Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding Myself

With humor and vivd awareness, the author takes us through her early childhood, in which some of her earliest memories revolve around being defined as “fat” ,( “Obese? That’s you.” said her physician dad, who loved her, yet was sometimes caustic.); adolescence, in which she grappled with the teasing of peers and a brother who at times she found threatening; and then adulthood in which she felt trapped by a berating boss.

“My safety was in food,” she writes. In other passages she speaks of finding both security and satisfaction in eating, of food as a “completely mutual and unfailingly loyal friend.” While reading this book, I couldn’t help but hope she’d learn to soothe and nurture herself, a skill that I, myself, a psychotherapist and former compulsive overeater, have found crucial to a continued healthy relationship with food.

Reading this book, and thinking about the telling title, “Passing for Thin”, reminded me of a concept covered years ago in another book, “The Imposter Syndrome – Overcoming the Fear that Haunts Your Success”, written by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance. This concept, coined by Drs. Clance and Imes in the eighties, refers to the insecurities of people who “believe they are intellectual frauds who have attained success because they were at the right place at the right time, knew someone in power, or simply were hard workers – never because they were talented or intelligent of deserved their positions.” While much of Clance’s emphasis on workplace achievement, these concepts carry over to all relationships, including, most importantly, the one we have with ourselves. In “Passing for Thin” Frances frequently compares herself negatively to women who she assumes are naturally slim, and therefore, more comfortable than she in their svelte bodies – more entitled to be thin than she. Her assumption that they’re more mentally healthy than she, may lie, in my opinion, in challenges inherent to her weight loss options.

Both personally and professionally, I believe in the importance of becoming self-referential in terms of our need for food – of learning to eat for enjoyment and the satisfaction of hunger, rather than merely to distract ourselves from stress. Learning how to eat what we love and savor it, stopping just at the point of satisfaction is a habit I’ve developed and help clients to learn. Eating mostly healthy, yet some fun foods, and finding a way to incorporate that into our daily diet, is a route that many dietitians now suggest. The conjunction of intuitive (realizing what your body needs) and mindful (being in the moment and savoring your food) eating is a prescription for not just weight loss, but lifelong control.

The beauty of having attained healthier habits ( rather than just behaviors) in dealing with food and with stress, lies in enhanced feelings of self-esteem, not just because of our weight, but because we’re proud of new skills we’ve attained. We feel more emotionally healthy, not just because we look slimmer on the outside, but because we feel better about ourselves, as well. And, yes, unfortunately, in our society, slimness has become all too self-defining as a symbol of health and success. A cartoon I recall in a popular periodical portrayed a young woman at a desk, answering her phone and saying “Thin, thank you, and you?”

The approach Frances chooses, a Twelve Step plan, has many merits, but this memoir also touches on the challenges posed by applying an abstinence-based program to food. Measuring foods, weighing in frequently to check on our “progress”, an absence of emphasis on mindful eating or serious stress management, are, in my opinion, important obstacles to achieving life-long success in overcoming eating-related issues. CBT, an approach I prefer in dealing with stress, would have been especially helpful on her trips back home.

Frances is not just intelligent and a wonderful writer, but engaging as a person and we root for her with all our hearts. While reading “Passing for Thin” I found myself wishing it could instead have been titled – “Finding Myself and Loving Her.”