The Big Seat
By Q Bomb
Sally Hoffman was ready, she was sure of it. As an ambitious young lawyer and Assistant District Attorney, she'd kept her eyes on the prize. At 30, she'd been elected to Congress; having a safe, 1-party district had helped. So had her father, Jerry Hoffman, the state's popular governor. She'd made quite the splash in Washington, the tall, sexy Member in her tightly-tailored, brightly-colored suits. Her good looks, good humor and braying voice (inherited from Dad) had quickly made her a regular on the yelling-head circuit on cable TV. She had carefully won a reputation as a cool-headed middle-of-the-roader, moderate and compromising on tough social issues, fiscally conservative; it wasn't the most popular mix in her party, but everyone figured her for a rising star with broad, mass appeal. It was an intentional strategy: eyes on the prize, the United States Senate. And maybe more?
Sally stood before the full-length mirror, smoothing her lemon-yellow suit over her slim hips and brushing her long blond hair away from her face. After six and a half years in Congress, she was well-known and well-liked, and her father's retirement let people look at her as her own woman. She liked the package she saw in the mirror: a real beauty, 5'9" and 122 pounds, with a pretty face the TV cameras loved, long, lean legs, good-sized breasts, and a trim waist.
She had been good-looking all her life, and had come to take it for granted as part of who she was. Add fame and an aggressive personality to the picture, and heads always turned when Sally Hoffman entered a room.
Sally had been raising money for over a year for this campaign to supplement her husband's personal fortune, and now in late June she was announcing her candidacy, aiming for a long run-up to the primary election in March and a November showdown with the controversial three-term incumbent, Ben Rosen. Sally's announcement speech went over well with the friendly audience. She promised to work tirelessly to win the Senate seat and help tip the delicate balance of the Senate in her party's favor. She promised to visit every county in the state "so many times that each one feels like home. By next November, you will all be sick of my face. [Pause while crowd shouts 'never'!] But you won't have to see Ben Rosen's face anymore, and that will be worth it!"
After the speech, Sally sat down for a last, private lunch with her campaign staff before they boarded the bus that would take them on their criss-crossing journey.
Della, her campaign manager, was an old college friend who'd caught the political bug but had always been too busy with closer races to work for Sally's campaigns. Della was a big, noisy black woman - big as in 200-pounds, chest-you-could-land-an-airplane-on big, and noisier even than Sally, who was loud but stopped to take a breath sometimes. Della had been heavyset even in college, but in her late thirties she had really put on weight. Marvin, the press secretary, was the opposite in personality - calm, soft-spoken, master of speaking at length and saying nothing. He had been her father's spokesman and looked the part of a local political pro, with wide-rimmed glasses, a bad comb-over and a big spare tire. Bo, the pollster, was a real character, a towering Southerner in cowboy boots who drank Jack Daniels with lunch.
While the others munched on big sandwiches, Sally drew big scoops of her frozen yogurt. Sally had never had healthy eating habits; she was prone to skipping meals and grabbing late-night snacks, and her diet had long been a mixture of health foods and junk food. She could go days on nothing but celery and carrots, or knock off a pint of Haagen-Dazs after a workout. This tended to balance out, along with her height, her fast metabolism and her workout regimen, so that except for a bout with teen acne she had never paid a price for her diet. Now almost 37, she'd worn the same size clothes since she was 18.
"OK," Della was saying, "we're going to start you off with two events a day this week and three a day until Labor Day. Then we get serious." Sally nodded bravely, her mouth full of chocolate fro-yo, but in her mind she was nervous. Her campaigns in her district had always been so one-sided that she barely had to campaign, and three events a day for her was a 'last week in October' schedule. She wondered if she'd stay as polished in these all day campaigning marathons as she had always been in staged appearances and on TV. Pretty soon, all her private, thinking time, all her down time would be swallowed by this campaign. Could she do it the way her dad had?
The next morning, the bus pulled out with the candidate groggily sipping coffee and munching on a donut. There were plenty of donuts, and the reporters (just three of them at this early stage, despite Sally's rock-star status in political circles) were scarfing them down with abandon. As Marvin reminded Sally after his second jelly donut, "a campaign without donuts is a campaign without publicity."
