Ground Zero

Houston's been the No. 1 city in America in the obesity crisis. But hype doesn't mean help.

At Senorita's, the Mexican restaurant on her street, the manager greets her warmly. "I get takeout here all the time," Roscoe says. "I was so happy when they opened this place." Some people look at Roscoe and then look away, embarrassed. Others openly stare; one man in a tie elbows his friend.

If Roscoe notices, she doesn't let on. She explains her philosophy over tacos: "I had weight-loss surgery once so everyone could leave me alone. I almost died over that. I'm not willing to do it again. If you push me into that, I'm going to say, 'Bite me.' I'm not going to die to be skinny."

Roscoe puts her fork down. "I've gotta move," she says suddenly. She wants to slide her legs down. It's a difficult shift, and the manager comes over to ask if she's okay. "I've got to put my feet down," she explains. "There."

Haraway's descent from 314 pounds required 
surgeries and major lifestyle changes.
Daniel Kramer
Haraway's descent from 314 pounds required surgeries and major lifestyle changes.
Buying a deli was the undoing of Davis, who has finally 
shed nearly half of his 60-inch waist.
Daniel Kramer
Buying a deli was the undoing of Davis, who has finally shed nearly half of his 60-inch waist.

Properly adjusted, she starts again. "I don't care," she says. "If I'm at the community center, I'll say, 'Fat girl coming through!' People say you shouldn't talk about yourself that way, but why? It's just a word. Like 'tall,' or 'green,' if society was just more accepting of everybody."

Roscoe can come off as abrasive, a crusader just as intent as fighting for her cause as the antifat crowd. But the more she talks, the more her resignation displaces any bravado.

"I was tired of dieting and being disappointed," she explains as the waitress takes away her beans and rice, uneaten. "The hard part is making people understand this doesn't mean I'm giving up on life. I'm going to live a life, and food is not going to be my be-all, end-all concern."

She feels like she's already beaten the odds: "When I was a kid, they said I'd be dead by the time I was 18."

Study after study has linked obesity with serious health problems. But not everyone agrees that the big picture is as deadly as the media coverage insists.

The 300,000 deaths each year that obesity causes? The New England Journal of Medicine editors wrote in 1998 that it was "derived from weak and incomplete data." They also questioned it because of the difficulties in determining "which of many factors contribute to premature death." Scientists also admit they don't have a good estimate on how many kids are overweight, mainly because there aren't widely accepted criteria for what distinguishes baby fat from something more troubling.

Even adult obesity can be hard to define. Researchers use a height-and-weight grid called the body mass index to determine who's fat; under its criteria, more than 30 percent of Americans are obese. Critics note that by applying its standards, George Clooney is obese. So is former mayor Brown's fitness czar, Lee Labrada, who sports a 29-inch waist and a flawless physique.

The index doesn't support some of the more dramatic risks ascribed to fat, either. Wilson, the Houston surgeon, notes that adults in the "overweight" category average longer life spans than those in the "thin" category.

"The threshold might be set a little too low in this country," he says. "Being a little overweight, by our standards, might not be such a terrible thing."

Vera Perry is not just walking down the runway. She's strutting, or maybe sashaying. The sway to her hips suggests modeling experience; with her high, chiseled cheekbones and long neck, she could be Iman's sister.

Four years ago, Perry was shopping for a Christmas outfit when she realized she no longer fit into a size 26. She weighed 358 pounds.

Today she's a taut 185, a success so inspiring that Weight Watchers picked her to model in its Super Meeting at the Greenway Renaissance hotel in September.

The room is packed with nearly 600 Houstonians in various stages of weight loss. The sheepish ones fill their chairs; the slender ones have the pinched look of hungry women who are trying to think about other things.

When Perry strides down the stage in her bright yellow pantsuit, at least half of the audience stands up and cranes for a better look.

As an African-American woman, she never felt much pressure to lose weight. Some experts say as many as 78 percent of African-American women are overweight; more than half of those are obese.

"It's a culture thing," Perry explains a few days before the fashion show. "I always had men friends. But I wasn't happy with me."

At first it was just the way she looked. Then health became a concern: "Every time I went to the doctor, he'd tell me something else. I had diabetes, lupus, high blood pressure. I thought, 'I can't keep doing this. I'm slowly killing myself!' "

Her part-time job offered Weight Watchers free to employees, so Perry signed up. She took to it with a vengeance. At first, she was so strict about eliminating fat, her hair started falling out and her skin began to peel. It took an instructor to remind her that she needed to eat more than apples and oranges.

Even now, Perry arrives at the gym every morning at six and works out for two hours. She strictly observes Weight Watchers' plan.

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