• Fri, Feb 22 2013

‘You Look So Skinny’

you-look-skinny

“You look so skinny,” my friends all said to me. It was the end of summer in 2010 after I had spent nearly three months running five miles each morning and obsessively counting calories. I was still throwing up on occasion, but I was also attempting to lose weight “healthily” though there was obviously nothing healthy about my behavior. After just 10 weeks, I had managed to go from 150 pounds to 120, reducing my size from a 10/12 to a 6 (or 4, depending on the store). At 5’7″, 120 is just on the “normal” side of the medical spectrum, but I did not look like my normal self.

My hip bones stuck out, my face was a bit gaunt and my breasts, typically around a 34D, were now a 34B. Still, though, people said I looked great and acquaintances whom I hadn’t seen in several months regularly asked me what my “end goal” was, assuming I was not already at it. While I was thrilled people had noticed that I lost weight, the compliments only confirmed what I had already internalized: I looked better thin, and I needed to keep going.

Herein lies the problem with complimenting your friends’ weights: it tells them that it is better to be one weight or shape than another. I, too, am guilty of asking, “Do I look fat in this?” but I have desperately attempted to stop that over the past couple of years because I’ve come to realize that “looking fat” doesn’t need to be some sort of repulsive horror that I need to avoid, and that “looking skinny” is not the only end goal for appearance-based compliments. I am the weight that I am, sans Spanx or padding.

While I fully understand that people who lose a great deal of weight or gain weight after being medically unhealthy in their weight loss deserve recognition of their feat, it is better to say things like, “I’m so proud of you for being so healthy” or “It’s amazing that you were able to achieve your goals” rather than focus on their appearance.

Sometimes, it’s best to simply not recognize the weight loss or gain at all. Allie, one of our readers who commented on my piece “Dear Men: Please Stop Telling Me You’d Like A Girl With ‘Some Meat On Her Bones’” wrote the following:

I’m tall and skinny. That’s just my shape. When I had cancer, I gained about 20lbs and although I knew that I still wasn’t “fat,” I was fat FOR ME. I felt wrong, and like everything that was wrong with my health was reflected outside, too.

And the shittiest thing about that already shitty situation was the response I got from people at large. Suddenly all these casual acquaintances/party friends–who didn’t know what was going on with my health–were telling me how AMAZING I looked now that I wasn’t so BONY, how SKINNY BITCHES are GROSS, and how GREAT it was to have CURVES because REAL WOMEN are CURVY. Eventually I got so sick of people being all up in my body-related business that I just started saying “Yeah, it’s because I have cancer. Don’t I look awesome with my cancer weight?” That shut them up pretty quickly.

As soon as I got better, the weight peeled off and I went back to my normal size and shape. But I can’t really forget all the people who told me that I looked better when I was unhealthy, and who let me know in no uncertain terms that my normal body was gross.

This is a perfect example of when you should not discuss a person’s weight. She was sick and, rather than focusing on her feelings or health, people opted to high five her on something that was the result of her being incredibly sick. Though this was not a weight or body shape she felt comfortable at because it was not her normal one, people still saw it as something to not only vocally note, but also to compliment and insinuate (or outright state) that being curvier was somehow better.

“You look skinny” is the phrase I always hoped to hear so very much from the people around me. Throughout the near decade I had an eating disorder, I craved “you look skinny” more than I desired calories or nice teeth or happy relationships. I just wanted to feel like people thought I had that sort of self control, the kind that comes with keeping track of everything you eat and, when necessary, regulating it to a drastic extent.

When you compliment a person on his or her weight or body shape, it may seem innocent, but it still ingrains that same hierarchy: Shape 1 > Shape 2. Telling somebody they look great is one thing; telling somebody they look curvy or thin or whatever other shape descriptors you can think of as a compliment implies that that one is somehow better than the contrary.

Yes, these are both beautiful women. But do we need to acknowledge their sizes to see that?

While compliments on weight do occur towards men, in my experience, it’s rare that they are directed towards men who are not actively trying to lose weight. I have seldom witnessed males get ready for a party, put on a fancy outfit and seem to feel great, only to get a sad look while staring at the mirror, then turn to his friends and say, “Do I look skinny enough?” But women’s bodies are often more scrutinized: whether it’s by the diet industry, the media, fashion or just plain people we know, our figures are poked at and prodded, and when we are given a compliment on being shaped a certain way, we have been told to eagerly eat that up and give onlookers more and more of the same to admire.

I’m not saying you need to go ahead and be ultra-sensitive not to use particular words; just being mindful is important. In particular, if you have a friend who has been trying to lose or gain weight, or has body image issues, it’s best to stay clear of weight comments altogether. Even if it seems like those words will make her (or him) happy in that moment, chances are, that pleasure from the compliment will be short-lived and ill-internalized. Simply being aware of your word choice can help avoid this, and could help reduce the chances of your friend being increasingly aware (and disdainful) of her body.