The first stop of the day was a church pancake breakfast; Sally donned an apron and the usual silly hat to hand out hotcakes, and of course she had to join in the feast, sitting at a head table with the minister and leaders of the congregation. It's politics; you are supposed to make like this particular event is the most important thing you will do this year, and that includes going along with whatever everyone is doing and always sharing in whatever everyone is eating. It would be rude not to. The second stop was at a senior citizen center, to meet with mostly older ladies at their afternoon tea. Sally worked the crowd, moving from table to table and sampling cookies and petit fours as she went along. "Here, young lady, try this one." The ladies were all picking at their afternoon nourishment, and the food gave her something to keep her quiet enough to make a show of listening intently to whatever nonsense people would tell her.
This went on all summer, barbecues and Girl Scout cookie sales and fundraising dinners (often for other candidates, since Sally was a big draw). It was particularly important to push the campaign along now, since Sally would have to return to Washington in the fall. Sally gradually got her old swagger back as she grew comfortable with the schedule, but she was also drained by constantly being "on." She drank cup after cup of coffee on the bus, and would often find something to nibble on - a cookie, a donut, a muffin - with her coffee as she brainstormed with Della and Marvin. Plus, she was chowing down with the voters at every stop along the way, in true barnstorming style. By the time she went back to Washington after Labor Day, Sally's suits were getting uncomfortably snug. The first signs of trouble were in her waist, where the tight flesh had grown looser and formed a roll when she sipped up her skirts, and in the hips.
Back in the studio apartment she lived in for three nights a week in Washington, she pulled off her second skirt of the morning and stepped on the scale. 127, it read. 127! She got off and took off her shirt and her earrings (yes, her earrings). Still 127. She called Della back home. "How did I gain five pounds? When? Della, we've only been on the road for two months!" "Calm down honey," Della replied. "I think I weighed 127 in junior high. I told you long campaigns have their downsides. Honestly, I just saw you two days ago and I didn't notice a thing." That's right, Sally told herself, nobody else would notice, just me. She picked out a suit with a skirt that zipped on the side, and went with a jacket long enough that you couldn't see that it didn't zip all the way up. Well, no campaigning for a few days, she thought, as she grabbed two Pop Tarts for breakfast and headed out the door.
The Washington routine wasn't the same, either, though. More phone calls from Della and Marvin. Daily updates from Bo, who was constantly back and forth to DC to explain the latest numbers. More cocktail party fundraisers, more interviews. More stress, less sleep. After a long day and dinner consisting of cocktails and uncounted high-fat hors d'ouerves, Sally would unwind in front of the TV with a bowl of ice cream before bed. She had always done this, of course, but not with this kind of regularity. It was soon a comforting routine. Come Thursday night, the rush to fly home to campaign Friday, Saturday, Sunday. More half-meals; a fast food burger at the airport, food in a plastic tin on the plane. October brought the annual battle with the White House over the budget, but now the stakes were higher, as Sally was not just a vocal participant in the fight, she was also dying to get the thing wrapped up so she could go home and campaign. Late night staff meetings over greasy pizza were now running into redeye flights home. And the schedule got wackier; now they were off and running all day long, wall to wall events designed on Della's trademark gung-ho timetables.
Out and about, Sally was loving every minute of it: soaking up the adulation she received from supporters. Polls showed her with a 15-point lead over the state senator who'd run against Rosen last time and 25 over the third candidate, but she'd seen some of her father's primary races get unexpectedly close before, and besides, Rosen was running already - gotta keep her eyes on the prize. Away from the crowds and cameras, she was more nervous than she'd ever been; this was her lifelong dream, and what if she screwed it up? Would there be another chance? Sally had always been a runner to stay in shape, and in past campaigns it hadn't been too hard to find the time to run on the road. All you need is the sneakers and clothes, right? Well, you also need the energy, and Sally usually didn't feel like running when she was peeling herself out of bed in the morning. Her runs were sporadic at best over the summer, and by late August she had stopped altogether. In the chaos of the campaign, she really didn't miss running and didn't have time to feel guilty about it. The new hectic fall schedule made it out of the question, or at least she didn't make it a high enough priority to prevent it getting squeezed off the schedule.
The fall flew by. Sally was back on the trail full-time when the budget season finally ended and Congress recessed after Halloween, and mostly stayed on the road until the primary in March, stopping only a day at home for Christmas. Sally's multimillionaire husband, real estate developer Larry Lucchese, wasn't too happy with this, since he was too occupied with his business to take off for days on end and couldn't spend a lot of time with his wife. Away from her man, Sally was sexually frustrated in addition to all her other burdens, and that only contributed to the late night strategy sessions on the trail eating ice cream with Della or drinking whiskey with Bo.
