Don’t Tell Me I’ve Lost Weight
Alice Snape explores why ‘you look thin’, isn’t the compliment you think it is
“OMG, you look so skinny, babes.”
I revelled in the compliment. I’d never been called skinny before. At school, I was always the chubby girl, the fat one. I wore a t-shirt in the swimming pool and felt the need to cover my body at all times. To hide my fatness from the world, because I knew fat was bad, wrong. But I’d been meticulously counting my calories, going on two-hour runs, no gluten was allowed past my lips. I had been militant. My jeans were hanging off my hip bones as a result.
I still felt disgusting though. It never really mattered what my weight was or what size clothing I squeezed my bum into because I was never small enough.
I’d strip off and examine my meaty thighs in the mirror, looking at the dimpled cellulite while pulling back every bump to reveal what I thought I could look like, if I just tried a bit harder, ran a bit more, ate a bit less.
The other day I found some photos of myself from that time. I cursed myself for missing that body, for mourning it. Because I don’t look like that anymore, the scales say I am heavier and my bum is bigger, my hips wider, my belly rounder. But, if I truly think about my mindset in that photo, I wasn’t happier. I wasn’t content with that body then, I hated those photos, but why do I wish I still looked like it now?
“That is exactly the reason I started on this journey,” says Becky, who is the founder of Anti Diet Riot Club, a rebel community fighting against diet culture. “I saw a photo of myself from the year before when I was in India. It triggered this absolutely mental catastrophe in my head. I’d finally lost weight but now I had put it all back on. I felt like a failure. But I’d been in India for five months and I basically had dysentery. I wasn’t drinking alcohol and I was hula-hooping all the time. When I found this photo, I’d been in a relationship, eating takeaways, I was happy and had put on weight.”
The feeling is all too familiar. We are taught to love our bodies only if they are well behaved, if they conform to a certain beauty standard, which is constantly influx so we can never achieve it – small, big bum, pert boobs, our bodies aren’t trends.
If our bodies reflect those we see on TV, on catwalks, in magazines and in the Love Island villa, we are okay. We don’t love them when they get bigger, or, when they wobble and our bellies hang over our jeans. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard people say, “oh wouldn’t she be pretty if she lost weight?” Bullies at school called me fat. Spat the word at me like a weapon. There’s a stigma against fat people, “fat” is never used as a compliment like “skinny” is, but shouldn’t be.
“Skinny is never a compliment, it makes me sad to hear other women congratulating each other on being skinny,” says Leila. “Eight years ago, I was on a hen do, I’d picked up a dress from Primark, but didn’t try it on. As I was getting ready, the size 14 dress, which was my size, wouldn’t do up. I was devastated. I joined Weight Watchers, quietly, I didn’t tell anyone. I thought if I’m smaller, all clothes will look better on me. I stuck to the points system they had back then, recording everything I ate, drank, all the exercise I did. The weight started to come off and the compliments came in: OMG you look AMAZING, I didn’t recognize you, you are TINY, how do you do it? You look so good…SKINNY MINNIE. And I did feel good, I wasn’t the chubby funster anymore. I’d never had anyone comment on my body before, ‘ahhhh Leila you’re so funny’ sure, but ‘Leils, you’ve got great legs!’ WHAT? ME? I liked it.”
For Leila, this was the start of an eating disorder called diabulimia, which develops in people who have type 1 diabetes, it means insulin can be restricted in order to lose weight. “It’s not a sustainable way to live,” Leila tells me sadly. “The years of having high glucose in my blood has started to take its toll. I am losing my eyesight due to blood vessels in my eyes bleeding – I’m now registered visually impaired.”
I am reminded of when I was 18 and had got to my “goal weight” from obsessively following an eating plan, saving up all my points so that I could drink a bottle of wine at the weekend. Then I went away to uni, without my parents feeding me, I could eat what I wanted. So, I lived on bowls of lettuce and cottage cheese. I loved people telling me how thin I looked. But it was dangerous, I wasn’t “healthy” in body or mind. “You feel so great when you first lose weight, you’re elated. You want everyone to praise you and you start getting gratification from people,” agrees Becky. “That can plummet when your weight plateaus and you can’t lose anymore. So, I no longer congratulate someone when they have lost weight. It can lead to mental health issues. Without realising, when you comment on someone’s weight, you put a value on certain types of bodies. Our own families can be the worse culprits.”
I think of my own mum while I was growing up. Always on a diet, always trying to shrink, and apologising when she took up too much space. In contrast, my dad’s middle-aged friends would proudly rub their protruding bellies and say things like, “all bought and paid for”.
