Monday, August 11, 2008

Too thin for the fat girls and too fat for the mall - My changing body and changing times.

Too thin for the fat girls and too fat for the mall –
My changing body and changing times.

That dreaded summer of 1974 was the summer of transformation. My mom called me into the house from my sweltering game of kick the can with the neighborhood homeboys. Until that moment, you could find me running blissfully up and down my northeast Los Angeles cul de sac in cut off shorts, no shirt and vans slip ons. Suddenly my mom was informing me that I had to wear a shirt from now on. My breasts were growing and it was “inappropriate” for a young lady to run around shirtless. I spent the rest of the summer seated in front of the electric fan, stubbornly refusing to give into my moms’ merciless demands, my raging hormones and my blossoming mammaries.

By ninth grade, the rest of my body was starting to catch up with my now D cup bustline. I became an expert at hiding my size 12 curves under my dads baggy button down collar shirts and levis. I would never know the joys of the “5 -7- 9” shop. I carried my schoolbooks close to my chest and kept my eyes lowered, praying to G-d that none of my classmates would call me “fatso” or “chubby cheeks.” I really wasn’t fat, but my large, round breasts were the first thing that people noticed when we met. They were scary and intriguing for the boys at school, except for the one bully who pinned me against the lockers so he could cop a feel at their firmness.

With my first year of high school came my initiation into size discrimination. Even though I was often the best singer in the drama class, I couldn’t get the part of the ingénue or the princess in our school productions. My size dictated that I play the matronly teacher, or the matronly mother or the matronly nanny complete with grey wig. I was a matron and yet, I was still a virgin.

Senior year was the first time I actually started to enjoy my voluptuous body. A trip to Vegas proved to be quite advantageous when a peek at my cleavage and ample behind distracted the security guard from asking for my ID. I could play on the slot machines to my hearts content and hadn’t even had my 18th birthday yet.

Pregnancy and childbirth inflated my generous body further. My breasts swelled to an F cup. I was now a size 16. I couldn’t get jeans in the mall boutiques to fit me, anymore. I started shopping at Lane Bryant and discovered the plus size sections of the bigger department stores. Simultaneously, I was modeling for big cash in magazines that celebrated big women. Magazines with names like Hefty Mamas, Two tons of Fun, Curvy Gals and Juggs. I was a large sized sex symbol. I was working in a stigmatic business but at least I wasn’t invisible. I was acknowledged. I was beautiful and sexy. I started receiving marriage proposals and bonafide fan mail. I started embracing my curvaceous bounty and realized that there was a whole cross-section of people who enjoyed their partners with generous proportions. With money and out of state travel, came confidence and big dreams. I used the money from the skin trade to subsidize my musical career. I began hiring musicians to play with me and writing and recording songs and demos. I was a cover girl on Voluptuous magazine – why not take the next step and become the singing star I had always wanted to be?

Alas, lest I become overly comfortable in my own skin, the music business provided a rude awakening and reality check. I really wasn’t okay being a fat girl, or at least that’s what the record executives wanted me to believe. I was too fat to be a country star. I needed to lose weight and fix everything about myself that was unique, unusual and hence, broken. I was blatantly told by several powerful show biz veterans that I would never “make it” if I didn’t look the part. Didn’t I realize there were no fat women in country and western music? I could lose weight and play the game, or I could go back to my barrio with my muy grande nalgas and be a welfare mom. I went back to East L.A. from Nashville, but I didn’t go quietly and I didn’t stay a welfare mom for long.

I have always been a fat activist even before I knew there was a label for it. I was a fat champion out of necessity. I didn’t feel undesirable like many large sized people do. I had a ready fan base to tell me I was sexy and wanted. But I still had the same confrontations with prejudice and stereotypes in my daily anonymous life, as every other outsider. Rude waiters asking me if I really needed dessert or if I knew how many calories were in the pastrami plate - Dirty looks from old women in the supermarket when I lingered too long in the ice cream aisle- Laughter and snickers from store clerks in Victoria Secret - Teenage boys screaming from speeding cars when I jogged past: “Its not gonna help, fatty!” - Men in the singles scene who wanted to date me from my ad, but took off running when they saw how large I was in person- Well-meaning friends and relatives who told me I would be so much healthier if I just lost a few pounds - Countless people telling me that I had such a pretty face, because they couldn’t bear to comment on the rest of me – People telling me how great I looked and asking how much weight I had lost, because I couldn’t possibly look good if I hadn’t been dieting.

So, I began to own my fatness. I started writing and singing songs about it. “200 pounds of fun” “You need a great big woman to show you how to love” “Work what you got if it’s a little or a lot” ”Fit, Fat and Fine.” I wore bikinis and low cut dresses. I wore short skirts and skimpy gowns. I discovered drag queen stores where the sizes were bigger, the fabrics stretchy-er and the sequins shinier. I sought out other large sized and fringe communities and my music attracted them to me. I was featured in a book called “Real Women Don’t Diet” and appeared on talk shows like Roseanne, Maury Povich and Montel Williams, extolling the virtues of big women. I got new kinds of fan letters from new kinds of fans; Women who identified with my struggle as a fat girl in a skinny world.