When Sally started showing up in ankle-length skirts and baggy blouses in mid-January, Della forced her to admit that her suits didn't fit anymore; Della responded by matter-of-factly ordering a staffer to buy the candidate some new suits in larger sizes. "But Della, I don't want bigger clothes . . . " "No but-Della today. You need new clothes, and I'm not gonna have you campaigning in a house dress waiting for some miracle diet that ain't happening on this bus. I've tried putting candidates on a diet before, and believe you me, it's the worst thing you can do, start protesting the food they give you and getting all cranky when you're supposed to be the Face of Hope and Optimism! No way. You're getting comfortable suits, and that's that."
The Sally Hoffman who raised her arms in victory on March 15 was a visibly changed woman. The smooth vertical lines of her figure had given way to more solid hips, and her suits pinched a roll around her middle when she sat down. Her cheeks were chubbier too. She had gained 15 pounds on the trail, and the political beat reporters definitely noticed, although they were as yet hesitant to pester a female candidate about the issue. Sally told her supporters, "This campaign is just getting started!" So were some other things . . .
Sally tried to tell herself to watch it, but food on the campaign trail is everywhere, and the candidate is expected to join in. She went from event to event, and the ethnic events were always the most fattening. "Political correctness" or no, you don't just suck up to ethnic groups when you're running for office, you're expected to buy into ethnic stereotypes - eat pasta with the Italians, fried chicken with African-Americans, drink beer with the Irish, and so on. All for photo ops. And the campaign just never slowed down.
In late April, scandal hit: the local papers started digging into Larry's finances and some of his "connections" (there go the stereotypes again), and Sally was put on the defensive, giving interview after interview and holding late-night conference calls with her staff to keep on top of the story and make sure the campaign kept getting its message out. Sally's stress level went through the roof, and now she was eating constantly on the bus and pretty much everywhere else. The beat writers started a pool on how much weight she'd gain before the end of the campaign (by this point, they intended to ask), and were gradually slipping in mentions of how she looked frazzled and heavier into their daily accounts of the scandal. She'd packed on twelve more pounds by the end of May, pushing her weight to 149, when the story really hit the big time.
Sally was visiting with athletes training for the Special Olympics, and she was wearing a now-tight light blue suit including a skirt that was practically painted on her widening rear end. One of the competitors was in a wheelchair and spoke through a voice box, and Sally bent over at the waist to talk to him, leaving the photographers standing behind her to snap shots of her from a very unflattering angle, with the full width of her rear extended and the suit riding up and the skirt riding down enough to expose inches of flesh between.
The local papers, itching for a new angle and feeling like the weight gain was now obvious enough that they wouldn't look petty for pointing it out, jumped all over the story; one of the big city tabloids ran the picture on the front page under the headline "WIDE SALLY WIDE." Sally was humiliated, but she couldn't stop her relentless schedule, and Della absolutely loved the story: it finally got Larry off the front pages, and without asking, Della started lining up interviews with women's magazines (the housewife type, not the anorexic-model type) so Sally could talk about the hardships of a woman running for higher office.
At the time, Sally had fallen 5-7 points back in most polls, and she was losing ground due to the scandal. Gradually, as spring turned to summer, though, Bo's polls showed that she was starting to gain support among women. Not just any women, but specifically housewives, older women, rural women, poor women - in short, all the types of women who tended to be put off by a glammy, fast-talking urban career woman, and also the types of women who tend not to be thin. Sally suddenly looked a lot more human, a lot more like them - struggling with a few extra pounds, and occasionally uncomfortable in public as a result.
Sally by late May was hardly fat, just carrying some extra weight in her butt, mostly, and around her waist. But the extra weight was all new flab, and that made it look worse. The summer brought lighter clothing - sleeveless shirts with her skirts, as Della decided that the jackets looked too stuffy and a lighter wardrobe would give Sally a softer look. In fact, Della was by this point subtly encouraging Sally to eat more and dress in ways that emphasized the weight gain. Sally would have killed her if she suspected, but Della could read the polls and remembered how other female pols in the past had won elections by taking on the regular-mom image (no matter that Sally had no kids). So, they'd share a donut or four on the bus, and Sally would show up at a rally with a growing tummy bulge visible below the waistline of her skirt, and wave her thickening arms to the crowd, and Della would think about the Senate.
In the rush of the summer, Sally's weight spun out of control - 4 more pounds in June, 5 in July, 5 in August. At an annual Labor Day picnic in her district, Sally stood on a stage next to her balding, pot-bellied, grinning father - and at 163 pounds, she looked bigger than the old man. Now, she was seriously plump - the double chin, the chubby cheeks, the hips that came to a point where they joined her round, heavy thighs to a wide, wide butt. The days of Sally as the media's glamour girl were over.