Photo: West Side Story

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  • Tania

    On the other hand, a lot of men seem super surprised when complimented on their bodies. They don’t get torn down about them as often, but they also don’t hear “you look great!” just out of the blue very often, either. Indifference versus the mess that is how we treat women’s bodies. They both seem like shitty deals.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sameurysm Samantha Escobar

      Agreed. When I moved to Southern California, one thing I noticed over time was how much better guys were at taking compliments. I know it sounds weird, but it was so different compared to the more bashful, surprised way that guys react to nice appearance-based comments everywhere else I’ve lived. I think in some places, it is more normal to comment on men’s looks, but most of the time, men rarely hear significant compliments on their bodies. They just aren’t something people are vocally appreciative of. That’s a really great point you brought up, thank you.

  • Lisa Manuzak

    A couple of years ago, I was meeting up for lunch with some clients (a book publisher and the author of a children’s book I was illustrating) that I had never met face-to-face, having only communicated through email. When I arrived at the restaurant and greeted everyone, the publisher said to me, “Have you lost weight?” After a confused, “I don’t think so…” on my part, she continued with, “I think you’ve lost weight” and nodded sagely with a knowing smile. Being a tiny half-Asian girl, I have never weighed more than 101 pounds, so it was not only strange to hear this because it’s the total opposite of what I’ve been told previously, but it also came from someone who I had NEVER met in person before. She may have been trying to save face and act like we were old friends in front of the author, which is the only explanation I can think of. I’ve always been mostly comfortable with my own body so it didn’t bother me as much as it could have, but I was still offended that she thought it was appropriate to say something like that, even if we had been old friends. It was very strange, a little rude, and it’s a good thing I had my boyfriend with me because the rest of the lunch conversation didn’t include me at all and was based mostly around toupees and home mortgages (the women had brought their husbands with them and everyone was over 40).

    • http://www.facebook.com/sameurysm Samantha Escobar

      It is so frustrating when people insist that you have changed something about your body, as though they are much more aware of your appearance than you possibly could be (especially the “knowing smile”, guh). But it is WAY weirder that she mentioned it after never having met you in person…that’s just bizarre. Plus, you’re right, it isn’t really an appropriate “observation” to make to somebody, let alone in front of a client, oh my goodness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hannah.fuller.100 Hannah Fuller

    Hey sam, I don’t know if you remember me very well, but I went to MPH with you or a few years and I just wanted to say that I loved this article. I didn’t know you suffered from eating disorders, but i did too for many years and I’ve just recently been beginning to except and love the parts of me that curve and show shape. I think it’s incredibly admirable that you’re willing to open up about your own troubles to help others. I absolutely agree with all that you said and I love that you’re putting this message out there. Really, thank you for writing this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hannah.fuller.100 Hannah Fuller

    Hey sam, I don’t know if you remember me very well, but I went to MPH
    with you or a few years and I just wanted to say that I loved this
    article. I didn’t know you suffered from eating disorders, but i did
    too for many years and I’ve just recently been beginning to accept and
    love the parts of me that curve and show shape. I think it’s incredibly
    admirable that you’re willing to open up about your own troubles to
    help others. I absolutely agree with all that you said and I love that
    you’re putting this message out there. Really, thank you for writing
    this.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sameurysm Samantha Escobar

      Hey Hannah! I absolutely remember you. I had no idea you were dealing with the same thing…I’m so happy that you’re better. I remember you being a fantastic dancer, and — not that I know for sure, as I’ve never been one — I bet that comes with a lot of pressure. Thank you for the kind words, and thank you so much for reaching out. <3

  • Natalie

    I like the idea of saying stuff like ‘it’s great you are reaching your goals!” I currently have a chronic stomach condition that makes my weight fluctuate like crazy. Like, 10-20 pounds different in a month. I’ve had so many comments on both ends where I look “fabulous and thin!” when I am down in weight or I look so “full and curvy” when I am up in weight. It is very, very, very exhausting. Because my weight is a huge indicator of how my health is at that time and what my stomach is doing, so I am sensitive to it and do not like getting comments.

    Also, I have VERY little control of it when I am down and when I am up, it generally means I’ve been able to keep down food for a couple weeks and I am enjoying that, so if I am up in weight and someone says “wow, looks like you put on a couple lbs since I last saw you” in a negative way, it really upsets me, because it is difficult for me to maintain/be a healthy weight.

    I’ve also remarked to people I work with or go to class with that I am currently trying to gain weight and they go “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT????” and take serious offense to it. Especially if they are trying to lose weight, I’ve even been told I’m ‘rubbing it in’ that I can lose weight so easily. Well yes, it is easy when you go two weeks without food or water, throwing up constantly and in and out of the hospital. But if I don’t gain weight, I have less to lose the next time…
    I guess what I am trying to say is, I like this article. I agree we should focus more on people’s goals and self worth rather than basing their self worth on their weight. And don’t ever comment on random people’s weight because you have no idea what they could possibly be going through.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sameurysm Samantha Escobar

      I am glad you liked this article; it’s always helpful for me to hear from people in similar circumstances who have had issues with weight and body image stuff.

