Ground Zero

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

Still, it was up to her boyfriend to persuade her not to drop any more, to stay at a size eight and like it.

"I want to get a little smaller," she says wistfully, "but my man said, 'No more.' He said, 'I want a little meat on your bones.' "

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.

If the case for a national obesity epidemic is a bit of a stretch, Houston's Fattest City title was a virtual long jump.

Men's Fitness, which shares a publisher with the National Enquirer, relied on no city-by-city weight comparisons, because those don't exist. Instead, it did things like count fast-food restaurants in the yellow pages and penalize areas with a high ratio of eateries per resident. Cities with lakes and mountains got extra points. Those with air pollution were docked.

The connection between those factors and fat is tenuous, at best. And in January, when Detroit was named Fattest City, Houston's fall to second place was dubious, even by Men Fitness's standards.

For example, Houston had improved in the categories of alcohol consumption and nutrition, but those were based mostly on statewide data, some of it not updated since 2002. The magazine claimed Houston's higher ranking for exercise and sports participation resulted from surveys of cities by American Sports Data, which says it never conducted such a survey.

Labrada, the fitness czar under Brown, credits his personal lobbying effort with the magazine's editor as Houston's real achievement. He flew to New York to explain the city's fitness program, "and that was factored in as well."

Peter Sikowitz, Men's Fitness editor in chief, says the Fattest Cities list was originally planned as a sidebar to a list of Fittest Cities. But the magazine quickly discovered where the zeitgeist was headed. "There's been an awful lot of attention to the obesity epidemic," he says.

That attention has helped Men's Fitness to increase its circulation. Sikowitz claims the magazine's ranking helps spur the listed cities to focus on fitness. "This is really something that works for the greater good of communities," he says.

Like fad dieters everywhere, however, Houston appears to have lost interest in its municipal shape-up plan.

In the first nine months of Mayor Bill White's administration, Labrada says, he wasn't able to get a straight answer on whether the city wants to keep the fitness program.

Councilwoman Carol Alvarado says the mayor hopes to appoint a new fitness czar soon. The city has had more pressing concerns this year. "There was a list of priorities," she says, "and this was not at the top."

There was a time when Darlene Cates wouldn't leave her house. For five years, she sat at home, and on the rare occasions she went somewhere, she would sit in the car and wait for the errand to be over.

While she'd always been fat, being a few hundred pounds overweight was something new.

"When you're fat," she says, "you find the oddest things to validate who you are and how you are. I was always proud of the fact that I never waddled when I walked. I took pride in that when I didn't have much to be proud of."

But then her knees started to give out, and she found she could hardly even walk. "And that really depressed me," she says, explaining that she started staying at home. "I thought, if people made fun of me before, they'd really do it now."

But two things happened. A doctor gave her a prescription for Prozac. Then, in 1992, the Sally Jessy Raphael Show called. They wanted her on the show about people too fat to leave their houses.

"I can't get from my bedroom to the car without sitting down a few times, and you want me to come to New York?" she asked. But they pleaded, so Cates consulted her family.

"You've been praying for help," her son-in-law pointed out. "What if this is it -- and you don't go?"

So she went, and a few months later, she went again. And when casting agents were looking for someone to play the overweight mother of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, they thought of her. Cates suddenly had a major role in a movie that still has a cult following 11 years after its premiere.

Cates, too, has a following. A fan has posted her story on the Internet, and every few days she hears from another person whose life she's touched. Someone who saw the movie, or read her story and wants to say thanks.

She talks to them. She answers their e-mails. She tries to remind them that they deserve to be treated well, that they don't have to take abuse just because they're heavy. It's become her ministry.

Cates has learned to accept that she's 542 pounds. "Look, don't assume we're just fat and happy and satisfied. Some of us are, some aren't. But I'm going to be as happy as I can in my circumstances. That's all I can say."

Any person would love to have a safe answer to their weight problems, she says. "I've heard people say, 'I wouldn't lose weight even if I could. I'm perfectly happy.' " Cates pauses. "As we in Texas say, 'That's bullshit.' That's not true."

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