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What, Me Avoirdupois? The Newly Overweight Digest the Heavy News

By Ann Gerhart

Once, you pinched an inch, grabbed your flab, saw if a pencil could be held in place by your sagging haunches, shrugged and bought the darned Dockers.

No more. Those old ways of calculating how fat was too fat are gone, helpfully replaced by scientific fretters at the National Institutes of Health. Their new guidelines declare that 29 million of us were healthy on the weekend, but woke up yesterday frankly fat, joining the 68 million American adults who were already USDA-quality porkers.

Now, there is them, and there is us. And they have given us BMI.

"Body mass index" is the relationship between your height and your weight; apparently, those two factors aren't getting along as well as they used to. Together, they reveal body fat, and the NIH has lowered the levels of body fat deemed acceptably healthy.

The blunt news: Quit gaining any more weight immediately. (Stop eating now!) Then start losing it.

Is anybody paying attention?

At the Burger King on K Street downtown, Pamela Lomax is among the newly fat, according to the cold, cruel figures. Five feet tall, 37, she finds herself in the red zone of body fat. She puts down her half-eaten cheeseburger, peers thoughtfully at the used ketchup packets surrounding her fries, takes a deep swig of her soda and reacts to the new chart.

"What I am thinking is 'no way.' I don't see how they can categorize people that way." She pays attention to this stuff, but usually with an eyebrow raised. She mentions an earlier study linking red wine and heart disease (drink it!).

Says her co-worker at Bell Atlantic, Lois Dove, over chicken fingers and fries: "My doctor told me before what he wanted me to weigh, and I said, 'You are crazy.' I'm almost half a century, so forget that crap." She leans back and dismisses all of NIH, just like that, with a wave of her hand. "I'm just in the wrong century. I just should have been living when they liked their women heavy."

"They want you to be a Barbie doll," says Lomax.

"Mmmm-hmmm," says Dove.

They eat every last bite.

All around, the capacity for happy self-delusion thrives on a summery day in downtown Washington. Pascal Dobinn, a lawyer from France, sits in a park near the White House and says Americans are too fat "because the food you are eating is so bad." He actually brandishes a massive, gnawed rib to punctuate his words.

Mary Short, 37, steps away from the vendor outside the Department of Veterans Affairs with a large box of popcorn, lavishly buttered. She agreeably looks at the chart of massive mass. She is not on it. She fell off the wrong side.

"I do pay attention" to reports on weight guidelines, she says, "especially now that I am getting a little older. I do plan to discuss it with my doctor." Is that popcorn her lunch? Or a mid-afternoon snack?

"It's lunch." That gives her a thought. "I think that's my problem," Short says brightly. "I eat too late."

Lisa Duckett, 24, knows she's heavy but doesn't worry "as long as it's not bothering my heart or my lungs or my breathing." This is the kind of thinking that must drive them wild at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

"I don't eat a lot of junk food," says Duckett, but inside her brown lunch bag she has a "half-smoke special hot dog, chips and a soda."

In another city park, Robert Shamo, 33, and Christine Chon, 23, are sitting with a box of thick pizza between them. Cheese covers the dough like a down comforter. Shamo reveals himself as a true Washington young professional: He has heard the news. He has followed the guidelines. He is eager to participate. Is there a calculator on hand?

Looking at the chart, he is indignant. Just a pound or two, but he's there, in the ooze zone. He jumps up. He spins. "I'm trim. I have a 32-inch waist!" he says. "I'm a tennis player." A cloud passes over his eyes.

Chon says she worries about her weight "all the time. I have a big head, so much brain," she laughs, after discovering that she is, strictly charting it, a little overweight. "Or it's all in the chest." She has six sisters, and "it's a big issue, because they say, 'You can't wear my clothes, you're stretching them out.' " She sighs. "You have those days you don't want to leave the house, you feel too big, but I don't let it kill me."

The two have stopped eating to talk, and a pizza crust and one half-eaten piece lie in the box. National Park Service worker Bobbie Young approaches, trash bag and litter stick in hand.

"You all done there?" he asks.

"No!" says Chon. "We're still eating."