One Angry Fat Girl: Q&A with Frances Kuffel
Before her weight-loss memoir, Passing For Thin, was even published, Frances Kuffel had started to regain the pounds she’d written about shedding. In all, Kuffel lost 188 pounds – and then gained back more than half of it. In her new follow-up book, Kuffel describes her role in a circle of five online friends: the Angry Fat Girls.
All in, the fivesome have lost (and gained, and regained, and lost again) hundreds of pounds. They’ve also struggled with confidence, body image and mental illness, and dealt with embarrassment, shame and – sometimes, thankfully – self-acceptance. Most women, sadly, contend with the same problems, no matter the number on the scale. That’s why there’s universal appeal to Kuffel’s narrative, which is honest, smart, and sassy.
I was lucky enough to ask Kuffel, who describes herself as a “food addict” and refers to periods of clean eating as “abstinence,” about her book, women’s body image, and how she thinks we ought to define health.
Where are you now in terms of weight and your health?
I’m not sure of my weight – I need to get a new kryptonite battery for my scale. I haven’t fretted about it because when I don’t want to get caught up in the numbers game. My size 22 jeans are comfortable. That puts me at about 260 pounds.
December was a marathon stumble and now that the holidays are over, I’m detoxing. I feel flu-ish and that physical memory is good for keeping me abstinent when I feel wobbly. I want to keep those symptoms – the muscle aches, the fantastic thirst, the running to the bathroom, the lethargy, the indifference to the world – foremost in my mind.
I think (and correct me if I’m wrong), that a lot of people are still under the impression that excess weight = laziness, or a lack of control or care over one’s appearance or health. You frame the discussion much more in the context of illness or addiction. Can you comment on that? For you – and your friends – do you think this is an addiction much like alcoholism?
Managing to be a hundred and fifty or two hundred pounds overweight takes great dedication! Carrying it around while working, doing the shopping, cleaning the house is Herculean. Take one of those accusers and make them live one normal day carrying a hundred pounds on their back and then tell me fat people are lazy. That assumption annoys the shit out of me. Being seriously overweight is hard physical labor.
I don’t frame the conversation about overweight as a disease in the same way that the Center for Disease Control does. The C.D.C. sees an epidemic that has few cures, whereas I see a phenomenon: we are, all of us, alive today because our ancestors’ bodies stored weight in bountiful times in order to survive famine. Now we live in a world of fast, cheap, dangerous food and we have a hundred thousand years or more of D.N.A. telling us to shore up before MacDonald’s closes forever. Gaining weight is, in that sense, natural.
However, our food stuffs are not natural and there is growing evidence that they are both addictive and body-altering. Artificial sweeteners, palm oil, sugar, refined carbohydrates of all sorts play out in the serotonin and dopamine parts of our brains, in our livers, and in our pancreases.
I would never call someone a food addict unless the person in question has already done so, and I try very hard not to judge people on how they treat their obesity. The day one comes to the conclusion that one has a food addiction and that the addiction must be treated is a terrible day. Nobody goes into a twelve-step program or a bariatric surgeon’s office because it’s a pretty morning and the roses are in bloom. You go in on your knees, and they’re bloody knees from all the other things you’ve tried and failed at, from the shame and the terror of what you are becoming.
I’m an addict, no question about it. There is no cure. There are days of relief from the desire to overeat and there are days I want to be out of my own consciousness by way of doughnuts. My boyfriends are Ben and Jerry. They understand me better than anyone in the world – except another addict.
[Of the "Angry Fat Girls" in the book] Katie has subscribed to this understanding but Wendy, Lindsay and Mimi don’t. And I’m not going to put them in a category they don’t claim. They’re my friends and it’s not fair because calling someone an addict means they have no natural mechanism for control. It’s an awful suspicion to put on women I love and admire.
At times reading, I felt like the relationships between the “angry fat girls” was more detrimental than helpful, in terms of health, weight, attitude, and so on. Would you agree with that? And do you think companionship should be a part of seeking health?
Whoever was losing weight among us was the object of our envy, certainly. Sometimes it was alienating. Wendy could sputter on for hours about her new clothes, and when I’m abstinent I tend to focus very hard on the work of eating clean and the work that fulfills me enough to beat the sugar demons back. I’d go missing for spells when I was abstinent and I’m afraid I had a reputation for moodiness because of it.
But then, we were all moody at one time or another. What was – and still is – the hardest thing to accept among the Girlz is that we love each other. If I’m having an orgy with Jerry and Ben every night, Mimi is still going to call and tell me she loves me. Wendy can throw herself a colossal pity-party and we’re going to get fed up but we’re going to do it with love. Speaking for myself, I keep wondering why they love me, why they care, why they go to the trouble to remind me I’m not alone.
When we all began doing daily inventories of not only what we ate but whom we spoke to, who we helped, what we were proud of and what we struggled with, we all began to see that there was more to us than our success or failure on the scale. We sometimes had to urge one another on through cruddy attitudes or applaud minor victories, but it was a powerful tool for becoming more conscious of each day and how we filled it.
I struggled with an eating disorder for several years, and I often feel like I can “manage” the illness but never “recover” …Do you feel the same way about your own situation?
Yep. Alas. It will be with me forever.
What role – if any – do you give the cultural notion of beauty/sexiness as “thin” with regards to your and the “angry fat girls’” situation with food and weight?
The “you can never be too thin” ethos inspires guilt, self-condemnation and spending across the board, from the Girlz to the woman who wants to lose five pounds. It’s hideous and stupid. I’d like to round up all the famous skinny, beautiful women and ask them some questions about Hemingway and Colonial America and the Battle of Midway and fractions and how to make pecan rolls from scratch and what the difference between “lay” and “lie” is and what the plot of Madame Butterfly is. I’d like to level – or raise – the playing field.
On the other hand, do Nicole Kidman and Kate Moss inspire me to overeat? No. But the frustration of some guy preferring a run-of-the-mill thin woman because I was too fat to love has led me to the freezer case more than once.
And while we’re at it, can we all stop talking about the cellulite of movie stars? Can we cut them a break as well?
The book is written, and hopefully your honest and very poignant message is out. What do you hope can come from your sharing such personal struggles?
First and foremost is that regaining weight (and, in fact, gaining weight) is what nature intends us to do. One hundred and fifty-eight years ago – a great or great-great-grandfather ago – ten percent of the Irish population died of famine and another ten percent immigrated because of it. I’m built to survive a potato blight. Further, once the body has accumulated all that fat, it wants only to return to that original set point.
To make things more complicated in the weight loss and maintenance game, some of us have broken brains. We eat to hide, assuage, have fun, sleep, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get the next bite.
So this struggle is adamantly NOT our fault. And if we don’t accept ourselves and the circumstances of our lives as fat people, we’re going to have life itself – kids needing, break-ups, the recession, aging parents, death, terrible bosses, catastrophic events – aiming at us straight at our guts when we have no armor. I urge women who struggle with weight to consider why they eat and seek the appropriate venue to address that.
The last thing I’ll say about what I want Angry Fat Girls to promote is that women have strength in numbers. We can hold hands, cry, rejoice, get angry, get silly on the `net, anonymously if we want, with the knowledge that we’re no longer alone on this long rutted road. If our family and friends don’t “get” what we’re going through in Texas, someone in Indiana will. So I’d urge any reader to seek out a safe place to share their ambitions and failures, shame and victories, and the day-to-day drone of dieting, exercise, home and work routines that can be so dangerous. We have such strong emotions about our bodies that an emotional outlet for the way we decide to deal with our bodies is crucial and key.