On a freezing weekday night in the Shenandoah Valley, 13 women sat on black steel folding chairs in a poorly heated community center, telling tales of unwed motherhood, diet pills and violent cravings for cheese-flavored corn chips.
Seated in a circle, their chubby legs crossed at the ankle, were women who weigh themselves only once a month to avoid depression, who have lived in homes without mirrors that insult them, who have been known to spend months lying in bed in pink and white bathrobes eating junk food they have stashed in night stands.
The women -- among them a supermarket checker, a college instructor, a retired federal worker, and a minister's wife -- came to discuss things that a woman who understands the power of gossip in small-town Virginia doesn't dare bring up with her friends.
"Hi. I'm S--- and I'm a compulsive overeater," said one woman, a mother of two who was wearing sneakers, black slacks and a yellor flower-print blouse. oShe was the leader of the evening's meeting.
"Hi, S---," said her 12 listeners. Group members have promised never to repeat what they hear at these weekly meetings of Overeaters Anonymous, a national organization of people who use the techniques of Alcoholics Anonymous to overcome what they call an addictive reaction to foods containing refined sugar.
They acknowledge their pathological inability to eat moderately. When they feel a bout of gluttony coming on, they call each other for support. At these meetings, they talk about how being fat affects their sex lives, their children, their health and their self-esteem.
As the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays approach, with the unavoidable temptation of sweets, the meetings become safety valves for the women.
S--- began the meeting by leading the 12 in the O.A. liturgy, a ritual admission that sweets have an unholy power to botch up lives. "We've suffered loneliness and heartbreak . . . We must refrain completely from refined sugar . . . We have a chronic disease; we are compulsive overeaters," said the women.
They have been reciting the pledge and sitting on the black steel folding chairs once a week for five years, ever since a woman, who weighed 300 pounds and lived in a bathrobe, read about O.A. in Ann Landers' column. The woman now weights 150 pounds and the others in the chilly room have shed more than half a ton of fat since these sometimes sad, sometimes humiliating meetings began.
After the liturgy, S---, who is in her mid-30s, opened the discussion by explaining why she made herself obese. "When I was 17 years old, I was very thin. I met a guy and I got pregnant. I wasn't married and I had the baby. That's when I started getting fat," she said.
S--- said she stayed fat and lived at home with her parents until she was in her 20s. Then she went to a doctor, obtained some diet pills, lost weight, found a boyfriend, was married and then got fat again.
"I found out that in the same year that boy made me pregnant, he also made another 17-year-old girl pregnant. She had a daughter. My daughter goes to school with that girl [a half-sister] and they've become best friends," she said.
S--- said she frequently runs into the father in grocery stores of Winchester, a town of 20,000 in this fertile valley of apple trees, turkey farms and barley. The sight of the father enrages her, S--- told the women, who listened in silence. She asked them for advice in dealing with her anger, an anger she sublimates by eating.
The minister's wife told S--- that while it may sound dumb, she should pray for the man. The teacher told her to write vicious, obscene letters to the man, but never mail them. A third woman told S--- to look on the bright side of her domestic mess: "Think what he'd be like with two wives and all those daughters."
The meeting recessed briefly for refreshments, which consisted of Pappy's Sassafras Tea, nothing else.
Then the clergyman's wife, a woman wearing a pink stretch slacks and a bulky coat, complained that her husband's parishoners are cruel. "I've been under tremendous criticism for my looks. People have told me I look 10 years older than my husband. Where do they get the nerve to say that to me?"
The other women commiserated, but refused to allow her to ignore the reason they had all come out on the cold, windy night to sit in a circle in a chilly room.
"We can't blame people for seeing us as fat," said one woman, "because that is what we are."