After my last post a few people reached out to comment. Though there were a few different scenarios the overall theme seemed to be this: if someone I know is on deliberately trying to improve their health by reducing their body size and they’re accomplishing that through seemingly healthy means, saying something to them is okay. You just have to know your audience.”
I get where you’re coming from. Paying them a compliment seems like the decent thing to do. I mean, they’re obviously working really hard to achieve their health goals and as a dear friend of mine pointed out, not saying something kind of makes you look like a total asshole.
You may as well go ahead and call me an asshole then (I probably have it coming for any number of reasons) but I’d still stay silent and here are my main reasons why.*
First, How do you know–I mean truly know that what your friend is doing is healthy? What goes on behind closed doors may be very different than what you see on the outside. Not only are eating disorders sneaky sons of bitches they are far too easy to hide under the auspices of being on a “wellness journey”. Orthorexia is a very real, very damaging eating disorder and it has to start somewhere. Usually somewhere is a health journey. Even if the individual isn’t engaging in eating disorder behaviors there’s still a very good chance they’re mimicking those behaviors very closely, usually to the detriment of their own mental health. I want to give a personal example from my own life, not from when I was in the full thrall of an eating disorder but from when I was at my absolute “healthiest.”
On the outside I was doing everything right. I was eating. I was eating healthfully. I was exercising. I was within what the medical field deemed my healthy weight range. All in all I was the girl on the health journey and I was killing it. I was also mean. I was mean when I missed a workout. I was mean when I had to cut a run short or if I couldn’t access a menu before I went out so I could check the calorie count. I never let my husband cook because I didn’t know how he’d prepare the meal; how much oil he’d use, if he’d trim all the fat off the meat, if he’d round the tablespoons instead of leveling them. When I took my kids to the park I wasn’t sitting back enjoying my precious time with them…I was too busy checking my step count. When I’d run around and play on the playground, I wasn’t building memories I was burning calories. And I wasn’t alone…so many of the women I knew in various online forums and groups were doing the same thing. We’d swap tips and read success stories like they were sacred text. We were all doing it in the name of health but not a damn bit of it was actually healthy.
Second, if your friend regains the weight, and she most likely will since recent studies show somewhere in the ballpark of 95% of dieters regain at least part of their lost weight, how do you think she’s going to feel? All your praise and congratulations have petered out as you watch her figure expanding and let me tell you your silence is fucking deafening. She hears it in her sleep. I almost guarantee that if she does start to regain weight that the first people she’s going to stop wanting to be around will be her most ardent supporters on her health journey. She’ll drop out of or stop participating in her diet groups. She’ll slowly stop accepting your invites to get together. You know you love her no matter what and you know that she’s still amazing (and deep down so does she) but the shame remains. She feels she has let you and all the other people who were so proud of her down so she avoids you as a means of protecting herself from the mortification of perceived failure.
Finally, let’s say your friend is one of those people who does keep the weight off. What happens when she’s kept it off long enough that people forget she was ever fat? She may be one of those people I aspire to be who doesn’t give a flying fuck about outside validation. Good on her, I pray someday that will be me. But many (I’d even go so far as to guess most) people who are currently trying or have in the past tried to lose weight do thrive on outside feedback. When that stops, even if it’s because they’ve achieved their goal, they suffer. The positive feedback is addictive and as their strongest source of esteem, when the compliments stop they’re going to try to find it somewhere else. For some, it’s attempting to achieve a lower weight…lower than is maintainable for them, lower than is healthy for them. For some it’s attempting to change the shape of their body in the gym…to get more ripped, to reduce their body fat. But then what happens when they achieve that? Where do they go from there? The answer is nowhere good.
To be totally honest, your friend doesn’t need your comments on her changing appearance. The fact is everyone in our country seems to love a good health journey story (thus shows like Biggest Loser were so incredibly popular). As such, there are probably a million and ten people out there ready to cheer on your friend’s physical health journey. She probably belongs to myriad Facebook groups or is posting on Insta about her journey and receiving scads of encouragement (peppered with offers to sell her 17 different supplements, wraps and shakes). What your friend most likely doesn’t have is a soft place to land when or if her diet fails. By remaining silent you’re allowing her space to just be. Not to be conditionally praised and in turn to feel conditionally loved, but to just exist in her body no matter what that body looks like. So be that safety net for her. Be the person who holds her mental health above her physical health. Be that person who is there to remind her that she is beautiful and loved and perfect just as she is. That fat, thin, or anywhere in between she will always be more than a body…more than a number on the scale to you.
*I will be referring to any hypothetical dieters in this post as “she”. This isn’t because I think/know men, trans, and non gender conforming people don’t struggle with dieting, body image issues, eating disorders and disordered eating, but because the 95% of my experience with diet culture is as it relates to cis women. I’m trying to better educate myself on the experiences of other-identifying individuals in diet culture as well as the experiences of people of color, however this is a new endeavor for me and will take some time to be able to sensitively and accurately speak about diet culture from those lenses.
Also it should be noted that I still sometimes suck at keeping my own mouth shut in situations where the other person mentions their weight loss. My conditioned response is “wow, good for you!” So I get why saying nothing is incredibly difficult. Someday I’ll figure out a good response besides standing there like an asshat and I’ll post about it. Today is not that day.