Phillippe Diederich

Bikinis are what Cathy Woods and her mom argue over. Cathy, 35, likes wearing bikinis. Her mother, Ruby Lee Woods, would rather see her in a one-piece, maybe something with a skirt. Cathy doesn't think she has anything to hide: She's 500 pounds and proud of it. She sews her own bikinis and makes matching suits for her fat friends.

"I think it's disgusting," says Ruby Lee, 73. "I can't understand why women would want to show their bodies like that to everybody -- especially when they're as big as they are."

She tells her daughter that just because she's big, she doesn't have to flaunt it. But Cathy thinks she's no different from any other girl wearing a bikini, and if people don't want to see her, they don't have to look.

Cathy describes herself as a BBW, a Big Beautiful Woman. "Sizes don't matter," she says. She wears a 50DD bra and usually an XXXXXXL dress. Her hips are wider than her 30-inch television set. She turns sideways to get through doors. She can't sit in chairs with arms, and buys two seats on airplanes. When she wants to be weighed, she joins Weight Watchers for a week.

Cathy's an accounting clerk, and she lives with her sister in a large house off Highway 290. Some days Cathy walks the dogs or walks laps in her pool. She doesn't have a regular exercise regimen, she says; showering every morning is enough of a workout. Lifting the weight of her flesh to scrub with her sponge-on-a-stick gets her heart rate up.

"You've got to get all the little creases," she says. "You know how men always want to watch you get dressed? There's nothing sexy about watching me get dressed."

It takes her at least five minutes to dry off. She lays a towel on the toilet, then sits on the toilet to dry her bottom (she leaves the lid up so she won't break it). She puts another towel underneath the fold of her stomach and uses a third towel to dry her hair, arms and the rest of the way down.

Then comes powder. She powders any place where there's skin on top of skin: under her breasts, under her belly and between the fat rolls on her thighs.

She loves her belly because it's soft. But she loves her butt because it's the only part of her body that's firm. She hates her thighs, though, because they're so hard to fit pants over. She has only four pairs, and she hardly ever wears them.

She has plenty of other things to wear. Her closet is stuffed, and one wall of her room is taken up with an overstuffed clothes rack. There's even a hook outside her bedroom door holding more dresses.

She collects shoes and perfumes, and on the dresser she keeps a basket full of nail polish. But she doesn't paint her own toenails; it's too much work. Instead, she lets her boyfriend, Dave, give her pedicures when he visits.

Cathy's father (may he rest in peace) said he'd never marry a fat woman. But he did -- Cathy's mom was 180 pounds on her wedding day. They raised seven fat daughters in Pensacola, Florida. Cathy's the youngest and the largest woman in her family. Cathy's mother now weighs 240 pounds, and all of her daughters are over 275.

Cathy's brother, Carl, used to have a 29-inch waist. The family calls him "little man." Recently he expanded to a 36-inch waistband; they tease him that he's finally getting fat.

Cathy started getting chubby when she was four. In sixth grade she was the last person the teacher weighed, and then she forgot to reset the scale from 190. Cathy can't forget that number; all the kids saw and made nasty comments.

When she was 11 her mother put her on a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet. But that diet didn't work, and neither did all the ones she tried later. She dieted because everyone else in her family was dieting. When she was 14 she joined Weight Watchers and lost 48 pounds -- her most successful diet -- but she gained it all back. And more.

Until she was 14, Cathy could shop in any adult section; the dresses and pants were always too long, but she hemmed them. When she had to start shopping in the plus sizes, she started wanting to be thinner.

She thought she needed to be thin to get a boyfriend. But fall of her freshman year, she got one. She met another guy in her sophomore year who she dated off and on until graduation.

"I reckon I fit in with the rest of everybody," Cathy says. She never sat on the bench in P.E.; she was just as active as everyone else. And she was fashionable. She bought jeans at Lane Bryant, and if she wanted something that skinny people were wearing, she made it.  

At school there was one other fat girl, Gracie. But Gracie didn't dress like the other kids. She wore fat-people clothes, polyester shirts and pants. The kids made fun of her.

Cathy pointed out to them that she was the same size as Gracie.

"But you're not fat," they said.

"Yes," Cathy said, "I am."

But they never saw her that way. Because "fat" to them was an ugly word, an insult. And they liked Cathy.

