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Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self

Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self

3.9 9
by Frances Kuffel

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An intimate and darkly comic memoir of a woman who does a 180 with her body.

In the opening pages of Passing for Thin, Frances Kuffel waits at the airport to be picked up by her brother, Jim. He strides past her without a glimmer of recognition because she barely resembles the woman he is expecting to see. Jim had last seen her when she was 188 pounds


An intimate and darkly comic memoir of a woman who does a 180 with her body.

In the opening pages of Passing for Thin, Frances Kuffel waits at the airport to be picked up by her brother, Jim. He strides past her without a glimmer of recognition because she barely resembles the woman he is expecting to see. Jim had last seen her when she was 188 pounds heavier.
What follows is one of the most piercing explorations of the limits and promises of a body since Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. With unflinching honesty and a wickedly dark sense of humor, Frances describes her first fumbling introductions to the slender, alien body she is left with after losing half her weight, shining a light on the shared human experience of feeling, at times, uncomfortable in one’s own skin.
Buoyed by support from a group of fellow compulsive eaters she deems “the Stepfords,” Frances adjusts not only to her new waistline, but to a strange new world—the Planet of Thin—where she doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know the rules. Her lifetime of obesity had robbed her of the joys of lovers, a husband, children—and even made it impossible to enjoy a movie, when standing in line was too painful, or travel, when airplane seats were too small—and hadn’t prepared her for the unexpected attention from strangers, the deep pleasure of trying on a tailored suit, the satisfaction of a good run on a treadmill, or for the saucy fun of flirting and dating. She joyfully moves from observer to player, while struggling to enjoy the freedom her new shape has given her.
As Frances gradually comes to know—and love—the stranger in the mirror, she learns that this body does not define her, but enables her to become the woman she’s always wanted to be.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Literary agent Kuffel chronicles how and why, at the age of 42 and a weight of around 313 pounds, she began the successful process of losing 188 pounds. She describes food binges, ill health (surgeons remove a 36-pound ovarian cyst) and frantic calls to her support group sponsor. But this is far more than 12-step, inspirational reading. Above all, Kuffel tells a great story. She possesses an eye for detail, a knack for dialogue and a remarkable sense of humor in the face of adversity. Mounting a treadmill at the gym for the first time in her life, she closes her eyes and misjudges her pace, "shooting off like a rejected can of Jolly Green Giant peas." When she leaves Manhattan in an "August pall of heat and rusty horizons" to show off her weight loss to her family back home in Montana, she inhales on the Missoula airstrip: "ozone, clover, and cinnamon lingered from the thunderstorms the night before." And Kuffel sees humor even when writing of serious events. For example, she describes waking up and finding herself on a ventilator in the hospital after hours of intestinal surgery. At her bedside is her friend Dennis, who smoothes her hair and deadpans, "I thought you'd want to know your wallet is safe." By the book's bittersweet end, Kuffel has begun dating, but starts to binge as she feels like an inexperienced adolescent. Yet she finds her equilibrium in nature, realizing that although she may lose in love, she can now realize her childhood dream of hiking Montana's peaks. (On sale Jan. 15) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
These memoirs tackle the psychological effects of obesity. In Passing for Thin, Kuffel, a literary agent in New York City, writes of her damaging desire for food above all else. From age 12 on, obesity gave her a reason and an excuse for everything. Finally, after a Coney Island attendant rejected her for an amusement park ride ("It'll never fit"), she found an eating disorders group at a nearby Brooklyn church. With help from her sponsors and friends, she managed to drop from 338 to 168 pounds. Kuffel surprises family and friends with her changed body, but most of all she is amazed at what she is able to do-buy "normal" clothes, fit into a booth at lunchtime, and find first love at 43. Her trip from the "Planet of Fat" to the "Planet of Girls" is funny, heartbreaking, and very, very real. Wilensky is less focused, though her theme is clear: obesity colors every part of your life-emotional, physical, and social. She and her sister, Alison, were close as youngsters until Alison became overweight at 16. Undergoing gastric bypass surgery in her late twenties, she dropped from 317 to 128 pounds, which altered every relationship she had, including those with friends and her sister. Wilensky's earlier Passing for Normal, a National Book Award nominee, described her own battle with Tourette's Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Readers can only wonder why she did not make more of her own condition as she tries to piece together how her relationship with Alison went wrong. Nevertheless, Wilensky's appreciation and love for all that her sister is comes shining through. Both books are recommended for public libraries.-Linda Beck, Indian Valley P.L., Telford, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This out-of-the-ordinary book and its smart, dry, sometimes-wicked-but-vulnerable author will have readers in love after the first few pages. Kuffel acknowledges that she began overeating because she loves food and because eating can be a mind-blowing sensual experience. (Her food descriptions are divine, but even better is her confession that she loved the "Little House" books primarily for Laura Ingalls Wilder's great food writing.) At the same time, she doesn't let anyone off the hook for how she was treated after she became fat. When she asked her father what "o-bee-sess" means, he bluntly replied, "Obese. That's you." The upbeat subtitle notwithstanding, as much as she found a self, Kuffel lost one when she lost weight. She writes of realizing that she used to have 30 seconds or so when meeting strangers to "distract" them from her fat and win them over by packing as much wit and show-offy intelligence into the introduction as possible. Moving from fat to "normal" was as psychologically grueling a shift as it was a physical one, and there were moments of delight and moments of naked fear. This memoir recalls Sharon Flake's The Skin I'm In (Hyperion, 1998). Kuffel's book would work well paired with it in a book group or classroom. How'd she lose the weight? That's not the point, but it's in the book, too. An important, essential purchase for which YA patrons will thank you.-Emily Lloyd, Rehoboth Beach Public Library, DE Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Not another how-to guide to weight loss, but a smart, sassy, offbeat, funny-sad account of what the author discovered about herself when she went from being a very fat woman to a normal-sized one. Kuffel, a New York literary agent with some poetry and short-story credits in small magazines, had been a compulsive eater all her life, tipping the scale at 350 pounds when she began her journey away from obesity. At 42, she finally realized that her addiction to food was essentially the same as a close friend's alcoholism. Entering an unnamed 12-step program that slimmed her down, Kuffel found herself propelled into a world she had long observed but never experienced. As a grossly fat teenager, she'd never flirted with boys or dated; an obese woman had no chance of lovers, a husband, or children. For those who have never been there, Kuffel details the stresses and challenges of living encased in pounds of fat, making painfully clear the harm that years of obesity inflicted on her body. Her exodus from what she terms "The Planet of Fat" to the strange, new "Planet of Girls" and, later, "The Planet of Women" is told with dark humor, as is her exploration of "The Planet of Men." She becomes more visible as she takes up less space, Kuffel discovers, and like a teenager, she becomes obsessed with her changing body and with clothing. While these obsessions at times verge on the tedious, her accounts of middle-aged, online dating have the ring of sad truth. Thinness, she learns, is no guarantee of enduring love, and being thin means you can't blame your failures on fatness. The new Kuffel is the same intelligent, funny, and nice person she was before, but now she has expectations, options, and asense of entitlement. Weight-loss programs suggest that happiness comes when fat goes, but Kuffel's clear-eyed account reveals a far more complicated truth.

