There is a peculiar phenomenon that seems to be particular to me, and which has happened to me frequently at various times throughout my life, and it is when people insist to me that I have lost weight when I have not. Yes, I have lost significant weight at least twice in my life which may have attracted notice. These, however, are not those times that I am asked.
Here’s a recent example: A work colleague ran into me in the hallway and exclaimed, “You’ve really lost weight!” I had not – in fact I had just been weighed at the doctor’s and my weight had been rock solid for a year, and I was happy about this.
“Nope!” I said.
“No, REALLY! You’ve lost weight,” she insisted, as though somehow she were better acquainted with the recent workings of my body than I was.
“No, I haven’t. I just went to the doctor and…”
“Take the compliment!” she huffed, exasperated. I’m not a fan of this type of compliment, this sort of kindness-that-isn’t, in which the true message is, “You look better now that you are less fat.” Wouldn’t a simple “You look nice today” have sufficed?
It’s happened three more times since then. On the last turn, I said that I had not lost weight, I’m not interested in weight loss, and by the way, I’m fine with my body just the way it is. She was about to say something else on the subject when I blurted, kindly but with finality, “I don’t really want to discuss my body anymore.” Let me tell you, this does the trick of immediately halting any body talk you’re uncomfortable with!
This also happened to me at my thinner weight, with people who only knew me at that thinner weight, which I had maintained for eight years with little change. I used to wonder if people just imagined me fatter, as though they still saw the aura of my former fat self. Now I’m thinking it may have just been their way of trying to give me an awkward compliment.
I’m being generous, of course. A more paranoid translation might be that it was their way of insulting me, a little hint that I need to lose more weight. Which leads me to the whole point of this post: the weight of others is not really good, polite discussion material.
I get that in our fat-phobic society, telling someone they’ve lost weight is supposed to be a compliment. But think of all the possible outcomes of this misguided statement:
1. The person intended to lose weight and did lose weight and is happy about that, but since about 95% of people regain the lost weight and more, they might later feel bad about the fact that you said they looked better thin, and now they aren’t.
2. The person, like me, has not lost weight, and is left to wonder if you think they should lose weight.
3. The person might have an eating disorder and you’ve just reinforced the destructive motives to keep it going.
4. That person might have cancer. No joke, I’ve heard no end of mortifying stories of people who were being treated for cancer, lost a lot of weight unintentionally, and then friends and family told them how great they looked. Even as they battled a life-threatening disease, somehow their weight loss was supposed to make up for all that. That’s just fucked up. We should have learned this lesson with the indelicate question, “Are you pregnant?” but I guess we haven’t.
I’m not for banning any kind of speech – I value freedom of speech, it’s impossible to police, and frankly hearing the dumb-ass things that come out of some people’s mouths lets me know if I should avoid them or not – but let’s agree that there is such a thing as polite conversation. We don’t ask acquaintances how many times a day they poop, or what time of day/night they like to have sex and in what position (and if you do ask these questions of people you barely know and you’re not their therapist, you may want to rethink your boundaries). So how about we put questions about one’s body under the category of impolite conversation? If they don’t bring it up, you don’t bring it up.
And while we’re at it, how about we do that with people who aren’t in hearing distance too? This kind of body talk (“She’s lost/gained weight,” “She looks anorexic,” “Her boobs are enormous”) happens more toward women than men, and it’s high time women’s bodies stopped being a topic of
casual catty discussion. It diminishes what we have or could accomplish apart from our bodies. It holds us back and it doesn’t do men any favors either as they get drawn further and further into the bodily perfection madness. No one feels good about this (and if this kind of conversation does make you feel good, please feel free to examine your own insecurities). I’m not proud to admit I used to participate in this kind of talk wholeheartedly, and it only served to make me more insecure about my own shortcomings and what was being said about them when I wasn’t in the room. The bottom line is, let’s stop talking about other people’s bottom lines.
By the way, I’m not talking about eliminating body talk as useful descriptors, e.g. she’s short, fat and has brown hair or he’s tall and thin. In these instances, body talk is neutral and non-judgmental. Similarly, if you want to tell someone they look beautiful or have a great sense of style, go for it – just make sure it’s occasion- and location-appropriate (i.e. “You’re a hot babe” may not fly well in your workplace with someone you’re not good friends with). I guess what I’m saying here is use your head and just ask yourself, “Is this polite?”
Also, if you want to talk about Joe Manganiello’s pecs in Magic Mike XXL, by all means go ahead because that’s what that movie is all about – people who display their bodies for a living and for your comment (It’s not about the dancing? But I really like the dancing!). Joe Blow’s body on the street is not your business to dissect.
So if you see me on the street or in the hallway at work, let’s talk about something else besides my weight. Like Magic Mike! Did you see that dancing?!?
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