Thursday, August 27, 2009

"You've lost weight!"

That's what a colleague said to me yesterday, a woman I haven't seen for six months. A woman who is tall and broad and neither thin nor fat.

I haven't lost weight; if anything, I've probably gained a pound or two. Which is irrelevant, really, because I've had people say this to me whether I've lost or gained or stayed exactly the same.

And it's a comment I never know how to respond to, because there are so many assumptions wrapped up with those three little words: The assumption that I'm trying to lose weight, or at least wishing to. The assumption that losing weight will make me look better. That assumption that losing weight, or trying to, is a positive thing. The assumption that it's OK for someone I don't know well to comment on my appearance.

I've considered a variety of responses to this comment, everything from "Please don't comment on my appearance" to "Thanks." What I said yesterday was a simple, "Actually, I haven't."

My colleague persisted. "No, you really have," she said. "You look--" She gestured toward my body. "Maybe it's the shirt," she said.

"Maybe," I said. I walked away feeling ungracious. Should I have said thank you? In our culture, telling a woman she's lost weight--especially a woman who is not thin--is a compliment and a social offering. I like this colleague a lot; I know she meant well. Yet I'm very uncomfortable at this point with comments like this. They are also teachable moments. But, you know, sometimes I get really tired of teaching.

I'm not sure I said the right thing. I'm not sure what the right thing is. Any thoughts?

32 comments:

CeCe said...

Good question. Unfortunately I'm baffled myself. I have "food" issues. Some friends know and others don't so if anyone ever says I look like I lost weight or tha I look thinner and thinner I just laugh it off and don't really say much or I just say "oh, really?. It somehow makes me uncomfortable to be told that.

Sandra McGechan said...

"My weight hasn't changed. Did you mean to say that I looked nice today?"

KDrumm said...

This definitely resonates with me! My mother-in-law is obsessed with weight (her own, that of others, etc). A few weeks ago, she commented to my sister that she looked as though she'd lost weight. Followed with "and you look GREAT!"...My sister had just gone through a very, very hard breakup and had been smoking instead of eating. The "compliment" was not well-received.

And as someone who still struggles with repercussions from an eating disorder, I constantly feel as though people akin to my m-i-law (those who comment on weight) are analyzing my own body, and it makes me incredibly self-conscious.

I've actually taken the direct route: "Please don't comment on my weight" is how I respond to those who say anything.

Rachel said...

I'm too new to fat acceptance to know what to say, too. I dunno. For me I think it would depend on a number of factors at play: is the observation factual? What is the nature of the relationship between me and this other person? How involved in "teaching" do I want to get?

In your instance, I had a couple snarky ideas come to me: a)"actually, no, I gained weight! And I feel great!"

B) "SHIT! That's not good! I should eat some cake!"

Both retorts would poke fun at the underlying assumptions inherent in that kind of "compliment" without actually poking fun or lecturing the person saying it. Maybe even make her think a little...

Carrie Arnold said...

I don't know that there is a "right" way to respond. I think you handled it quite well, actually.

Many times when I have been on the receiving end of that comment, it's usually raised with no small amount of alarm--and for good reason. But when it's more of the social type comment (like you got), I just say "I don't know, I don't weigh myself. My clothes fit the same, so I doubt I've lost weight."

Lauren said...

I love Rachel's suggestions! Another idea: "Maybe, maybe not. But more importantly, I feel good/happy/healthy today."

April D said...

This is always a really tough thing to navigate and some days you just don't care if it is a teachable moment or not; it just slips by. And that is still okay! Sometimes "fighting the good fight" takes a moment off and will come back later.

As to witty comments in return to such "You look like you lost weight" I really like Sandra's line. Alternately you could do what I was doing before I knew FA was even a twinkle in someone's social awareness and say "Actually I have gained weight". That can be followed with any variation of "and I feel great, and thanks for confirming for me that I look better/healthier/more normal just the way I am" ;)

Harriet said...

All good suggestions! I like Sandra's line too.

Rachel said...

My sister-in-law who lives out of town made the same kind of comment to me at a family gathering several months ago. I just smiled and said virtually the same thing Harriet did, "Actually, I haven't lost a pound."

Usually when people tell you this, it's meant as a compliment, however misguided, so I don't feel comfortable giving back a snarky reply (unless it was meant cheekily, in which case snark is absolutely appropriate). In the past, I've told people, "I'd rather not talk about my weight. Now what's up with you?" as a way both to deflect the focus as well as any follow-up questions as to why I don't want to discuss my weight.

