Fat Chance

Do your friends make you chubby? Or is it that McFlurry in your hand?

Got a pleasantly plump friend who e-mails you from Sri Lanka? Have a rotund pen pal who lives in Timbuktu? Dump them at once.

According to the latest scientific research, just published in The New England Journal of Medicine, if your friends are chunky, there's a very good chance that you'll be flabby as well. The scientists allege that this is true even if your chums are a million miles away, an assertion that is utterly baffling. (What, all day long they phone and write with lurid descriptions of cupcakes?)

The experts say they think the reason behind all this is that you get used to looking at people who are hefty and, after a while, guess what?—they don't look all that bad to you! You gradually shift your ideas of what's normal to accommodate a few soft rolls around the midsection, a fuller chin, a wigglier rear.

Unfortunately, the study disregards another patently obvious reason why you bulk up when your friends are heavy—they either have a lot of delicious-looking food laying around, or, more likely, their idea of a good time is a session at McDonald's. Since there is nothing on earth more depressing than eating a limp salad at McDonald's surrounded by people washing down Chicken McNuggets with McFlurries, pretty soon you too will be ordering up a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (740 calories).

Of course, as it turns out, the obverse is also supposedly true—when you're around skinnies nonstop, the pounds should melt right off. As a twice-yearly attendee of runway shows, I feel more than qualified to weigh in, so to speak, on the subject. I have watched what must be by now literally thousands of starving, sullen teenagers lope down the runways on two continents. Once, years ago at the Ghost show in London, I thought a model was wearing an off-white top with V-shaped stripes, but when she got closer I realized that she was clad in a low-cut gown and those stripes were her bones poking through her flesh.

But did my close encounter with this poor waif result in my shedding even an eighth of a pound? What do you think? In fact, immediately after the show I went out and had a toad-in-the-hole, some hasty pudding, and a pint of ale. Still, there's got to be a reason that the once pleasingly porky Karl Lagerfeld now looks like he could pass through the eye of a needle. (Lagerfeld's notorious diet secret? Supposedly, he swishes Nutella chocolate around in his mouth, then spits it out.)

Curious about the few renegades who defy the scientific research and manage to hold onto their avoirdupois even when consorting with sylphs, I resolved to seek out some full-figured professionals working in the industry. Which is harder than it sounds—you can't just call people up and say, "How does it feel to be fat in fashion?" unless you want to make an enemy for life or contend with a sobbing mess on the other end of the phone.

I had to settle for Mauricio Padilha, CEO of the fashion-oriented Mao Public Relations, who until recently was one of the few truly hefty people in the field. In the last year and a half, Padilha has lost 210 pounds (the combined weight of two and a half supermodels) and is now slinking around in Balenciaga jeans instead of the custom-made black elastic-waist trousers and matching overshirts he used to sport.

"I always felt I was wearing gigantic pajamas," he says sadly of his former garb. When I asked him what it was like to be the lone chubby guy back then, he replies, "Lynn, I wasn't chubby. I was 385 pounds, which is bona fide morbidly obese. I used to feel really strange going into meetings—it was so awkward having fashion clients see me and telling them this was who was going to represent them."

In fact, the whole reason Padilha started Mao in the first place was his sneaking suspicion that his size was the reason he was having such a hard time getting a job. "Before I started Mao, I went on a bunch of interviews for PR positions at various fashion designers' studios. I remember feeling like shit because some of them would look me up and down and then just tell me that I was either not right for the position or that the position was filled—after having me come down for an interview."

In the last few years, Padilha has seen a downward shift in the acceptable weight of models, but even as the mannequins he worked with got tinier, he got tubbier. "When I started, I was with Marc Jacobs at Perry Ellis, working with girls like Cindy Crawford. When Shalom came on the scene, everybody was like, 'She's so skinny!' But compared to the girls now, Shalom had a really womanly body. Sometimes I think the girls agencies send now are shockingly thin—and they're all so much younger than they used to be. I understand why the designers do it, I understand the whole visual concept of a flat-chested girl—the Audrey Hepburn thing, that she'll look better in the clothes, that she'll look chicer." By the mid-'90s, Padilha says, "everyone wanted to look like a model, stick-thin and with straight hair."

He thinks the reason you see so many baby beanpoles on the catwalks is because designers believe that deep in their hearts, grown-up women want to look like teenagers again. "But a woman in her mid-thirties, no matter how thin, will never look like a 16-year-old." No, she'll look like an anorexic 35-year-old.

For himself, he says he likes to see "people with personal style." He even mentions his admiration for Diane Brill, the voluptuous 1980s party girl who by no stretch of the imagination could ever have been called slender. "I like people who, at the end of the day, are happy in their own skin."

So is he in total ecstasy now, bopping into meetings svelte as Audrey herself?

"No, I want to lose 10 more pounds."

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