It took a while for Frances Kuffel to adjust to the “Planet of Girls.” Picking out flattering clothes, taking time for manicures and eyebrow waxes, realizing that a second glance from a man probably meant that he found her attractive, not that she had something on her face—Kuffel wasn’t used to any of this, but with the guidance of her more experienced friends and family, she threw herself giddily into Girlhood.
Kuffel wasn’t a teenager when she experienced this transformation. She was 42.
Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding Myself is one woman’s account of radical midlife weight loss and the world it opened up for her. Kuffel, a literary agent and fiction writer, relates her experience as more of a psychological journey than a physical one, beginning with the whys of her obesity. Because she was adopted and never knew anything about her biological parents, Kuffel was forced to look beyond genetics to figure out what caused a woman of 5-foot-8 to balloon to 338 pounds.
The author’s self-consciousness about her weight began when she was a child living in Missoula, Mont. “I identified myself as fat at such an early age that for a long time there was no other adjective to follow,” Kuffel says. “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.” Her father was a doctor, but he didn’t do anything about young Frances’ expanding girth except teach her to throw a label on it:
“What does…‘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.”
Kuffel talks about endlessly sneaking bites of food while helping her family entertain, the shame she felt when overhearing her parents wonder where the full jar of maraschino cherries had gone, and her eventual reliance on food as an “unfailingly loyal friend.” The proverbial wake-up call didn’t happen until she was 32 and barely making a living teaching and working in a literary agency in New York. On a morning when she had only $3 to her name, Kuffel panicked about her hardship—and went out to buy a can of Pringles. She called a friend sobbing, and when the friend questioned why she would spend her last bit of cash on potato chips after she’d already had breakfast, Kuffel stunned herself by admitting, “Because I’m afraid. I eat when I’m afraid…”
To Kuffel, this overeater’s cliché was “the truest thing I had ever said,” but it was another 10 years before she decided to leave the “Planet of Fat.” Spurred by an alcoholic friend whose addictive behavior, she reasoned, wasn’t very different from her own, Kuffel finally joined a 12-step program and was inspired by its members’ stories of massive weight loss. She was soon following a regimented diet—no sugar, no flour, and three weighed and measured meals with no snacks in between—and dropping pounds at a remarkable rate.
Readers looking for a how-to guide to losing weight will be disappointed by Passing for Thin. Kuffel devotes very little space to food once she begins the program; and she glosses over the difficult period, covering the first months in a few pages and then jumping to a point “fifty pounds into the diet.” Also lacking is any cultlike promotion of the approach that ended up being the answer for her. Rather, Kuffel focuses on the effects the 188-pound weight loss had on every aspect of her life, from little things like no longer having to special-order
underwear to bigger issues such as dating—specifically, that she finally started doing it.
The late chapters, in fact, deal almost exclusively with Kuffel’s attempts to catch a man. This new obsession doesn’t feel off-topic, however, because it continues Passing for Thin’s hidden theme: the raging insecurity that afflicted Kuffel’s emotional well-being as much as the excess pounds damaged her physical self.
The protagonist’s strengths are inarguable: Obese, self-doubting Montana girl takes on New York City, the literary world, and eventually a whole other person’s worth of weight, and wins. Even more prevalent, though, is Kuffel’s bottomless and sometimes irritating neediness, which she relates with a candor that’s cringe-inducing. At one point, she even employs appropriately canine terms: When a friend tells her that she’s lovely, Kuffel remarks, “If I were a dog, I’d have been on my back, wriggling madly from the tummy rub of Bridget’s compliment.”
Like many overweight people, Kuffel was well-schooled at winning people’s approval, as she describes when a new client tells her that, if she had shown up at her old weight, he wouldn’t have respected her opinion as much:
“Oh, you’d have taken me seriously,” I answered rather bitterly. “I would have made you. I would have arrived with stories and gossip and obscenities and highfalutin vocabulary and references bursting out of me. I knew I had about thirty seconds to get you past what I looked like.”
The narrative of Passing for Thin, however, is at times crippled by a lack of details. Friends come and go without introduction, a brother’s apparent death is tossed off in a rather hateful line (“skanky oldest brother whose corpse I was glad to see thirteen years ago”), and even an unexpected medical crisis is sketched with frustrating broadness. And Kuffel is also prone to eye-rolling turns of phrase, from the unforgivable “[Denial] ain’t just a river in Egypt” to original oddities such as “A bubble of nerve-mirth tickled my larynx.”
If you can overlook the occasional groaners, however, Kuffel can be acerbically entertaining, whether making fun of an imaginary aerobics instructor (“‘Faster, Frances, pump those legs!’…‘Finnegan’s Wake, Tiffany! Raise that IQ!’”) or describing the ennui of an extended stay with her parents (“Wheel of Fortune threatened to induce psychosis”).
Despite its sometimes clunky style, Kuffel’s account of what life is like for people of size is sobering, and she applies insight to matters as seemingly mundane as her post-weight-loss preference in clothes: “My clothes draw a hard line, in every kind of way, reminding me not to eat those mashed potatoes, that how I present myself is a choice I make every day, that I must live up to that choice.” Kuffel may too often treat Passing for Thin as a diary, one bursting with the helplessness and self-doubt of an insecure teenager—which isn’t surprising, given that the author experienced many normally adolescent milestones well into her adulthood. But the message that eventually emerges leaves her immature victim’s voice behind: “[I]t was not my fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Kuffel says of her struggle with the scale. “But it was my responsibility.” CP