And What That Does To Our Mental Health
It recently happened that I lost over 20 lbs. (~9 kg) in six months due to an unexpected medication side-effect. As I was adjusting to seeing my new form in the mirror, one thing I never expected was that the women I talked to about this would immediately respond to my concern with things like: “You look so great, didn’t you want to lose weight?” or “that’s amazing!” or “if you keep complaining, I can give you some of mine,” and finally, “I’m so jealous!”
These women were not strangers either. They were people I care deeply about, whose opinions matter to me. I don’t believe they previously judged my weight one way or another. But, at the same time as I was nervously going to doctors and getting blood tests to make sure I was okay, they asked about “my methods” and“secret”. I would try to play it off with humor, explaining that all they had to do was make all your food taste like ash, as it had for me recently. I freaked out a bit when the response to this, several times, was: "but at least you look good." It was as though they did not care that this weight loss was unhealthy, or that something out of my control was causing it.
With dieting culture so ingrained into our minds as a long-accepted part of being a woman, I am not sure what other response I could have possibly expected. However, that certainly didn't seem to be the reaction I would have offered a friend in my situation.
No, of course, I am not looking for sympathy and condolences as I describe this. I understand how, thanks to this cultural norm, I sound rather whiney for even having this complaint. I get it. And yet...
That’s exactly what worries me.
Medically speaking, a healthy weight-loss strategy would involve losing around 1 to 2 lbs. a week. Using the BMI scale, doctors can determine when such weight loss is medically necessary. In my scenario, my previous BMI was very much in the healthy rage (23 points). Thankfully, my current weight is still in the same range (19 points), but it’s quickly inching closer to “underweight” rather than “normal.”
So, if I am still healthy and everyone wants to lose weight, why was I taken aback by people’s responses?
That answer is two-fold. First, I was actually a bit confused as to how I should feel about it myself, which is likely also why I was oversharing in the first place. Second, I feel like this brought to light a much larger issue. If a woman loses weight in our society, it’s tertiary, no, probably quinary, to ask them if they are otherwise feeling well. For most people, it would never even occur to ask, "How do they feel about it?" Again, I am not blaming any one woman for how they expressed themselves, I am blaming a flawed society that has pressed us to obsessively validate our bodies with one another.
What's The Damage?
The New York Times reported back in 2013 how just thinking about food, the way diets force you to do, uses precious mental bandwidth that could be better spent thinking about…well, literally anything else. Since women are more likely go on diets, I think we know who’s work is more likely suffering from this constant calorie obsession and hunger.
Just think about how many women and men suffer from eating disorders. Now, I didn't have an eating disorder this time around, but clearly, my weight loss should have seemed oddly rapid to those women who saw me every day.
I remember being fourteen, underweight and malnourished having just moved to the U.S., and already feeling confused about my relationship with food. I was told I needed to eat because I was too skinny, only to be reminded that no one would ever love me if I gained too much.
Throughout the rest of my teens, as life in my parent’s house continued filling up with emotional abuse, I took my stress out on my own body through a combination of purging, starving, and over-exercising.
As I got older I pushed my body through those three eating disorders, a 10K, two separate gyms, three days a week to take barre, Pilates, and yoga classes to get in shape for my wedding.
I finally realized just last year that all of these activities, while some healthier than others, had done virtually nothing to adjust the number on my scale. That perhaps the number was not as important as how I felt and how I treated my body. It seemed I had finally come to terms with my shape and size even though I felt it was against the ideals I had once held for so long. And it was absolutely in part thanks to having better role models (and media representation).
Last year, as I looked in the mirror after I losing the first 10 lbs. from my already rather small frame, I felt disgusted. I could see each of my ribs and fully pinch my collarbone. Where did my butt go? I had just started liking it. And why, now that I looked the way I thought I always wanted to, was I not happy?
What would sixteen-year-old Marie say to herself right now? I once thought she would be envious if I finally looked like this, but instead, I now think she would be sad. After earning a healthier body image this felt like some kind of delayed, weight karma.
Yes, I know you are sick and tired of hearing women blame the media and society for the weight loss pressure we constantly feel. But are we also tired of empathizing with others? How did it happen that looking thin became more important than our health?
I need to talk about it, because none of those new positive things will stick to our culture, if we do not also change the conversation to propagate them.
What we women have done to make it worse, is disseminate the unrealistic standards by pressuring each other to conform to them. Dieting and undereating are considered to be the necessary default, not just an option. Women are taught that having conversations about our bodies, what we eat, and how we maintain weight is polite small talk. Needing to want big lips, tiny noses, giant eyes, while being curvy but with no waist is a standard expectation.
I was in a Trader Joe’s when I woman standing at the sample counter asked a patron how she kept so thin. Granted, I did not hear the starting point of their conversation, but the woman shopping did not hesitate to explain that she is actually self-conscious because she gained a few pounds over the holidays and “can’t seem to shake them off.” That made the saleswoman put her hand on the shopper’s shoulder and quietly nod in solidarity before rattling off how the radish dish she was offering to sample had become a staple for everyone in her family. She gained a customer through an exchange that would have been more appropriate if they were both talking about losing pets. Why couldn’t the saleswoman respond by saying something like “but you look healthy” or “as long as you feel fine.” Why did she default to eulogizing her customer’s feelings of loss?
Over and over we learn how important it is to have a community to keep good health. Considering how much time we spend thinking about food and discussing our bodies, maybe both men and women should be shifting the conversation to focus overall on health, mental and physical.
The message we currently perpetuate among ourselves literally sucks: suck in your feelings and suck in your gut. We need some adjustment to focus less on appearances and more on internal wealth. We need to change our standard from admiring people for pushing their minds and bodies too far, to focus more on encouraging each other to be healthy, whatever that means for the individual you're speaking with.
Let’s take both our minds and bodies back and not let them be held hostage by diet culture. Next time you see someone who seems thin, and has lost a lot of weight rapidly, catch that idea of wanting to ask what their secret is. Stop yourself as you notice your thoughts focusing on your girlfriend’s body altogether, and instead, really mean it when you ask them: “How are you doing?”
What do you think? Have you encountered this when you gained/lost weight? What did they say and how did you react? I want to hear your stories.