The summer between my first and second year of college I came down with mono. I had been working around 30 hours a week and was around a lot of new people and staying up late. In the course of two weeks with mono, I lost all the weight I put on during my first year of college and then some. I was hovering at about 110-115lbs and on a medium framed person who is 5’4.5″, that was the bottom of the range of a healthy BMI or below it.
The problem, however, was that I was getting so much positive affirmation of this weight I had lost. Family, friends, and strangers were commenting and looking at me in ways that I hadn’t ever remembered before. I was incredibly thin, possibly too thin, and people liked that on me. Women traditionally have the problem that the less space we take up, the more affirmation we receive – it’s a patriarchal and misogynistic message that reverberates to the core. I blame society for the struggle of the subsequent six months or so – and the battle from time to time that I still wage.
For the remainder of that summer and the first few months of returning to college, I exhibited symptoms that might classically be diagnosed as anorexia. I was very careful about what I ate and exercised quite a bit. It wasn’t uncommon for me to eat a meager breakfast for the morning meal and (same type of breakfast for) dinner, and a light sandwich at lunch. I might have been consuming around 1000 calories a day, and that’s being generous. Yet, still, the compliments were rolling in.
We have a serious problem in western societies, particularly among the white population, with thinking that less is more when it comes to women’s weight: increasingly we’re applying similar standards to men and more of our boys are developing issues of weight obsession. This problem expands beyond the white population of the US and into nations where Eurocentrism reigns supreme (think countries where people of color bleach their skin to look lighter because darker skin is still stigmatized, even if that’s just the way you’re born – yes, seriously, this happens and is quite common in some places). Therefore, this PSA from the blog Body Respect hit home and I decided to write about something that I rarely even talk about.
To this day, I gauge my weight and health upon how my clothing fit since I refuse to own a scale. If I’m at a friend’s house where there is a scale in the bathroom, it is too difficult for me to not step on it. I’ve gotten better at not negatively correlating the number on the machine to my self-esteem, but I’m not perfect at it. In fact, I know that currently I need to exercise more, both for my long-term health and for the sake of not going up another size in clothing. The latter is an issue both in terms of how I feel and also due to the fact that I just can’t afford new clothing. I still have to make myself eat at some points in time, just because I know I need to. About two years ago, I tracked my caloric intake and was surprised (shocked, even) at just how FEW calories I was getting. I had been gaining inexplicable weight and knew that the body can go into starvation mode if one does not take in enough calories or nourishment. I was right in my assumption, as I was about 500 calories a day under what I should have been eating. I still find it difficult to eat enough, particularly enough of the “right” food (eg food that delivers a nutritional punch).
The bottom line here is that the talk around weight is dangerous. That compliments around issues of weight gain/loss are not always compliments. I have taken to saying something similar to the following if a friend or peer has seemingly lost weight:
“It looks like you might have lost some weight. Have you?”
If they answer yes:
“Was this a planned weight loss?”
Then I gauge my reaction upon their answer. I still don’t really make a statement regarding how they “look”, if I can catch myself. I try to stick with, “well, good for you” if it seems like something they wanted to happen.
I also have a friend who is severely ill and just can’t keep on any weight no matter how many special shakes and food she eats. Her weight has been up and down for about two years now, but she hasn’t gotten back to her normal weight, which was a comfortable weight akin to a healthy Marilyn Monroe. About a year ago, while looking emaciated, she was told by an older woman faculty member that she looked good and was asked what her secret to weight loss was. (Seriously.) I’m glad I wasn’t there when this exchange happened, since the honest-to-a-fault portion of my personality would have taken over. This happens to her quite often, regardless of the sunken look of her face and quite clear symbols of malnutrition.
This seems particularly important among children and adolescents. Often children will gain weight just before a growth spurt, so that’s helpful to keep in mind as well. It’s important for children to eat healthy and get enough exercise (and, of course, to not eat too much… this can have long-term health consequences too, such as diabetes). But it’s a delicate balance to strike.
So think twice, please, before you comment on someone’s weight, particularly someone’s weight loss. It’s likely a good idea to be sure you know the person’s backstory before you judge (positive or negative) any loss or gain in weight. A simple compliment in your eyes can be damaging and have long-term consequences. The cycle of weight loss can become addictive when positive feedback is associated with the loss. When we tell someone, “you look great! Did you lose weight,” we are actually telling them that they didn’t look great with the weight they were before. That somehow, they were “less than” before.
Addendum: A news anchor was emailed unsolicited comments on her weight and responded on air. Her response is worth listening/watching. Her words were so spot on that it brought me to tears. Check it out at Upworthy.com.