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Arrival on the Planet of Fat

No one was there.

I was neither surprised nor unhappy to find myself alone at the Missoula airport. My parents had appointments that morning and had left the arrangements to my brother. Jim was late or the plane was early, it didn't matter. I was glad for the time. I could absorb the difference between New York and Montana. I'd left New York at dawn under its August pall of heat and rusty horizons and emerged into air so finespun it vibrated. The smell of ozone, clover, and cinnamon lingered from thunderstorms the night before, not yet evaporated in the dry desultory heat of midday; the cornflower sky glowed famously big, even in the valley. The Montanans milling around me at the curb were tall and blond, speaking with nasal cadences that, pronounced with a looser jaw, were a perfect west Texas drawl. Conversations there were always, I was reminded again, about the weather. Ask a Montanan about his chemotherapy and he'd give you that evening's forecast. Gaits and gestures were just shy of torpid, the sky and mountains rambled on and on in their own sweet time. Montana was a slow place.

I watched the crowd with the furtiveness of a refugee, hoping fervently I wouldn't see anyone I knew. I wasn't ready.

I am five feet eight inches tall, medium framed. That Friday noon I weighed 168 pounds, my lowest weight since sixth grade. I didn't know who or what I was as I braced myself for Jim's arrival. I had one history in that town, a mean one, of being a freak with a brain, allowed to watch but not play. A talking head on a mountain of formless flesh.

