The first time I remember hearing it, I was a freshman at Penn State. A girl who lived at the end of my 4th floor dormitory hall returned to school after spending a month at home recovering from mono. She still looked so pale and frail and seemed overwhelmed by everything she needed to do to catch up so she didn’t lose a semester’s worth of work.
“You look good, though,” offered another girl who lived on our floor, surveying the newly hollowed cheeks and sinewy frame of the returning patient. The meaning here was clear: this was not about a healthy glow, it was about weight loss.
To the person who made the statement, the outer meaning was probably, I am paying you the implicit compliment of noticing your weight loss to help you feel better after going through a rough time.
The inner meaning for the commenter was likely, Being sick had the positive outcome of losing weight…duly noted.
The secret meaning to this statement, I have since realized, was, Weight loss is worth any price, even if that means illness.
I’m writing this piece for a lot of reasons, both professional and personal. As a nutrition therapist I am well aware of where weight loss sits in the hierarchy of life goals and ideas about wellness. Perhaps the hardest part of the Intuitive Eating journey that my clients face is “putting weight on the back burner” in a culture that holds it front and center.
Not only is thinness prized for it’s connection with happiness, attractiveness, and desirability, it has been medically associated with inherent wellness and health. Even as more and more scientific data emerge to the contrary – significant and well-controlled studies showing that health-related behaviors are better associated with health outcomes than specific body weights – doctors and dietitians continue to bang the drum of the obesity epidemic and prescribe weight loss for everything from chronic health issues to acute complaints like the common cold.
All of this gets at the secret meaning of the infamous comment above. It can be summed up in one line from The Devil Wears Prada, in which Emily confesses, “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.”
My own body has gone through a lot of changes in the last few years – as all bodies do – so this topic has personal meaning for me as well. I had an uncomplicated pregnancy, gave birth to a healthy, normal-sized baby, breastfed for a year, and felt the physical toll of sleep deprivation and new motherhood viscerally in my 40-something-year-old body. Even more so, in the last year I’ve experienced grief, excruciating and chronic nerve pain, spinal surgery, postpartum depression, and anxiety that have collectively impacted my appetite and weight. As a result my body has changed in ways that have drawn attention and comments like:
“I like the way you stay fit. What do you eat?”
“You look so tiny right now.”
“I wish I had your body.”
In responding, I have tried not to shy away from the truth of my body right now, which is about the same size as when I was in nutrition graduate school and coincidentally at my most disordered eating-wise. I have shared that my current body is the result of physical and mental illness (because that is exactly what depression and anxiety are) and not the result of veganism, Barry’s bootcamp, or any other intentional actions.
The implicit assumptions in these comments are disconcerting but I don’t fault the commenters. This is the culture we live in where women (primarily, but also men) view their bodies as problems to be fixed if they don’t fit the narrow ideal of young, white, thin, toned, and able.
Honestly I worry more about the comments I haven’t gotten, like from my clients who I know have noticed a difference over the past year in particular. I have discussed it with those who have intimated their curiosity, and talked in terms that are both specific to my own experience and general in that all bodies continue to change throughout our lives and that it is our goal to care for them as they are in any given moment as best as we can. But I wonder if the secret meaning of that infamous comment is on the minds of some.
I am well aware that a thin body comes with a great deal of privilege, much of which I am sure I take for granted. I know that the looks and comments you get when in a thin body, at least superficially, are often meant with positive intentions. As opposed to when you are in a fat body. To be in a fat body and be under the judgmental and oft-critical gaze of seemingly everyone is an experience all too common, wrongly justified, and chronically misunderstood. But the public nature of any body – how we cannot hide them from unwanted attention and comments whether they are fat or thin or something else altogether – makes it difficult in a different way that may be just as uncomfortable.
I don’t think my body looks unwell or too thin. I just know that when I am at my strongest – physically and mentally – my body is rounder, plumper. Like when I first got pregnant and felt healthy and comfortable in my skin. This is simply my personal experience. It’s how I feel. And that’s sort of the point: it’s not the just looks of things, it’s the feels.
Of course there are thin bodies that are unhealthy and fat bodies that are healthy. And there are thin bodies that are healthy and fat bodies that are unhealthy. There are thin people who are comfortable in their skin and those who aren’t. There are fat people who are comfortable in their skin and those who aren’t. And in between all of those extremes are a million shades of gray. The point is that looking at someone’s body from the outside tells us next to nothing about what’s going on inside of that person, and we might consider this before making any assumption, comment, or judgment.