Why I Won't Weigh in About Weight
Let’s shed a little Light, shall we?
“Oh my GOD, you look so goooood.”
She gushed for the two hundredth time in the span of about two minutes.
I was home from college after having left four months earlier and forty pounds heavier, and as I sat at the table with my mom, I basked in the glow of her affirmation. I’ve always been a junkie for the good stuff and praise from mama was the best stuff.
No one expects a college freshman to come home thinner, but obsessed with overachievement as I tended to be, I set out to accomplish the unexpected as soon as I set foot on campus. With no one to around to hover over my habits, I quickly developed a rigorous food and exercise routine, and shrunk my size 16 ass down to a 12 in no time at all. And then I went home to reap my reward.
I saw old friends who made no secret about surveying my smaller body, and following the formula, they, too, layered on all sorts of love. It sounded something like this:
"You look incredible. Seriously, tell us how you did it. What is your secret?”
My secret. That’s funny. No one really wanted to know my secret.
They wanted to know how I finally got my fat ass under control and committed to being healthy. They really wanted it to be a simple equation about self-discipline and portion control and good food choices. They wanted an answer that would remind them that weight loss was within their reach if they could just dig up enough determination to do whatever I was doing.
But my secret had nothing to do with any of that. My secret was that I was starving. That’s right… you can be starving AND still be a size 12. Trust me. I’ve been a starving size 12 at least six times. And a starving size 8. And a starving size 20. Starving isn't really about size at all, as it turns out. But no one told me that. So I thought that starving was something I was supposed to do. It was the only thing I knew how to do for as long as I could remember.
I went on my first diet when I was 11 years old. It was the 80’s and dieting was still fairly fashionable, so it was easy. The whole world was on Weight Watchers, so I begged my mom to take me with her to the meetings.. I took one look at those tri-fold membership cards the women used to record weight, and I knew I was hooked. I can still feel the anxiety that would build in my chest as I got closer to the front of the line to be weighed at the weekly meetings, and the relief that flooded me when I had succeeded in moving the scale in the right direction.
And I’ve got to tell you - the whole “gold star for weight loss” thing?
That is a marketing miracle, Weight Watchers. Seriously, slow clap from the fat lady in the back row because that is the stuff of GENIUS.
Because you see, when you give a fucking CHILD a gold star for losing weight, you teach her that losing weight is the only thing that matters, When you remind her on a weekly basis that her success or failure is defined by the numbers on a scale, you have unequivocally succeeded in creating a lifelong customer, and as this IS a business, you’ve just earned yourself a HUGE bonus. I do so hope the money was worth it.
But I digress… Back to my story.
So, my little developing brain just sucked that shit right up, became obsessed with receiving my reward, and carved out a well defined neural pathway that would keep me chained to the pursuit of weight loss by any means necessary for the rest of my adult life.
When my body betrayed me by going through puberty (you know, that VITAL and NATURAL process), I hit back with severe calorie restriction and running the streets of my hometown until I developed stress fractures in my shins. Do you know what I remember about that? Not the pain in my still-developing shin bones as you might expect…. Instead, I remember my softball coach who quietly pulled me to the side one day at practice and said, “Hey, I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s working. You look great. Keep it up.”
Got it. Gold star. Lose weight by any means necessary.
Years later, when my best efforts on the basketball court failed to secure a spot on the starting team my junior year, I punished myself with grueling workouts at the gym AFTER my three hour basketball practice, followed by a “sensible” 300 calorie dinner of veggies and lean meat. I did cut weight, started a few games, and even managed to garner the attention of the boy I liked.
I also passed out in the shower. More than once.
But the occasional loss of consciousness was a small price to pay for my coveted reward.
I was thinner. People noticed. Praise followed.
And then there was my first trip home from college.
Having shed 40 pounds, I was almost giddy with anticipation about the kind of adoration that would be showered on my gargantuan efforts. And as predicted, I showed up in my old life and people did comment constantly.
Oh my GOOOODDDDD!
You look so good!
I’m so jealous!
Tell us your secret!
My secret? I don’t really have one. I only know one way for a healthy, 22 year-old to lose 40 pounds in four months. Either she is engaged in a dangerous restriction of nourishment, she is overexercising to the point of potential injury, or she is ill.
And in most cases, the answer is probably all three things.
Or at least in my case it was.
Although if you’d asked me about it at the time, I would have bubbled over with information about the metabolic impact of my five small, protein packed meals per day. I would have detailed my circuit workout that had produced my newly defined triceps. And at 170 pounds, I was hardly “too thin”, so no one in their right mind would have questioned my methods.
It was working. I was shrinking. And I had the praise to prove it.
But I was also living with an active eating disorder. An eating disorder that could have killed me. An eating disorder delivered on a platter during those early Weight Watchers meetings and fed by every compliment showered on my shrinking body.
It would take me many years before I knew my obsession with food and exercise was disordered. I sincerely thought I had been pursuing health. It would take me many more years before I could begin to see the damage I had caused to my body - damage evidenced by my glacially-paced metabolism and my severely fucked up relationship with food. But now I cannot un-know or un-see any of it, and I am left with the responsibility of understanding it so I don’t create the same cycle for anyone else.
Which brings me to the point I want to make.
We are at the end of Eating Disorders Awareness Week - a week easily overlooked if an eating disorder has not impacted you directly.
But I wonder.. while it may not have impacted you, have you impacted it? I’m guessing the answer is yes.
The answer would be yes for most of us because none of us have any idea about what we are reinforcing when we compliment people for shrinking.
Consider my coach… the one who believed he was just being encouraging. I remember his words twenty years later… sometimes they still echo inside of me when I consider the possibility of dieting just one more time.
Or my mom… let’s talk about my mama. I realize it would be easy to blame her for all of it - I mean who takes their 11 year-old to Weight Watchers? Well, to be honest, plenty of people do. Especially in the 80’s when we were being saturated with fear about fat kids. And she was only doing what she had been trained to do. Lose weight. Feel great. Compliment people who followed the formula.
You guys, I don’t expect any of us to be able to easily dismantle the systems that support the notion that women only fit when they shrink. But once we have a little light shed on something we didn’t know before, I expect that we find a way to do better for each other.
And I don’t know what that looks like for you, but I have an idea.
Consider new compliments.
Maybe it’s just too much to entertain the idea that you don’t HAVE to compliment your girl Sue over brunch when it’s clear she has worked her ass off (literally) and is finally fitting into those skinny jeans. But what if you knew Sue weighs herself 10 times a day and will spend three hours working out after you eat together to make up for her “indiscretions”.
Would you compliment her then?
Right… you wouldn’t. And the truth is that you don’t know. You never know.
So consider new compliments. Tell Sue how brave she is for taking that new job or how she’s a genius for her innovative approach to potty-training her resistant two-year old. Tell her you love her hair or think she’s marvelous and made of stardust. But please.. for the love of everything lovable… don’t weigh in about her weight.
You’ have no idea what it cost her, and I don’t even have to know her to know that whatever the cost, she is worth more. Far more. And so are you.
So, let’s find a way to let a little light in and let each other know.