In second grade I weighed 115 pounds, by the end of sixth grade, 174 pounds. I lost a proud 36 pounds between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, getting down to 204 pounds. By college I struggled to stay at 248 pounds. I think. Our scale topped out at 245 so I was guesstimating. My top weight of all time: 338 pounds. I had begun this weight loss seventeen months earlier, in 1998, at 313 pounds. More or less--I didn't purchase a scale until the second week of the diet. Jim had last seen me, the year before, 100 pounds heavier.

And so I was glad for this pause, glad for the narrow opportunity of a cigarette, a five-year habit, before being thrust into my assiduously tobacco-free extended family. I was smoking at the curb when I saw Jim hurrying across the parking lot, scanning the clumps of people. Even my big brother's dash across a parking lot roused specters of the things he could do all those years that I could not.

Jim's eyes darted with worry as he paused for traffic. Had he missed me? Had the flight been delayed? He shook his head as he bolted around a pile of luggage, heading in to look for me at the carousel. I tossed my cigarette into the gutter, forming a joke about the life we've shared: Wanna buzz the root beer stand before we go to lunch? He walked right past me.

"Jim," I called.

He panned the sidewalk, looked at me, the other people, searching for the voice.

"Uh. Jim? Over here?"

The look--blank.

The second look--questioning. "France? Francie? Oh my--wow!" A beat as he took the measure of his reaction, then a conscious modulation. "I'm sorry. I didn't recognize you."

People ask, "Were you always fat?" The photographic evidence is inconclusive.

There is a picture taken for my father's office desk, a studio portrait: my brothers with Brill Cream-slick hair and cotton shirts buttoned up to the necks, my mother looking like Madeline Kahn in black and pearls, me, the baby of the family, front and center in a dotted Swiss confection that must have itched horribly. At two, I fill the dress to capacity, my arms dough-ample and my face full. A year later, a photo shows me sprawled next to Dick, my oldest brother. I'm rangy. My long legs are dimpled a bit at the knees but I'm growing out of the baby fat of that earlier family portrait. A year or so later, I am stalky-legged, my stomach pushes at the buttons of my dress. In this last photo I am intently inventorying the contents of my and my cousin's Easter baskets; she, blond and pixieish, is talking to the photographer.

Once in a while, a photograph distills a truth to its essence.

Everything about my next thirty-seven years can be culled from that picture. Fat and thin, my total absorption in food no matter whose it is, and other people's engagement with a world I blotted out.

I identified myself as fat at such an early age that for a long time there was no other adjective to follow. I held the strong suspicion that I was given my serious name because it echoed the word so closely: Fat Frances, Fatty Francie. I hated it. After my mother explained that only boys could be called Junior, I decided I wanted to be named Cathy.

"Fat" is a powerful word to a child. It's one of the first words we learn to read and spell, like "cat" and "dog." It yields similes so easily that it prods the teaser to greater flights of fancy. Where pigs are invoked, whales, elephants, and Sherman tanks are sure to follow.

The average preschooler is not often categorized, with any degree of finality, as mathematical or musical or athletic. She is "cute," "good," "bright." Even disparaging descriptions are carefully phrased for further evolution. "A difficult child." "A plain child." "A clumsy child." "A slow child." I was "fat." A noun, not a modification, to my ears it was my definition and destiny. Not remedial but remediless. It was not a matter of not living up to my potential or being on probation for further measurement, but a fait accompli, an irrevocable pronouncement. Right up there with "crippled," "mentally retarded," or "deformed."

Worse-squared were the terms that came later. One evening, in fourth grade, sitting companionably with my father as he ate dinner after late rounds at the hospital, I picked up a Journal of the American Medical Association and flipped idly through it. My father rarely initiated conversation, so questions were a good way to get him talking. "How does penicillin work?" might prompt ten minutes of explanation I didn't understand, but it was hearing his voice that I wanted most.

I paused over a photograph of glistening marbled guck, parted neatly by a retractor to display a cluster of pebbles. "Eee-ewe," I squealed with lascivious horror as I studied the caption. "What does--" I paused to spell out the unfamiliar word "--o-bee-sess' mean, Daddy?"

" 'Obese,'" he grunted. "That's you."

I knew exactly what he meant. The word tocked across my head like a cuckoo clock. "That's you. That's you. That's you."

