Cathy Woods weighs 500 pounds, wears a 50DD bra and an XXXXXXL dress. She loves her body. And so does her man.

She wants to sit in the sun, but she wants to talk to the group. She moves one of the picnic tables out of the shade and spreads out her towel. She takes off her sheer black dress and sits down facing her friends, her back against the table.

"Somebody go take a little brush and baste her," another large lady says.

Spraying on her sunscreen, Cathy looks around. "You're all so pale," she says.

Phillippe Diederich
Showing skin: Cathy (right) sewed matching bikinis for Francine and her other "fat sisters."
Phillippe Diederich
Showing skin: Cathy (right) sewed matching bikinis for Francine and her other "fat sisters."

Her friend Francine Juneau walks over to join her. She weighs 465 pounds, and when she sits down the table starts moving.

"We both can't sit on this side of the table," Cathy says.

Francine isn't worried about breaking the bench. "I'll lean back," she says, putting her elbows on the table. "Don't worry. We won't pop it."

She drove from Baton Rouge to be with her friend, and she at least wants to sit with her. They share a pack of crispy M&M's.

"Cathy is one of my fat sisters," Francine says. They're wearing the same flowered bikini. Cathy made five of them from the same fabric and distributed them to her friends. Skinny women avoid wearing the same outfit as their friends, another large lady explains, because they'll look like clones. Since fat women all have different shapes, they can wear the same suit and look totally different.

"We call ourselves the flab five," Francine says.

"Actually, it's the flabulous five," Cathy says. "Get it right." She shakes her hoop earrings and smiles into the sun.

The body-conscious girl stays in the shade. "I'm going to stay completely covered up," she says.

Cathy can't understand this. "Why?"

"I'm in a swimsuit," the girl says. "I'm in a sleeveless shirt. That's a long way for me."

"Yeah," Cathy says, nodding. "A hell of a long way."

She still wants to smack her.

About an hour later, it's lunchtime. Teriyaki chicken and steaks are on the grill. Cathy opens a six-ounce package of fat-free ham.

Fat-free? "Not that I do it intentionally," she says. The pack happened to be the first one she grabbed at the store. She takes each piece and folds it up in her palm. With her manicured nails she methodically twists off small pieces and washes them down with Pepsi.

"Tostitos?" someone offers. The table is laden with chips.

"Nope," Cathy says. She finishes the pack. "I had my lunch."

The Diet Pepsi in the kitchen belongs to Carlette, Cathy's sister, an accountant. Cathy pours herself a regular, calorie-loaded cola and moves into the living room. Every Monday Carlette starts a diet. Every Wednesday she's off it. Cathy's almost twice Carlette's size, but she doesn't have Carlette's desire to lose weight. "A friend of mine lost 210 pounds," Cathy says. "After she lost all that weight she still had the same job, the same husband, the same bills."

Carlette wishes she were thinner because she'd like to move around more easily. Carlette's the one who does the yard work, climbs ladders to change light bulbs and weeds the flower beds. Cathy's less active; she does more of the cleaning, laundry and cooking. If there's an airline ticket to be booked or a phone call to be made, Cathy does it.

"Cathy's comfortable," Carlette says admiringly. "I'm still self-conscious in a bathing suit."

Carlette has three suits.

"And they all have skirts," Cathy says.

Cathy has 21 bathing suits. She tells Carlette to borrow her bikinis.

Their mother worries about Cathy's health. Ruby Lee is afraid Cathy will get to the point where she can't walk. "She can't walk a whole lot now," Ruby Lee says. Cathy admits that not being able to walk has crossed her mind. Doctors always ask if she has considered losing weight. They tell her that she's at a higher risk for heart disease and diabetes and all the things that Cathy has heard before but doesn't think will happen.

"I take care of myself," she says. "I eat my vegetables."

Right after Cathy discovered NAAFA, every day her AOL inbox was full of messages from men who wanted to meet her (and some who wanted to do things to her that her mother didn't like at all). Men instant-messaged her, wanting to chat. At first she wrote to most of them. Fat women often feel more comfortable meeting guys on-line, Cathy says. On-line it doesn't matter what you look like. And if you actually want to meet a guy, you can show him what you look like first and not have to have an embarrassing, unhappy encounter.

Through her personal ad, Cathy met a gorgeous man who lived in Vegas. They dated about a year. But he didn't want to commit, and she didn't want to waste her time.

She and her parents had just moved to Houston to open Annie's Plus, a clothing store for seriously Rubenesque women. (The dressing rooms were six-by-nine.) Cathy and Carlette owned the store, and Cathy and her mom ran it.

To get publicity for the store, Cathy decided to start modeling for Dimensions magazine, which proclaims itself to be "where big is beautiful." She told the editor he wouldn't get much skin from her, that he'd get class instead of ass. And in February '97 her first five-page spread appeared. It showed Cathy working out in a leopard-print unitard, holding a feathered fan while wearing a white negligee and seductively eating a hot fudge sundae.

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