Greetings fellow Boomer Babes! You know the theme for my Boomer Babes Rock column this year has been “Freedom.” Because I am on a series of crazy deadlines, I decided to exercise this freedom. “The Freedom to Recycle a Previously Published Freelance Article.”
Someone asked me recently about my time as a Plus Size model with the Wilhelmina Agency in California. I found an article that was published years ago and am sharing it with you this month. Warning, this is a long article, but hopefully you will enjoy it. Have a blessed August!
All I could see were ribs and bones—sharp angles jutting out from skin stretched thin like plastic wrap over leftovers. Except these weren’t leftovers. Throughout the dressing room in various stages of undress were some of the countries most well known fashion models, with me in the center, like the puffy cream filling of an éclair.
“Ladies, this is Allison Gappa, our plus-size model. She’ll be representing Alfred Angelo’s new wedding dress line for the full figured woman.”
The stares were cold, the greetings mumbled. As though fat women never got married.
“Hi, my name is Sharri,” said a lovely woman, holding out her hand. “Welcome to the hive, be careful of the stingers.” And off she went.
Thus began my career as a Wilhelmina model beginning with a televised fashion show on the A.M. Los Angeles Show. It was late in the 1970’s and I was the second plus-size model the prestigious world-renowned agency had ever hired. Filling a niche category that had begun to blossom, I stuck out like a thorn among roses.
At over 200 pounds, I was a size 18-20. The women I would work with over the next few years on runway fashion shows, in print ads for catalogs, on television commercials and on various women’s programs, were all one-digit sizes like threes and sixes. Most weighed less than 110 pounds. I felt like a Sumo wrestler among a cast of delicate ballerinas.
“Where are these women’s breasts?” I remember thinking that first day, looking at my own bosoms as though I’d somehow grown grotesque foreign objects from my chest. My bones were carefully protected beneath layers of skin and fat—as was my heart and soul.
As a young single mom in my early twenties, I had moved to southern California from Cleveland, Ohio to pursue my lifelong dream of acting and screenwriting. Assuring my young eight-year-old son that living near Disneyland would be heaven on earth for us, it was the start of an adventure that over the next several decades would turn into a nightmare of epic proportions as I searched for peace, making one wrong turn after another, taking frequent road trips from chaos to contentment and back again.
That two-year adventure into the world of plus-size modeling came unexpectedly, and full-page ads for Levi-Strauss, Pendleton Knitwear, and Gloria Vanderbilt followed. Runway shows, commercials, and an agent on Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, were quite heady experiences for a girl from the projects of Cleveland, Ohio.
I traveled with a wild Hollywood crowd, living on coffee, booze, and speed—and as you might expect, I began to lose weight. My modeling career ended when I lost too much weight to qualify as a full-figure model. However, that lost weight didn’t stay lost, and I would lose and gain and lose and gain hundreds of pounds during this decade.
I remarried and divorced again, and over the years would become engaged to and live with four different men. All those broken engagements and frequent extreme weight gains and losses left me even more emotionally crippled. More than one abortion left additional scar tissue on my body, heart, and soul. Moving more than a dozen times, uprooting my son from every school and every friend he had during his formative years, I was always searching for something more, something different, and something better. I now know I wasn’t searching, I was running. Peace eluded me. I hit one dead end after another, never understanding what I lacked was a Navigator who could help me chart a new course and stay on track. I lacked the spiritual balance that brings personal peace.
For a long time I did not believe in God. How blessed I am that He never stopped believing in me. Not only did I not believe in God, but also I was without hope, and I trusted no one. Without God, I was truly lost.
It had not always been that way. As a little girl, during summer vacation, I loved attending Vacation Bible School at a church in Cleveland, Ohio. We did not attend church on a regular basis. Ours was not a Christian home in the sense that God was an active part of our upbringing. But we knew the Ten Commandments, and Mom exhibited the values of a Christian woman by the example she set for her three children.
Yet we were children confused by the divorce of their parents and the accompanying difficulties of living as welfare recipients on the edge of poverty.
As a teenager, I felt distant from girls my own age, and I rebelled strongly against all authority. It was no surprise that I would choose to run away and get married when I met “Mr. Right.” Except he wasn’t. The horrific year I spent married to a man whose physical and emotional abuse almost killed me dispelled any remaining vestiges of my belief in a higher power watching over me.
For most of my adult life, I could not move toward forgiveness and healing, a key factor in my eventual battle with weight. I was angry and hurt, and I couldn’t forgive my husband. I blamed myself, then him, then my childhood, then back to my husband. My feelings were all over the playing board, and during my pregnancy at the age of sixteen, I began to stuff that painful emptiness and hopelessness with food. After my son’s birth, I added drugs, alcohol, and empty relationships to the mix. Gaining one hundred pounds with my pregnancy was the start of a battle with weight that would last for more than thirty years.
A pattern had developed over the years concerning my weight. Using various “extreme deprivation diets,” including diet pills, shots, and liquid protein fasts, I would drop significant amounts of weight in short periods of time. I just knew I could find peace and contentment if I could only lose weight. Over the years, my weight would go from 150 to 190 to 230 to 130 to 180 to 200 to 175—up and down and up and down. My highest weight was 280 pounds.