The next question I'm asked is why I got fat. It's a remarkably Victorian question, the nexus of Mendel and Freud. Were my parents fat? Is it genetic? The answer "yes" holds the possibility of a kind of forgiveness born of inevitability. Oh, well, in that case . . . But my parents were not fat. And I am adopted so I don't know whether this is the trajectory of my forebears or an anomalous burp of biology. Lack of information turns the question to nurture versus nature. I can hear the interrogator's mental calliope churning, What happened?

Food happened. Food in conjunction with circumstances. My obesity snowballed. A few motivations for eating--safety, satisfaction--prompted half a lifetime's compulsive eating, which in turn made me a fat girl/woman to the world and a whore to food in my heart. Compare it to alcoholism. If bourbon helped Joe Doe ask a girl to dance one night, does that justify being drunk twenty years later?

Still, people want to know what lay behind the first compulsive bite.

I don't know; I don't remember.

I suspect I had the first bite hardwired into me, that anything could have gotten the snowball rolling. Maybe I wandered into the kitchen after Topo Gigio one Sunday night, and the worm turned. That was the cookie that was one too many, the first of thousands that wasn't enough.

I don't know why I started overeating, but I do know that food was animate, a completely mutual and unfailingly loyal friend. I ate not only because at that particular moment I was bored, but because it had comforted me when I was frightened by The Twilight Zone the night before, and excluded from ice skating last Saturday, and bereft when my parents went to a convention in Vancouver last year. My reasons snowballed as much as my weight did. Take any event or crisis and it included all those before it and any I could imagine for my future.

At five-thirty it had been dark for an hour, despite my father's daily announcement that the days were getting longer. Given the afternoon we'd been through they couldn't stay short enough. It was all-hands-on-deck, and we'd been cleaning since we'd gotten home from school. After eighteen months of building and endless finishing touches, our house, in a cul-de-sac of what would be ten classic sixties ranch houses owned by university professors, local business owners, and doctors, was done. Green shag wall-to-wall carpets, built-ins straight out of The Jetsons, paneling in every room. It was perfect. It was time to have the Monsignor to dinner.

Monsignor Meade was, as far as I could tell, 250 years old. He had been "the Monsignor" when my father went to St. Anthony's in the thirties. No matter was too small for the Monsignor. We all knew the story of how he chastised Dad about his high school girlfriend: "What's the matter, Leonard, Catholic girls aren't fast enough for ye?" He gave thundering sermons (" 'Stacy' is no name for a Catholic baby!"), checked us third graders' collection envelopes, and showed up in school to hand out grades, which he read and commented on. He had baptized me, heard my First Confession, and administered my First Communion the year before. My brothers had gone the same grade school course, as well as serving Mass for him. The Monsignor was known to scold or compliment altar boys on the altar, out loud, forming a crowded congregation's impression of said lad.

So, too, the Monsignor had taken a hand in fashioning my father's career, informing him that he would join the Knights of Columbus and take his Fourth Degree as a sign that he was a sanctioned Catholic doctor.

No one took this dinner lightly.

"You will come in when the Monsignor arrives," my father instructed Dick and Jim. "No horseplay. Afterward, you can go downstairs until supper, but keep it to a soft roar, understood?"

"And put your shoes on," my mother ordered. "Tell them to put their shoes on, Leonard."

"Shoes. On," my father ordered. You could ignore Mom; you risked your ass if you didn't obey Dad. This was not abuse, it was justice. He stated the rules and gave fair warning. We'd each tested him once or twice and never needed to again.

"And double-check your rooms," Mom added, now that she had Daddy's backing. "We'll be giving the Monsignor the tour of the house."

Dick, Jim, and I shuffled off to our rooms for a final inspection. My brothers looked like Dobie Gillis teenagers. They were popular and talented athletes with girlfriends and part-time jobs, well-loved jalopies, and letter jackets. The boys and I were bit players in the Dinner for the Monsignor, rounding out the cast of the Happy Catholic Family, but, at seventeen and fifteen, they had their own dramas, downstairs and after dessert. Rosalie and Helen, Scott and Don, shoot-'em-up TV, and Leslie Gore awaited them. I was onstage for the whole shebang, in my green plaid school uniform, properly shod, performing the tasks delegated by my parents, my passions nervily in heat. My affair with food, unlike my brothers' friends and girlfriends, didn't come after anything. It was with me all the time.