Sally talked to some of the magazines, moaning about how hard life on the road was, how it screwed with her diet and all. But while the reporters continued to pester Della, they never asked Sally, and she still hadn't spoken publicly about her weight. She was still avoiding the subject - not in denial, exactly, since she knew full well how much fatter she'd gotten, but unwilling to really openly admit to it and face the world as a plump woman.
October loomed. And October meant: debates. With the race tight, the two debates between the candidates would have a big impact. Rosen was known as a tough debater, but Sally was raised at the table of politics and had long been a staple on cable TV, so she would be no pushover, and was expected to thrive in a debate. TV political debates are a visual medium, and the pundits had always assumed that Sally's stunning good looks would give her an added edge over Rosen's beady-eyed intensity.
Now, they wondered aloud: with Sally changing before their eyes into a chunky woman in suits that never seemed to fit, would she look too frazzled and flabby to project the image of a distinguished United States Senator? The questions were out there. Sally herself wondered, as she unloaded her troubles to Della one night in September (over bowls of ice cream, of course). Her feet were hurting, and she wondered if that was from being heavy. Della suggested more comfortable shoes. She felt uncomfortable walking around, with her thighs pressing and rubbing together as she walked - "and those tight skirts don't help, you know."
Della agreed to have somebody go pick out bigger ones, making a note to herself to check whether this would push Sally into a size 14 or a 16. She complained that her wedding band was digging into her finger, and Della said they'd have to wait until after the election to re-size it. Sally grimaced, since she was trying to avoid thinking about waking up after the election with 40-odd extra pounds; she had gotten such tunnel vision that she had rationalized the weight gain as part of the campaign without considering life as a fat woman. She asked how Della did it, how did she get used to walking and bending over with so much weight in her upper body. "I mean, these boobs are killing my back," she said, grabbing them underneath for emphasis and getting well more than a handful in each hand. Sally had never had particularly big breasts, but now they were big, round and soft. Della sympathized. Sally scooped out some more ice cream.
Ben Rosen was not a man to let any available weapon pass from his hand unused, and so it should not be a surprise that, gradually and in coded language, his people started planting the suggestion with the media that Sally was "undisciplined" and lacked self-control, even that her proposals were not well-thought out and were "flabby." Della was livid at the increasing mention in press reports of one or other suggestion that Sally - long recognized as a coming star in her party and by the media - was morally or intellectually unfit to be a Senator solely because she had been gaining weight.
The morning of the first debate arrived quickly enough. Sally woke up in her hotel room across the street from the auditorium. She rubbed her belly, which was hurting a bit because in her nervous energy preparing the night before, she'd methodically gobbled down all the candy bars in the mini-bar and about half of the rest of the junk food - on top of a big deep-dish pizza dinner she'd had with Della a few hours earlier. Too much food even for Sally these days.
Sally wondered how she'd gotten to this point - she'd always been so self-assured, felt so in control of herself (never mind that her eating habits had really always been an exception to this). Now, with her life's ambition so close at hand, she couldn't seem to stop pigging out. Was she sabotaging herself, was she just a more nervous person than she'd known because she'd never been tested like this before? She'd been thin for nearly four decades - how could she adjust to spending the other half of her life as a fat woman? Or could she lose the weight, after letting herself go like this for months and months on end?
She realized as she held it that her belly was now really that - not just a roll around the waist, but a rounded belly. She stood up to take stock, feeling the heaviness as she forced herself to stand. She wasn't enormous, just still feeling unaccustomed to so much weight. She took off her flannel PJs (Della had a campaign staffer buy those too, a new staffer after the last one was fired for leaking Sally's most recent dress size to the tabloids) and stood in her underwear before the mirror. She looked at the reflection in horror at the details. The chubby cheeks and double chin. The thick, sausage-like upper arms. She'd grown fearful of wearing short sleeves, no matter what Della said. The rolls of fat bulging out at the sides, where her waist used to curve inward, and melting into her hips. The hips . . . as much as her upper body had grown, Sally's suits now had to be bought in separate parts because her hips were so big that she wore a larger size skirt than top. But the biggest change of all was the thighs - once long and lean, they now rubbed together in the middle so much she had taken to standing and sitting a bit bow-legged, and a column of new flesh hung out well forward of her knees and in back as well. They were unmistakably the legs of a fat woman, all the way down to her feet. Sally slapped her thighs and they rippled where they used to just smack.
