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Leave them gasping for air

I don’t remember the exact words I used to introduce myself at my BlogHer panel last weekend, but I do remember how everyone reacted. I said something like, “Hi, I’m Jennette Fulda. I blog at pastaqueen.com. Three and a half years ago I weighed almost 400 pounds.”

That’s when everyone gasped so hard I was nearly sucked off the stage.

I just flicked my eyes back and forth, furrowed my brow and thought, “What? Didn’t you read my bio?” I don’t know why I spent so much time deliberating over what to say in that silly little paragraph about myself if no one was going to read it. Now I wish I’d claimed to be the last Amazon warrior from Themyscira or that I’d been raised by alien goat people instead of whatever I ended up writing.

I’ve told my story so many times now that I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I used to weigh 372 pounds, I lost a lot of weight, my flight leaving for Indy was delayed, I had some oatmeal for breakfast, yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m so over it already. I forget that my weight-loss story is SUPRISING! And SHOCKING! to people who’ve never heard it before. I think I would have gotten the same reaction if I’d said, “I ate a kitten for breakfast.” Slurp, slurp.

In the last two weeks I’ve met two new people who didn’t know me when I was fat say, “I can’t imagine you being heavy.” I’m not sure what to do with this statement, other than say, “Try harder.” Anyone can be fat if they eat too much. I briefly considered carrying around a “before” picture in my wallet, but immediately dismissed that as being lame overkill. I may as well hop around the city in one leg of my fat pants in some desperate plea for attention. I suppose the statement is meant as a compliment, but instead I see it as proof of the human tendency to categorize and oversimplify things. You’re a fat person or you’re a thin person. You’re tall or you’re short. You’re smart or your dumb. You’re not both.

But even the dumbest people sometimes say something absolutely brilliant, a tall person can look tiny next to an NBA all-star, and ever the skinniest person could be fat if they ate enough or were put on the right kind of mind-altering drugs. Bodies are flexible, and so are minds. People really can change. They can be more than one thing in their lives. You can be born poor and become a self-made millionaire. You can be so fat that you injure yourself walking up the stairs and five years later run a half-marathon.

It would be nice if that wasn’t so shocking. It’d be nice if it didn’t make people suddenly inhale all the oxygen in the room.

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39 Comments

Jill • July 24, 2008 at 8:48 am

Effing brilliant post.

Love it.

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Nicole Bledsoe • July 24, 2008 at 8:56 am

I can really relate to this post. I have lost 91 lbs in a year and a half. I guess I am lame because I carry a before picture in my purse. I show it because I want people to feel like they to can do it. I guess I think if I did it any one can. I would like to be encouraging to the people I show my picture too. I always enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.

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PastaQueen • July 24, 2008 at 9:06 am

I suppose “lame” is the wrong word. I already hand out postcards with my book cover on them, so showing a “before” picture would seem like overkill. I do like to talk about other things than “my amazing weight loss.” Anyway, sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. Congrats on your weight loss. It’s definitely something to be proud of and if you show people pictures it doesn’t make you lame.

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gknee • July 24, 2008 at 9:56 am

I completely understand what you mean by talking about something else for a change. Unfortunately human beings are lazy, or ? (not sure what the word is), we love to categorize people. For example, when I was pregnant- all anyone could talk to me about was that. I felt like a uterus with legs. I still had opinions about world events, saw movies etc– but the impending birth of my kid was the essence of me for some people.

I do carry a “fat picture” in my purse. I was not quite sure what the point of that was but you just gave me the answer-“Bodies are flexible, and so are minds. People really can change. They can be more than one thing in their lives.” It is a reminder to ME when I feel stuck or hopeless.

thanks PQ. You are a buddha without the body shape to go along with it!

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Becca • July 24, 2008 at 10:02 am

“Try harder.”

The Diet Cherry Coke nearly came out my nose. That was very funny to me this morning.

I thinking it’s shocking in part because everyone has at least a small idea of how hard it is to lose weight. People struggle for years to lose 10 lbs. So it seems monumental to lose a great amount.

I know how hard it is to swim for 20 minutes. If I meant someone who swam the English Channel, I’m going to gasp.

