Body image is a curious thing, thought Clara as she adjusted her weight in the chair. She could classify herself an anorexic, because whenever she looked at herself in a mirror, she saw a fat person. Did mirrors add inches to your hips, like TV cameras did? She didn’t know. She did know that she never felt like the person she saw in mirrors and photographs. She never felt that big, or that solemn. Inside her was a dancer, wild, free, wiry and muscular. All that fat kept it safe and warm. You could just see it looking out through Clara’s blue eyes.
Fashion changes our perceptions. War time rationing created a generation of skinny women, and fashion made them icons by celebrating the nipped-in waist and small conical breasts. What were the fashion icons of today, wondered Clara? She pulled on leggings, topped them with a long, loose blouse, and put on her flat, comfortable boots.
She wished she lived in Tonga, where a fat woman was considered beautiful. She imagined her skin, glistening with coconut oil. Her hair would be oiled and braided, and she would wear a billowing toga of yellow batik. She imagined the fat that lay in deep rolls round her belly, made sacred and beautiful with tribal tattoos. She imagined men looking at her with lust as she walked past: tall, wide, glowing and desirable.
She was seeing Dr Thompson at the end of the week to discuss her weight yet again. He made her feel small in all the wrong ways. He made her feel ashamed of her appetite and embarrassed about her width. He made her feel lumpy, ugly and unhappy. And when she was unhappy, she craved food. She knew she hadn’t lost any weight. She knew he would give her that patronising look and the lecture would start.
At first, when she sat on the small plastic chair in his room, fielding his questions and aware of his disapproving eyes measuring her girth, she had been able to preserve her detachment. She noted all the emotional buttons he pressed, ticking them off in her head. She wasn’t going to fall for it. No way. She was here to listen and observe. But the punishing emotional attack was getting through to her. She began to feel the fear and desperation that his other patients had talked about. She felt herself being sucked into his awful world of guilt and permanent self-denial. He was starting to get control of her, and she must not let that happen.
She had attended his clinic for several weeks. She had made friends with the other patients, cautiously questioning them, carefully gaining their trust. Now she had more than enough information and it was time to act. The endgame was about to begin.
Body image is a curious thing, thought Dr Thompson. Some of his fattest patients viewed themselves as fit, beautiful and in control. They became angry when he weighed and measured them. They were in denial when he told them they were obese. Kindness and common sense didn’t work. Now, he prided himself on what he called the Thompson System. First, he undermined his patients’ images of themselves. He showed them how gross, fat and unhealthy they actually were. Then he explained the many ways in which their excess fat made them unworthy of love, attention, or an equal place in modern society. When he had successfully reduced them to snivelling grease-blobs begging for his help and approval, the weight loss could begin. It was all about a strict regime of discipline, and it was vital that they saw him as their master. Okay, it wasn’t always successful. There had been some suicides – he wasn’t proud of that. However, he did have a sneaking pride in the anorexics he had accidentally created. They were absolute proof that his weight loss regime worked – even if it was somewhat extreme.
He was writing a book. It contained case studies and the text of all his lectures. It would be a best-seller and he would retire.
This latest woman: Clara Meachin, was a tough nut to crack. Despite her size, she was an intelligent woman. When he lectured her, there was a subtle reserve and arrogance in the way she listened. She was weighing his words carefully. This worried him. Was he getting through to her or not? He could not afford to have failures when the Thompson System was so close to publication.
He checked his appointments. Yes, he was seeing her in a few days’ time. He would hit her with the infamous Lecture Nine in his portfolio. The one about sexual attraction and body odour. He opened his door and glanced into his waiting room. The fat women looked up. On every face was the same expression of fear, shame and pleading. He smiled, and beckoned the first one in.
Meanwhile, a couple of streets away, Clara’s mind melted into a state of bliss as the masseur pummelled her body. The strong physique that lurked under the coating of fat was being woken by those firm, probing hands. Slightly light-headed, she sat up after the treatment, put on a warm towelling robe and stretched. She felt sensational.
Next on her agenda was a haircut. Still wearing her robe – things were deliciously informal at this private spa – she walked into the salon area. She surrendered herself to the artistry of Monsieur Manon: an exotic hybrid of French and Spanish with dreadlocks and a Grandee beard. He snipped and sculpted until her hair framed her face in asymmetric layers and shone with electric blue highlights. She looked as though a bird of Paradise had nestled on her head and draped its soft tail feathers around her neck.
What next? The blouse, leggings and comfortable boots wouldn’t do. She headed for her favourite boutique.
They called them bandage dresses. It was an ugly term for the garment Clara now wore, which fit her like a second skin. The tight Spandex supported her fat, turning it into something statuesque and majestic. It was a deep crimson, and exactly matched her lipstick, handbag and stilettos.
Heads turned as she walked down the street. Tall and curvaceous, her voluptuous bottom swaying with every step, Clara was transformed. She felt masculine eyes upon her, and it gave her energy. She lowered her mascaraed lashes, and a smile dimpled her cheeks. She was ready. It was time.
In Dr Thompson’s waiting room, the women sat with lowered heads, waiting for their names to be called. The atmosphere was grey with shame and despair.
They heard the click of high heels on lino. Clara threw open the door, and everyone gasped. She stood there, a crimson goddess, throwing back her gorgeous hair. The women clustered around admiring her dress. Where had she got it? And her hair! Who had done it? It was fabulous! Dr Thompson, disturbed by noise, stormed angrily out of his surgery. Every face turned to look at him. There was something different in their expressions now. That Scarlet Woman brazenly standing there – he knew it was all her fault.
He snapped his fingers irritably. ‘Miss Meachin, is it? You’re not on my list today. If you want to see me, you’ll have sit down and wait.’
‘No,’ replied Clara. ‘I’m not waiting anymore.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ He was affronted. She had dared to answer him back.
‘I’m not waiting,’ repeated Clara. ‘Life isn’t something that just happens to thin people. Neither is beauty and happiness. I have the right to have fun, sing, dance, do anything I damn well feel like doing and you know what, Dr Thompson?’
‘What?’ Control was slipping away. He began to feel afraid.
‘When you’re having fun, when you feel beautiful, when you’re with friends, you don’t think about food all the time. But when you’re isolated and alone, when your doctor has told you how gross you are, it’s all you can ever think about.’
The women nodded, murmured, drew together.
‘But you wanted to us miserable. You wanted us isolated. You didn’t want us to succeed by ourselves. You wanted us to lose weight because of your lectures and your system. You made us feel we’re disgusting because we’re fat. How dare you!’
She turned to the other women.
‘How much are you paying this idiot for his lectures and his fat-shaming and his low-calorie snack bars? Because I have a better idea. Just down the road. Latin American dance classes. Who’s in?’
She opened her bag and drew out a handful of flyers which she thrust into eager hands.
‘Miss Meachin! How dare you disrupt my surgery! And as for these allegations, you watch your tongue, madam! There’s not a word of truth – – – I – – – – – I – – -‘
He stuttered into silence as Clara produced another document from her bag and handed it to him. It was an obituary. He recognised the face and the name.
‘My sister,’ said Clara. ‘It was an overdose. You told her she may as well give up when she failed to lose enough weight that week, and she believed you.’
She watched as Dr Thompson’s face went white. She felt a savage victory when she recognised that look of fear and shame.
‘I will report you,’ she said. ‘I will have you closed down, and nothing you can do or say will stop me. But I’m not that cruel. I have something for you.” She handed him a chocolate bar. “You’ll find this helps when you’re depressed. Come on girls! We’re out of here!’
And out they all went into the sunny street, laughing; chattering; living.