A Nice Peace
By Q Bomb
Barbara just wanted to help. At 20, who doesn't? She was tired of working herself to the bone at the exclusive college she attended in Connecticut, frustrated that all she seemed to be doing was thinking about getting ahead. She had her friends, she sometimes had boyfriends -- not too seriously, but she wasn't unhappy with the situation -- and she enjoyed her first three years of college. She just felt like there was something more to life, and that's why she joined the Peace Corps.
Now, some people join an organization like the Peace Corps out of a genuine, heartfelt commitment to their vision of making the world a better place. Some join to procrastinate more serious decisions about life; some, just for the adventure and to see the world; some, because they don't like their lives in America. Barbara didn't quite fit into any of those categories; she had her share of fun but just had a vague sense that she needed to do something with a little more meaning, that she was spending her time and concern on things that weren't really important. The initial meeting on campus, with a Peace Corps Volunteer who'd been in the Philippines, intrigued her, so without putting a lot of thought into the matter, she put in an application and hoped for a posting in Southeast Asia.
Barbara knew, of course, that moving to a poor area in a foreign country for two years would mean some major lifestyle changes, but she figured she could handle it. Her aerobics class would have to go, for example. But Barbara had never been either a fitness fanatic or somebody who had to watch her weight. She was average height, 5'5", and a healthy build for a 20-year-old: not thin, not particularly buxom, but trim-waisted, with perky breasts (not small, not big), noticeable but not big hips (they flared out visibly to form a mildly squarish rear end), and fairly toned, shapely legs. She weighed 127 pounds, and her weight had varied within about 2 pounds of that since she was a junior in high school. She had never weighed above 130 in her life.
Barbara's eating habits, like her figure, were what most people would think of as a happy medium: she ate 3 meals a day and junk food in moderation, and had never really dieted. Like most of the girls on her dorm corridor, Barbara had started an aerobics class when she arrived at the college. She didn't particularly enjoy the class but felt good knowing she was doing something to stay slim. She went 3 times a week, but didn't obsess over the class if she missed one, and didn't think it would be that big a deal if she was many miles from a gym. After all, she'd be living with poor people in a poor part of the world, hardly where you would expect to have to worry about overeating.
Barbara was ecstatic when her application to be a PCV was approved. She would be posted in Thailand, working in a rural area in the northern part of the country, teaching English as a foreign language in rural schools. She'd have to learn a new language, and she'd be the only PCV in town, living among Thai people she knew nothing about.
Soon enough, she got information in the mail telling her what to bring with her. Barbara liked to wear tight jeans and short skirts, but when she saw that she was headed for a rural area and read the reminder that PCVs are supposed to try to fit in with the local culture, she thought better of packing things that would, she thought, stick out as particularly American and mark her as more well-off and cosmopolitan than the people she'd be living with. Plus, the thought of wearing tight skirts in a tropical jungle didn't seem all that practical. She was allowed two bags of stuff, mostly clothes, and the clothes she packed were mostly loose-fitting, just-below-the-knee dresses, baggy t-shirts and khaki shorts, and even some loose overalls.
When she arrived for orientation, Barbara could scarcely contain her excitement -- and nerves. She would be meeting the rest of her class and then shipping out for training in Thailand within a few weeks, and it sank in that she really didn't have any idea what her life would be like for the next two years. There was a lot to absorb, and she was itching to get to know the other volunteers even though her placement wouldn't involve much interaction with them. Years later, she'd remember one conversation, even though it concerned her little enough at the time.
Jeff, one of the coordinators, was a big beefy guy in his 40s with a deep tan, a deeper voice and arms like bridge cables. Been everywhere. He was also, quickly and casually, checking her out. "Last chance now to back out if you're not ready. They tell me not to say that and scare people off, but better now than when we have to pay to fly you home. Where are you placed?" Barbara responded excitedly, with her usually flat, even-toned voice quaking, "Thailand! In a little town up in the north. I'm really excited, but I'm afraid I don't know much about the place. I've never traveled. What's it like?"
"What's it like? It's the kind of place, there's a saying that we put girls like you in, we have to get them out with a crane." He smirked. "Must be something they put in the food. Let's just say you should plan to buy some new clothes after you've been over there a while. You're not one of these girls who counts calories and panics if she gains a pound, are you?" Barbara was taken aback, but only because she thought he was accusing her of being too picky and superficial to live in a different culture. "No, I can adjust to eating whatever's put in front of me, wearing whatever they wear there. I'm rough and ready." Brave talk, although she was only hoping she'd adjust. "I'll admit that I've never even eaten in a Thai restaurant, but lots of people like Thai food, it can't be that bad." He grinned. "Yeah, you'll be OK with it. They usually are. Just don't say you weren't warned." So she was.
She flew to Bangkok with the other PCVs, and started a 12-week crash course on the language so she could do her teaching. It was a busy time, and Barbara, ever the serious student, spent long hours sitting with books and tapes trying to learn what she could. She had always spent a lot of time sitting down, but at college that had been punctuated by the aerobics class and the steep hills of the campus. In Bangkok, she hardly had any exercise at all.
Despite their relatively meager stipends, the volunteers did go out together a lot and explored the bars and restaurants of Bangkok. That's where Barbara got her first taste of Thai food, and Thai beer for that matter, which was cheap and tasty. Worried that she didn't want to be grimacing at trying things for the first time with her hosts in the up country, she insisted that they order a lot of platters and sample a lot of dishes, so they could all try nearly everything the restaurants had to offer before they left Bangkok. Most of the other volunteers were guys, tall gangly ones who could eat basically anything, and she got no argument from them.
