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Jan. 12 2010 - 6:49 am | 2,436 views | 0 recommendations | 22 comments

One Angry Fat Girl: Q&A with Frances Kuffel

551867Before 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.


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  1. collapse expand

    I think Frances is on track about the emotional aspects – both positive and negative – involved in weight loss. But I’m not sure I agree with her that regaining excess weight is what nature intends. It certainly allows it. But the body also functions well, even better I would say, with the proper number of calories. Like any addiction, the struggle with an impulse does not imply nature’s consent.

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    “My size 22 jeans are comfortable. That puts me at about 160 pounds.”

    There isn’t a linear correlation between weight and size, and some have more fat than muscle and carry it in different places, but is that right? I only ask because I’m around that weight and am a size 12.

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      Maitri: I definitely think that’s the case. And, you know, height can have a big effect on that too.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        I had the same question about the size 22 jeans and 160 pounds. i can’t imagine how that’s possible…
        on another note, i reviewed kuffel’s first book, “passing for thin” for USAToday many years ago. it was touching and funny and really wonderful. Sad, though not surprising, to hear how the struggle continued. Her first book was about how difficult it was to adjust to being thin, that it wasn’t all as rosy as she had imagined it would be. So many women think life will be perfect once they are thin; Kuffel knows better.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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      Yeah, not to dwell on a minor detail, but that jumped out at me, too. I’m 129 lbs. and wear a size 6. So 30 more pounds and I’d jump seven dress sizes? I don’t think so. If this book is partially about coming to terms with a food addiction, isn’t one of the first things in dealing with it to be honest with yourself and others?

      And to my way of thinking, this “not our fault” thing just doesn’t ring true to me. The physiological issues associated with obesity are what they are, just as the physiological issues with alcoholism are what they are. But alcoholics take responsibility for their addiction and manage it, at least the ones who want to recover do. Seems to me they can be angry all they want, but until they get consistent support–go to meetings, therapy, etc.–they can’t play the “it’s a disease” game and not follow through on the 12-step program.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        I’d touch base with Kuffel to ask about her height, but I think that’s besides the point. Maybe I should have just omitted the numbers — people seem to zero in on them!

        And I’m with you on the psychology here. I used to be “addicted” to the endorphin rush of starvation — seeing how long I could go without food felt really good. But, you know, it was deadly.

        That said, I don’t think Kuffel is “not following through” — she’s gone through treatment programs, therapy, etc, several times. But addiction is a powerful thing, and I think hers still persists.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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      Please read again – she says 260 pounds, not 160. THAT makes sense.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    This sounds petty. But I don’t think it is possible to be 160llbs and wear size 22 pants even with height considerations. I do think it is important to include the numbers and you are right that folks fixate on them but I had read Kuffel’s first book and her struggle really resonated with me and wanted to know how she fared.

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    My bad, people. TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY POUNDS. Sheesh. I’ve been so many numbers it’s confusing even to me.

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      Thank you, Frances! I’m someone who struggles with weight loss: lost 20+ lbs through diet and exercise between 2003 and 2005, gained it all back in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the flood and haven’t been able to lose much of it since (wonder if stress hormones have anything to do with it). A lot of my self-esteem is wrapped up in my weight and this has to do with being raised by nutrition-nazi parents who demanded thinness. So, really, how much of this is my responsibility vs. theirs? Of course, if I let their dictates become mine, they are then mine … and so it goes.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Oh, and vis-a-vis the “alcoholics take responsibility” syndrome: not all do, obviously. Not all who do stay sober forever. (Actually, recidivism rates are pretty high for sustained sobriety.)

    The definition of “fault” is “character weakness,” “culpability”. I don’t think anyone’s predilection to obesity or weight gain is either of these things. In my case, however, my refusal to go back into my 12-step program IS a character weakness, aided and abetted by a number of other factors.

    It’s really important to me to get this point straight. My body is not at fault. Not getting my body to a place where it will get help is another.

  6. collapse expand

    5′8/260 is not fat, it’s right on the borderline between “severely obese” and “morbidly obese.”

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      Why, so it is. I didn’t know that. Thank you for pointing that out. Where is “fat” on the body mass index scale, by the way?

      & yet my blood sugar is normal, my blood pressure perfect, my cholesterol well within the safety spectrum.

      There’s evidence for both restricted calorie intake and a slight overweight, by the way. The person who is slightly overweight will get through chemotherapy, for instance, with a healthier outcome.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    To Michael above: for the science on why it is so hard to lose weight once someone is very large, read Paul Campos, Gina Kolata and a host of other people in the emerging field of Fat Studies and even any of the Fat Acceptance blogs on the nets, for a variety of perspectives on this. Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose is a good place to start. The Health At Every Size (HAES) movement is a topic worth researching as well.

    And I’d like to make a radical proposal: how about we treat people with the intrinsic respect all breathing, living human beings deserve just because they are human? I’m not talking about the health issues, that may or may not be there for the “too” skinny or the “too” fat or whatever, I am of the belief that what grown adults decided to do with their bodies is their business. I’m talking about compassion, humane treatment and kindness, because as the article outlined above, weight loss amd body image for the fat tends be an incredibly difficult road to be on.

    For instance, from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity’s main page on weight stigma: ” The social consequences of obesity include discrimination in employment, barriers in education, biased attitudes from health care professionals, stereotypes in the media, and stigma in interpersonal relationships. All these factors reduce quality of life for vast numbers of overweight and obese people and have both immediate and long-term consequences for their emotional and physical health.”

    Fat people aren’t intrinsically stupid, if all the guilt and shame in the world could make obesity go away, it would have by now.

    Just my two cents about this topic in general.

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    I’m flabbergasted at how many people here are fixated on the size 22 jeans and 160 lbs. The comments are more indicative of America’s slip into illiteracy than anything else. Please re-read the article. I think it is entirely possible for someone to wear size 22 jeans when they weigh 260 lbs.

    Food addiction is as real as any other addiction. And the addiction, IMHO, seems to be with sugar and salt. Both heavy additives in processed food. It is no secret that American exports of junk food have had affected the populations in those new markets with rises in obesity.

    Up until 3 1/2 years ago, I struggled with yo-yo weight issues as well. What helped me, may not be for everyone, was converting to a vegetarian diet with an emphasis on fresh raw foods. And that hated buzz word of exercise. Instead of driving to work, only a mile away, I started walking.

  9. collapse expand

    This whole discussion is so interesting. I am a 46 year old who has struggled with my weight all my life. I have gained and lost the same 30-40 lbs numerous times, on all kinds of diets. Right now I am about a size 14, which I just read is the average size of an American female now! At my smallest I reached a 6-8, totally unsustainable for me. The anguish over weight is overwhelming– it takes so much energy. But as Frances said, my blood pressure is perfect, my cholesterol is normal (my thin husband’s is not), I can hike all day just fine, and I have lots of energy. I’m just fat. I have 3 kids, a full time job, a part time job, and am in grad school. And the weight won’t come off unless I do something drastic. I always end up a size 14. Am I healthy? I don’t know.

    I alternate between hating the way I look and thinking I am disgusting and telling myself I should love and accept myself the way I am.

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    About Me

    I'm a full-time heath & science writer at Sphere and a contributing editor at True/Slant. I also contribute military health news to Danger Room at Wired.com, and have recently written for Marie Claire, World Politics Review and Next American City.

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