By Rose Spinelli

Shirley Miles is a hoofer. Though when she was 560 pounds, she was more often referred to as “wide as a cow.” Five hundred sixty pounds is in a league of its own. It’s way past plump or chubby. It’s morbid obesity. That’s a medical term. It’s a size-64 dress in a world of stores that don’t carry beyond a 54.

Obesity made it impossible for Miles to slip into anonymity, though that was the thing she wanted most. It stalked her in restaurants where strangers timed their heckling to the moment the fork reached her mouth. It gave people permission to approach her table and reprimand her. One man called her “nervy” just for leaving her house. Her grocery cart was regularly inspected by these food police. It got so bad she started waking up at 2 AM to go shopping just to avoid the harassment.

Dancing was one of the few things that made her feel joyful. Though she didn’t have stamina, she got lost in the music and felt weightless as she stepped to the rhythm. But she traded that simple pleasure, and here too the price was often stern scoldings and pointing fingers.

“The world is not a nice place if you happen to be fat,” she says. “You are automatically taken out of the social scene. No one really wants a fat girlfriend or wife. You are stuck with the men who only want to date you in private. They never take you around their friends. You don’t have any real girlfriends because you can’t double-date or go shopping for the latest styles. So you tend to sit at home and turn to your one true friend–food.”

Obesity stressed her out. It kept her in a dead-end job as a cashier in a discount store for 12 years, because no one else would hire her. She passed the math test required to work at a currency exchange, but was refused employment when an operator insisted she squeeze herself into small spaces. Other employers told her their insurance wouldn’t cover her. All incriminating behavior, if she’d had the self-esteem to challenge them. Frustrated and depressed, she ate to comfort herself, a bucket of wings here, several pounds of french fries there. It was a cycle she played out routinely. Then the discount store went out of business.

Out of options, she decided to go back to school to get a degree, a lifelong dream. She chose night classes, hoping to encounter a more mature student body. But censors still bedeviled her. To beat them back, she’d lull herself with a steady internal encore of a Gladys Knight refrain, “I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on.” Then she’d go home and eat. She discovered she loved learning and pulled a 3.9 GPA in junior college. “I won a full scholarship to an upper-level university, and my guidance counselor tried to get me to turn it down. She didn’t think I could represent our school proudly. It was that attitude that made me accept the scholarship.”

The only problem was Kennedy-King College was three hours and five bus rides away. That’s 560 pounds to heft ten times a day. “People acted like I was crushing them. I would try to make myself invisible, but it didn’t help.” Some days she was too cranky and fed up to take it. Like the day she waited until the moment before disembarking to step, full throttle, on someone’s feet. Or the time she chased a teenage girl around the Dominick’s parking lot until she nearly passed out.

“Being fat don’t mean you’re a dog,” says Dorothy Daniels, her best friend for 27 years. “It just means you’re fat. People can be so cruel. Sometimes she would tell me stories that would make me cry. But Shirley didn’t take slack off of nobody. I knew she could do anything as far as her mind, but she was always so angry. I would always tell her, ‘Things are going to get better for you. Everyone’s got their time.'”

On the afternoon of July 30, 1992, Miles’s heart stopped. She was only 40. She woke up that morning unable to keep her head up. The signs had been there for a while: shortness of breath, dizziness. But a fear of doctors kept her believing that she could sleep it off like a hangover. When the ambulance arrived, reinforcements had to be called in. “There was a lapse of time while we waited, and a crowd gathered around me. These people started laughing because it took so many men to lift me. I was lying there thinking that if I was about to die, then the last people I would see would be laughing at me.”

The official diagnosis wasn’t funny. She’d suffered congestive heart failure. “My heart stopped pumping because there was too much fat around the walls. My stomach and legs swelled because my body fluids were backing up. I had tubes to drain my lungs, because I was literally drowning in my own body fluids.” She wasn’t expected to make it through the night.

She doesn’t remember losing consciousness or bleeding from her nose and mouth. Laid out flat on the gurney in the emergency room at Holy Cross Hospital, she was desperate when the nurse took scissors to cut off her dress. “I only had two dresses to my name. My niece had to sew them for me. I practically had to beg her.”

