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

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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 heavier.

What follows is one of the most piercing explorations of the limits and promises of a...

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Overview

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.

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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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767912914
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/13/2004
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.53 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
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 differences 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 thunder storms 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 blonde, 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 5'8", 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, 17 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, a hundred 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 photographs are inconclusive.

There's one 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, blonde and pixie-ish, is talking to the photographer.

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

Everything about my next 37 years or so can be culled from that picture. Fat and thin, my total absorption in food no matter whose it is, 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, right up there with "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 a "fat." A noun, not a modification, to my ears, 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 10 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 own 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 5:30 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 18 months of building and endless finishing touches, our house, in a cul-de-sac of what would be ten classic 60's ranch houses owned by university professors, local business owners and doctors was done. Green shag wall-to-wall carpets, built-in's 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 '30's. 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 signal that he was a Sanctioned Catholic Doctor. The Monsignor referred and conferred with his professional cadre, often late at night over a bottle of Bushmill's, laying out the needs he was privy to that a lawyer or G.P might not be. "`Missus Ma-Guire, now'," my father chuckled to my mother at breakfast one morning, in an Irish brogue he'd been imitating for thirty years. "`She's got ten kids and Mister Ma-Guire outta work. I believe her menses are terribly painful. What are we goin' t' do ab' t'at, Lenahrd?' 'There's The Pill,' I said, 'but you know what the Vatican says about that.' 'It's not about babies, it's about crahmps, Leonard!'" Pastorally sorry as he was when Dad left general practice, he beamed with paternal satisfaction that one of his flock became the first anesthesiologist in Missoula. There wasn't anyone else who could take paternal pride -- The Monsignor had buried my father's parents.

No one took this dinner lightly.

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

"And put your shoes on," my mother added. "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 addended now that she had Daddy's backing. "We'll be giving The Monsignor The Tour of the House."

"All happy families resemble one another," Anna Karenina opens, as everyone knows, "but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

We were an apparently happy family.

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 17 and 15, 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 on stage for the whole she-bang, 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 chaffing 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 Lenox and 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 why's 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 by having a 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 Robb 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 The Little House in the Big Woods for good measure.

I sat on the toilet and placed one perfect cracker in 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 a 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…

Thank God for Khrushchev. My mother was prepared for atomic war. From the interstices of the pantry, among jars of stale bay leaves and tins of smoked oysters, another bottle of cherries was found. I helped myself before taking the crackers and mortadella into the living room. My lips were now swollen and a lively cherry red. Years later, I would be tempted to spend money for this look.

My walk-on, as Francie, The Kuffels' Youngest, seen but not much heard, came in the choking duty of answering the doorbell. "Good evening, Monsignor," I sing-songed, parroting the classroom greeting. "Please come in and let me take your coat."

He shrugged out of his massive overcoat and handed me his pompommed berretta, before arranging his purple-trimmed cassock with its thousand buttons. "Ahrre ye helpin' yer mother tonight like a good gel?"

"Yes, Monsignor." I staggled off to my parents' bedroom with his coat, the beanie perched on top like a widow hen, holding my breath against crushing it. To do this, I passed the two-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin that my mother had commissioned for the stained glass altar in the entry hall, by the bas relief of Christ in Gethsemane, a gift from a dying patient, in the bedroom hallway, to my parents' bed, where I laid out the Monsignor's things under the crucifix that cunningly housed holy water and chrism in case of a sudden need of Last Rites. "Extree Munction," I shivered with a delicious gothic frisson. For whom would we need it? The voices were safely three, safely distant. I had time, alone, to dip into Dad's stash of almond roca. When saying hello to a guest was a matter of life, death and afterlife, fuel was called for.

First I scraped the almond bits off with my front teeth, chipmunk-style. I let the chocolate melt and the toffee soften. Chomp, chomp, chomp -- exactly three -- and suck the toffee fillings out of my tender new molars. It was a few weeks after Christmas, Dad's stash was full. I took another and this time I was not patient. I went straight to chomp-and-suck.

And so it went. For every task I carried out, there was food to cadge, despite the sad entr&eacutee of beef Wellington, the slices calibrated numerous nervous times to feed six diners. I skimmed as I carried out Mom's instructions. A bite of mortadella as I filled the water pitcher, a mint melting on each side of my mouth as I carried in condiments; half a roll squirreled against my cheek, pillow-safe, when I opened the packages for heating, the other half after I shut the oven door. This was Dutch courage eating. There would be scrutiny passed with the bread basket. It was also the desperate last forage before I had to act like the food didn't matter as much as the company. No seconds of meat would be forthcoming. I couldn't understand why my parents considered this a menu fit for the greatest personage in our lives.