Cathy didn't date much in college. Or after college. She stayed in Pensacola for junior college and vocational training in fashion marketing and data processing. Instead of the "freshman 15," she put on 150 pounds, which put her at nearly 500. (Since then, she has gained only 13 pounds.) The way she explains it, she was just like any other college student, running around, always on the go, eating fast food and ordering midnight pizzas.

After she graduated, she worked at a nonprofit organization that helped the developmentally disabled. She was in the Jaycees and the Kiwanis Club, and she taught Junior Achievement classes. She was always busy, so she didn't much miss having a boyfriend.

Five years ago she was watching Sally Jessy Raphael and heard about the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. She called the number on the screen, found out there was a national convention coming up and decided she wanted to be there. Her family thought she was crazy when she bought the plane ticket to D.C. That was the first time she saw fat women in bikinis. At first she thought it was wrong, then she thought it was cute and decided she wanted one.

At the convention she didn't feel fat. She felt average.

And there were men there. She didn't have to worry about whether they would like her even though she was fat. Because these men like fat women; they come to the convention to meet fat women. They're called FA's, or Fat Admirers; they used to be known as Chubby Chasers or Hoggers.

Cathy's mother doesn't like the men that go to these conventions. "I think they're sick," says Ruby Lee. "I really do."

Cathy thinks they're fine. It's just an unexplainable sexual preference, she says. But she doesn't want men to like her just because she's fat.

Cathy met a man from Switzerland and had a weeklong romance that made her feel like she was in a Danielle Steel novel. He still sends her chocolates and offered to buy her plane tickets to Europe. But Cathy doesn't like Europe -- everything over there is too small. The bars are small, the seats are small, the subway is small. It's not a fat-friendly place.

She went home from the convention and placed a personal ad:

"Super size BBW looking for a man with a warm heart to love me and strong arms to hold me. A man that loves to laugh and knows how to cry."

She got 160 responses. She had men calling her and men writing her that they like a "big round bottom." They told her that they hate skinny girls; they want a woman they can sink into.

She placed more personal ads, became chair of the NAAFA's southern states, put up a Web site and went to more conventions. At the conventions she had lunches and dinners and dancing dates with different guys. It was like being one of the popular girls in high school.

She got to pick and choose among her men. She got to decide what she wanted, and she wanted thin, muscled men. "I like my men as hard as they like me soft," she says. "I like a very toned, hard body."

They can't be short, they can't be too skinny, and they can't be fat. She especially likes black men. "I'm waiting to find a white man with a black guy's body," she says. "My mother would probably appreciate it a lot more."

She likes a well-dressed man, and she doesn't think fat men wear clothes well.

But she tells large women that they look beautiful no matter what their size.

"They do," Cathy says. "That's different."

"NAAFA?" asks the man handing out parking passes at Quintana Beach. "They're already down there."


"Oh, I think you'll find 'em," he says.

It's the second annual NAAFA beach party in mid-August. They chose Quintana Beach because it's empty.  

Cathy walks up a couple of hours late. "Guess what we're buying you for Christmas?" asks Mike Tidwell, NAAFA's vice chair. "A watch -- a great big one."

Cathy's almost always late. She doesn't care. "Get over it," she says.

She sits down on a bench and pulls a polka-dot bikini out of her bag. She hands it to a girl with a ponytail and tells her to go put it on.

"No," the girl says. "I have my Sporty Spice bathing suit."

She pulls her shirt up so Cathy can see. "It's only a 24," the girl says. She's one of few people at the NAAFA picnic who don't like being fat. She hates her body. Cathy wants to smack her and tell her she's beautiful.

Cathy doesn't praise small sizes. She looks at the suit and says, "It must have a lot of stretch to it."

The group is huddled under the pavilion waiting for the sun to shift. The sun's too bright, and most of them are too pale. Cathy's not.

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.

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.

The Fat Admirers adored Cathy; her e-mail was more active than ever. But eventually the fun of on-line flirting wore off, and Cathy started ignoring most of the guys who wrote her, chatting with her friends instead.

A guy named Dave Ferguson, a jet-aircraft crew chief for the Department of Defense in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says that he usually just chats with people about golf; he doesn't know what made him look at Cathy's AOL member profile. He followed the link to her Web site, thought she was pretty and sent her a note.

