It was already dark outside when Sarah Hastings looked around the library’s classroom. The room itself was grand, especially for such a small town. However, like some many other things she’d encountered on her trip through the unwanted parts of America, it had a sense of tremendous wear hanging over it. Sarah’s host had explained the history, unbidden. The library had been built with timber money during a long-ago boom. The building had been beautiful, but the town had no way to maintain it. And so, it had gone through a long and relentless process of decline.
She expected the people to be much the same.
They always were.
Sarah took her seat at the front of the room. There was a little microphone there. Arrayed in front of her were close to a hundred chairs; the old wooden folding kind. They were lined up carefully, precisely, by a librarian still desperate to show the pride of this fading town.
The room was empty, except for Sarah and her host – a huge woman named Margaret. Sarah never liked to show up late for these things. She figured it was disrespectful to her audience. They’d had enough disrespect already.
Gradually, as Sarah watched, the women began to trickle into the room. They didn’t approach her. They eyed her from a distance, still uncertain whether they had the courage to talk to the Sarah Hastings. Sarah didn’t push herself on them. In time, she knew, they would come to her.
They always did.
Within twenties minutes, the room was full. In the back, a few more people stuffed into every space that was available to them. The room was bloated with people. It was rated for 112 people, according to the fire marshal. But he couldn’t have meant these 112 people. Because, while Sarah was pleasantly plump, every other woman in the room was downright huge.
As Sarah looked around, they chatted quietly, uncomfortably. It was their nature, Sarah knew. She saw the furtive, and excited, glances in her direction. She smiled at one and all. And then she looked at her watch, and – at exactly 8:00PM – she stood up from her seat, picked up her microphone, and said exactly one sentence.
“I was 150 pounds on my twelfth birthday.”
She let the words hang there for a moment. They flew around the room and, in an instant, there was total silence. It didn’t used to work that way, but now it did.
“150 pounds,” she repeated, “For those who don’t know, that’s like the 115th percentile.”
There were a few scattered laughs. Not everybody got the joke, and not everybody realized she was joking.
“My parents talked like it was just a phase. I hoped they were right. But we all knew they weren’t. It wasn’t a phase. My parents, Jon and Rachel, were massive people. The neighborhood kids even invented a new word to describe them ‘Obeast.’ ‘Obese’ wasn’t enough for them. They were a special target of mockery and insult. But they were also my future and I knew it.”
Sarah saw the knowing nods around the room. She took a small sip of water and then continued, “At 13, my body began to change – in earnest. But while other 13-year-old girls hoped boys would notice – I just hoped they wouldn’t. Some girls went for revealing clothes, trying to push the bounds of what their schools and their parents would allow. But I went in the opposite direction. I just covered more and more of myself until all you could see was a bundle of fabric where a young lady should have been.
“But I wasn’t a young lady. I was some kind of freak. There were others like me. We began to glom together. Not like real friends, but like diseased lepers with nobody else to talk to. We weren’t real friends, we were fat friends. We didn’t talk about anything but our weight. We couldn’t get past it. And as we got more and more embarrassed by our bodies, we began to drift away; even from each other. You ladies already know this story, right?”
Heads nod in agreement.
“Y’all have lived it, right?”
More heads nod, more emphatically this time.
“I know you do,” answered Sarah, “But I need you to know I know it too. I started dieting then, at 13. Not the light ‘I think I’ll skip the cookies’ type of diet, but hard-core dieting. And I lost weight, each time. And then, inevitably, I put it all back on. All of it, and some more, each and every time. I was bigger and bigger and bigger. At my sweet 16, I was 195 lbs. I wasn’t a tall girl either, I was 5’4”. Those same boys who mocked my parents mocked me too. I didn’t merit a clever word, though. I was just ‘SWAT.’ It was short for She Weighs A Ton.
“I guess if the weight alone had been my problem that would have been okay. But weight weighs so much more than you can measure on a scale. It didn’t carry just the mockery or exclusion either. It carried hopelessness. It bled into every part of my life. I felt like if I couldn’t conquer this, I couldn’t conquer anything. With every diet I failed at, my ability to push back was dented just a little bit more. It was like the Fat was killing whatever Fight I had in me. Forget success. Forget a husband or kids. I was 16 and I was done for. Worst of all, I knew it.”
Sarah caught the sight of not a few mournful faces. They knew what she’d gone through. They were still going through it.
