Weight Room Title Bar

(An Observer Tale)

Maria Sanchez, born in San Diego, spent her student life through eighth grade in a local Catholic parochial school. Like the other students she wore a uniform and participated in the activities. She also enjoyed the tasty and generally high calorie meals of the multi-lingual section of San Diego where she had been born. Weight issues were not a concern in her world, for she was but one of many heavier students and adults in that community. Carrying perhaps 140 lbs (maybe it was 160, no one was counting then) on a five foot frame was not all that unusual for a blossoming teenager.

What was remarkable about her was the family of which she was a part. Her parents were remarkably ambitious, both for themselves and their three children. Books in both English and Spanish were part of their heritage from infancy, and joint study was a part of life. In this manner Maria grew up as a good student, enjoyed swimming and reading, content with her lot.

The family made a point both of maintaining their culture but also looking beyond the barrio. On vacations they traveled not only to Mexico, but to points around the United States, deep into Latin America, and once even to Europe. They had an international short wave radio and discussed national events and world affairs at the table in the pattern of the Kennedys. The Sanchez family was, as a result, remarkably well rounded in more ways than one.

Maria enjoyed cycling. When wearing her white biking shorts her developing belly roll protruded noticeably beneath her favorite blue blouse, just as her full hips pushed at the seams to the rear. She was a plumpening beauty, but one with ample muscles and energy to accompany her bulk. In all of this, as we have said, she was not any more noticeable than a score of others in the Hispanic community. Had not her Father's company transferred him to Spokane, Washington just after graduation from middle school the story events recounted below might never have happened.

This, you see, is not a tale primarily about gaining weight. Rather it is about how a young lady already of some size adapted to a totally new environment --- as told to me by one who was not only heavier than the average, but also of another racial and linguistic background.

Maria today recalls that she never thought of herself or her weight in a negative manner. It was simply accepted among her peers in San Diego that a certain percentage were heavier than the average. Her mother was a heavier person, yet loved adoringly by her father. Most of her aunts were stout, jolly, and happily married as well. The concern of her parents for all of their children was that they should be industrious and develop their minds as they had --- thus being able to escape from the economic poverty of their parents before them.

But then came the move to Spokane. Maria entered high school knowing no one. In that environment she was definitely one of the heavier freshmen. Pictures taken at the time show two developing belly rolls evident beneath her developing chest, as were a matching set of love handles on either side. Her thighs were strong from many hours biking, as well as in the swimming pool, easily supporting her ample hips. Her arms and calves were quite plump, and her very round face was accented by her cascading black hair. To say that she carried her weight with an elegant, almost authoritative, confidence would be perhaps the fairest and most accurate description.

This type of persona is also not the norm of the predominantly anglo culture of suburban Spokane. No one was so ungracious however, as to openly tease Maria, and she settled into her studies quite easily, but neither did she gain instant acceptance. In fact, she was bored with the ease with which she was able to get A's in the public school system --- and bugged at the noise and disruptiveness of the students. Their nonsense, harmless enough she supposed, would never have been tolerated by the sisters at St. Angelicas!

The disciplined study habits and intensity of her parochial school background were, of course, giving her an edge in reading and math skills, and she spent the first few months just enjoying a new community and climate. She also became acquainted with the pizzas, burgers, and other cuisine of the cafeteria. Their Mexican food, she sighed, was a joke compared to what she know how to make! The weather was also a lot colder than what she had been used to. But to all of this she gradually adapted.

The most difficult part, she recalls, was making friends as a high school freshman with brown skin in a new town. By the winter break she was climbing the walls for lack of activity and conversation with people her own age. And she knew that all the snacking in world was not going to fill the craving for acceptance. But the problem, she saw, was not just that she was an outsider --- the fact was that she didn't really want to be inside of what she saw going on. The conversations all seemed so shallow and meaningless.

For some thirteen year olds this would have been a time to either sink into depression or get into mischief. Maria, however, was not your ordinary teen. Her parents had been taught that you could take charge of circumstances, and this lesson had been passed along to their children. She now decided to do so. It began by talking with three adults --- her own Father, a priest at their new Church, and one of the counselors at her school. Each tried to help her, and fortunately none of them made an issue of her weight.