I had another baby, gained more weight and grew to 270 pounds and a size 24. I was rejected from insurance companies because my weight was considered a pre-existing condition. I had low cholesterol and low blood pressure but was considered high risk by the medical establishment. According to them, I was morbidly obese. I was indignant. Did the insurance companies ask skinny girls how much they weighed? Were they discriminated against for being too thin? I was fat but I was still active – riding a bike, walking on the beach, dancing onstage every night and eating and drinking whatever I wanted. I was fat but I was still very sexy. There was more of me to love and more of me to celebrate. Yes, I was fat and I was proud. I rubbed my belly and spoke to it, “You’re soft and warm and cuddly. You keep me warm on a cold winters night. You’re good to grab onto during sex.” I loved my big body and I spread the word that fat was where its at. That we are all beautiful no matter what size we are. That fat is okay too.

And then one day, cancer knocked on my door.

Since being diagnosed with cancer and having the Whipple procedure done on April 17 in a nine hour surgery, I have lost 75 pounds. They removed part of my stomach, small intestine, bile duct, pancreas and my entire gall bladder. I am under 200 pounds for the first time in almost twenty years. I have gone from a size 24 to a size 16. I am thinner than some of my thin friends. I can buy the “one size fits all” fishnets and they actually fit! One of my friends said recently, “Now that you’re losing all this weight, do you think your fat fans will desert you?”

I was speechless after that question. I didn’t really think it was a possibility. Why would my fat fans desert me just because I had cancer? Why would my fat fans desert me when I was still a fat girl inside? I didn’t ask for cancer. I didn’t ask to be thinner this way and I certainly wouldn’t wish the cancer diet on anyone else. In my head, I still identify as a fat girl. I still shop in plus size shops and websites. I still opt for the table instead of the booth at the restaurant. I am still too fat for mall boutiques and I still shop in the specialty stores, only now I am a XL instead of a 3X.

My friends question though, really worried me. Especially after a blog appeared on a website called “The Rotund” challenging my songwriting integrity. The writer, Dr. Sheila accused me of lying about my weight in my song, 200 lbs of fun. Suddenly I was being accused of dishonesty when I had always prided myself on my fidelity. Would my big girl fans desert me because I no longer looked like them?

It’s a question with no real answers. I haven’t changed who I am or my philosophy that all of us are worthy and equal. I haven’t changed my belief that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, ages and sexual orientations. I still feel like an outsider and I will always identify with the disenfranchised because I am still, one of you. No matter how thin I may become or how easy shopping may become, I still feel like a fat girl, now trapped in a slimmer body. I haven’t noticed that much difference since my surgery. I don’t move any quicker than I did 75 pounds ago. I do think more about what goes into my mouth, because my digestive system is fragile and I have to pay attention to what I eat. I do exercise daily because I want to be as healthy as possible and I don’t want the cancer to return. I do avoid sugar because cancer feeds on sugar and I don’t need it in my system. But in every other way, I am still the same fat girl I always was. Now, I guess I am truly an outsider because I am too fat for the Victoria Secret store, and too thin for the NAAFA convention. Does this mean that my large sized fans are going to dump me? I would like to hear from you and hear your opinions.

When a fat person loses weight because she/he has had a health crisis, is she still a member of the club? Or do we become some sort of invisible person – invisible to the large sized community we love and embrace, just as we are invisible to the culture, because we are fat? Am I part of the problem now, instead of part of the solution? Am I a former outsider looking in to my outsider community? How does weight loss affect how the fat acceptance community views us? Is all weight loss bad? Or just crash dieting and gastric bypass weight loss? Is all weight loss created equal? I want to think that my music is more important than my size. I want to think that large sized women and men will persist in buying my music and sharing it with others. I will continue to sing my size celebration songs because I love them and I know there are people who need to hear their message of inclusivity, no matter what size they are. I will continue to perform the songs because I still identify as an outsider in more ways than just the numbers on my scale.

If you have stuck with me thru the thick, then I need you to stick with me thru the thin, even if it happens to be a bit thinner than you. Who among you has the courage to look past my appearance and embrace who I am? Isn’t that what all of us really want from each other? Its not 1974 anymore and I don’t have the option to sit inside all summer in front of the electric fan rather than wear a shirt to cover my changing body. My body is changing on its own, from the trauma of cancer and the lifestyle changes that cancer has wrought. I love and cherish my body because it is alive and has so far, triumphed over a complicated surgery and a life threatening illness. I love and cherish my body because fat or thin, sick or healthy, it’s the only body I have. It’s the summer of 2008 and once again, it’s a summer of transformation. Hopefully it is also a summer that will transform not only my dress size, but also transform all the narrow minds who would judge me for my weight – be it 270 or 170. Think about it.

Candye Kane

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