      That stomach condition sounds horrible, and I can’t imagine having to worry about changing weights so rapidly and so unexpectedly in such a constant manner. And I think it really, really sucks that people have continued to comment on your weight (particularly in a negative way, wow). I have more than one buddy who have gone through medical issues where they can’t gain weight and people get pissed at them for being thin, as though they have a choice in the matter and are decidedly having a certain body shape just to make their friends who are trying to lose weight feel bad. It’s totally ridiculous.

      Anyway, I hope your health improves, honestly. Thanks for sharing. <3

  • http://www.redheadreverie.blogspot.com Redhead Reverie

    Oh, yes! I’ve been in remission from an eating disorder {because let’s face it, you are never really cured} for years, but I’ve changed my perspective on weight loss and exercise, and instead of focusing on fitting into skinny jeans. I focus on trying run a 5K or competing in triathlons or that feeling of being strong and healthy after eating well and sweating. But…my weight during training season drops dramatically because I’m more active and when that happens the comments begin. “You’re so skinny, you need to eat a hamburger.” “Put some meat on your bones.” or compliments “You look great, what’s your secret?” All of it is like giving an alcoholic a drink, because then I crave the skinny talk and my brain wants to take it further. Luckily I realize that in order to fuel my workouts I need to eat healthy and take care of myself. The goal of racing is more important to me than six pack abs…and being a role model for my children well that’s my end game.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sameurysm Samantha Escobar

      Exactly! It is so, so incredibly easy to slip into the mentality of, “I look skinny, everybody says I look skinny, I need to keep getting skinnier or else that will stop.” And it is a very difficult thing to pinpoint because for many people, it really isn’t a huge issue and it doesn’t impact their health, so they assume that it couldn’t affect anybody else negatively. But in reality, for those who have had unhealthy habits and mindsets before, those compliments truly are like the alcoholic/drink analogy.

      I’m so glad for you that you’re in remission and healthy (very, very healthy, from the sounds of it!). Congratulations, seriously. It is wonderful that you are doing well for both yourself and your children.

  • MR

    I’ve mentioned, I think mostly before you started writing here. But you may have read my postings then when you were posting here too. I had this woman friend who had an eating disorder, and as it turned out she wasn’t really a friend in the end. But yeah, I never really got it. I kept telling her she was too skinny and should eat more. Maybe that’s why things ended up the way they did? Selfishly I gauge a woman more on her intelligence. I also look for her to be attractive, but the depth of her mind is much more important to me.

  • Elizabeth

    I appreciate how the author looked at both sides of this issue instead of just focusing on being skinny and the “curvy” girl’s point of view. I’m not super skinny myself but I have many friends that are naturally very skinny (usually due to a medical condition most people don’t know about) and they often get really torn down by other girls. It’s refreshing to see someone point out that it’s okay to be skinny too.

    As for me personally, the author’s insight about the hurtfulness of these types of comments hit home, although not quite how she viewed them. I used to hear “you’re just curvy” from people, when the subject of weight came up. I know these people meant well, but it had a negative effect for sure. Because the thing was, I wasn’t curvy, I was overweight. (at 5’5″ I weighed 168 with no hips, no butt and a 36B.) Now I didn’t expect (or want) people in my face about my weight. But telling me it’s just curves during my teenage years gave me the excuse to ignore my weight gains instead of working on the real problems in a healthy way.

    Today I’m in much better shape. But it took me a long time to learn what curvy really means, because for so long it sounded (to my ears) like someone’s nice way of saying “it’s okay if you’re overweight.” And this isn’t okay–both for those that truly do have great curves, and those that know it’s just an excuse being handed to them.

  • Eve

    @MR I had this woman friend who had schizophrenia, and as it turned out she wasn’t really a friend in the end. But yeah, I never really got it. I kept telling her she needed to stop hearing voices. Maybe that’s why things ended up the way they did?

    You fucking asshole.

    • MR

      You’re wrong, Eve. I thought she was my friend, and I did all I could to be her friend. I thought she was hurting herself, and that’s why I told her snack more, constantly. But she didn’t want my friendship in the end, and I had no say in that.

  • Marla Martenson

    This is a great article! I notice that people constantly make comments about other peoples weight, clothing, hair, etc. I often get annoying comments about my hair color. I am a natural redhead, but since I am over 40, I now have to color my hair to cover the grey. That means that sometimes the shade varies depending on the stylist, or whether it was just colored, or in the middle, or ready to be colored again.

    But people constantly chime in saying, “when did you go blonde” or “is your hair lighter? I liked it better before” or, “you should go back to the darker red.” I used to explain why the color varies but now I just completely ignore the questions/comments. It is no one’s business what color my hair is, and when did they think that they get a vote and do they think I am going to run to my hairdresser the next day and change the color to what they want?