Her Father reminded her of his own experience. He explained that their entire family was different, not just in skin but in training and values. She was fluent in two languages, traveled and acquainted with places others had never been, and therefore should not expect to find others to be just like her. He shared with her some of the accommodations he had had to make in life to get along with those of more limited perspective --- they were not, he reminded her, bad people, just limited. You will need, he said, to find ways to share parts of yourself with them, but don't expect to be able to share everything with everyone.

The priest suggested developing a relationship with the church youth group, which had a few Hispanics and a value structure more like what she was used to. Unknowingly echoing her father, he pointed out that her mental age may have surpassed her chronological age. Thus persons in her grade level might not want or be able to open up as someone five years older might. He suggested trying a different peer group --- even thinking about getting a challenging job. He even that, when the time came, he knew where someone as smart as she might needed.

The school counselor suggested involvement as well, possibly with one or two school clubs, but also had another idea. The high school had a mentoring program for slower learners; most of those serving as mentors were juniors and seniors, but there were no Spanish language mentors. If Maria was interested, perhaps arrangements could be made. And of course she should think about the swimming team.

These were the options and suggestions which Maria mulled over during the winter break. Her studies were taking very little time, so she decided to try a little of both the church and the high school. She began attending meetings of the former and became both a mentor and a member of the home economics and chess clubs at the latter. She also began swimming more, thinking possibly of becoming part of the long distance swim team where endurance rather than litheness and speed were critical. In all four areas she made a point, as her father always did, of learning people's names and using them to give them recognition. She also proved herself to be a willing and hard worker.

She had two students to mentor that first semester --- both came to her house, where she shared Mexican as well as American snacks. She taught them culture as well as vocabulary and grammar, and their grades improved. She also proved adept in the chess club, even taking on Senior men and occasionally beating them. In home economics she showed others how to make the garments of Mexico even as she learned the skills of her new home town. And by sharing herself in each of these areas she managed to make a few friends in each one.

Did she also attract on a few more pounds? Most assuredly so, for by that summer all of her clothes from San Diego were too tight and had to be given away. By the summer before her sophomore year she was around 5'5" and nearly 180 pounds. It was, as she says, either in her genes or her mother's cooking, for she doesn't recall eating all that much. It certainly wasn't the tacos and enchiladas at the high school! They were so lacking in quality she refused to touch them. But at the time her caloric intake was not something to which she paying any concern, for by now she was far too busy.

The mentoring efforts succeeded --- and based on her student's success Maria successfully lobbied the counselors to include more non-seniors in the program. In her mind there was no reason why any student needing help with homework shouldn't have it --- especially since every student was required to have community service hours anyway. She was more than willing to share with newer mentors the experience she had gleaned. No one really cared about her food consumption, for she was already beginning to forge a unique image of her own.

That fall she became an officer in both the Church youth group and the Home Economics Club. She also made the swim team, where her sturdy legs and strong arms proved assets in the long distance relays. Beneath the deceptive outward rolls was a very strong muscular system which she thoroughly enjoyed using. Her participation in activities gave her increasing acceptance among the students. When the Sophomore class secretary/treasurer had to move she was asked to take her place and accepted.

The class treasury was in definite trouble as she took over. Two pancake breakfasts had produced only a fraction of the needed funds. Talking with friends in Home Economics and at Church she came up with an idea --- a Mexican American fiesta, complete with a variety of genuine Hispanic dishes, a piata, and games for the kids. Most of the winter break was devoted nonstop to the details and, when held in mid-January, it was a success.

It also brought Maria the first uncomfortable taste of prejudice. In putting together the fiesta Maria had built a cadre of helpers, made up in large part of friends from church and the home EC club, but also including a number of other larger girls who had been outcasts. She had seen them simply as people who obviously liked food and could therefore, probably be trained to do it right.

In this perception she had been correct. What she did not fully anticipate is that it would also give them some of the same self confidence and assurance she possessed. They were coming out of their shells, being friendlier, and in the process attracting the attention of their white skinned male counterparts. This posed a threat to some of the more insecure coeds, who retaliated by making remarks about those who "pattern their life after fat Mexicans."

The taunts got back first to one of Maria's younger sisters, then to Maria. She was at first hurt, then angry. All that she had done was solve some problems --- why should others be so jealous? And what could she do to strike back?