It turned out that she had nothing to fear, as far as not liking the food. In fact, she liked everything, except maybe the stir-fried vegetables. She was ecstatic about the spicy pork, curry, sticky rice, and some scrumptious desserts she didn't even begin to recognize. Stress, beer and sharing sprawling platters with a big, talkative group was also a great recipe for losing track of how much she was eating, and Barbara never noticed that she was eating much larger meals than she was accustomed to. Instead, she was proud of herself for trying so many new things. If she felt bloated after a meal, she was thankful that she wasn't sick (some of the guys didn't fare so well, adjusting badly to the local water) and chalked it up to unfamiliar and spicy foods. In fact, she got so accustomed to feeling that way after a meal, she started to just expect it.
Barbara was also getting acclimated to the feel of her new wardrobe. Back home, the tighter clothes she usually wore gave her all the reminder she needed if she'd had too much to eat or put on a pound or two. Wearing nothing but loose dresses and shorts in the hot Thai summer, her clothes might stick to her from time to time, but they never squeezed. And her quarters didn't have a scale -- not that Barbara had ever been one for scales -- or a mirror (she had been helpfully advised to bring a small hand-held face mirror for makeup and washing, and was putting it to good use). If she had stepped on a scale when it came time to leave Bangkok in the fall after three months of training, she would have seen an unfamiliar number, 7 pounds above her weight when she got on the plane to leave America.
The weight had mostly settled in her hips, making them a little wider and softer, although her waist had also grown soft and fleshy and her cheeks and chin filled out a little as well. Given the clothes she wore, unless you were looking closely, it was a change you wouldn't notice if you saw her on the street -- and Barbara didn't either. She had no idea that she had seen the low side of 130 pounds for the last time.
Barbara packed up her things and headed to the north by bus, a cramped and bumpy ride that left her ill, exhausted and famished when she got to the town. She needed sleep, and she was shown to the small apartment she'd be living in above the school, a small brick building that had been constructed by the Peace Corps years earlier to serve the town and two nearby towns, whose children were "bused" back and forth in a long, horse-drawn wagon. (The towns had cars, but couldn't afford a bus to use just for school). She was in bed by 3pm and slept through the night.
In the morning, there was a knock at the door. Groggy, Barbara went to answer through the door in her broken Thai, and it was her neighbors! A bunch of the women from the town had taken it upon themselves to welcome her, as they had with previous volunteers. She told them through the door that she wasn't dressed, and they insisted that they'd come back in an hour. Barbara frantically got ready, showering and tossing on a cotton dress, and went out to make her first impression.
Now, Thai women are often thin, and the younger single women were all skinny as rails, no breasts or hips to speak of. But the bulk of the group was older married women, and a lot of them were stocky, carrying the weight of multiple pregnancies. They took Barbara down to the school's small cafeteria -- really just a bunch of wooden tables with a kitchen at the end -- and laid out a feast, a spread full of things sticky and sweet that Barbara had never seen before.
All her efforts in Bangkok to get ready, and she had never gone to breakfast!
Of course, each of the women had brought a different dish and they all wanted "Barba" to try theirs. Barbara talked, and told them about herself, but mostly she listened, tucking in a few mouthfuls of everything that was passed her way. She found out a few things. She was the first female TEFL teacher they'd had in the town in some time; the prior volunteers had been men for at least a decade. The women told her that they would take turns hosting the PCV for dinner, since there was nowhere to cook in her little apartment and the town was too small and poor and old-fashioned to have any sort of restaurant. She found out that most of the men were either farmers or worked at local plantations (growing cash crops) or, in a few cases, factories. She found that her command of the Thai language, while still a little stilted, was going to be OK. And she found out she'd start teaching tomorrow.
At the end of the breakfast, Barbara felt stuffed again, and silently congratulated herself on how she'd eaten everything offered and not made any faces. (In fact, she'd eaten seconds of a lot of things without noticing). She went back to her room and took a nap.
That first week flew by in a flurry of activity. Barbara discovered that the students she was teaching would be a wide variety of ages and proficiencies in English, so her job was going to be a tough one. Plus, she'd never taught before; while the students were mostly quiet and polite, it was still a big shock to her system to face the daily pressure of keeping their attention. As she acclimated herself to the task of teaching, she fell into the rest of her routine, which would stay mostly the same for the following 21 months. During the week, she'd have breakfast in her room, usually a fairly small breakfast. A wise move for keeping thin, except that the result was that she was usually famished by lunchtime, since she'd been on her feet all morning, and since her body was gradually growing used to large meals.
At lunchtime, she'd eat with the students and other teachers; the food was generally quite plentiful and filling, since the school could order simple things in bulk. And Barbara would make certain to calm the hunger pangs with a hearty lunch. After school, the staff -- doubling as custodians -- would clean up the day's lunch. The school didn't have any storage space, so whatever was left over would be thrown away. Even though nobody in the town was starving -- they were really more primitive than destitute in their poverty, lacking modern conveniences rather than the bare necessities -- Barbara hated the idea of throwing out food in such a place, and usually munched on a bowl of rice and other leftovers as they worked.