She spent the first week in intensive care, the tubes leaving her unable to speak. The hospital attendants took turns “watching me like a zoo animal. The turning point came on the day I was moved to a regular room. My cardiologist looked me straight in the eye and said, If you don’t lose weight you are going to die. My first reaction was to tell him I would lose the weight. I’ve always had a lot of strength, but I never used it to lose weight. But after he left, the doubts started to sneak in my mind, because I was never successful at any of my diets.”

A week later the tubes were removed and replaced by another obstacle, her primary-care doctor, whose treatment of her still sticks in her craw. “At first I thought I was imagining his looks of disgust. His job was to heal the sick. But it finally dawned on me, I am not crazy. My doctor actually dislikes me. He never once touched me or encouraged me, and every time I had a complaint –even a finger hurting– his reply would always be, that’s because you are so fat. He never took the time to explain my condition, and when I asked questions he would ignore me.”

She raised some hell and was handed over to the staff psychiatrist, a man with narcolepsy who would frequently fall asleep in midsentence. “It was weird. I just sat there and waited for him to wake up.” But after a fall that required six strapping men and a harness to retrieve her, her doctor announced that she would never improve, and she would have to be moved to a nursing home.

She insisted on a second opinion. Rehabilitation–never offered as an option by her doctor–was eventually recommended with an ostensibly simple objective of learning to walk the 20 stairs she needed to get to her apartment. She spent two hours a day for several weeks working toward that goal.

One month later and still on oxygen, she was released from the hospital. She began with a move from her old apartment above a restaurant where the scent of frying food tempted, and got a place a couple of blocks from the New City YMCA. And she hooked up with a trusted doctor and dietitian.

Next came a regimen of reduced calories and fat and an exercise program consisting of a two-block walk with her portable oxygen tank slung on her back. In the first year she lost the oxygen tank and nearly a quarter of her body weight. At 420 pounds she started picking up speed. She joined the Y, endlessly cycling, walking, rowing, and treading twice a day. Lately she’s skinnied down from seven hours a day, seven days a week to a mere five hours every day. She’s never absent.

She became a minor celebrity at the Y when her before and after shots appeared on the lobby bulletin board. The metamorphosis may not be as startling as Luther Vandross’s, but the fact is, she looks much different now, slightly wizened, the apple out of her cheeks.

She’s gone high profile, trotting out her story for anyone who asks, offering low-fat recipes. (French-fry lovers should know about her tasty baked version.) A National Enquirer reporter wanted her story. At first the peacock in her was interested, but then she thought better of it. “I don’t want a story about how I ate two cows and a pig.”

Today she weighs 210 and consumes no more than 2,000 calories per day, mostly foods high in carbohydrates so she can work them off. She’s also developed a mean clothes-shopping jones she refuses to quell. And just to be thorough she’s equipped her apartment with a treadmill and a slant board. In between workouts, whenever that is, she rides her 15-speed bike or takes long walks around the neighborhood. Her goal is 180 pounds. Perla Zulaybar, her dietitian at Saint Joseph Hospital, says, “I have a very high regard for Shirley–I’ve never met anyone with her motivation. But I’m getting scared that she’s becoming compulsive.” Miles grins. “I’m addicted and proud of it.”

Now she’s set her sights on a career move. She’s already spoken at a YMCA fund-raiser and hopes to do more motivational speaking, especially to blacks dependent on “insidious fast-food restaurants. It’s just as killing as dope, but it’s legal.” Nothing like the zeal of the converted.

“Shirley’s always had spunk,” says Daniels. “But attitudewise, she’s totally different. She’s in control now. That’s the clicker.”

“I was a nicer person at 560,” says Miles. “I used to give 150 percent in relationships even if they didn’t deserve it. I was the friend who would pick you up at your front door, drive you anywhere, and never ask for gas money. I was the sister who would let you hurt my feelings time and time again. I was the one who helped others pass tests at school. I did all this and more because of a need to feel wanted. I let people use and abuse me out of my desire to be part of the crowd. I thought if I was busy helping that you wouldn’t have time to notice my obesity. Now when I laugh it’s because I want to. Then it was to be liked.” Her gaze shifts downward, then settles on a faraway point. “But it doesn’t make me feel better to be treated better. Where were these people when I needed them?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mary Katherine Semos.