Last week, a close friend wrote to me and asked the following question. (I’ve removed some details to keep her anonymous. Her 15 minutes of fame can wait.)
“[During a recent, stressful time in my life], I lost ten pounds. I didn’t do it on purpose; I just wasn’t eating much. I was anxious all of the time, and was scared to do anything, including make food for myself. I went to the doctor for something entirely different, and he spent a good three minutes lecturing me about how I need to gain weight. Then I have my sister and my aunt telling me I look fantastic, and encouraging me to maintain.
So, I don’t know. I guess I’m just writing all of this down because I feel like there is so much focus on my body lately and it’s weirding me out. I don’t think I’m developing an eating disorder, but I am hyperaware of my body these days, which is unfamiliar and annoying.”
After reading her letter, I hopped on my high horse. Ok, maybe I was already there - that’s sort of my MO - but I adjusted the saddle and tugged the reigns a bit. Ready for action.
First of all,
The weight loss thing.
I have no patience for people who lose weight in times of stress. I suppose I technically do that too, but it’s because I have the hugely irrational and disordered thought, “Hm...I wonder if weight loss would repair my hubcap/help me get out of my lease/address my fear of intimacy.” I’m not doing some cute, sympathetic nervous-system thing where my body thinks it’s being chased by a tiger and the weight “just falls off.” Please.
But that's a little beside the point. Let's talk about:
The doctor thing.
My friend visited her doctor for an unrelated problem, and he made it about her weight. Do I have the right to be pissed? I don’t know, but that’s never stopped me before. I hear about a lot of doctors addressing a person’s weight before addressing the presenting concern, even when the concern seems unrelated to body size. (Usually, the context is reversed: someone comes in for allergies and is suggested to lose weight.)
That being said. I first made an appointment for my digestive issues when I was 14. The doctor made it about my weight. But here’s the thing: it kinda was about my weight. My failure to gain weight was a reflection of my fear of food, which was also contributing to my digestive issues. Her solution to the perceived eating disorder was misguided - recovery meant gaining seven pounds or getting my period, whichever came first - but her intuition was sorta right.
And then there's:
The family thing
This one gets me super-duper self-righteous. If a doctor needs good reason for commenting on your weight or shape, your family and friends need three letters of recommendation and a personal statement.
Your body is your business. Others should not comment on the size or shape of it. Ever. Unless you’re specifically requesting feedback, you shouldn’t be getting any. (For example, I have a bad habit of ordering my mom to “check out my biceps.”)
(Just kidding. It’s a great habit.)
The what ifs
If you’re a contrarian like me, you’re probably thinking of counter-examples. Times when it might be okay to comment on someone’s body.
Like: What if a very overweight person is losing weight and looking great?
Nope. Nope, because you don’t know how they’re doing it. If they’re exercising more, you could say, “You've been killing it at the gym. That's awesome." If they’re getting really in to cooking healthy food, you could say “That looks amazing. I want the recipe!” (Or if self-sufficiency isn't your speed: "Make some for me too!") There are all kinds of ways of affirming the healthy behaviors you can observe without endorsing the one's you can't. If all I’m doing is chewing gum, drinking coffee, and eating rice cakes, what good does it do me to know that I'm "looking great?"
What about: They’re getting too small, and you’re concerned?
Still nope. When I came home for winter break after my freshman year of college, I wondered if my family would notice I was smaller. Part of me wanted them to: it would mean I was "noticeably thin." (Which, for those of you with worthier goals, means "I'd made it.") It might even mean the jig was up - I had to stop starving myself - and about 40% of me was ready to get well. But 60% felt protective of my weird food rules and the modicum of control I still had (or pretended to have) over my body. That part, the sick part, was relieved by their silence.
I'm glad they didn't say anything. My self-destructive behavior was not a direct cry for help; it was an expression of ambivalence. I was still slightly more interested in being sick than well. (Otherwise, I would have been well.) Other people cannot resolve your ambivalence.
If others had intervened, I might have swung the other way. Or, I might have been assigned a treatment plan I wasn't ready to take. If you don't carve your own path out, you can't retrace your steps. Recovery is slow and iterative, and chances are you'll need to know how you did it.
Ok, third and final counterexample. What if it’s your partner, and they’re telling you how beautiful your body is?
Damn. You’re good. That was cunning. Yes, in that case, it is a-okay to comment on someone’s body. Go hog-wild.
A friend of mine works at a college, and encounters students who wear their duress in different ways. Sometimes, it’s pretty visible. Sometimes, it looks like an eating disorder. In those moments, she asks them to drop by her office. She says -- and this is genius -- How are you doing?
If there's one thing that consistently restores my faith in humanity, it's that. It isn't "I already know your problem." It isn't "I'm worried about your weight." It isn't, "Your body is MY business." It's a genuine, insightful, and well-timed How are you doing?