Last year I lost about 30 pounds. I’m still very much fat, but as a girl growing up in a society that is hostile and dehumanizing to fat people, especially of the female variety, I’ve always seen weight loss as a life-changing accomplishment—something on the level of graduating from college or buying your first home.
So, when I was finally able to lose a substantial amount of pounds, I can’t lie: It felt great. It felt great to look back at old pictures and notice how much smaller my face is now. It was awesome to buy cheap clothes at Forever 21 that were a couple of sizes smaller. I know that, for me, the pride I felt in losing weight was more of a reflection of how much fatphobia I had internalized, rather than something that actually changed my life. (It didn’t, at all, by the way.)
What never felt great were people telling me that I looked better because I was a couple of pounds thinner.
In the most benign interpretation, it made me feel ashamed of the way I used to look. No one should ever be ashamed of how they look, regardless of how fat they are or were, and saying “you look great, now,” is always a repudiation of a person’s former self.
On another level, it felt invasive. Like, why are you commenting on my body? It’s mine. It’s personal and I didn’t ask you what you thought. As a woman, our bodies are too often viewed as community property—something that’s there for frequent and uninvited commentary and touching and harming. Even though they were just comments, from people who only meant to make me feel good, no less, they felt wrong. All I could ever manage was an awkward “thanks,” not the long spiel on “how” it happened or some soliloquy on how much I’d hated my body before, which is what people seem to expect.
Any kind of talk of how a person looks after weight gain or weight loss is absolutely crazy, though, and no one should engage. It’s the ultimate fat-shaming bait, for one. There is an explicit subtext that being thinner is always better, no matter how that thinness was achieved. What if a person had the flu for weeks, and couldn’t eat? No worries, you lost a few pounds and you look great, girl! Debilitating drug addiction? As long as it makes you skinnier. One of those horrific starvation diets, like the Special K Challenge, which will not only make a person miserable but ensure they’ll gain every pound back, plus a few extra? The only thing that matters is that you’re standing in front of me, now, a thinner person.
That’s what those kind of statements say, not only to the person who lost weight, but to folks listening, too.
And, really, don’t we have enough reinforcement that thin is good and fat is bad, already? Aren’t we inundated with diet culture at every turn in the workplace, at the grocery store, in women’s magazines and on Facebook, without adding fuel to the (baseless and senseless) fire that is the diet and weight-loss industry?
By fawning over weight loss—or secretly gossiping about weight gain behind someone’s back—you are overtly reinforcing a very real system of oppression that uses body size as a barometer for awards and demerits. Regardless of your (probably wayward) ideas about health, everyone has the right to dignity and respect and a fulfilling life inside of the body they have. Constantly pointing to the reduction of body size as an achievement is creating barriers to that essential and fundamental dignity and respect for body that fat people deserve.
Not to mention, women, can we please stop constantly commenting on each other’s appearance?! We live in a looks-based society, right? We reward people with certain physical attributes with more money and better jobs and more respect—something that women often complain about, because out looks seem to matter so much more than those of men. But, all of this diet talk? This “did you lose weight,” stuff? It’s playing into that. It’s feeding the very beast that we say we want to eradicate.
I challenged myself a few years ago to find ways to compliment the women in my life without mentioning how they looked and it was unbelievably difficult. I’d been trained to notice new earrings and banging lip color and a fierce ‘brow, but couldn’t readily think to say that they were always warm-spirited, or how much I enjoyed their use of vocabulary, or how proud I was of inroads they were making at school or in their careers. It revealed that even for people who try to not to uphold fatphobia, judging and complimenting looks and looks alone is something that’s so ingrained and hard to shake.
Now, I know that people only mean good when they compliment someone’s new body. I know that most people aren’t conscious of the isms they are perpetuating when they exalt weight loss. But this diet culture, thing? It’s real and it’s expensive and it’s harmful.
It has to stop, starting with all of us being a little more conscious in what we say about bodies—our own and those of others.