Cathy wrote him back, but his note didn't stand out; he was just another guy who lived far away who she probably would never meet. He sent her instant messages, and she didn't respond. But Dave persisted, they talked on the phone a few times, and eventually they arranged to meet.

In August '98 she had her second cover spread in Dimensions. This one showed her and two friends, Frannie Juneau and Zsalyan Whitworth, as "the fat trio"; the issue was put in all the goodie bags at NAAFA's Los Angeles convention. Dave dropped by the convention, and they had dinner and went dancing.

"Wow," was all he thought when he met her. Cathy thought he was nice, but she wasn't bowled over. "He's different from any guy I've dated," she says. "I've always dated Mr. GQ-type guys, and he's an all-American-type guy."

He asked if he could call her. She said sure and gave him her number in Houston. She didn't think much of it; she'd given her number to a few other guys, and she figured none of them would call.

But the weekend she got home Dave called, and they talked for a few hours. He seemed sincere. He started calling regularly.

She didn't want a relationship at first because relationships were too much trouble. But she was sick of dating.

"You get tired of all the jerks, the assholes and the charmers," she says. "I was tired of being the beauty queen. I was ready to just be Cathy."

They were supposed to meet in Vegas in October, but Cathy's dad got sick and she had to close the store and take an accounting job so she could fly back and forth to Florida.

Dave visited her at her sister's house in Pensacola on New Year's Day; Cathy's father died January 8. It was a Friday afternoon, and Dave was working in Tampa. He got in his car and drove straight to her sister's house. He didn't make it to the funeral, but his being there showed Cathy that he cared a lot about her. He made her feel better than her family did. He saw her every weekend in January.

"We all like Dave," Ruby Lee says.  

"He fits," Carlette says.

They liked him, and they liked how he obviously cared for Cathy. He loved her green eyes and her gap-toothed smile. He liked it that she cared so much about her family, didn't put on airs and didn't dress up too much to meet him.

Her size doesn't matter to him, he says. He just looks at Cathy. He has dated both skinny and large women, but he doesn't have a preference.

"I don't look at her that way," Dave says. "That's not where this relationship is -- that's not what it's all about. I could care less if she was 90 pounds or however she is now. I fell in love with her because she's a wonderful person. She's a very open person, very caring, very family-oriented and a very nice person."

On Valentine's Day he told her he loved her. She said she loved him too. They sat in his car and listened to Reba McEntire sing "Forever Love"; he decided that's their song.

Dave and Cathy have seen each other every month since. They talk on the phone three times a day and chat on-line at night. Cathy always knows where he is; if he's going out to dinner or to a movie, he calls to let her know.

When he drives 18 hours to see her, he stops and calls every two hours. When he leaves, they both cry. Usually Cathy insists on sleeping alone; he's the first person she has ever been able to share her bed with. She has always been an independent girl, but she tells Dave that she wants him to take care of her. She wants him to make all the decisions.

The doctors told Cathy that she most likely can't have kids. She doesn't ovulate regularly. She usually gets her period every other month -- and that's with birth control pills to regulate it -- but she has gone as long as six months without menstruating. Pregnancy, they say, would put her and the baby at too great a risk.

But she likes children, so she plays with her nieces and nephews. And she's trying to start a big brother/big sister program for NAAFA members and large children.

Dave doesn't mind that Cathy can't have kids. He's 54 and already has two sons in their twenties.

Right now they're planning that he'll retire in about 18 months, then move to Florida, where she'll join him. Their wedding should be around Christmas 2000.

"I love her," he says. "She's very wonderful to be with."

Cathy's going to make her own dress with an ivory satin bodice, an empire waist and an A-line skirt made out of candlelight silk. "So it'll be real flowy," she says. She doesn't want a train.

Her wedding colors are going to be red, black and candlelight. The bridesmaids will wear black gowns and carry long-stem red roses. She's not sure whether to have her best fat friends like Frannie as her bridesmaids or her nieces -- definitely not her sisters, because she has too many to choose from.

Near the Florida/Alabama border is a Catholic church that sits on the water. The front door opens to the ocean; that's where she wants to get married.

"It's real small, though," she says.

Which could be a big problem. But she's sure it'll be fine. Her guests can always stand on the sand -- she always wanted to be married on the beach. The church is pretty, she likes it, and after all, size isn't everything.

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