For really the first time she looked at herself in a mirror. Now approaching 200 pounds she was, she had to admit, indeed perhaps a "fat Mexican." But she did not find herself bad looking --- only different. She was no fatter than her mother or aunts, in fact a good deal less. And her weight was solidly placed, not at all flabby. "What is wrong with being who I am," she fumed. "And why should I let these people get to me?"

Then it came to her. The critics were jealous of her because they were afraid --- they had no depth, no cooking ability, no linguistic ability, no ability to hold a serious conversation. All they had was their primping and cooing. Maybe the answer was to give them something to really be frightened of --- what would happen if girls of size were to really start competing with them.

Four of the plumpers she had used for the Fiesta she knew also had grades like hers. She invited them all to her house for a venting session.

"I need your help," she said. "My sister is having to put up with hearing insults about my race and size --- and I think the real issue is that some of the prima donnas at school feel threatened not by just me, but you. I propose to prove that they have good reason for the fears --- and that the only real answer is for them to stop criticizing us and start competing with their brains as well as their bodies."

"If you could raise the competition to that level they would probably lose!" exclaimed Phyllis Raymond, a 200+ lb. blond."

"We can," Maria said. "Why not have the Home Ec Club sponsor a series of ethnic food days --- and ask some of the guys to help in exchange for free food?"

"You mean like ask them to get recipes for us and help in the cooking?" remarked Alice Morris, a 180#+ brunette.

"Exactly. We have at least 4-5 groups of guys on campus who come from various heritages --- we ask for their help while we run the show. Of course help includes their pretesting the menu before we offer it to everyone. I think they would enjoy it."

"And how do we finance all this?" queried Gwen Adams, a short 5'2" plumper.

"We finance some by working, for which we will get paid. Father Griswold has put me in touch with a catering service that can give us part time jobs. We will also use donations from ethnic restaurants who will be credited for the publicity value. I have already lined up three that are willing to try an experiment. To get greater participation we donate all profits to various charities. Now, each of us will need to recruit at least 3 more people and we should be able to get started."

The next meeting of the Home Ec Club saw several new members join - and the project was underway. The first food day was an Italian theme, held in March. Word of the excellence of the pretesting sessions got around and it was a smashing success. By the next month various of the other men on campus were asking if they could be testers for the Chinese meal April and the Mediterranean day in May.

Maria made sure the local media were kept fully abreast of what was happening, but never mentioned that it was a "fat person's revenge." Rather she let the Home Economics Club and her co-workers be credited for what they had done --- their size was obvious enough without being trumpeted.

The improved self esteem among her co-laborers also achieved its effect. They were dressing more sharply and their carriage reflected greater confidence. They even began initiating conversations with the guys on campus and showing themselves to be friendly and kind, not obsessed with themselves. As a result all began to be asked for more dates and be treated more respectfully than before. At first there were occasional gibes at their size by the elitists, but now even the men saw such remarks as "sour grapes" by persons of lesser accomplishment. After all, how many press clipping and news vans did the critics have?

Maria was a shoo-in for Treasurer of the student body her Junior year, the same one in which the swimming team made it to the State Championships. Although losing to a team from a much larger school in Seattle, their second place finish was higher than any local school team had ever made it before. Some students began to tout her for student body president her Senior year, even though she would be the first woman president the school had had. Her opponent would likely be Irwin Jenkins, a nice enough scion of a local wealthy family who she did not dislike but wasn't that well regarded by some of the other students because of his perceived aloofness.

By now she was 5'6" and well over 200 lbs. She wrestled with the idea --- realizing how unique it would be for a stout, brownskinned non-anglo to be president of a predominately white student body in a Spokane suburb. It wasn't that she was afraid of the job; she wondered if she could really win such an election. She was used to winning, the vice-presidency was probably hers for the asking, could she stand it if she lost?

She went and talked with Father Griswold. "I am a person who tries to have faith," she said, "and God has blessed me in many ways. But this may be out of my league."