I also like "I have no idea; I threw my scale out a long time ago." And I think Lauren's suggestion is a great way to put the focus back where it belongs: on our health and feelings.

l'zhiu said...

I always say, "Not on purpose!" Maybe with a "Well," or "Really?" thrown in.

What I most want to do with my response is distance myself from the diet/reward conversation, and pointedly informing the compliment-giver that any change in my body size is nothing I did deliberately or am even aware of tends to work. I'll often add something along the lines of, "Well, regardless of my weight, I feel great," to put the emphasis on the intent of the compliment and push dieting a little further out the door.

I had this conversation a few days ago, actually, and got some pretty epic back-pedaling, up to and including the line "Not that you didn't look great before...."

(Hi! Wandered over from the fat-o-sphere feed.)

iDELLA*BELLE! said...

I HATE THAT! U KNOW DAMN WELL IM STILL A FAT ASS! BUT THANK YOU FOR TRYING TO BE NICE. I WASNT EVEN THINKIN ABOUT MY WEIGHT THOUGH BUT THANKS I GUESS.

ANYWAY I LOVE UR BLOG SO MUCH. I HOPE THAT YOU WILL CHECK OUT MINE AND ALLOW ME TO INTERVIEW YOU FOR IT.

THANK YOU SO MUCH,
*DELLA!!!

kcd said...

I usually say, "You know, I don't measure myself in that way any more. Did you mean to say I looked good?" If they are jerky, I say, "You know, my weight is none of your business."

and it's true! No one's weight is anyone else's business.

Elisa said...

Unfortunately this seems to be a standard compliment for a lot of people. It shows you just how very weight-focused our society is. And "what a fat pig" is a sort of a standard put-down. Which is totally erroneous, too (just because someone is thin doesn't make them look good or smell good or be a better person, cure cancer, etc.; and just because someone is fat doesn't make them look/smell/behave badly). Anyway, I usually respond to the "compliment" (which tends to be well-intentioned, however badly it comes across) with "oh, well, thank you, but I really haven't been trying." Or "thanks but I don't really follow my weight." Or even by basically acknowledging the comment and then changing the subject.
So many women today equate being thin with looking good with feeling good with being happy... Maybe if we all just start replying with "nope, no weight lost - just feeling happy and comfortable in my own skin!" people would start getting the message? Or not...

HEALTHY AMELIA said...

This is definitely something I’m uncomfortable with. I’m glad you brought it up. I’ve always taken that as a huge compliment so it’s taking some serious reframing to realize that it’s not. I have even caught myself before almost paying the same compliment to others!

Hmmm… next time this happens, I think I’ll say: “I’m not concerned about my weight, but I appreciate that you intended to pay me a compliment.”

littlem said...

I always say, "Not on purpose!"

Me too.

It also depends on who's saying it. If it's a colleague like yours, HB, I tend to leave it at that, or follow it with "If you meant that I look nice, thank you."

If it's some obnoxious guy trying for a pickup or something, I have been known to follow it up with some variant of "that's really not your business".

Ashley said...

I don't know how to respond to this either. I'm 9 weeks postpartum, lost all my pregnancy weight by 2 weeks PP and have been back in all my old clothes since 4 weeks PP. For the record, this is just what my body did.

And everyone is telling me how "great" I look. I go out with friends, see family and it's all "doesn't Ashley look great! Wow, she looks so good," with the obvious subtext being that I look thin and not at all like I had a baby recently.

I've resorted to "this is just what my body did, I have no idea how that happened" as my response, which still sorta denies the compliment. It's great to have "my body back" so to speak, but it doesn't mean I've achieved anything at all.

jaed said...

(worried look) "I have? Gosh. Maybe I should see the doctor!"

It's a little snarky, but it does get the point across that unanticipated, noticeable weight change is usually not a good thing, regardless of direction.

goodbyemyboy said...

I like Sandra's idea very much. I also find that a dismissive "I don't know, I haven't noticed/I don't keep track" throws people very nicely.

Erica said...

I think this brings up a bigger issue of how women respond to one another in social situations. Some women seem to say "have you lost weight" without really thinking, or they think that it is a good thing -- because that is how we have been conditioned. How can we change this?

Sometimes I have the energy to confront people, and other times I just say, "oh, thanks." It is so ingrained in our social style as women, that when you do confront someone, it is really hard and awkward. My mother, by the way, still can not stop herself from doing this with me, even though I have given her the lecture on why I hate it, and even though our family has been traumatized by our daughter's eating disorder. She just can't stop herself! Frustrating.