After that she'd go back to the apartment for a nap -- she was too pooped from teaching to do anything else -- and then get up and prepare the next day's lesson, or correct the written work if there was any.
Around dinner time, Barbara would head over to the house of one of her hosts, and the feasting would begin. The women of the town took turns, so that each one would only have Barbara to dinner every three weeks or so. She kept marks on a little calendar to remind herself who was on for tonight. Since they were only having her as a guest every few weeks, the women would usually treat the night as a special occasion. They would lay out their best tablecloth, cook several courses of their best dishes, offer her drinks, and sit for a long time telling stories and swapping the local gossip. This got the men involved as well, so even after the smaller children were excused, Barbara would be sitting at length with these Thai couples and their older children.
She loved soaking up the ways of these people, good with the bad, and with no television in most homes, there was still a lively tradition of conversation, storytelling and music. Of course, with plenty of good food in front of her, plenty of distractions and no pressure to get up from the table, Barbara's dinners always went well beyond a single plateful, while her attention was occupied elsewhere.
On Saturdays and a few days during the week, a traveling vendor would pass through the town in the late evening, selling desserts. It was a big occasion for the people in the town to gather, particularly the women, and socialize. The expectant mothers were always first in line, with their husbands buying them sweet treats. Some of the older women were fairly regular customers as well, and some of the men who worked long days in the sun would gather for a last bite before turning in. The slim younger women, single or newly married, would gather, but only have a rare bite with their husbands or boyfriends. This was a scene Barbara could not turn down, and once she had sampled a few favorites, she got in the habit of buying something to eat every time, no matter how much dinner she'd had, and standing about chatting until it was time for bed. Nothing wrong with that, after all; all the girls were there.
By Christmas, this had all been going on for four months, and Barbara was feeling quite comfortable with her new life. She had also gained weight as a result of her eager eating and lack of exercise. The weight settled heavily in her lower body, with her hips and rear end spreading and her thighs growing fleshy both in front, starting to dimple above the knee, and in back, spreading when she sat. More worrisome, if Barbara had been worried about gaining weight, was her upper body. Lots of women gain weight in their hips, but extra weight around the upper arms and shoulders is a sign that she's moved from just getting big in the seat to getting flabby all around. And Barbara had the genes for it. Her mother, who she resembled, was thin, thinner even than Barbara when she left college. But her father was a big man and came from a family of heavyset people. Taking after the Farrell side of the family, Barbara's arms were starting to get thicker, and she was getting a little flabbier in her back and above and around her breasts.
All in all, she had put on ten pounds since arriving in town, and if she had stepped on a scale by late December it would have read: 144. The people in the town weren't Christians, but they knew that most Americans celebrated Christmas, and the volunteers in past years got a little homesick around the holidays. So the women, having befriended Barbara, decided to give her Christmas presents to keep her from getting in a funk. They didn't have money to shop and buy things, but they had time and an old-fashioned skill: many of them sewed their own homespun clothing for their families. They got together a few weeks before Christmas, pooled enough money to cover a little extra cloth, and made Barbara 8 new outfits in the style worn by the local Thai women.
Barbara at first made a show of protesting that they didn't need to do this, but she well understood that you don't turn down hospitality in a foreign country. And she loved getting new clothes, since she'd gotten a little sick of wearing the same old things; she could swear they were even starting to fit funny for some reason, even though she thought she knew what she was doing in washing them. The Thai styles, though, were very comfortable, more so than things she'd been used to wearing. Little did she suspect that this was because the women who made them, lacking the ability to measure Barbara without blowing the surprise, had had fallen back on their experience in estimating sizes from appearance and had even tried to be careful to err on the side of making the dresses and loose tunics a little big rather than give her something she couldn't get into.
Despite her relatively baggy wardrobe and the fact that she had started gaining before they met her, Barbara's weight gain had also not been lost on her benefactors, and they suspected that she needed some new clothes and wanted her to be comfortable. At first, Barbara was a little shy about wearing her new clothes, not wanting to look like she was imitating the local dress, but after the first time her students gave her a warm reception, she started to phase some of her old clothes out of her wardrobe, before they got too tight.
The students told her that she "looked Thai," a real compliment. Now she really felt like she was fitting in –- even though she was looking less and less like the lithe Thai girls her age with each passing week.
In mid-April, with the schools closed for holidays, Barbara took a few days off to travel; it was the first time she'd left town since her arrival. She headed back to Bangkok to meet up with a few of the guys who had started with her, to check out the nightlife in the city without the stresses of the previous summer. Barbara packed a few of her new homespun dresses, but also brought some of her older outfits, concerned that an American girl would look out of place in the big city dressed as a rural Thai. This time, at least, she remembered to ride the bus on an empty stomach; still, she shifted in her seat, tugging at her dress as the ride progressed, unable to get comfortable. By this time, her weight was up to 147 pounds -- including twenty pounds of fat she hadn't had with her when she arrived in Thailand. She was hardly fat; she could still squeeze into the American size 8 dresses she had brought with her, albeit only because they turned to skirts at the waist. But she was now fleshy all over, and as much as she tugged at them, the skirts wouldn't go as far down as they were designed to.
