Ex-Chubettes Unite! Former Fat Kids Let It All Out

Jessica Silk, a wavy-haired, freckled grad student in public health, was sitting at the Organic Grille in the East Village on a recent sun-drenched afternoon, picking at a healthful seitan wrap. “Sometimes I think we can smell one another in a crowd, and not because we have snacks,” she said.

Ms. Silk, 27, was talking about former fat kids, of which she is one. Have you ever noticed how New York is simply swimming with these psychologically fragile souls? You can see it in the careful attention to what’s on their plates … their slavish devotion to daily exercise routines … and the slightly nervous look that creeps into their eyes now, as bikini season looms.

David Zinczenko, editor of Men’s Health magazine since 2000 and co-author of Eat This, Not That: Thousands of Simple Food Swaps that Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Pounds—or More (Rodale Books, $19.95), is one prominent former fat kid. “The stigma of the overweight child never really leaves,” Mr. Zinczenko, who grew up stocky in Bethehem, Pa., wrote The Observer in an e-mail. “For some of us, the escape from the fat shroud is what defines us.”

And arguably, some never really escape. “I still think of myself as a fat little dorky kid from Orange County desperately wanting to be cool,” No Doubt songstress Gwen Stefani told Grazia magazine in 2007. Ms. Stefani works out a few hours a day to fend off this inner fat kid. “It takes a lot of effort for me to look like this,” she said. “If I slack off, it really shows. That little chubby kid starts coming out and I have to rein her back.”

Think, too, of the prototypical FFK Bill Clinton bonding with FFK Monica Lewinsky, the suggestion of blubber hovering around him even after bypass surgery years later. “I was the fat band boy,” he said to CNN in 2005, upon founding the Alliance for a Healthier Generation with the American Heart Association, which was swiftly joined by another former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee (who grew up chubby thanks to Baptist potluck suppers, but lost 105 pounds in one year by jogging).

Current candidate Barack Obama has fared better … or has he? In his younger days, he was known simply as “Barry,” a roly-poly kid who read comic books and was often challenged to street fights. Now, he looks like he could use a good helping of grandma’s meatloaf. Surely Mr. Obama’s lean figure is correlated, in part, with charges that he is “elitist.” Middle America likes their politicians to look like them—with a nice spare tire around the waist—or so the theory goes.

Trembling at the Times Cafeteria

But back in New York, of course, it’s socially impermissible to be anything but thin.

This is the metropolis where the leggy-legged and skinny-armed women and flat-abbed men come from all over the world to model. Instead of brain drain, in which smart people leave their countries to make it big in other ones, we have fat drain, where thin people infiltrate Manhattan and create a kind of alternate universe where hip bones are as sharp as knives and biceps are bulging.

“Does this city make my ass look fat?” Stephanie Vann, 42, recently screeched in a Manhattan Starbucks. Ms. Vann, a FFK who grew up on Park Avenue as Stephanie Winston, the great niece of jeweler and “king of diamonds” Harry Winston, was on the phone from her current home in Ithaca, N.Y.

“All of a sudden, you go to a Starbucks in the city and everyone looks like they’re between an Equinox and a callback for The Nanny Diaries or something,” she said. “Nobody looks real in any sense of the word.”

Young Stephanie was ridiculed by classmates at her private school, Birch-Wathen. She was “10 or 15 pounds overweight,” she said. “But growing up in Manhattan, on Park Avenue, even five pounds overweight was just too much.”

She spent the better part of a decade in and out of fat camps. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, she went from her regular weight of about 130 pounds to 96 pounds. “I’d go clothes shopping. … I was so happy that I needed to ask for a zero,” she said. “People thought I was either anorexic or had a coke addiction. But I felt so good being so skinny for the first time in my life.”

Ms. Vann fled the city in the ’90s for college, then a boyfriend. But many FFKs seem to congregate in New York, where they can make a brand new start of it and escape their plumper pasts. It’s conveniently a walking city. (Burns lots of calories!) There’s the farmers’ market, raw-food-only restaurants and a gym on every corner.

Of course, there are also pizza joints … noodles shops … Beard Papa.

“I feel like I’m one Hostess cupcake away from losing control,” said Abby Ellin, a freelance writer for The New York Times and women’s magazines and author of Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs In on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help (PublicAffairs, $12.95).

Ex-Chubettes Unite! Former Fat Kids Let It All Out