We must change the way we view the word fat, so it isn’t seen as a negative, because the way we look is not an indicator of health. We shouldn’t hate our bodies when they are bigger. “The word ‘fat’ used to have so many bad connotations, so much hate and anger rolled up into it,” Rosalie agrees, who until recently was in a cycle of dieting, but now believes she is more than her body. “Hearing others saying this about me or when I have said it to myself in a negative way was devastating. That word had the power to throw off my whole day, to alter how I saw myself. But now I am taking it back – if fat is the worst thing I could possibly be then I am okay with that. Being fat has no correlation with what makes me me, it is simply a describer like tall or short.”
Joyniece K, who is an aspiring plus-size model agrees. “The word fat doesn’t bother me. However, everyone does not feel the same and so I am conscious of how I use it when speaking to other people of larger sizes. The same could be said of ‘plus-size.’ Some people despise it. So, having a conversation with someone about what makes them feel good, what words are triggering, can be helpful. That’s not always possible, so when complimenting someone, I’d focus on body neutral language.
If someone is fierce, tell them! If someone is a baddie, tell them! Unless you are invited to engage in a conversation about their physicality, then I would stay clear of it altogether.”
My friends are the most feminist switched-on bunch of babes, but we still all obsess over our weight, tell each other when we feel fat, that we’re trying to be “healthy”: code for diet. And I’ve lost count of how many times some of them have said, “Oh, I will be happy when I just lose that half a stone,” or “when I fit into those jeans.” Putting their own happiness on pause until their body complies with an impossible standard created by society. The look of “ideal” bodies changes all the time, at the end of the 16th century is was plumpness that was in vogue.
I recently reread Naomi Wolf’s seminal essay, The Beauty Myth, which was originally published in 1990. It investigated how images of women were used against us, exposing the beauty and advertising industry and uncovering why many women are consumed by a destructive obsession: the pursuit of beauty. It all feels too familiar still, although the body positive movement has had a huge impact on social media, the sad truth is that the number of people with eating disorders is only getting higher, with an estimated 1.25 million in the UK and up to 30 million in the US. On top of that, 92 per cent of cosmetic procedures in the UK are done on women and girls.
It has become socially acceptable to praise someone for losing weight because we think that equates to healthiness, but we need to change how we view health as it’s more complex than that. We have been fed this narrative as it’s what sells magazines and diet plans – and, FYI, 95 per cent of “dieters” put back on all the weight they lose, and then some. “We should think about health in biopsychosocial – biological, phycological and social – terms, it is influenced by all of these things,” explains Dr Oli Williams, on the podcast Appearance Matters. “Weight is also influenced by all of these things […] People of higher weights can be healthy. People who are physically active will be metabolically healthy regardless of their weight.”
Changing the way we talk to each other, and compliment one another is a small step in rewiring our thinking. “We’re triggered to compliment someone on what they look like immediately when we see them,” says Becky. “I guess it’s linked to the way women bond, and how since we were young girls we have had people comment on our looks.”
Instead, focus on a comment that doesn’t revolve around the size of someone’s body. “Focus on non-appearance related compliments wherever possible, for example, ‘you’re such a great friend’,” advises Emma Green, who is a non-diet fitness coach. “Even if you’re trying to be positive, commenting on how someone looks implies that their worth is relative to their appearance.”
“You should never comment on the size or shape of someone’s body – even people you know them very well,” recommends Leila. “There are so many other ways to tell people they look fantastic… ‘I love your style’, ‘THAT is your colour’, ‘you look really happy today’, ‘your smile is so bloody infectious.’ These are some things people have said to me over the last few days that genuinely have made me feel great, my body never comes into it.”
Learning to love my body will probably be my life’s work. It is tricky and complex, and I know I will probably still have dark moments when I don’t enjoy what I look like. I am, after all, a product of a patriarchal system who has been fed toxic diet culture her whole life. It isn’t easy to just switch that off – no matter how many people I follow on Instagram talking #bodyacceptance.
What I do know is that I need to edit the language I use when I am speaking to my friends, my loved ones and strangers – and to myself when I look in the mirror.
My new rules: never, ever, compliment someone for losing weight – and I am sorry to the people who I have said that to in the past, I didn’t know the harm I was causing. If I want to say they look nice, I can do it instead by saying I like their shoes, their hair or their choice of lipstick. And I will *try to* never to hinge my own happiness on the size or shape of my thighs or the number in the tag of my jeans or on the scales. My body isn’t a constant ‘before’ project, it doesn’t need to be tighter or less flabby. I am okay, always.
And maybe, just maybe, I can learn to be a little kinder to myself. Are you with me?