"You look so skinny"

So today is the conclusion of Fat Talk Free Week  as some of you may (or may not know). I've talked before about how my parents'  ...

So today is the conclusion of Fat Talk Free Week as some of you may (or may not know).

I've talked before about how my parents' comments about my body often shaped how I felt about myself.  I'll put it this way:  I loved being contrary with them.  Part of it was my wildness. The other part was a realization that my mom and dad were not happy people. If I wanted a chance at happiness myself, I'd either need to figure it out myself, or do the opposite of what they said.

My father once told me that I would never have any friends if I were argumentative, that I would never have any friends (odd, coming from a lawyer...). And so I was argumentative.  Well, rather, I began to figure out who I could debate with.  I figured out who had the intelligence and the fortitude to disagree with me.  Those people became my friends.  I knew when to back off, and when a debate had crossed the line into being a fight.

I think the lesson for me regarding my parents is that I learned to love myself exactly as I was, and the right people would love me for it. The wrong people would continue to disparage me, but that I knew the difference.  I feel bad that my mother and father never learned the same kind of self love at a young age.  Their lives might have been shaped very differently if they broke a few rules and told a few more people to shove it.  They might have benefitted from making mistakes of their own accord, not from trying to please other people.

So getting back to Fat Talk Free Week ...
We had a small little fire in my office building, prompting an evacuation.  On the way down the stairs, I ran into many people that hadn't seen me since I began this journey.  And they say "Oh, you look so skinny."

It kind of baffles me that we're conditioned to think that "skinny" is a compliment.  I mean, what if i had been suffering from cancer this whole time? I know people aren't trying to be malicious, and it's not an issue of ignorance. It's an issue of cultural programming.  Skinny is often equated with being successful and beautiful. Fat is often equated with beung unsuccessful and ugly.  This is what we're getting wrong.

But you can't really go up to a person and say "Wow, you look really healthy" without them thinking "I must've looked like crap yesterday" much in the same way when someone says "You're looking skinny" our minds do this whiplash thing where all we can think of is how fat we used to look. 

So what's going to be appropriate?  How do you know if someone's appearance truly reflects a healthy lifestyle (versus having an illness, an eating disorder, etc.)?  How do you compliment them on that healthy lifestyle if you do know that healthy lifestyle is responsible for the change in their appearance? 

What are we left with if we can't use the small talk?

Maybe we say nothing.  We begin to look people in the eye more. We smile at them.
Maybe we start investing in people and knowing their stories so we know the appropriate thing to say. And then people will know our intentions.

Maybe when we say "You look great... really healthy" it will be received as intended--that at this moment your whole self is a reflection of (inner & outer) happiness and health.

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12 comments

  1. I love your blog because it addresses the many facets of emotional eating, and the deeper psychological reasons for obesity.

    I am also on a weight loss journey, and I firmly believe I will only truly set myself free once I deal with all the emotional issues that got me to this point.

    This post resonated with me because I grew up listening to negative body talk from my mother and sisters. I also had the pleasure of listening to pearls like:
    "you're putting too much chocolate in your chocolate milk! Later you're going to complain you're fat." (older sister)
    "You need to lose weight and become pretty to find a boyfriend and be happy" (this one was from my grandma)
    "Mommy and you are over-weight, we need to lose weight!" (from my mom when I was going through puberty)
    "You and I (coming from my mom) love to eat and can't control ourselves around you".

    I also rebelled against my family's idea of how much I should be eating. I just wanted them to stop giving me their opinions and projecting their own self image issues upon me.

    This ended up putting me in a cycle of emotional eating and not caring about having a slim body, because that was my way of rebelling and being myself.

    Now I realize this reaction ended up harming me in physical ways, and I wish I would have had the presence of mind, back then, to let those comments roll right off me.

    My mom still seems to include me in all her weight issues, and talks to me as if we were in the same boat. I have long learned to not listen to her comments, as we're in completely different boats.

    Still, it's a bit disturbing. Just the other day I was sharing my positive cholesterol results and she said "your cholesterol numbers are so much better than mine!"

    I don't blame my mom for my obesity, because i know in the end it all comes down to me. And yet... It would have been better to have grown up without listening to this kind of thing. So I'm trying my hardest to raise my 2 kids without making negative comments about body size (anyone's body).

    Sorry I seem to have rambled on. Your posts bring it out in people! :) Keep blogging!

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  2. Sorry, I meant to write "You and I (coming from my mom) love to eat and can't control ourselves around FOOD".

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  3. Fernanda -- I'm fluent in typo so I knew what you meant. I am so glad to hear that my blog stuck a chord with you, and yet so sad that you were affected by your family's negativity like that. I'm glad to hear you're working to rectify that with your own children.

    I think many parents have good intentions with their kids, but really go about it in a lousy way. They should be the example and model of healthy behaviors -- not a "do as I say, not as I do" model. More parents should have a firm grasp of nutrition and exercise. I mean, even toddlers need a certain amount of exercise (to gain strength, not lose weight) and they the proper nutrition to grow.

