Amy Anu-Birge has had problems with her weight since she was a teenager, and she's never been allowed to forget it. When she goes on walks, strangers have ridiculed her, even mooing at her as she passed.
Incidents like this have been very painful.
"It's hard, it's hard to be fat in America. It's very difficult," she said.
Anu-Birge, 35, has spent years on one diet after another. She figures she's lost and gained 350 pounds over the years.
"That's probably the worst part of it, feeling like you have no right to exist as you are. Feeling as though this body is an outlaw body," said Anu-Birge, an English professor at Community College of Philadelphia..
‘You Always Feel Judged’
Anu-Birge is one of a dozen men and women who attends weekly counseling sessions as part of a weight-loss program run by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Many of the participants would be considered morbidly obese, and each is struggling to lose weight.
They gather to talk about their week, what they have eaten, and how they are coping. It is clear many feel that they and their problem are misunderstood by the rest of society.
"You always feel judged when you're overweight," said Mary Jean Bohager.
Bohager, a 57-year-old grandmother, said she began putting on weight in her 20s, after her second pregnancy. She joined the weight-loss program in January. When she did, she stepped on a scale for the first time in years and was shocked.
"I weighed 304 pounds, and I had no blessed idea that I was anywhere near that," she said.
She has since managed to lose 60 pounds.
There was no one crisis that got Bohager into the program. She was unhappy about her health, her lack of energy, and the ridicule she says obese people experience.
Bohager believes that many overweight people buy into the negative view that others have of them. She is no exception.
She recalled going to Ocean City, Md., and watching others on the beach.
"I'm the one that sat on the boardwalk and said, 'Look at all these fat people.' And they could have been very bright interesting people, but that's not what I saw," she said.
The Only Thing Others See
Those who are obese say this is the last area of acceptable prejudice — the one last place where people are allowed to be cruel.
"[People] don't know me as the person. [They] just see the size," said Ron, another group member, who asked that his last name be withheld.
He said he has spent years trying to hide his girth.
"You're always trying to figure out how to wear a disguise — baggier clothes, bigger clothes — to try to hide it, and realistically there's no way to hide it," he said. "The size is there."
As hard as it is to be obese, it can be more emotionally difficult to try to lose the weight and fail.
"When I started [the program] I would go to bed at night and I would say, I would close my eyes and say, 'Please bless me with the ability to do this,' " said Bohager.
Now weighing about 240 pounds, she is determined to lose another 80.
Anu-Birge said she was so desperate to lose weight that she once pleaded with a doctor for Fen-Phen, the diet remedy that was later taken off the market as unsafe.
"I looked right at him [and said], 'I don't care if it kills me, I can't be fat anymore,' " she said.
Some doctors, she said, made her feel worse about herself.
"There are doctors, just like other people in the world, who don't want to be near you," Anu-Birge said. "They don't want to be near a fat person. To be fat is kind of gross."
This attitude, she added, can discourage the obese from seeing doctors.
After years of yo-yo diets, Anu-Birge has now accepted her body as it is.
"There is a mentality that if I wanted it enough, I could lose the weight and be thin and happy and normal. It's just not true. This is how my body is," she said.
She figures she weighs about 300 pounds and is no longer trying to lose weight. She said she works out at least three times a week and eats healthy food.
Anu-Birge got married a year and a half ago. She ordered her wedding dress online from a store that specializes in plus-size wedding dresses. The wedding pictures show a radiant bride, and she smiled as she remembered that day.
"I was a beautiful bride, I was," she said.
She said her life got better when she finally accepted her body. She insists that obese people can be healthy and happy.
"I'm not living a life of quiet desperation. I'm fine. I'm just fat."