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Asthma forces Teresa Highbarger, 36, to wear a mask while dusting. She lives in a house in Columbia, Missouri that is literally full of “JOY”: these three letters, representing “Jesus, Ourselves, Yourself,” appear on tapestries, wooden blocks, posters and Christmas ornaments throughout her home. They are the priorities Highbarger strives to achieve.
Highbarger spoils Mitzi, the companion she rescued from the pound over five years ago. Portraits of Mitzi, or the two of them, hang throughout the house. They rarely separate. Dogs have been a part of her life since the age of 16. “You gotta have that companion,” says Highbarger. “They become like family.”
Wendy’s restaurant serves as Highbarger’s dressing room before the Choral Union’s sole performance on the University of Missouri’s campus. She eats a hurried meal before changing in the restroom. Most of her meals are as quick. “Why take the time to eat a meal?” she says.
Though she would love to marry, have a family and own a house, Highbarger believes her weight prevents the realization of these and other dreams. She instead spends time with friends and their families. On the one hand, she appears content. “I’m not saying I enjoy being this way,” says Highbarger, “but there are worse things in life than being fat.” On the other hand, she puts up obstacles to losing weight, blaming financial, genetic and social reasons for her size.
Highbarger watches an evening disturbance at the house across the street.
After making her bed every morning, Highbarger places a doll in remembrance of her cousin Michelle upon her pillows. Only then does she open the window shades. Michelle committed suicide in 1994. Highbarger’s Catholic faith helps her cope.
Highbarger’s niece Sadie braids her hair at her brother Tommy’s birthday party. Such family events offer sanctuary from life beyond the walls of home. “One thing I wish for more than anything else in the world is that people would stop seeing me first as fat before they see anything else,” says Highbarger.