When she got to Bangkok, before meeting up with her friends, she decided to go shopping. She bought a few loose-fitting pairs of shorts and a skirt in little shops near the bus station; she told herself that she was 'going native' and being practical about the heat by dressing more conservatively, but it also kept her from confronting her new shape. Of course, the shops weren't selling clothes with American sizes, so Barbara just figured out what fit by trying it on, and wound up with sizes that were closer to an American 12 than the 6-8 she used to wear.
When the guys saw her waiting for them at a bar in the downtown area, they did a bit of a double-take. Still wearing the sleeveless dress she'd ridden into town in, Barbara's weight gain was visible in her chubby cheeks, her flabby arms, and the awkward fit of her dress around her now-wide rear. But they all knew better than to comment on a woman's weight, and all of them had other love interests, anyway, so Barbara wasn't trying to impress them. She also drew plenty of looks from Thai men, particularly the night they went to a nightclub for dancing (Barbara's idea) -- some looks of lust, some of disgust, but most of curiosity, since Thai men who hadn't traveled or dealt much with Westerners weren't used to seeing a young woman with Barbara's figure in person.
The holiday in Bangkok flew quickly by, as Barbara and her four companions consumed plenty of beer and hit as many restaurants as they could afford; Barbara was more talkative and assertive now, after months on her own away from other Americans, and she frequently let the guys know how good the food back in her town was and how many different dishes she was now familiar with. They believed her.
With her return to the town, Barbara got into a flurry of activity at the end of the school year, while keeping up her regular routine of dinners and desserts and socializing. If anything, she was eating more after school, out of end-of-year stress and simply the fact that she now ate faster than she used to, and at dinner, where the women of the town had learned to make extra portions because they didn't want to run out on their guest and they recognized how much food she could put away in one sitting. They didn't mind; Barbara was always a gracious guest, listening politely to nearly anything and raving about the food, and on top of her teaching she was helping out on the weekends with almost anything people needed help with.
The weight kept coming on, and when none of her old clothes fit anymore, Barbara did start to suspect that she had put on a few pounds in Thailand. She told herself it wasn't a big deal -- just a few, and, I mean, what do you expect with such delicious food? -- and she certainly couldn't turn down the hospitality. The clothes were quickly tucked away and forgotten, since she had plenty of Thai clothes to wear, and they were so much more comfortable. By the end of June, she had packed on another eight pounds, and if she'd stepped on a scale she would have weighed in at 155.
Now she was seriously getting chubby, with a big, rounded butt that was wide and stuck out behind, and even wider hips that melted into thick, round, fleshy thighs. The weight was still largely below the belt, although Barbara's waist was rising to the point where it would soon disappear. But the differences in her upper body, while not as dramatic, were clearly visible.
Barbara had grown confident in the classroom, keeping the students on their toes and in line. Away from school, though, some of the girls were starting to make fun of their teacher's obvious expansion, particularly once they concluded she wasn't pregnant. Even among the heavier matrons of the town, who tended to be thick through the middle, the largely preteen kids had never seen such a big butt.
Barbara had really come a long way from her aerobics class in Connecticut. And her commitment to the Peace Corps was only halfway done.
With the end of the school year, the Peace Corps volunteers had traditionally gone elsewhere. But the school building needed repainting; a few local men were taking turns doing the painting, but Barbara, being on the scene, was expected to manage the funds sent to her by the Peace Corps to pay for the supplies, and to help out with the painting. It was a real change of gears from the teaching, although Barbara appreciated the opportunity to escape the mental strain of teaching and get some exercise. Although she didn't miss that horrible aerobics class one bit -- it had gone from just another chore to a nightmare the further she got away from it -- Barbara was starting to feel like she needed a little physical activity.
Painting didn't turn out to be that much exercise, though. First, Barbara spent a lot of her time arranging the supplies and coordinating schedules. And sitting. Second, even when she was painting, it's not like there was a lot of running around or lifting heavy stuff involved, particularly with men around who didn't let her carry anything. Just standing, standing, and walking the two or three steps back and forth between the walls and the paint tray.
After the first few days of this, sweating like a hog in the heat, Barbara was wiped out; she really was in terrible shape. She could barely muster the energy to walk to dinner, although she ate with gusto when she got there, famished from spending even more time on her feet than usual. After a few weeks she was in better condition, building her leg muscles from the extra hours standing. But her appetite was as vibrant as ever. Fortunately, she had picked out a few loose painting smocks when she was ordering the paint, so at least she stayed in loose, cool clothing all the hot summer.
The weight gain slowed a little, but she was up another six pounds by the time the school year rolled around, a plump 161-pound 22-year-old. Barbara's birthday was in late August (21 had passed without much event in Bangkok, albeit with a little too much Thai beer). Her friends in the town figured that, as with Christmas, it would be nice to throw a little celebration, and again the women of the town gave Barbara some new homespun clothes that fit her new size with room to spare. Yet again, Barbara had a reason to avoid facing her gain.
For the first 8 or 9 months in Thailand, she had been entirely oblivious to the changes in her body, but of course it's not possible to gain 34 pounds and not have an inkling that something is different. Barbara didn't have a full-length mirror, and she had managed to pick out clothes in the stores in Bangkok without checking one out, but she recognized that her build had changed some. But facing up to that would have meant either changing her lifestyle in Thailand -- which she was unwilling to do -- or admitting that she had let herself go in a way that would be very difficult to get back from when she returned to the States. For now, she was living in a place where it didn't matter much how she looked or what she ate, so as long as she wasn't confronted directly with her new weight, she just ignored it.
A trip for a few days to one of the smaller cities in the north gave her the opportunity to buy new underwear, which was one thing Barbara badly needed. Her panties (bought in April) were digging into her something fierce. She had hardly worn a bra since arriving in the town; most of the women in town didn't wear one or have much to support. Barbara's breasts had never needed a lot of help back in the States, anyway, although over the past few months they had started to grow prodigiously along with the flesh on the whole area around her shoulders. It was just as well that she didn't try to shop for a new bra, since none of the stores carried her new cup size.
Much as she had looked forward to painting the school, Barbara was thrilled at the return to her routine with the new school year. And the rumbling in her stomach at the end of the first day of school told her that she had missed her afternoon "cleanup" snacks more than she thought. There were a few snickers among the girls (out of earshot, of course) at how Barbara had gotten even bigger since the end of last year; there was a brief debate on this, but for the girls who had watched her carefully in the spring, it wasn't hard to see. Among the boys old enough to notice women's bodies, on the other hand, there was renewed interest in the teacher's breasts. Thin, tight-bodied women? These boys had them all around them, and mostly they liked it that way. But the increasingly buxom Barbara, with what was now a rather exaggerated hourglass figure, held an exotic and foreign charm that ensnared many of them.
Barbara also kept up her regular letters home. She increasingly wrote about the food, raving about the wonders of Thai food and the generosity of her hosts. She was amazed, she wrote, how many things you could do with pork! (The farms in town raised a lot of pigs, so pork was a staple of the local diet even more so than in other parts of Thailand). In one letter that fall she finally gave some indication that there might be consequences from her love affair with the food: "If I keep eating all this scrumptious food, I'm going to need some new clothes when I get home!" Well, at least she considered the possibility. Admitting that she'd already run through several dress sizes would have been a bit too much to ask.
Barbara hadn't thought to bring a camera, though, and only bought a cheap camera and several rolls of film in her trip at the end of the summer; there was nowhere to develop the film, so she just kept it, and never sent her parents or her two brothers any photos of her own development. By the middle of October, Barbara was more than a year removed from passing the 140-pound barrier. Although she was continuing to gain weight, she had now carried the extra pounds so long that she felt completely comfortable in her skin and would have felt odd if she had just awakened one morning at her old size. She didn't move awkwardly as she had when the flab first started encasing her thighs and lowering her center of gravity. 5'5" and 164 pounds felt normal, natural. Certainly not overweight.
If Barbara's letters hinted that she was gaining weight, her parents missed the point. In fact, with Thanksgiving approaching, Barbara's mother felt guilty that her little girl was missing the holiday and that they hadn't done anything for her the first year. Barbara was never really a big chocoholic, but when she did eat junk food, one of her favorites since childhood had always been M&Ms. So, a few weeks ahead of time, her mother sent her a CARE package with two big bags of M&Ms and a note -- "Happy Thanksgiving! Thought I'd send you your favorite snack, something to remind you of home until we see you again." As a teen, Barbara had snacked in moderation, a little here and a little there, and Barbara's mother figured that two bags should be more than enough for her daughter to have sweet treats through the rest of her stay in Thailand and still have enough to share if she wanted to.
Barbara finished both bags herself by the end of December. Her mother hadn't counted on the complete collapse of Barbara's willpower to resist food, or even to try, to say nothing of the fact that it took a lot more calories now to satisfy Barbara's appetite, grown powerful from all those long, multi-course dinners. Barbara didn't have the dainty candy dishes her mother had always set out at the holidays; she left the bags open and just grabbed fistfuls of M&Ms when she felt like a treat, which was often before her afternoon nap (on top of the leftovers), right before bed, or if she was sitting around on the weekends writing letters or correcting schoolwork.
Sometimes she even had M&Ms for breakfast instead of the bland breakfast foods she kept in her apartment, although this was enough to make even Barbara feel guilty. The candy helped push Barbara's weight to 170 pounds by the American New Year. By then, her belly was catching up with the rest of her, not a huge gut but a rounded tummy hanging low and balancing out the protrusion of her rear. Her upper arms were getting round and flabby and her forearms were starting to widen. Her chin had doubled. Only the absence of a bra kept the fat on her back from bunching up.
The last few months in Thailand flew by, and while Barbara was eating as enthusiastically as ever and exercising as little as possible, the weight gain slowed a little. It takes more to add weight to a 170-pound body than a firm 127-pound bod, after all. But as the end approached, some of Barbara's hosts started pushing more food on her (with no resistance, of course). They had come to be flattered by her enthusiasm for their cooking and fascinated by her capacity for food, and they were going to miss Barbara Farrell. They'd even learned to pronounce her name right with a little practice. In May, they presented her with some new dresses -- there didn't need to be an occasion, but they were convinced by this point that Barbara was embarrassed to admit that she was outgrowing the old outfits -- and Barbara promised to wear them back home in the States and show off what wonderful seamstresses they all were.
PCVs aren't supposed to get into the trap of spending their own money on the people around them -- there's often too much misery for one upper-middle-class young person to try to fix -- but Barbara was thankful for all the hospitality and the unbidden gifts, so she went to the nearest city and bought jewelry (little trinkets, but pretty ones) for each of the women who'd welcomed her into their home and fed her for all these months. "I'll take a piece of all of your homes back to America with me," she said -- a bigger piece than she guessed.