I hovered with each dinner plate, which I'd arranged with its compliment of Parmesan roasted potatoes and peas and onions, as Mother carved. I adored those potatoes. Canned new potatoes, they were soft and firm under the skin of butter and cheese they'd been fired in. I left a half dozen in the pan, a wise number. Mom could say, "yes, we have more but not many," and the request would drop out of deference to The Monsignor's possible desire for another helping. I crossed my fingers and watched as the heels of the roast rocked back, too much pastry to serve at the table but that was my favorite part, and my hand shot out for the orphans. When Mom goofed and a slice slid to the floor, the dogs jumped to their feet under the carving board where they were parked, an exuberant tangle of black and yellow Labrador anticipation knocking heads as they untwisted themselves. I was faster, although I nobly allowed them some of the meat. The Monsignor was watching the table attentively as I passed back and forth with the plates. An entire portion of roast beef was a hard thing to conceal in my mouth.

Safely cradled and mollified in the arms of carbohydrates, stimulated just enough from that sleepy place by sugar, maintaining the delicate balance with protein, I was a nine year-old drunk, as proficient at mixing cocktails as my father. I did not misbehave. I did not fight with my brothers. I did not have any I'm-a-little-teapot moments of showing off. I was helpful, obedient and absolutely oblivious to the grown-up conversation and dynamics.

The point was to keep getting as much as I wanted without anyone catching me.

My chances increased when I cleared the table. And the plates.

I had no witnesses.

Hence those scraps of roast beef and half-moons of pastry, along with the uneaten potatoes and Parker House rolls that had been "too much, Mahree: ev'rything is delicious, always delicious!" were neatly recycled into me. Even vegetables, the onions a nice counterpoint to the bland bread and potatoes, even cold peas. I licked the dessert plates of their whipped cream and graham cracker and walnut crumbs down to the satin china, vanished the evening's beginnings by fetching the chaffing dish and cracker tray with its dried and curling cold cuts from the living room where the grown-ups were talking parish business and parish gossip.

The boys careened by to make peanut butter sandwiches, adding to the mess, adding to the food I got to handle. "Too bad, Chunky," Dick snickered. His part was over, he could resume his swaggering. "Stuck with the dishes and kissing up to Monsignor. We get the dogs and we're goin' downstairs."

Jimmie took a jar of jelly out of the refrigerator. "I want to say good night to The Monsignor."

"Well, I know who the fattest kiss-up is, I just didn't know you were the most pathetic," Dick said.

Jimmie was one of The Monsignor's favorite altar boys, singled out to teach altar boydom to fifth graders. I sat in on these sessions -- he used my old Playskool xylophone to mark the consecrations, after all, and I'd dreamed up how to make fake hosts from Wonder Bread flattened by the heal of a glass. It was one of the few things Jim and I did alone together besides fend off Dick when he was gunning for both of us at once. Mom always said Jim was the most devout of us kids. Dick was the least but I was there at dinner when he bragged to The Monsignor about playing varsity football for Loyola, and I knew how long it took him to make his confession and to say his penance prayers.

"You wanna ask The Monsignor for his blessing, Jim-Wit?" Dick badgered on. "Maybe find out when the Sodality girls are meeting next?" He waggled his blond eyebrows leeringly.

"Ah, Dick, shut up, willya?"

Jim and I froze in place, my hand in the sudsy water, his knife making a faint ping as it dropped against the jelly jar.

"What did you say?"

Jim remained silent and still. He was smaller than Dick by a couple of inches and forty pounds, but lots faster. If he got away, we might have a hostage situation on our hands. I wouldn't go down without a fight. My fingers curled around the carving fork in the sink. Pushed to it, Jim and I would -- and had -- fought Dick with weapons. Broomsticks, forks, sneakers, textbooks and tennis rackets sometimes slowed him down enough to get away, or cornered him until Dad could sort us out into our demilitarized zones.

I turned my head slowly toward Jim, who said nothing. He was looking blankly at the smeared bread on the counter.

Like a grizzly bear interrupted in a feast of maggots, Dick sensed the motion of my head. Whatever moved had "dessert" written all over it. "What did he say, Chunky?"

"Jimmie wants to say goodbye to The Monsignor," I answered. "Daddy won't like it if you don't go too, and then The Monsignor will want to go downstairs." Jimmie exhaled softly. I'd saved us. Dick would not want to be responsible for a 250-year-old priest's heart attack. How long would Dad ground him for that? I resumed washing up, wondering what I could needle out of Jim for my quick thinking. A ride to Woolworth's? Money for Hostess Cupcakes? We'd have a pay-back skirmish a time of my choosing but for now I kept the peanut butter jar in sight.

Did Jim leave the sandwich stuff out for me to clean up after them? Was it his way of saying thanks or mea culpa for the slap upside the head Dick gave me as he stalked off to the living room? I held my temples between my wet hands and pressed hard at the spiraling pain, then let go to drag a finger through the jelly. Mom's plum jelly was winefully rich.