“I finished high school, but I couldn’t face college. I got a dead-end job at a big box store. The aisles were wide. It must seem crazy to a regular person, but that actually mattered to me. I got myself some of those huge padded shoes. My favorite jobs were all in the back though. I didn’t want people to see me as I struggled to stock shelves. Even worse was talking to customers. Almost everyone would look at me with that horrible combination of pity and judgement. Like ‘what an awful struggle that girl must be going through’ was combined with ‘I never would have let it get that far.’ The worst part wasn’t the criticism. The worst part was that I believed it. They hadn’t let it get that far. And so I believed something was wrong with me, with my will.
“My only comfort, if you want to call it that, was that I knew it wouldn’t last long. I wasn’t yet 20, but I knew I’d end up getting one of those motorized wheelchairs before I reached 35 years of age. And, on my bad days, I looked forward to it. I wanted to be shut in. I wanted to waste away where nobody could see me.”
Sarah pauses, takes a deep breath and then whispers, “On my bad days, I wanted to die.”
Sarah stops, takes another drink. Looks around the room at knowing faces. She still remembers that pain.
“And then, one day,” Sarah continues in a soft voice, “a woman came into my store.”
Unbidden, tears spring into Sarah’s eyes.
“She was a woman who seemed to see my soul. She saw right through me. There was no ‘what an awful struggle.’ There was no ‘I never would of let it go that far.’ There was just a look that said ‘I can help.’ I saw that woman, and she saw me, and I just cried. Right there in the middle of the big box store. I just cried. And then that woman invited me to Bible Study. I wasn’t a religious person, not in any way. But if she’d invited me to go climb Mount Everest, I would’ve signed right up. She was like a lifeboat to me, just then. She was, I kid you not, saving my life.
“I showed up at Bible Study. And the very first lesson was about Leviticus. That woman was teaching the class. And she read, ‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your near kin.’ And I thought, ‘well, duh.’”
There were a few laughs.
“But the woman continued. ‘The Bible,’ she said, “Doesn’t use euphemisms. Not long before this verse it gives commands concerning a man who lies with a woman with semen. This isn’t meant to be gentle stuff. So why does it say uncover the nakedness?’”
Sarah looked around the room, but there weren’t any answers there, just anticipation.
“Well,” said Sarah, “That teacher, that woman who saved my life, explained it. She said the Hebrew word was ervat. It was used by Joseph to accuse his brothers of being spies. He said they were seeking out the ervat of Egypt. They were seeking out its weakness. Nakedness, that woman explained, was weakness.”
Sarah paused. And then added, “I think y’all know that feeling.”
She saw tears in the eyes of a few of the masses of women who were there.
“I went home that night, to investigate. Why didn’t the Bible want us to uncover the nakedness of our close relatives? Other than the whole ‘gross’ bit. I thought, ‘maybe there’s a story here, to explain it all.’ And I looked back until I found something before the laws. It was something I could relate to. It was a story. The story of the death of the sons of Aaron. And after that story there were all sorts of laws. Laws about the food you eat. Laws about keeping yourself pure. Laws about the exclusion of leprosy. Laws about atonement. And laws about nakedness. And I thought, we’ve got food, social exclusion and nakedness as weakness. Somehow, these laws are meant to speak to me.
“And so, I poked and I prodded. And the more I poked and prodded, the more I felt impurity and sin were somehow tied up with one another. And then I found the first sin. Not the apple in the garden, the Bible never calls that a sin. I found sin, chait, waiting outside Cain’s door, waiting to pounce. And I thought, I know sin. Sin is what made me the way I am. Sin is the temptation to destroy –yourself or others. It is temptation so strong you can’t overcome it. But G-d promises Cain he can overcome it. And He promises Cain that when he does, he will be a better man.”
“I couldn’t understand that. How could Cain defeat sin?
“I went to more Bible study groups. And I listened. And I watched that incredible woman. And she watched me. And I began to feel more like a human. But I still had no control over my weight. I was still the largest woman in the room, by a literally wide margin. But then, I read in Leviticus chapter 16, right before the commandment to bring the scapegoat: ‘And the Lord spoke unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron.’ and I thought: there’s sin there. There’s temptation there. But what? Nadav and Avihu were punished. What sin remained?