On the day in June when she said farewell to her friends in the town, she looked in her little makeup mirror and thought to herself that she was getting a little chubby -- "I must have gained close to 15 pounds here, my friends back home will be so horrified," she thought, but feeling like the problem was her friends, not a few pesky extra curves. She now weighed 179 pounds, a 52-pound weight gain since she left to join the Peace Corps. She wasn't thin anymore. She wasn't chubby anymore. Barbara was fat.
Barbara had packed up all her things and was on the bus back to Bangkok to fly home to Ohio. She thought she should probably get back into American clothes, but none of her old clothes would even go much above her knees. Gradually, the wall of denial about her new size was starting to get chipped away as she prepared to face her return to her old life. On the plane home, the seats seemed small and cramped; Barbara used to slide from side to side in her seat to get comfortable, but now she practically touched the handles on both sides with her hips.
Barbara's flight landed in L.A. With a 2-hour scheduled layover, she decided to stop at a clothing shop and buy some American clothes, but the place sold only souvenir T-shirts and shorts. The salesgirl, a bleached blond in a tiny tank top and sunglasses (indoors), told Barbara she should get the Large. Barbara chalked that up to the poor selection, but she didn't want to meet her parents and brothers at the airport in a homespun Thai dress, so she changed into a white "I Love LA" T-shirt that draped baggily over her breasts and belly and hugged her hips back where she couldn't see, and yellow shorts that emphasized the width of her hips and fell a few inches above the flab that bunched above her knees.
Her family was waiting at O'Hare in Chicago. If Barbara had prepared her parents for the sight of her new physique, they would still have been taken aback; but as it was, she hadn't even mentioned to her mother that she was now wearing her formerly chin-length black hair in a long ponytail, let alone that she'd gained more than fifty pounds since they last laid eyes on her.
Barbara had to walk right up to her family, since they had looked past her without recognizing her in the crowd pouring off the plane. Her mother was still speechless when Barbara threw her fat arms around her in a fleshy embrace. Her father had seen his sisters gain a lot of weight over the years, so he was a little better at composing himself, but he was still stunned at how quickly his daughter had shed her resemblance to his wife and grown larger than some of her middle-aged aunts. Her older brother Joe was glad he hadn't brought his wife Heather with him; Heather was a fitness fanatic (she was back in her size 2s two months after the baby was born) and would have said something mean. Not that she was a bad person, just completely insensitive to weight problems. Younger brother Brian, a high school senior, was shaken; he always thought of his sister as thin, together, somebody who fit with the popular crowd. Now she looked like a loser, he thought -- could that happen to him?
Mom recovered first. "Whatever on earth have they been feeding you over there? You look like a house!" Dad grimaced a little, and added, "And I'm happy to see you too."
Barbara frowned, not in pain or shock as much as incomprehension at the level of her mother's concern. "I've gained a few pounds I guess, but it's really not that much, I feel fine. I just loved all the food and hospitality over there, I guess." She unconsciously grabbed her belly, although that wasn't where most of the weight was.
Brian piped up, "A few pounds? Have you looked in a mirror lately?"
"No, I didn't have a mirror over there, or a scale, either." Barbara's response was matter-of-fact, not pained but less confused than before; the truth was seeping further in. "It can't really be that much though."
Barbara's father cut in, wanting to give her some room to come to grips with reality without getting beaten over the head with it. "Let's not just stand here and talk about the food all day. Barbara, you and your mother should probably go shopping for some new clothes this afternoon. But first, I'm starving. Joe, take your sister to pick up her luggage, and I'll bring the car around, then we can get some brunch and talk about your trip." He trusted Joe not to say anything rude, and on the way to the car he was stern with his wife and younger son. "Look, I know Barbara has gained an awful lot of weight, but we haven't seen her in two years; can't we find something else to talk about? Rachel, you can take her clothes shopping before we drive home -- she's got to need a whole new wardrobe, look at what she's wearing -- and you can lecture her all you want then. But let's just leave the subject alone for now." Brian hung his head; Barbara's mother didn't, but she knew it wasn't worth fighting over the point.
The family piled into the car, with Barbara taking her accustomed position in the middle seat and being surprised at how snug the seatbelt was and how she pressed up against her brothers. They pulled into a Friendly's near the airport, and sat down to brunch. For the first time in two years, Barbara was self-conscious about what she ate, and passed up the scrambled eggs and bacon with her order of pancakes. "Oh, and on second thought, make that with a side order of sausage." Her mother scowled but said nothing and ordered an English muffin, "Go light on the butter."
The family started talking about Barbara's adventures and her experiences; she talked about how much she loved teaching, but whenever the topic turned to matters outside school, food worked its way into her discussion. And as the food arrived, without even thinking about it, Barbara steered the conversation to the goings on back home and everything she'd missed. She nodded and grunted and m-hm-ed as she practically inhaled a big stack of pancakes, and her mother bit her lip when Barbara grabbed the waiter as he passed by to order a second plateful.
"And more sausage, ma'am?"
"Yes, please." After her first mouthful of the next order, she gushed, "I'd forgotten how good the food here was."
Barbara ate faster as she saw that the rest of the family was ready to go, so she finished her second helping as her father (now joining his wife in eyeing the rapid motions of her chubby fingers with some suspicion) paid the check. Back at the hotel, Barbara insisted that she was jet-lagged and went off to a nap. Her mother woke her up after two hours. "Barbara dear, it's time to get you some new clothes. You must not have anything to wear that fits." Barbara couldn't really deny this. The family was doing well financially, better than they had two years earlier, so her mom figured it was time to get Barbara motivated by heading down to the nicest shops on Michigan Avenue to try on the latest styles and see what she should want to fit into.
The first place they went into was the Gap. Not the highest of fashion, but her mom knew that Barbara needed to actually walk out of the store with some things, and that the first store would be the worst.
Barbara was taken aback at first by the styles; fashions change a lot in two years, and the mannequins and models in the pictures all looked skinnier than ever and wore lots of midriff-baring and hip-hugging things that were designed for girls thinner than Barbara had been before. Barbara grabbed a bunch of pairs of jeans off the rack; she knew by this point that her old size 8s wouldn't fit, but she insisted that she should try a 10. Gap sizes are on the small side, though, and Barbara was stunned to see that the size 10s didn't even come close to passing her hips, let alone fitting. Same for the 12s. Now she was red-faced and embarrassed; her mother said nothing, not gloating (she was still upset for her daughter) but trying to let Barbara come to grips with how fat she'd grown. The biggest jeans the Gap carried were in a size 14, and the Gap's 14 was still a long way from closing around her waist. The salesgirl suggested a plus-size store as Barbara was changing back into her T-shirt and shorts, but her mother figured on breaking that news slowly.
Next they tried a bigger department store. This time, Barbara at least started off with the size 14, and found that she could almost squeeze in. 14 was where the "fat" sizes really began, to Barbara and her mother; Barbara moved on to size 16, and found that there were jeans that fit, albeit somewhat snugly. The 18s -- her mom thought it worthwhile to push this, just to see how upset Barbara would get -- were more comfortable, and a little loose. Once she was in a size 16 pair that fit, Barbara tucked in her T-shirt and went to look at herself in a full-length mirror (one of those three-sided ones) for the first time in two years. The truth sank in. Barbara barely recognized herself. Yes, she had looked at her face for two years and looked down at her body, but the full-length reflection gave her nowhere to hide. Everything was bigger, from her nose to her wrists to her ankles. She realized that she should really be wearing a bra, particularly with just a white T-shirt on. She realized that the tummy bulge she'd been noticing was much more than just a bulge.
Most of all, she was stunned at the size of her butt and her hips, which she really hadn't paid much attention to as long as she was far away from tight jeans, and full-length mirrors, and scales, and friends and moms who notice these things. She thought she would cry, as she thought of all the things in her life -- clothes, friends, boys -- that would be affected by her weight gain. But she didn't; she was bothered, but not deeply upset. After all, it's not like she regretted one minute of her time in the Peace Corps.
"I guess you're right, mom," she said, "I really did get fat over there. I look like Aunt Paula. I was having so much fun and nobody seemed to notice. I just never noticed it was happening."
"Well, little lady," her mother answered, "that's fine for now but you will really have to work twice as hard as before to get your old shape back. In the meantime, let's pick you out some fat clothes." Barbara and her mother spent the rest of the day shopping, but there was still tension -- Barbara wanted to get nice things that would look good on her new figure ("I can't just hide in a hole, I've got to go back to college in two months"), while her mother alternated between pushing her to look at (thin) fashions she couldn't possibly fit into or look good in, and pushing old-fashioned tent dresses and muumuus and the like. Barbara won, of course, and found herself much more at ease in the "fat girl" shops -- the plus sizes -- where the sales help didn't look at her funny when she tried on jeans that hugged her new hips. But her mother did manage to buy some nice size 8 outfits to hang in Barbara's closet, "So you'll have something fashionable to wear when you get your figure back."
As soon as they got back to Ohio, Barbara's mother dragged her to the doctor. She did need a checkup after returning from the Thai jungle, but she still wasn't ready for the scale; she stepped on in just her panties, belly hanging down, and started moving the metal weight on the top of the scale. She was still expecting it to stop in the low 160s, and was surprised yet again when it pulled up just shy of 180. A hundred and eighty! That's more than Joe weighs, and he's six foot one!
Barbara was suddenly receptive to the doctor's suggestion that she should diet. At home that summer, Barbara tried to control her eating, under her mother's watchful eye; she struggled to stick to a single portion at meals, and didn't touch her dearly beloved Thai cuisine all summer. But her mother's efforts to get her to restart aerobics were half-hearted at best, since Barbara steadfastly refused and she didn't have the heart to force her daughter to work out in a gym with a lot of skinny chicks. So they tried to take up running together, although Barbara got winded very rapidly. They settled on a daily walk instead, which got Barbara's stamina up and her legs toned a bit but did little to burn fat. And Barbara quickly lined up a teaching job (ESL summer school) that got her out of the house, where her willpower faltered in grabbing a donut here and a Happy Meal there running back and forth to class. By her 23rd birthday in late August, Barbara had lost just 4 pounds and left the size 8 "thin clothes" behind as she headed back to Connecticut.
Barbara had kept in touch with her college friends while away, and she had expected them to be horrified at her weight gain. They were -- but they were also all out of college now, and the working world had matured them, or at least given them some perspective. No longer all in competition for the same guys at the same parties, most of them were downright philosophical rather than openly catty at their friend's sudden expansion. (And secretly glad it wasn't them). Several had moved on to different exercise regimens and sympathized with Barbara's disdain for the old aerobics class. Barbara's old boyfriends were another story, but none had been serious enough to really consider trying to restart something, so she didn't bother to contact them. That could wait for a reunion, when she'd be thinner. Of course, in the absence of any peer pressure from her friends to slim down, Barbara had one less thing to shore up her will to diet.