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Oliveira • July 24, 2008 at 10:38 am

:) But PQ, this is what makes you, your blog and your book special. The weight loss and the fact that it’s shocking for most people (for the kind that start a diet on Monday, fall off the wagon on Wednesday, then go on eating every piece of junk food in sight until Sunday because diet starts again Monday next). It’s true people can change; I changed, too, and I know it’s possible, but at the same time around me about 20 people tried to make the same change and all of them failed. I think the shocking bit is the realisation that those people you sometimes read about — ones that made a huge change in their life, one that seems almost impossible — actually exist outside fairytales and motivational lectures, and one of them is standing in front of you :)

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PastaQueen • July 24, 2008 at 10:47 am

I think people usually go for the easiest thing to make small talk about. You’re pregnant? We’ll talk about that! You used to be fat? Let’s chat on that!

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Kyle • July 24, 2008 at 10:54 am

Yeah, people say that to me too when I tell them I’ve lost weight. Until now, I never had a good reaction for them. Now, I do, “Try harder. Quote, unquote, Pasta Queen.”

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Red • July 24, 2008 at 11:20 am

Apparently it was the collective gasp of everyone who’d entered the room for a chair and free wifi. Bastards. You should have thrown them out.

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maggieapril • July 24, 2008 at 11:22 am

“Try harder.” That’s awesome.

I hit -55 pounds today. I don’t have any before pictures because I hid from cameras. But I would totally show them… another 50 pounds from now.

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Elizabeth • July 24, 2008 at 11:37 am

I love this:

Bodies are flexible, and so are minds. People really can change. They can be more than one thing in their lives.

Thanks for the perspective.

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Elizabeth • July 24, 2008 at 12:29 pm

This is a great post!

I am about to go home after being away for 8 months, and I will have to see both friends who knew me when I was much larger and people never knew old me….it’s freaking me out.

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Michelle • July 24, 2008 at 12:39 pm

I had someone make a similar comment to me recently. Something like, “Seeing you now I can’t imagine you were ever out of shape”. I sometimes think of the people who meet me now, the people who don’t know “fat Michelle”. It’s a weird concept, that in their minds, I was never fat. I was actually thinking of re-naming my blog something like, “Diary of a Fat Girl in a Skinny Body”. But, I don’t really want “Fat Girl” in my blog title. Someday it needs a new name though…So glad you loved our beautiful San Francisco.

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asithi • July 24, 2008 at 12:41 pm

Yep, I think it is human to have boxes for things. “thin or fat” and “woman or man”. The gray stuff just confuses the heck out of us because we are require to think. But when they fall into one of the boxes then we know what to expect.

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Pamela R • July 24, 2008 at 1:05 pm

Chocolate and taffy!! OMG, it’s a good think I couldn’t attend, I would have gained 5 pounds. But back to the real subject of your post,I can see people trying to fit me into a new box almost daily. I was fat for a long time and my weight loss is recent. I run into people who haven’t seen the new me and I see them desperately trying to recategorize me. Guess that’s as close as I’m going to get to the collective air sucking you experienced!

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Jen • July 24, 2008 at 1:12 pm

Great post! I have read through the archives and have the updates on my igoogle :)…this is my first comment, thanks for putting into words what I feel a lot…I only lost 100 pounds and I sometimes I can’t handle the gasp, what do you say to reactions like that…thanks for being real

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Ashley • July 24, 2008 at 1:17 pm

Yeah, the thing is, when people take the really obvious small talk conversation, it’s hard to know what to say because what they are commenting about seems so normal to you. I get this a lot too about my education. Yes, I’m 27 and I have a Ph.D. Yes, I realize this is unusual. What else do you want me to say?

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SaucyWench • July 24, 2008 at 1:35 pm

It’s not shocking, it’s just you. It’s as normal for formerly overweight folks to say, “I used to weigh nearly four hundred pounds.” as it is for the naturally think folks to say, “I used to be a cheerleader.”

Well, sure. And I’m glad you’ve experienced that and it’s now time to move on with your day.

I’ve found that since my own (miniscule compared to yours, but still) weight loss, I just get bored with folks telling me how good I look and want to change the subject to something more interesting, like the state of the mold on the cheese in my refrigerator. Anything but me.

