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Going her own weigh

Fernandez is a Times staff writer.

“Sometimes people don’t understand it,” said Ruby Gettinger by telephone from Savannah, Ga., where she lives. “I’m a very happy person. They ask me, ‘Ruby, if you had to do it all over again, would you be big or small?’ I always say I’d rather be big. Because I feel like I’m a better person because of it because I don’t judge people. And I’m not mean. I like the person I am. That may sound ironic to somebody, but if you were able to sit on the side and see how mean people can be, you’d understand why I never want to be those kind of people.”

Gettinger has been overweight since she was 9 and morbidly obese her entire adult life, reaching 700 pounds 11 years ago. Most recently, she has hovered between 350 and 550 pounds, developing diabetes, thyroid problems and an enlarged heart. Last year, her doctor told her time was running out. If she didn’t change her life fast, she would die. She weighed 477 pounds.

“I thought then, ‘I think I’m probably going to die,’ because I didn’t think I could beat it,” she said. “I’ve been happy. I’ve lived as much as I knew of life. Then, all of a sudden, that part of me clicked in, that part that never gives up, and I said, ‘I’m not going to die. I am going to fight and conquer this.’ ”

And she’s doing it on TV. Gettinger has allowed the Style Network to follow her on her journey to save her life, hoping that it will inspire others. “Ruby” premieres on Sunday and opens with a one-hour episode that introduces the sweet-seeming, charismatic Savannah native and her best friends. The rest of the story will be told in half-hour installments over eight weeks.

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Gettinger lived in Los Angeles from 1996 to 2002 and got the idea to do a documentary based on her life while watching an “Oprah” episode about obesity. Last year, a friend put her in touch with a reality producer who connected her to Style. The network asked Gay Rosenthal, who created “Little People, Big World,” to produce “Ruby.”

“It’s her life-saving journey to lose weight, but it’s not like we’re saying she has to do A, B, C, D and E,” Rosenthal said. “Different things work for different people. We hope that from the show people are going to feel empowered. And not just about weight loss, about whatever obstacles or struggles or challenges they’re having in their life.”

Gettinger began her new weight-loss program, which includes personal trainers, a nutritionist and the support of her close friends, on March 1. Her goal is to weigh 145 pounds. So far, she’s lost 100, and her life is opening up in ways she had denied might be possible.

Gettinger is now able to walk on her treadmill half a mile five times a week and can go shopping without experiencing shortness of breath. She loves vegetables and finds herself craving fish instead of potato chips or candy bars. She went camping with her friends and discovered that she loves the outdoors, especially sleeping under the stars. For the first time in five years, she fits behind the wheel of a car.

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“But you know what happened?” said Gettinger, who won’t disclose her age because she says she doesn’t want to be called an old maid. “The first time I started driving, I was so happy. I felt such freedom. And then all of a sudden, the freedom became unbelievable because there was a fast-food store on every corner. I realized that with freedom comes a price. But I conquered it, and it’s something I’m going to have to conquer for the rest of my life because those days will come.”

The reason Gettinger thinks that this time is different -- she’s tried many diets -- is her new doctor, an obesity expert who has helped her see that there is a mental component she has never addressed. For the first time, Gettinger is in therapy, trying to unravel why she has suppressed childhood memories. Her earliest memories are of high school.

“My brothers and sister tell me stories and they act like everything was fine and stuff, so it’s just strange to me,” she said. “I know stories about me but I have no memories of me. At first, I didn’t want to try to remember. There was fear. But now, I want to know. Whatever it is, I’m not going to let it affect the rest of my life. It’s not going to stop me from losing weight.”

Nor will it stop her from expressing her message of acceptance and hope to the 97 million Americans who are overweight.

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“I don’t know why, but I’ve always been very happy. I know there’s not a lot of Rubies walking around in the world, and I understand that. I know when I walk into a restaurant, people are going to stare at me because there aren’t a lot of people like me in restaurants. But why do people have to be cruel about it? I understand that you stare, but why do you have to take it to the next level and be mean?

“But the thing is I’ve never let it stop me from going out with my friends. Or living the best life I can live. Even though it’s limited, I’m just not going to let these people define me. And I just want other people to be the same way.”

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maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com

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