    The thing is that once food was industrialized, parents took a very laissez-faire approach to the food they were giving their kids. They relied on "experts" to determine what was proper and healthy instead on age-old knowledge and practice.

    ((I can ramble too :P))

    So I think the antagonistic relationship between parents, children, and food can stop -- it just requires parents to be better models of health, children to respect what their parents are showing them (when there's good reason) and food to be more than just flashy packaging.

    I mean, imagine if instead of our parents berating us for being fat, that they actually stopped in their tracks and said "Whoa... what am I doing to contribute to this problem, and what can I contribute to the resolution?"

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  4. I like "you look great!" much more than "you look so thin!" Personally, once the initial thrill of having everyone notice my weightloss wore off, it would just annoy me when anyone would comment. I was like, get over it already! Especially when the same people would always have to comment on it everytime they saw you. Now it's been a couple of years and people are just used to the way I look. Much more comfortable.

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  5. Caroline: I prefer "You look great" better than just about anything else. I think of Catherine the Great. My (internal) response is "Eff yeah, I can rule an empire." And more often than not, that empire is my very own life.

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  6. Hmmm...I prefer Hi! I'm so glad to see you today!

    In all seriousness, we don't realize just how much the things we say (or don't say) STICK in our children's heads.

    My own Mother NEVER told me or my sisters that we were beautiful. In her upbringing, saying such a thing to a young girl would "make them vain". She uttered the words the very first time on my wedding day, setting both of us to crying and needing fresh mascara.

    I have some real issues with the way I look - I honestly can not see my self as pretty, which is sort of sad, because I think my sisters are gorgeous, and we all look alike! I work very hard at not passing on this attitude to my own daughters, not putting myself down in their presence and always telling them how lovely they are. Because they really are beautiful!

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  7. I remember when I went back to school in August after being gone all summer. The responses from my classmates were pretty humorous. I remember a few saying "OMG, you look like a totally different person", "wow, you look amazing", and "holy cow, you lost so much weight in such little time".

    My favorite was the "you look amazing". All three compliments made me feel good. Of course, these people all knew that I was trying to lose weight - so I think in that instance, the compliments are different. If they were people that had no idea that I was losing weight - I might of taken the statments a little different.

    I think you are totally right when you talked about what people think to be acceptable compliments referring to skinny people. I just think it depends on the person and situation on how compliments are taken. Around here, in Arkansas, if you said to someone "you look so healthy" - that would be a slur that you're packing a few pounds. Weird, I know, but I definitely wouldn't want that to be something said to me where I live. I hear people describe people using that very term "well, she's a healthy girl - but she has pretty eyes". Translated: She's a heavy-set girl.

    I guess it really depends on situations - and I guess, location. If people know I'm trying to lose weight, then I don't hold anything against them complimenting me on it.

    I've rambled on and on - not really sure if my point is clear..hopefully it is.

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  8. Mmmmm. love this post because I believe that my parents have much to do with my disordered eating. i especially love this line: "If I wanted a chance at happiness myself, I'd either need to figure it out myself, or do the opposite of what they said."

    thanks.

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  9. Compliments are just that, compliments. Take them for the pat on the back they are meant to be more so than the actual words. Skinny as a word meanms different things to different people; to some it is a definition of healthy. To others it means that someone needs to eat a burger before they slip through the shower drain.

    When in doubt break out the Billy Crystal, You Look Mavvvvvelous

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  10. Angela: Yeah, I prefer someone not feeling like they have to make a comment on my appearance when we see each other. It's become a shorthand way to greet people that seems so disingenuous now. I think it's so important for parents to set the tone of how children view themselves. This little girl (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR3rK0kZFkg) *had* to have learned it somewhere, yanno?

    Joanna: I think you're right, it does depend on the context and who it's coming from. I mean, if a stranger told me that i looked skinny without the context I'd wonder why they chose that to say. If it was family, I'd wonder if they are comparing me to my mother. If it was my doctor... well depends on the doctor. One is rather straight forward and blunt like that. I would know it's approval from her. She's Serbian.

    Alexia: I hope you find strength in what I said, and the confidence to forgive your parents their shortcomings and break out on your own. Sometimes you have to leave that past and blame behind to move forward.

    Patrick: I think I'm hyperaware that words have both connotation and denotation. Even the nicest compliment can be a jab from the wrong mouth. But I will remember to be careful around shower drains. :)

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  11. The you look skinny comment is funny because skinny is also an insult. i mean "too skinny" or "sickly skinny" and then that is what I think of when someone says skinny. I have been referred to those things most of my life and it is awful.

    I never know what to say to people. "you look good" I think sometimes complimenting their hair or something is what some people do instead of saying that they think they lost weight. A coworker was telling me about this recently. It baffled me. He was like yea i know she lost weight and has been working out but I didn't want to say that so I told her that her hair looked good.

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  12. Colleen -- part of me wonders if it will ever be acceptable to say "you look different, what have you been up to?" I think that's as neutral as it gets.

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<3 Robby