful that I felt all through my teens and 20s. I no longer want to look like Tawny Kitaen circa Bachelor Party. As hard as it is for many to believe, I feel comfortable in my skin. I truly couldn't care less about fitting into the media's standard of beauty. I'm told by people whose opinions I trust that I am a beautiful woman. I may not be everyone's physical cup of tea, but there are those who like a sip of this tea on occasion—and I'm not talking about chubby chasers. It's a major misconception that obese women lack for sexual attention or companionship. This has never been an issue in my life—ever. My desire to lose weight now is not as shallow as it was when I was younger. I want to lose weight to feel better physically, not to feel better about myself.
Join the Cast?
A production assistant herds us into a group audition, 20 people vying for the attention of one casting agent. The kinship ends: Every person is out for themselves, the air thick with competition. Each person introduces himself or herself, then the casting agent asks us to discuss why we think Americans are fat. I'm taken aback. Was this as easy a question to answer as the show's representatives thought it would be? As the people around me go on about fast food and convenience, the only thing I can manage to say is that Americans are fat because we can be. Because we have the freedom to gorge on cookies and ice cream by the pint at 2 a.m. if we damn well please and no one can stop us except ourselves. I know at that moment I definitely need help—not advice about—losing the weight. I'll become responsible for myself and my desire to lose the weight; I don't need to lose weight for my friends, my family, a fear of dying, or because I have a desire to ride amusement park rides, but because I want to lose weight. I must look in the mirror every morning and see the obese person everyone else sees and realize that fat woman is me.
They don't tell us how we did at the audition, but the casting director encourages us to send the producers a video to improve our chances. My ex-boyfriend videotapes me. I sit on a couch in an awful muumuu, very billowy, black and floral. It makes me look like a nightmarish James Gandolfini in watermelon lip gloss and Holly Hobbie's dress. I cry. I don't want to. I try not to. I start crying as I tell about my dad dying and how scared I am. I don't want to die like my dad. I feel like I have an expiration date. I watch the video. I look gigantic. We mail it. I wait.
While I waited, I went around with my eyes open to the reality of my own obesity. I decided to start a blog on Facebook charting my weight loss. I'm shocked at how helpful and supportive many of my friends are. I've developed a fantastic kinship with my high school boyfriend's wife, Amanda. People who have never met me but found my blog on my friend's pages have befriended me. I've found a supportive group of allies in the process of trying to lose weight. We discuss articles we've read, feelings we have, limits we confront, and methods we use. So far I'm most fond of a friend's theory on eating lots of fiber—he calls it "shit yourself skinny." Being able to put the process out in public has made it a lot easier. If I slacked, I knew when I got home I could blog about it and my friends would write back and tell me to keep going. I want to be chosen for the show because I truly believe I need the help.
Five months after the audition, I had the nerve to call the casting company that represents The Biggest Loser.
I didn't make it onto the show.
I have, however, made lifestyle changes. I make an effort to eat no fast food. I make food at home more often. I walk more. I try to live less for convenience and more for health. My first time on the track I could only make it half a mile before the old ticker was burdened. Now I can walk up to three miles at a time and I get anxious if I don't get my daily walk in. I've lost 45 pounds since my audition for The Biggest Loser. Though I try to camouflage my size with makeup, clothes, and by attempting to carry myself in a way that doesn't reflect my size, I'm still a fat person.
This is my problem to deal with and I deal with it every day.