Back at school, Barbara had to start over. The senior class she was joining consisted of students who'd been freshmen when she left; while she knew some of them on sight, she had no close friends, and given the changes to her appearance, none of them recognized Barbara. Without friends to share an apartment with, she went back to the dorms and the dining hall.
Barbara didn't return to school depressed or lonely, though. She'd become more outgoing and self-assured from her time in the Peace Corps, and she now had a mission in life; she was going to teach. Her wardrobe was much the same as it had been before she left, only in size 16 and sometimes 18 instead of 6 or 8: tight jeans, tight skirts, form-fitting shirts. Barbara had gone a long time without being self-conscious about her body, so after her initial sheepishness at the shock of being faced with what she'd done to her figure, she simply adjusted to the new clothes and went on with her life.
As a result, Barbara's social life was just fine. She made friends quickly with girls in her dorm and her classes and at her teaching externship -- not the same type of friends she'd had before, but good people who were maybe a little less caught up in the cliques and competitions of the social scene. And she had no problem with boys, either. Most men prefer women with some flesh on them: not super-thin, but not fat either. Barbara was over the line into the latter category now, but she did just as well as the super-thin women did, for the same reason: men aren't that picky. Unlike a lot of fat girls -- the ones who'd always been fat and felt socially inferior, and the ones who'd gotten fat in America and felt ashamed -- Barbara dressed in tight clothes and carried herself with confidence. She had a pretty face, nice hair, big breasts (which she'd learned to properly support by this point), wore tight jeans and was outgoing and a good listener: how many men can resist that combination? Her new boyfriend Luke, who she started dating in late November, wasn't especially enamored of fat women; he just liked Barbara and didn't mind her size.
Good thing, too. Barbara's diet lasted about a month and a half. By the middle of October she was making progress, down to 170 pounds (she had even followed her mom's instructions and brought her old scale with her, although she had to keep one foot off the scale if she wanted to see her old weight). But she was gradually losing the will to fight. She had tried to incorporate a bigger, healthier breakfast into her routine, but the dining hall had a lot of temptations, and soon she was often as not getting a big plate of eggs or starchy pancakes with bacon ("just one slice -- well, maybe two") on the side. That kept her from going overboard in the afternoons, but Barbara still had the appetite for big meals at dinnertime, particularly since scaling the hills of the campus at her new weight was exhausting her.
And then there was the Thai restaurant. Barbara was dying to have Thai food again when she got back to school, and there was a restaurant just off campus where she started to order takeout from. The food wasn't as good as what she'd had overseas, but it was tasty and cheap and the portions were big, plus it was more fattening than the homemade stuff. By the end of October, Barbara was ordering out Thai four times a week (she got her roommate hooked too) and sometimes ordering extra so she would have leftovers for lunch. Sometimes the leftovers didn't survive until the morning. Barbara's exercise regimen didn't last, either; no way was she going back to aerobics, and without someone to force her to move, she told herself that just the daily walking around was enough.
This time, her mom was bugging her, and Barbara said things were going well and she'd lost ten pounds (well, almost ten). Her mother was disappointed that this was all, and by Thanksgiving, Barbara had to admit that she had gained two pounds back.
Barbara got a ride home for Christmas with Luke, who was from the suburbs of Cleveland. Barbara's mother could see the affection between the two when he dropped her off, so she was less alarmed when Barbara took off her winter jacket and looked like pretty much the same Barbara who met them at O'Hare. They still argued that night, but finally Barbara told her mother that she didn't think she was going to lose the weight, "And I'm not going to kill myself to do it. I'm not going to stop living and be miserable. If I stay this size, it's just not the end of the world."
Of course, Barbara wanted to be thin again. She missed the nice fashions, and she did still miss fitting in with the cool crowd. She didn't like getting rude or catty comments behind ber ample backside or to her face. But there were benefits, too, to living with her new weight: she could eat what she wanted, she didn't have to put up with an unpleasant workout regimen. She didn't have to live with the biggest fear that she and every girl she knew had before she left: getting fat. She was already there and the sky didn't fall. She still had a boyfriend; she still had friends. Barbara was fat and happy.
The school year came to an end, and Barbara packed up her things the night before graduation. She'd bought more clothes, including a slinky gown to wear to the Senior Formal. A few heavyset sophomore girls on her hall (some of whom had arrived as thin freshmen) had started asking her advice about clothes, impressed with her confidence and style. She packed up gifts Luke had given her, mementos from Thailand, and her lesson planner. She was headed for a teaching job; she was going to do more good. She dug out a few old "thin" pictures, photos of her in Thailand in her homespun dress hanging over her frame as her weight had shot through the 160s and 170s. She found her mom's "diet planner," which had been buried in a drawer for months. She shut the door, stripped down to her underwear, and got on the scale, which she'd avoided for months. 181, the highest weight she'd ever been.
She looked at her body in the mirror. It wasn't what she'd have wanted to see, three years ago; there were curves and bulges all over, and not a sign of a formerly thin woman anywhere. But that was Barbara now. It was okay.