I’m even getting married and I am tired of being the center of attention! Yes! I lost 57 pounds! Yes! I’m getting married! No, you can’t see my ring and I don’t want to talk about how I did it.

Thankyouverymuch.

It’s just who I am. These aren’t the fascinating folks you’re looking for.

Move along.

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Syslak • July 24, 2008 at 2:15 pm

I always hate when people say to me “Wow, you’ve lost weight.” And “How much weight did you lose!??!” I lost a measly 15lbs. And although I am happy I did and I feel better for it, I am always shocked that 15lbs was so noticable. And I’d really rather talk about the sports I have been doing that helped me lose weight. They are way more interesting!

Also, as I was reading, I was wondering how you were going to make a tall person sometimes not tall. So, you put them next to a basketball player. Ooo, very interesting. A plot twist I wasn’t expecting :-)

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Lynn In RI • July 24, 2008 at 3:09 pm

A kitten for breakfast????

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Debra • July 24, 2008 at 3:39 pm

Great post. I too understand how you feel. I’ve lost 117 lbs. (I have 34 lbs. more to go). While I appreciate and even love all the wonderful comments, I also would like to have something other to talk about besides my size. I’ve been overweight my whole entire life so my ‘new look’ is quite shocking. But I can’t wait for the day when how I look now is what people picture in their head when they think of me, not of the old image which makes them shocked every time they see me. I also wish I could see everyone I know or have ever met at once so they can get over the shock and we can all move on. Even writing this makes me feel guilty because people genuinely are happy for me and are very encouraging and complimentary. I think fat people are always self conscience of their bodies and weight and that doesn’t change when you lose weight. We still aren’t comfortable with attention brought to our bodies and size.

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Kyrsten • July 24, 2008 at 3:40 pm

Yes, welcome to the Bay Area! We have quite a few people here who are very this or that about fat or thin. I don’t know how to explain it except to say it’s perhaps a West Coast thing?

It was good to meet you when you stopped by the offices, although you may not remember me. :)

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PastaQueen • July 24, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Would you prefer I had one for lunch?

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Laura N • July 24, 2008 at 5:07 pm

Dang you’ve got zingers just oozing out of you, don’t cha? This is one of your funniest, Jennette.

One of our best friends told his wife a few months ago (and she told me) that he can’t even remember what I was like “before” when I weighed 207 pounds. It struck me as strange, but then I realized that it’s getting harder and harder for ME to remember what I was like before.

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SAL • July 24, 2008 at 8:32 pm

Loved this post.

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Merry • July 24, 2008 at 8:42 pm

Maybe they thought that a gasp was the proper response to give? Sometimes people don’t know how to react and go for the Most Appropriate Response they can think of. (Why I am capitalizing things is another question altogether.)

I guess it’s a better response than yawning. Or than no response at all.

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Patricia Buitrago • July 25, 2008 at 9:45 am

I lost 137 1/2 lbs and have kept it off for almost 15 years (in October). When people find out that I used to be obese, they look at me like I have two heads! It’s amazing. People think you are only, and have ever been, what you are now. My favorite is when people used to say, “You have such a pretty face.” (Like the rest of you is crap and you should be lopped off at the neck!) Geez! What do they expect you to say in response to that?!

I recently read Half-Assed and LOVED it! I am really enjoying reading your blog.

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deanna • July 25, 2008 at 10:29 am

You are soo right! We do, we oversimply and categorize everyone into a box and it sucks. I think this is a part of social anxiety, some people, and sometimes myself included feel that our opinons and thoughts on other matters whether it’s star wars or the lunar module, may not be interesting… so weight loss, hair loss, pregnancy are common threads through-out society. It’s easy but not acceptable. That’s why we have people like you in this world to help educate and call attention to yea, that’s not going to work we are deeper than that. Ya see you are much more than a kitten-eating-book writing-half marathon running-weight loss success story…

So when is the Pasta Queen’s Ashram opening??

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victoria • July 25, 2008 at 11:56 am

This post triggered a lot of feelings in me. Mostly, it made me angry.