"Maria," said Father Griswold, "you have been redefining the league for three years -- ever since you got here. You started out teaching the ones the teachers were giving up on, then you solved a problem created on the watch of another, then you broke a number of stereotypes and helped do something that hadn't been done in 110 years. If you were to lose, there is a time to learn humility. But if you were to win you could do even more. Not to have at least tried is something I do not think you could ever be happy living with."

"I think I see what you mean --- I will run as a candidate being for something rather than just trying to upset tradition."

That night she wrote an essay --- WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

"I am running for President of the student body --- not from personal ambition,. but at the request of those who have already come further than they ever expected, and who now feel there is further to go.

"We have all enjoyed the glory of going to a state championship, of basking in favorable publicity from a media which too often portrays teens as trouble making delinquents, and have shared in an improvement of our academic image as well.

"It has been my privilege to work closely with all of the groups that have brought these things to pass --- and now they have urged me to help them finish the job.

"It is not enough to have had a few small groups be empowered to the point that they have done exceptional things. The doors which have been opened for us must be opened for all, permanently. Only in this way can those in future classes, perhaps our own children, follow in the trails that have been blazed.

"I am not opposed to the traditions of our school, but rather favor building upon the best in those traditions to meet the new needs of the future. In running for office I offer nothing dramatically different from what I have already bee doing, but merely an extension of what it has been my privilege to be a part of thus far. If there are enough other students who share my view of the need for this opening of doors I feel we can do it --- and by electing me, and those running with me, you will have given your answer.

"I have, therefore, declared my candidacy and now humbly ask for your support."

She and Irwin Jenkins both posted the usual materials and circulated the usual flyers. It was a clean campaign, with neither protagonist attacking the other at a personal level. But Maria had an agenda which became increasingly clear; Irwin neither opposed it nor presented one of his own. Some privately felt that he was running more to please his family than anything else --- that actually he felt Maria really wanted the job more than he did and was glad to let her have it.

Whatever the reason, Maria and her companions pulled 60% of the vote. When the election was over she offered her defeated opponents jobs on the committees which were established and many, including Irwin, accepted. The time had now come to deliver on her vision.

One of her first steps surprised everyone. Using a team of volunteers, she had placed into a database by the end of June the name of every student and school group, making a match of who was participating in what. The purpose: to find out who was NOT participating in some way. 280 students out of an 1100 person student body were found to be in this category, 400 more to be only nominally involved. A few of these names were culled out as known troublemakers, The balance were given to seven teams for contact by Mid- August, the objective: to find out why the people were not involved and assess how they could be drawn in.

While the students were contacting other students Maria and the newly elected officers went to work on the PTA --- "we will try to do this on our own if we have to, but we could do better with your help" was the theme. "Why just Parent-Teachers? Why not make it a Parent-Teacher-Student dialogue?" Contacts were also made with local social and service clubs, looking for ways to get them involved with counterparts on the campus. A data base of 135 groups was set up for receipt of a newsletter.

By mid August a flyer was being circulated --- a circle with a variety of kids inside it, and many gaps in the circle itself. Outside were a few individuals, with the legend reading: "If you aren't included now, its not our fault." On the other side was a series of listings of the initiatives being undertaken and the opportunities that were available.

"Our goal as a student body this year is not just to have a good time with sports and socials," Maria wrote in the first issue of the student paper her Senior year ."Those we will have. But it is also to be a part of the larger community and to include as much of the student body community in our endeavors as possible. To this end we are activating links which have either been sorely neglected in the past or which have simply never existed. The degree to which they continue to function after we are done will depend on how valuable the students today, this year, prove them to be."

As the Maria Sanchez "organization" moved forward, students of size and other minority groups were used wherever possible. Because with participation in the groups also went the opportunity for part time jobs in the community interest was kept up. And because the newly reenergized PTA was working with students, faculty and parents grades kept up as well. By the end of the first semester the overall student GPA was up a full half point; by the end of the school year it was a point.

As for Maria, her weight stabilized somewhere near 240, the exact figure neither she or anyone else particularly cared about noting it at the time. Except, possible, Marcus Amoreaux --- another student of Hispanic heritage who had moved to the school as a Sophomore and begun dating Maria in the middle of her Junior year. Active in her campaign and throughout the summer, he won her trust and heart. He was himself a good student. They both received scholarships and became increasingly close in college. They have been married for several years now and have two ninos (children).