Time to put the breaks on body talk

It’s no secret that in today’s society, many people feel quite free to offer their opinions (both praise and criticism) on other people’s bodies. The targets of these often-unsolicited opinions may be friends, family, casual acquaintances or total strangers. They may be high-profile celebrities or everyday people.
Some of these comments are well intentioned (“You look great…have you lost weight?”) while others tend to be rather mean-spirited and, I think, say more about the speaker than the recipient (this includes sharp-tongued critiques of weight gain or loss, during pregnancy or otherwise). Some are simply thoughtless (please, never ever ask a woman if she’s pregnant).
We even do it to ourselves. There’s been more and more attention paid lately to the fact that an all-too-common female bonding ritual is fat talk.
In my column in last Sunday’s Seattle Times, I related Kim Cantley’s struggle with panic disorder and anorexia. Now that she’s recovered, she says this sort of body commenting has become a pet peeve of hers. Considering how many of those comments she’s been subjected to, at all points of her illness, it’s no wonder.
As I mentioned, Kim’s anorexia started when she was 12 (that’s when she started restricting her food in an attempt to control her panic attacks), but some of the seeds were sown years earlier, when she was 7 years old and the other girls on her swim team were standing in front of the mirror, critiquing their bodies.
Kim says that she was in a very unhealthy place in high school, yet she was receiving complements on her weight loss. Knowing what she knows now, she said it particularly bothers her that people assume they know what’s going on with someone’s eating based on how they look.
This is not a unique phenomenon: Many people (women and men) report that they receive complements on how they look on the outside while on the inside they are caught in the grips of their eating disorder. 
It doesn’t help that there’s an assumption that people with anorexia look “emaciated.” The truth is that people with anorexia exist at all body weights. Unless someone is already quite thin at the onset or their eating disorder, they are likely to pass through a phase where they look thinner to a “socially acceptable” degree. 
But hey, we’re having an obesity epidemic, right? Weight loss is awesome, right? Not always. Self-starvation, or losing weight in a way that is counterproductive to good health, is never a good thing. Complimenting someone on weight loss when that weight loss is due to an eating disorder may encouraging the continuation of unhealthy eating behaviors.
While Kim was working as a barista, her weight dropped to 100 pounds (she’s 5’ 7.5”). She says that she looked terrible at the time, and her customers noticed, often asking her if she was OK. (She told them she was “fine.”) When she returned to her barista job after completing residential treatment for her anorexia, she was on the receiving end of different types comments, but she realized how much even the well-meaning comments could hurt. People would say things like:
  • “You look healthy.” (I’ve heard other eating disorder experts say that this seemingly positive comment can be especially damaging to someone in the process of restoring their weight.) 
  • “Hey, you have a butt again!” (Kim said she got so thin that she admits she essentially had no butt for a while.) 
  • “Are you pregnant?” (Again…never ask a woman this question! What if she isn’t? What if she is and isn’t telling anyone yet? What if she is and just doesn’t want YOU to know? What if she was pregnant and just had a miscarriage? What if she isn’t because she’s struggling with infertility?) 
In Kim’s mind, all of those comments translated to one thing: “You look fat.” Fortunately, she was secure enough in her recovery that ill-advised comments didn’t trigger a relapse, but she said it’s made her feel strongly that no one should comment on other people’s bodies.
Stepping away from the subject of eating disorders for a moment, when you noticed that someone’s lost weight, how do you know that it’s intentional? They could have a serious gastrointestinal disease. They could be developing diabetes. They could have cancer. I’m just saying.

While I’m up on my soapbox, I’m going to lob one more ball at you: When you see an overweight individual exercising or eating a salad, don’t assume that they are doing so in order to lose weight (and certainly don’t make a “helpful” comment based on those assumptions). Maybe they are exercising because it feels good, or eating salad because they love a good salad. It’s none of your beeswax.
No matter the intention, body comments may be “read” by the recipient as helpful, neutral, annoying or hurtful. Even worse, in someone who has a predisposition for disordered eating, these comments could be the trigger for unhealthy eating behaviors.
There are a million nice things we can say to people, and at least 900,000 of them don’t involve bodily appearance. There are also a million snarky things we can say to people, and maybe 999,999 of them should just go unsaid. Be kind…and think before you speak.