"G'night," Jim said on his way back from the living room, scooping up the stack of sandwiches.

"Don't let the bed bugs bite," Dick smirked. "Although maybe they'd chew off some of your big ass." He tee-hee'd down the hall, a drunken rooster. I took another dollop of jelly, let it dissolve on my tongue as I hefted the carving fork to put it in the knife drawer, wanting to use it, wanting to tell Mom or Dad and knowing I'd get in trouble for interrupting, not knowing what I wanted to tell them, knowing I'd be branded a tattler.

Copyright © 2004 by Frances Kuffel.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Did Frances’s descriptions of eating and her relationship with food make you think about things you rely on that might be dangerous buffers or substitutions?

2. Has your body shaped your life? Why or why not, and how?

3. How much has popular culture affected your attitude toward your body?

4. Have you ever had a defining moment in which you realized something fundamental about the way you have lived your life? How did you act on the realization?

5. Why do you think a twelve-step program was successful for Frances when other diets and methods had failed?

6. Frances criticizes “fat serenity,” the philosophy that advocates accepting one’s body at a larger size, as unreasonable. Why couldn’t she accept her size? Should “sizism” be a civil rights movement in the way that feminism, gay rights, and racial equality have been?

7. Why does Kuffel spend so little time on the actual diet she followed?

8. Frances enlists a number of advisors in the course of the book, relying on them to tell her what to eat, how to dress and wear her hair, guide her free time, how to think and feel about herself. Does this make her a weak person? On whom do you rely and for what?

9. What role does “passing” play in the author’s account of her newly thin body? Have you ever felt you were only “passing” for/as something? Does the feeling of passing make you less authentic?

10. Kuffel admits that “Idon’t really like fat people much.” Why would a formerly obese person have such a prejudice? What do you think about fat people?

11. Frances writes that “finishing is notsuccess.” Does she find success in the course of the book? Beyond finishing a project, how do you define success?

12. Which do you think is the “real” Frances Kuffel, the fat or the thin one? Do you think there are aspects of obesity she was grateful for after she lost weight? If you were to accomplish something you’d always wanted, how would it change you and what of yourself would you want to keep from “before”?

13. Frances finds an identity to inhabit from her two boyfriends’ neat categorizations of why they liked her. The Boy from Connecticut found her beautiful and funny, while The Catholic Boy thought she was pretty, smart, and nice. Have your romantic involvements given you a better sense of yourself? Is there anything wrong with that?

14. Why does Frances begin to eat in the last two chapters?

15. How would you describe the “note” on which the book ends?

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Customer Reviews

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( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2008

    A good view from the inside

    I really enjoyed this book for many reasons. Mostly I enjoyed that she gives you a up close view of her weight loss journey. She writes with insight and humor.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2007

    Not quite what I expected

    I admire Ms. kuffel's incredible achievement in losing so much weight, but I wanted to hear more of the day to day struggle when she first began the program. The book jumped ahead to the first weight loss of 18 lbs without telling of those long and lonely days at the beginning of her journey.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2005

    Funny and honest

    Passing for Thin reminded me a little of Anne Lamont's Operating Instructions. I loved both books. Passing for Thin is both hilarious and cutting. The author holds nothing back as she details, first, what it's like to be an active food addict, and then, what it's like to do battle with those demons and win. You root for her the whole way through and yet you are SURE that she'll come out ahead. It's inspiring. If you have your own weight loss still ahead of you, buy the book. My own weight issues aren't exactly like hers. And I don't have the same amount to lose. But it's not really about the numbers -- she never even states *exactly* what it was she was eating (or not eating) during the period of her weight loss. So it's not a diet book. But it is a book that testifies that life-long harmful habits can be addressed and when you do so, the victory impacts far more than just the small area you thought it would.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2005

    Terrific book

    I would recommend this book to anyone who feels they are alone in the struggle to lose weight. Frances Kuffel is a gifted author and her book is the most enjoyable I've read in a very long time. I couldn't put it down! The author lets you feel like you know her - can see inside her - and you want for her everything she feels she doesn't deserve. Very inspirational, insightful...just a wonderful read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2004

    RECOMMENDED

    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!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2004

    Give Me A Break!!!

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2004

    Incredible candor of self

    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!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2004

    Writing deserves five stars !!

    I read a portion of her story in Oprah's magazine.It was excellent!!Can't wait to read her entire story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2004

    Awesome book!

    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!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2003

    I want a Cinderella Ending

    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!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 7, 2010

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    Posted April 27, 2010

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    Posted May 2, 2010

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    Posted January 28, 2010

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    Posted April 15, 2010

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    Posted January 27, 2010

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