"Have you lost weight?" A harmless question?
The darndest thing happened to me the other day when I was at work over the weekend. It’s been over 48 hours since that encounter and while I may not be able to repeat it verbatim, I can tell you that it went a little something like this:
My colleague (approaches me in the office): Cyndi, have you lost weight?
Me (looking down at myself thinking a) she must not know anything about my work and how I practice and b) well, might as well have a little fun with her, here): Jeez, I don’t really know. I don’t think so. Then, with the innocence of a child, I posed the question, “Why, did I look overweight before????”
My colleague (backpedaling and talking herself out of a potential “open mouth/insert foot moment): Well, no..I mean, I don’t see you very often. I just thought, well, you look like you have.
Me: I don’t track my weight, so I couldn’t tell you. I just eat and move whenever, you know?
My colleague: Oh, well, okay.
Now, I believe she truly meant nothing harmful or malicious by asking me about my weight. First of all, we work in a gym and lots of people go to one with the intention of changing their body weight one way or the other. Secondly, I’m sure she was projecting that, perhaps, she would take it as a compliment if someone had asked her that question.
So, I get it and don’t hold it against her. I realize that her asking me is indicative of a bigger problem and a collective issue:
WE REVERE THINNESS SO MUCH IN THIS CULTURE THAT WE PRAISE PEOPLE FOR WEIGHT LOSS, EVEN IF IT WASN’T DONE HEALTHILY, INTENTIONALLY, OR SAFELY. We operate under the faulty assumption that smaller equals better. It happens all the time. I know that I did it back in my dieting days. I always praised “lean and slender”, without stopping to think about how or why they got that way.
You know what’s really embarrassing? Running into someone you haven’t seen in a long time and exclaiming loudly, “Wow, you’ve lost a lot of weight. You look great! How did you do it?” and they answer with any one of the following:
“My husband and I are going through a divorce.”
“I lost my job and things are really tight.”
“My youngest son has colon cancer and I’ve been working two jobs to try and pay for his treatment.”
“I have ailing parents and am having a hard time dealing with Mom’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Dad’s frailty.”
Those are not extreme examples that I just pulled out of the clear blue sky. Those are not made up scenarios. Those are real answers from real people that I have either personally heard or have been told second hand. Imagine being on the receiving end of that?
Okay, so you may be sitting there saying to yourself, “Well, what’s the harm on complimenting someone that you know IS trying to lose weight? Why is it bad to tell them that you notice?” Well, it depends. I don’t think there is any harm in paying someone a compliment if you think they look happy and healthy. Is that really what you see when you look at their smaller self? If so, why not compliment them on appearing to be happier and healthier, if that’s really what you are noticing about them?
Safe and sustainable weight loss is usually a side effect of an inner shift or the adopting of health supporting behaviors. In other words, the outside is beginning to match the inside. People that have decided to heal their relationships with loved ones, food, or body image tend to let go of a lot of emotional weight, which opens the door to them eating, living, moving and sleeping better. If THAT is the kind of weight loss you are noticing, that’s one thing. But, what if your friend is trying to lose weight in a very unhealthy manner? What if your friend appeared to be of a normal weight already before he/she started this endeavor? What if they are engaging in disordered behaviors in order to achieve that smaller body?
You can’t judge a book by its cover. Just because someone lost weight, it doesn’t mean they are happier and healthier. Weight is a very complex issue that requires compassion, curiosity, and understanding. Instead of putting so much focus on people’s bodies, why not be more concerned with their hearts, souls, and wellbeing? Why not ask them how they are feeling? Why not let them know you love the sparkle in their eye, the spring in their step? Why not acknowledge their sense of humor, sharp wit, and intelligence?
The next time you run into someone who appears to have had a drastic change in their weight, hit the pause button and think twice before commenting. Instead, just ask them how they have been doing. Be interested. Show them that you care. Set yourself apart from the culture that puts our bodies under constant scrutiny.
We are so much more than our bodies.