For me, the gasp suggests horror at the thought of anyone being that overweight. As though it were criminal (or merely unthinkably disgusting — like “eating a kitten for breakfast”) to be so overweight. “Oh my god! You were really BIG! The horror, the horror!”

This makes me angry. Come on, people, it’s not a crime to be overweight. It doesn’t hurt anyone but the overweight person.

This is why I hate it when people make a big deal out of my weight loss: the overly emphatic praise enforces the norm of slenderness.

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laney • July 25, 2008 at 12:52 pm

I have very, very, very long hair. Down to my butt. It’s long blond and flowing, but all through college and even a little after, I had a shaved head (ala sinead o’connor) people comment on my hair a lot, and when I tell them (and I don’t always, but sometimes) that I had my head shaved for 5 years of my life, they gasp and say the same thing, “I can’t imagine you like that…” I don’t think it’s a compliment or an insult, I think that the real truth is, they can’t imagine it. Sometimes I pull my hair back and tell them to imagine, mostly I don’t. I don’t know that the gasp was horror, maybe, but I’d like to believe that people were impressed, awed, shocked at that amazing feat. Losing over 200 pounds. And really, seeing the pictures of you now, it would be very, very difficult to imagine you much bigger. You’re pretty darn small now. You look like a small person (at least in pictures). So I can see how the fact that you once weighed 372 pounds is gasp-worthy.

And it is. You conquered an incredible challenge. I am in awe of you and I think many people are, which is why we all continue to read your blog.

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Jill • July 25, 2008 at 1:42 pm

They’re so sweet that really they should be saved for dessert. After dinner.

But that’s just me.

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Jill • July 25, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Kittens, that is.

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Kristen Harrison • July 26, 2008 at 4:31 pm

I agree completely with Laney.

Besides, if it’s gasp-worthy, it’s buy-your-book worthy. Which is a good thing. If it wasn’t remarkable, you wouldn’t have written a book, and a publisher wouldn’t have picked it up. Well, you are a talented and funny writer, so you might, but on some other gasp-worthy topic…

-k

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Stacy • July 26, 2008 at 10:55 pm

The shock is exasperating, I agree. For me — and this is totally a personality trait thing — the shock is grating because it feels like disbelief that someone like me could lose that much weight. It’s probably not how they intend it and I’m probably oversensitive. Okay, I am oversensitive. But it would be nice to have my announcement of, “I’ve lost 72 pounds in the past ten months,” be greeted with congratulations instead of gaping, slack jawed mouths.

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Susan • July 28, 2008 at 6:48 pm

Wow. This is one of your best posts. And so frustratingly true.

It annoys me when people say that they can’t change. Are you kidding me??? Change is the only constant in life.

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Butterfly • July 30, 2008 at 11:00 am

Brilliant post. You’ve put into words what many of us feel. I once longed for people to notice my efforts and praise my transformation. At this stage in the game, I’m simply annoyed. I’m tired of comments like ” Wow, keep it up” or ” I can see it in your face” (which prompted my blog name). For me, this is a totally private journey and I use blogging as an outlet and a means to vent, not to mention to one day remember where I came from.

I recently overheard a co-worker talking about another colleague and nearly tackled them to the floor. He said, and I quote ” wow, I don’t understand how someone could let themselves get that big”. He’s obviously a sensitive and empathetic person of course.

Can’t wait to read your book!

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dietgirl • July 31, 2008 at 9:09 am

Really enjoyed this entry… it’s a strange transition to make, going from when losing weight is your whole world, then making it part of your career, yet feeling like it’s just something that happened to you, like graduating high school or a kiss first … how do you figure out what the hell comes next.

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dietgirl • July 31, 2008 at 9:10 am

first kiss, rather. arrgh.

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Kathy • August 4, 2008 at 1:13 pm

just discovered your blog and have been reading for the past 3 hours! I’m ready to “try harder” as I’ve been in the “plateau” phase…self induced by sweets, crap and ice cream….I would love to get a few “gasps”

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Comments are now closed on all PastaQueen entries. The blog is an archive only so I don't have to deal with spammers. For fresh discussions please visit my new blog JenFul.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for keyboards ruined by coffee spit-takes or forehead wrinkles caused by deep thought.

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