She went in to the bathroom, where the scale stood. 163, she remembered, from the last time she had stood on a hotel scale just before Labor Day. She got on and winced as she heard an audible creak; she stood with eyes shut for a minute, looked down and saw . . . well, she'd have to lean forward a little now to see the numbers past her belly . . . 169. 47 pounds she'd gained in 16 months. Well, too late to do anything right now. She called room service and ordered bacon and eggs, and sat down to prepare.
Sally strode confidently into the auditorium 90 minutes before the debate started. She knew the ins and outs of her thoughts on the issues cold, as well as lots of possible questions, barbs she could use against Rosen, the whole ball of wax. The self-doubt that surrounded her weight gain, the stress of the scandal and the campaign routine, and the nerves and suspense - none of it had punctured her cool exterior or the tremendous confidence she had in herself as a public speaker after years in the spotlight. If anything, the private binges on candy bars and double-chocolate chip ice cream were the safety valve that let off all her other anxieties. She checked herself in the mirror backstage, but now with a different eye - not examining the almost 50 pounds of new flab hanging around her once-taut figure, but looking at the confident image she projected: long, past-the-shoulders blond hair with not a hair out of place; the snug, powder-blue skirt suit Della had picked out, which with some help underneath managed to emphasize her bosom; the beaming smile that lit up her pretty face and deeply dimpled cheeks. She was ready to face the state.
The debate started uneventfully, but once the candidates were warmed up, Rosen decided to go for the throat, see if he could rattle Sally. He slammed her proposals as being "sloppy" and "undisciplined" and asked, "I would ask the voters, if Sally Hoffman is somebody who's really up to the hard work and discipline and self-control of doing this job. She loves to be out talking to the press and showing up at barbecues and all the fun stuff, but I've been there and done the work. Everything about her campaign is a mess. Can she really get the job done in the Senate?"
Sally had had enough, alright, but she was careful in keeping her voice even and looking steadily ahead as she responded. "I've been listening to this for months now, and it's time to stop ducking the issue and call this what it is. Ben Rosen wants you to vote against me because I'm fat. Because I've gotten fat during this campaign. He keeps using all these code words to suggest that I'm not in control of my work because I'm not in control of my diet. OK, I've put on a few pounds the last few months. I have no secrets here: 47 pounds. It kills me to admit that, but I knew I'd have to give up my privacy for this job. But you know, I don't think I'm the only one in this state who's lived on donuts and coffee and fast food and stayed away from the gym because I had a job to do. There's a lot of people out there who get by on too little sleep, too little time to themselves - moms at home with the kids, nurses on the night shift, cops. Are they all too fat and lazy for Ben Rosen? I gave up a lot for this campaign, gave up a lot to be out there meeting the voters from the crack of dawn day in and day out when I could have been home getting a facial and sipping bottled water and doing tae-bo. I gave up my figure for this campaign. I gave up my 23-inch waist, and I'll probably never have that back. If you don't think that means something, Senator, ask a woman. Don't tell me I haven't worked hard enough for this job."
It was the turning point of the campaign, and everyone knew it. Sally had gone off and bared her weight gain, her feelings, and turned her fat into an issue. Rosen was speechless. Of course, it could go either way; candidates who get all worked up at debates sometimes get killed at the polls, too. Bo was so sure that this would be the key moment that he went off and commissioned a new set of overnight polls without waiting to see the rest of the debate.
The next day, as they gathered for breakfast, Bo told Sally that it had worked. A few people were turned off, but women overwhelmingly felt that Sally had been unfairly picked on for getting fat, and rallied to her support. Blue collar men said they felt like she understood why they had their beer guts. Older men said Rosen shouldn't have picked on a lady's figure. Talk radio hosts - his allies and enemies alike - blasted Rosen for forgetting that you never criticize a woman's weight. Then a funny thing happened: at the next campaign stop, people spontaneously showed up with boxes of donuts. And, of course, everyone wanted a photo op of Sally Hoffman eating a donut.
A month later, on election night, Sally squeezed into a black suit and went out before the cameras. She had weighed herself that morning for the first time since the debate: 176 pounds, up 54 from the start of the campaign, up 7 pounds since the debate. All those photo ops the past month had taken their toll. Sally felt her waist and her chest jiggle and her thighs rub together as she mounted the steps to the podium, but she was getting used to that feeling, and was starting to feel at home with it. The returns were in: she had beaten Ben Rosen by ten points, and the Senate seat was hers. She thanked everyone, talked about the campaign and mentioned her key issues, and at one point in the speech, acknowledging what had made national news and all the late night monologues, she put her hands on her ample hips, winked and said, "I'm ready to fill the big seat!"