“And then I realized it was the sin of rebellion. The people wanted to rebel against what they’d seen. They couldn’t understand it. They were stained. Temptation was waiting at their door. But it hadn’t entered. It hadn’t yet made them carry the weight of what the Torah calls avon.”
“And then, one day, everything clicked together.
“The laws about food were about reaching towards G-d and walking in His ways. The laws about leprosy were about making yourself physically aware of when you were so full of self-regard that you left no space for what was truly important.
“The law of the scapegoat was about knowing there were two paths. One led to nothingness in the wilderness while the other led to communion with a timeless G-d. This law is called a kaper, an atonement. It is first used when Noah is putting pitch on the Ark so the water can’t get through. Atonement is pitch for the soul. It protects against avon, the weighty after-effects of sin.
“The next laws, the laws about not slaughtering potential sacrifices in a field were about not wasting potential. Even an animal doesn’t deserve to just die when it can serve a higher purpose.
“And the laws about covering nakedness were about protecting yourself from your own weakness. And then, at the very end, are a few extra laws. There’s one about not worshipping a god called Moloch who shares every letter in his name with the King, but who isn’t the King. And it is followed by laws about sexual relationships that aren’t quite right. These laws are about not twisting what is actually right.
“I saw this pattern and I realized that it spoke to me.”
Sarah saw a few confused faces. She raised her free hand, defensively, “Don’t worry, I’ll explain. You see, I saw a path to my own redemption. Through food, I could keep myself focused on my mission. The laws about leprosy was about marking when I thought just about me, without realizing how much more than me I could be. After all, that’s the true path to exclusion.
“The law of the scapegoat showed me that I had to see, in my own mind’s eye, the two paths before me. I had to, on a regular basis, take the time to see the big picture. The laws about not wasting potential sacrifices showed me that I could not let any potential be squandered. The laws about covering nakedness showed that I could not think about or explore my own weakness – I had to hide it away. And the laws about twisting were about not cheating when it comes to what is right.
“This became my diet. Eat foods that fulfilled my mission – to be a strong and confident young woman. Keep a physical reminder of when I forgot about my greater potential because I was too busy serving my own wants. Keep the big picture in mind, knowing where the paths of my life lead. Know that I cannot waste myself or others. Avoid exploring my own weaknesses, by not tempting myself or dwelling on what I cannot accomplish. And forever forbid myself from twisting the rules in order to sidestep what I know is right.
“That’s became my process. I didn’t lose weight suddenly. I didn’t track my progress on a scale. Instead, I kept to that path for three long years. Slowly and surely, I improved. Until, one day, I realized I had gotten where I needed to be. I was a confident young woman. And while I knew that my battle with sin, with temptation, would never end, I also knew that each time I won that battle, I became greater because of it. I knew that I was no longer marked like Cain – to live like an animal in the field. Instead, I could live with others and be part of my community. And I could be stronger than those who had never faced such temptation. I had faced the test of Cain, and I had overcome it. And, most importantly, I no longer thought of the sweet release of death.
“I realized all of that on one day in August, four years ago. I realized, that day, that this process was more than a way of losing weight; it was a way of changing my life. And then I realized what I had to do. I realized I had to share what I’d learned – not just keep it for myself. I realized I had to travel and speak to women like you. I realized that my true potential wasn’t in being a strong and confident young woman. No, my true potential was all about unlocking the power in you. It was about unleashing the potential that has been growing in all of you, year after year – with every battle you lost against the destructive temptation we call ‘sin’.”
Sarah looked around, smiling and sharing the confidence she felt with the others in the room.
“And so,” Sarah continued, “I began to travel. From town to town, all across America, I’ve been travelling ever since. Every night, I’ve spoken in some new town, in some new place. The fact is, this sort of truth doesn’t travel by Facebook or YouTube. This sort of truth travels, from woman to woman, in person. I could share a video online if all I wanted was to share the process. But I want to do more. I don’t want you to just be strong and confident women. I want you to be like me. I want you to unlocking the strength of other women who are losing their war against temptation.”
Sarah paused and then almost whispered, “I want you all to discover your true potential. And I want what I’ve learned to spread like a virus, renewing and rejuvenating everybody it touches.”
Sarah smiled, grinning from ear to ear, and then put her microphone down.
The room exploded in applause.
As she looked at the energized mass of morbidly obese women, one thought crossed her mind: “These fat ladies are gonna rule the world.”
Image: Two Fat Peasant Women: H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929