Far more damaging than excess weight was my total entrenchment in New Age theology and my unequivocal stance on Christianity. “There is no God other than the god-like power we carry within ourselves,” I spouted. A teaching I believed and preached over and over to my young son from the time he was a baby.
For the next decade, I floated aimlessly, charting my own course. Throwing myself whole-heartedly into everything I did from work to play, on the surface folks thought I had it all together. Internally, I was a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
After my brief foray into modeling ended, I began what would become a twenty-plus-year career as a professional fundraiser and special event planner for non-profit organizations. My freelance writing career was moving along, and I had been published in Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal magazines. I also spent several years as the playwright-in-residence at a small theatre where three of my full-length plays were produced.
I filled my days with busy take-charge tasks, always on the move, always on a schedule, always following a list. I filled my nights with alcohol, drugs, and self-destruction. I filled my soul with empty promises and emptier pursuits. On the outside, folks thought I had it all together, on the inside I was dying.
My life caromed out of control as I continually reinvented myself over the years. By the time I reached my late twenties, a time when many of us are just beginning our families and settling down, I had a teenage son who had, in his turn, become the out-of-control rebel, causing me to slip further into an abyss of guilt, self-blame, and hopelessness.
Why couldn’t I find happiness? Why did it seem as though nothing I did worked out? Why did I feel so worthless, so insecure? The feelings of utter helplessness and hopelessness, of unrealized dreams, broken promises, and dead-end streets overwhelmed me. How we come through times of struggle often depends on our level of faith and hope, and at that time I had neither. As a non-believer, there was no room in my life for a higher power greater than myself. It took years to discover that I was attempting to fill the empty hole in my soul with everything except faith, hope, love, and joy. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought to find comfort, direction and peace in faith. I now know there is a place in our heart only God can fill. I now know I had to leave the past behind and make a life-changing turn in another direction.
Jesus Christ took my broken spirit and my lost soul, filled with guilt and pain, and turned me around, setting me on a new course. He filled that empty place in my soul I was trying so desperately to fill with drugs, alcohol, relationships, material goods, work, and empty pursuits. He forgave me the sins that weighed heavy on my heart, showing me I no longer had to carry the burden alone. He brought peace into my life. He can do the same for you.
I did not “get religion.” I made a spiritual connection that turned my life around. I “got a relationship”— a relationship with Jesus Christ. I know in my heart that no matter what we have done, no matter where we have been, it is never too late to fill that empty place in our heart and soul. It is never too late to change direction, because GOD ALLOWS U-TURNS!
Yet even with God as my Navigator, my issues with weight still loomed heavy on my heart, no pun intended, and while the peace I felt in knowing God transformed my life, there was still work to be done.
I will never forget the day I first heard the words “Morbidly Obese” associated with my weight. It was late 1995; I was living in Minnesota and had been married to Kevin a short six months. I was forty years old and had stopped running the diet treadmill years before, resigned to being “overweight.” I seldom got on the scale, oblivious to the numbers that for decades had ruled my life. I was happily married to a man who loved me for who I was, not how much I weighed. I took care of myself, ate healthy foods, and took vitamins and nutritional supplements. My emotional health was the best it had ever been, my spiritual walk was strong and focused, and my writing career was moving forward. Essentially my life was really very good. My road trip to peace had become a successful journey.
Physically, however, my body was a wreck; I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without passing out. Now, my heart stuck in my throat as I looked down at my medical chart to see the words “morbidly obese” written next to my name. Tears stung my eyes as I tried to comprehend what the doctor had written before being called away, leaving my chart open on the desk.
“Morbidly obese? How dare he!”
My initial anger gave way to a deep, incomprehensible pain as the truth of his words sunk in. Yes, sometimes truth is painful. As though nothing had happened, I tried valiantly to maintain my composure when the doctor returned; yet, my heart was breaking.
“Oh, God,” I cried out when I got to my car. “What is wrong with me? Why after all of these years, why after coming so far on my faith journey am I still battling this demon of weight?” Crying, I rested my head on the steering wheel, as “morbidly obese” played across my mind’s eye like words on an electronic ticker-tape message board. I was so weary of the weight loss dance, lose a few pounds, gain a few more, lose some, gain it back, and ’round and ’round I went like the little plastic ballerina that spun on the jewelry box I had as a girl. Sitting there sobbing, I prayed to God for the roller coaster ride to end.
And end it did. In October of 2000, tipping the scales at 280 pounds, I had finally reached a place in life where my physical co-morbidities were becoming life threatening. Having gastric bypass weight loss surgery seemed a viable alternative to enable me to stay alive.
Today, thanks to life-saving surgery, I’m 120 pounds lighter and I’ve kept it off for almost eight years. My life journey has been rocky to say the least, but I’ve found a peace and contentment I had never dreamed was possible, and it’s not because I got thin. It’s because I got God. God brought me peace of heart and mind—and a miraculous medical procedure brought me peace of body.
Knowing that God must come before all else brought me the wisdom to make choices that would change the story of my life.
©2008, Allison Bottke
End Note: To see more of Allison’s Before and After photographs visit her web site here: