January 08, 2007 12:00 PM

One orders her chicken Caesar with no dressing or croutons. Another insists on only dark green lettuce for her sandwich. But the five slender diners gathered for lunch poolside at the National Hotel in Miami have more in common than a few fussy ordering habits. They all know what it is like to be fat in America. After their Half Their Size photo shoots, the group met with PEOPLE writer Ericka Sóuter to dish about life on both ends of the scale.

You’ve all chosen a healthy lunch today. How did you eat when you were heavy?

Charles: As big as I was, I used to hide. I would go to drive-thrus and eat in my car. I’d get a Big Mac, but I wasn’t content with the 600 calories in it. I wanted extra Mac sauce, two Super Size Fries and a Filet O’ Fish with extra tartar sauce. I was easily knocking back 7,000 calories a day.

Janene: I would starve all day—no breakfast or lunch—and pick up pop, candy and Doritos on the way home.

Mary: Oh yeah. I used to ask myself, ‘I eat only one meal a day, why am I so heavy?’ But supper pretty much went from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.

Tiana: A pound and a half of pasta at night. If I baked cookies, I ate the whole batch.

Waiter (arriving with a basket): Would you like bread for the table?

Everybody: No!

Mary: I still cook breads, cakes and candies for my family and I am never tempted to take a bite of anything. I don’t even want to touch it. I wear gloves so I don’t absorb the sugar.

Charles: She makes Dr. Atkins look like he loves carbs.

Laughter all around.

Do you ever get fed up by the current restrictions on your diet?

Ethelyn: I get mad when I see people put unhealthy stuff in their cart. How do they not get fat? Then I realize, they may have a faster metabolism or make choices I am not willing to make. Or I take another look and realize they are fat.

Mary: I’ll feel sorry for myself because I can’t eat whatever I want. But it’s fleeting.

Janene: I’ve accepted I can never eat sugar again. Friends get married and there is wedding cake—but not for me.

What was the worst thing about being obese?

Janene: I didn’t want to be the fat mom. My kids were in kindergarten when I started to lose. I did not want people to tease them because of me. That was my biggest fear.

Tiana: Whenever I got into a fight with someone, the first thing out of their mouth was ‘You’re fat.’

Are you treated differently today?

Ethelyn: My relationships changed. I was known for taking care of everyone else. When I started taking care of myself, certain people didn’t like it. I lost those friends but I don’t regret it.

Charles: A lot of people who are overweight tend to be the caregivers. But you can’t help anybody if you don’t take care of yourself.

Janene: They changed my picture on our school Web site and someone said, “You used to look like a Butterball turkey.” That hurt. I might look like this now, but I am the same person with the same heart.

What has been the best perk of losing weight?

Charles: The biggest gift is my anonymity. I don’t feel everyone staring as I walk down the street.

Ethelyn: Not having to use a beach towel after showers. Also, my acne cleared up.

Mary (tearing up): There are so many. My husband was much smaller than I was. I feel feminine to weigh less. And when I see my shadow on the sidewalk, I still say, “Is that really my shadow?” I just feel good now.

Janene: That my daughter can wrap her arms around my waist. That I don’t break chairs anymore. Or finally having enough room in a plane seat.

Charles: Oh, I’ve got an airplane story for you. Here I was with a 74″ waist, mortified I am going to be squeezing someone next to me. So I lean as far over as I can, the plane is fixing to taxi out and … the arm falls off the plane seat. They had to bring on a mechanic. Everyone is stuck, staring at me. It doesn’t get any worse than that. If a hole could have opened up in the earth and swallowed me, I would have gladly went to wherever it took me.

Janene: Did any of you ever look at the weight requirements in elevators and try to calculate? I was so paranoid the alarm would go off.

Tiana: And when you get off, the elevator moves up a foot.

Everyone laughs and nods.

What is it like to shop for clothes now?

Ethelyn: Pure bliss. A salesperson sent me to the juniors department. That was mind blowing. I said, “God bless you” and pulled out a picture of the old me. For 20 years I could only wear muumuus and black stretch pants. Who’s fat and didn’t wear the black stretch pants?

Janene: I can go into Victoria’s Secret and not get looks like, “What is she doing in here?” I still feel like the same person, but now the salespeople are up in my face helping.

Ethelyn: It’s like, “Where were you before?”

Tiana: And how much more expensive are fat clothes! I went broke trying to get clothes that make you feel good and fit well. Now, I go to Macy’s and the clothes on the sale rack fit.

Charles: Yeah, the “fat tax.”

Mary: My husband still pulls me out of the plus-size department. I just automatically gravitate there.

Tiana: The brain has to catch up with the body. This has been a healing process for all of us.

And your romantic lives?

Ethelyn: I am more of a flirt. Actually, I always was, but now it’s reciprocated.

Mary: The other night a guy was hitting on me and I was like, “He can’t be talking to me.” My mind refused to accept being attractive.

Janene: My love life is better. You don’t realize what a barrier weight is. I am more energetic and fulfilled.

Charles: I got up the courage to look up my high school crush. Now we are engaged! It’s like a rebirth.

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