Harriet said...

I agree, Erica. It's a kind of knee-jerk reaction a lot of the time and it's a question of changing the habit.

And my family, too, cannot stop mentioning the weight, appearance, eating, calories, etc. Disheartening.

Ashey, you raise a very important point. I think we've all felt that. I like thinking of weight as neutrally as possible. It's just hard to do in this culture.

Colleen W said...

Whenever I receive similar comments, I let the person know that I'm not into watching my weight, that I'd rather not let the numbers on a scale determine the outcome of my day.

Whatever you say, though, make sure it is honest. If you have lost weight, admit to it.... but do NOT take it as a complement unless you NEEDED to lose weight for true health reasons.

It is a tricky situation, though, because there are times where "teaching" doesn't seem worth the effort and frustration.

Anonymous said...

I hate when people comment on my body! I naturally verge on the thinner side of body types and people seem to think I might be flattered if they gush at me about it. It irritates me because I do not covet "thinness" at all anymore since I'm started my quest on body acceptence.

the fat nutritionist said...

When people say I've lost weight, I always laugh and say, "I certainly HOPE not!"

That confuses them and amuses me. Win-win.

Jessica said...

I get this all the time! Especially from co-workers I particularly don't get along with. I guess they have nothing else to say to me! But I always say "No I haven't. But thanks..."

And usually when I wear a particular scrub top that shows my curves. I guess they should say "Nice curves" hehe.

Jay said...

I'm thin, and a number of my family members are either fat or weight-obsessed. I find it so irksome when they point out to me how thin I am, especially in the midst of them complimenting each other on their weight loss. I know that they tell me that I'm thin in jealousy and it's horrible to feel like I'm a source of them putting themselves down. I'm not "lucky" that I'm thin. I just am, and there's nothing special about it.

In those situations, I also often freeze up, because it doesn't matter how much we were talking about fat acceptance issues earlier, their cultural reflex to offer this terrible sentiment just comes up.

Evelyn Tribole MS RD said...

You really hit a nerve. People in the USA don't know how to give compliments.

Consider the unintended effect of a "well-meaning" weight loss compliment--"complimenting" someone's eating disorder.

I've had many patients in the throes of a eating disorder receive similar compliments, "You look so good--you've lost so much weight."

I believe making a comment about someone's body should be off-limits--no different than asking someone, "What color underwear are you wearing?"

Harriet said...

Too true, Evelyn! I make it a conscious practice never to comment on my own or anyone else's appearance. It's tougher than you'd think, because we're all so used to speaking freely about we and other people look.

Rachel said...

Sometimes I'll say, "Ha! I'll have to wear *this* again!"

It deflects the situation with a little humor, but really doesn't answer their question (which is none of their business), either.

Jennifer said...

I feel the same way about this as the posters above bt wanted to comment on the reverse pseudo-icky-'compliment'.

The other day my neighbour said to me 'you've gained weight...it looks goooood' (I was gaining weight as a result of recovering from bulimia).

I retorted with something like 'why are you commenting on my weight?' to which he assured me that I looked better and he meant it was a good thing that I had put on weight (which it was but that is besides the point).

I think this incident and those mentioned by the posters above speak to our society's unspoken assumption that women's bodies are public property to be commented on and/or enjoyed by men.

Harriet said...

Interestingly, the vast majority of comments I've ever gotten have been from women. I don't know if that's because women feel freer to comment, notice weight more, or happenstance.

Anonymous said...

From a man's perspective, let me assure you that it's a difficult issue for us too. It can be harder to tell women that they look great, as that can be mistaken for more than a compliment. When we say it, we want women to know that they're beautiful, not that they're beginning to fit into some narrow, societal ideal. It's hard to pretend that people don't look better when they've lost some extra weight. So if a man mentions it to you, realize that he doesn't have many options in his delivery. Don't tell him that you don't want to talk about weight or that it's none of his business. Instead of being rude, just say thanks and move on. There's no need to twist a genuine compliment into an insult or create an awkward situation.

Harriet said...

Anon,

I was with you right up until you said, "It's hard to pretend that people don't look better when they've lost some extra weight." Unh-unh.

This is your opinion, not a "fact" as you state it. And therein you expose your bias.

Best to bite your tongue and think about why it's so necessary to comment about other people's appearances. Maybe you could compliment a woman you know on her . . . intelligence?