I was swooning in the promiscuous smells of company coming. Sterno and the buttery, clean-laundry waft of cheese dip in the chafing dish drifted under the beef Wellington in the oven, layered with carnations and candle wax, Mother's Chanel, and the acrid steam of the dishwasher. Freshly ironed white linen, the cold gleam of Lennox, my grandmother's crystal, the satin swirl of sterling. I loved to put the sugar spoon in my mouth, broad and whorled. It should not be overlooked, in the whys of compulsive eating, that food can be a raw flood of the five senses. My synapses crackled as I waited for the orgy to begin.

"Francie." My father interrupted my flirtations with the Wheat Thins. I was arranging the cold-cut plate by taking care of the broken crackers. "I need you to hold the match."

My shoulder blades pinched. Every night we tested my mettle against Dad's martinis and I flinched as he twisted a lemon peel over the flame. I was pleased to share this ritual with him and by my temerity, and I marveled at how the lemon oil flared, more smells, of burning and citrus, sulfur and juniper. Most of all I marveled at my father. Who else used pyrotechnics so casually?

He turned to mix Mom's Rob Roy next. "Honey," he said, stumped in front of the refrigerator shelves, "are we out of maraschino cherries?"

"We can't be," she said over the grinding beaters. She was whipping cream for the horseradish sauce. "Didn't I get a jar when the neighbors came over last week?"

Frowning with preoccupation, I backed out of the kitchen. It was one of a brace of phrases I dreaded: "I thought we had . . ." "Wasn't there a whole . . ." "I was planning on . . ." I would have a sudden urge to pee or look up the population of Egypt in the encyclopedia. I was gone, vamoose, away from the discussion of if-when-who, taking the box of Wheat Thins and Little House in the Big Woods for good measure.

I sat on the toilet and placed one perfect cracker in my mouth, like the Communion wafer, and sucked the salt off, waited for it to soften into goo. My heart settled and my stomach relaxed its clench against accusations. For half a box of crackers, I was occupied against any consequences. I might make it through a second or third repetition of this slow savoring before I stream-munched the rest of the box. I then had three problems: (1) the evidence of the box (toss under my bed for now rather than the bathroom trash), (2) salt-swollen lips and gummy teeth, and (3) the possibility that the Monsignor would turn out to like Wheat Thins as much as I did. Then we'd be back to the awful sentences. We had a whole box, Leonard . . .

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Frances Kuffel is a literary agent who has published poems and short stories in literary journals, such as Triquarterly, the Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, and the Massachusetts Review. A native of Missoula, Montana, she has an M.F.A. from Cornell. She currently makes her home in Brooklyn, New York.

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Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading an excerpt from Oprah's magazine, I rushed to the store to purchase this book. I now understand why people choose to use excerpts to show off their book. Sometimes that's all there is. I really thought I would get some insight into her thoughts, feeling during this time. Blah, blah, blah, blah. I congratulate her on losing the weight, but she definitely doesn't know how to tell the story. Hope it wasn't that boring losing the weight.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an awesome book! What an inspiration Frances is to all of us who are working on the project of passing for thin, one day at a time. Frances, you've come a long, long way, great job! I hope you find the love and happiness you seek and richly deserve! You have a wicked sense of humor!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Frances is honest, sometimes brutally so. She is a normal middle aged woman with normal desires and goals. Once Frances emerges as an attractive woman, she faces these goals and desires as humble realties. A super book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read a portion of her story in Oprah's magazine.It was excellent!!Can't wait to read her entire story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I believe this book to be one of the most descriptive books I will ever read in regard to dealing with compulsive overeating. Frances is honest about how it is when you weigh more than is healthy and how easy it is to have a obsession with food. I salute her for writing this book. It is inspiring,funny and sad. Thank you, Frances, for saying what I wish I even knew I wanted to say!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm so hungry to read the rest of Kuffel's book. Did she lose the weight without surgery? If yes, then I look forward to reading about true self discovery (vs. stomach stapling anecdotes), old fashioned hard work and the pain and courage that comes from looking and finding the answers within ouselves. I want Kuffell to find everything she longs for. I KNOW that her book will be a huge success. Now, I dare ask the politically incorrect question...Has Prince Charming showed up yet? She certainly deserves a prince in her life. What a wonderful 'icing on the cake' that would be!