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Things You Should Never Say May 30, 2014

Posted by J. in Genius.
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My friend Heather (the one with the exact right words at the exact right time) posted this article the other day, and it gave me thoughts to chew on. Heather has herself lost a significant amount of weight, so I’m sure she’s heard a lot of these comments, as have I. And I always read any article that starts with the words “Things you should never say…” with a grain of salt.

There are always articles similar to this full of what amounts to the pet peeves that come along with communicating with other humans. Things to never say to a dancer. Things to never say to a new mother. Things to never say to a Native American. Google it. There’s a bunch. I call those articles How to Not Offend 101.

Sometimes I read these articles if I think they might pertain to me, and think that while I’ve certainly heard people say some dumbass things, and know I’m not immune to foot-in-mouth disease mahself, some of the comments…well, you have to wonder what kind of ignorant asswipe would say such a thing. I mean, it’s the kind of comment that would make you look at them and ask “What the actual fuck is wrong with you?” They just had to have been invented for that article. Either that, or the writer needs to hang with a better class of people. Ones who aren’t complete boobs.

But the comments that make you nod in agreement if you’ve been on the receiving end, and should make you wonder if that’s ever come out of your mouth, are the subtle ones. The left-handed compliment. The things you say to encourage or support someone that can come off sounding judgmental.

Not that I’m judging you for being judgmental.

Okay, yeah, I am.

We all judge. We judge people all day long. If we’re smart, we keep our judgments to ourselves and manage to not say something based on said judgment that’s just plain offensive. It’s a delicate dance, and some folks are really good at it, and some people just suck at it. Hard. Such is life. But these “Things you should never say” articles have their place, because if it’s well-written, you can get a glimpse into what others are thinking before you open your mouth. And if you’re really lucky and find that your experience and theirs are wildly different, it can give you a great insight into yourself.

To that end, I read the article I mentioned called “It’s a Question of Weight” because the author, Kathleen Long, and I seemed to have similar experiences. I expected before reading it to agree with most, if not all, of what she was saying. I was surprised that I disagreed with her quite a bit, and it wasn’t until the end of the article that I realized why she and I didn’t see eye to eye on what you shouldn’t say to someone who has lost a lot of weight.

I’m also learning to appreciate and be (mostly) patient with the people who were in my life before I started losing weight as they adjust to the changes I’m making. I’m observing their reactions, asking questions and being curious about how they’re relating to me as a physical being. I’m recognizing when someone makes me uncomfortable and using that as a tool to examine hidden feelings of shame or inadequacy. It is a process for them as much as it is for me, and if nothing else, I think the plethora of diet book authors, doctors and nutritionists can all agree that losing weight is ultimately about being self-aware and present.

I think that bit right there is why a lot of the things people say don’t really bother me at all. I have an amazing little world that I inhabit. I have so much support, and so many people that mean well around me. It’s rare that I get offended by a question, or take a left-handed compliment as an insult, because I know that it’s genuinely from a place of love, friendship, pride, admiration, or a true sense of wonder and disbelief.

For what it’s worth, I feel compelled to give my two cents on the Things People Say When You Lose a Metric Fuckton of Weight.

“Wow, you look like a completely different person. I didn’t even recognize you.” This feels awkward. Is it a compliment? I usually respond with thank you, to which the person heartily replies “You’re welcome!”

This is ALWAYS a compliment to me. After 150 pounds, I really don’t look like the same person, and when people I’ve known for years have to hear my voice to recognize me, I’m sorry, that’s a transformation in appearance that can’t be denied. And I’ve worked wicked hard to look this way. Hell, there are times I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and I’m surprised at my own face. If I’m still getting used to how I look, I can hardly fault anyone for seeing in me someone that wasn’t there before. If it takes them by surprise, too, I totally get it.

It's the hair that throws people, I think...

It’s the hair that throws people, I think…

Of course, my assumption is that people are meaning to be complimentary, and they’re not saying they don’t recognize me because I look hideous. Yet. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

“You must be so happy now that you’ve lost all this weight.” Well, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t unhappy before I started losing weight.

There’s some truth to this one. I wasn’t unhappy at my fattest. All in all, I’m a fairly well-adjusted person, and if you ask me on any given day if I’m happy, the answer is likely yes. Things get me down and I have a bad day now and then, but overall, I’m happy. And I was at 360 pounds. I didn’t lose weight to find happiness. I already had it.

But am I happier now, specifically about how I feel and look? Oh, hell yes. And again, my assumption is that they’re asking if I’m pleased with and happy about my weight loss. Does this accomplishment make me happy? Yes, I’m pleased to report that it does. The journey comes with horrible stretches of time where I’m full of fear and anxiety, and days on end where I look at how far I still want to go and it seems uphill and discouraging and exhausting, but there are an awful lot of days that are absolutely elating. Am I happy now that I’ve lost all the weight? You fucking betcha I am.

“I really hope you’re not losing weight too fast; you look too skinny.” Not at all, I’m still 40 pounds overweight.

This one almost always comes from people I know well. I’m hovering in the 205-210 range right now, and would like to get to around 140 or so. That’s 65 to 70 pounds left to lose. I’m a size 18 in the ass and probably a 14 from the waist up, which is far from skinny. And if you’ve known me well at 360 pounds, it is a huge difference, and yeah, I do look skinny in places. It’s hard to imagine me at a healthy weight, because I’ve always been fat. I can’t imagine what I’ll look like when I’m into single digit clothing sizes, so I’m not surprised that no one else can either. And I appreciate the concern in your words, because that’s what I hear.

In truth, I share your concern. Maybe not at 70 pounds overweight, but I know me well enough to know that I could take it too far. As much as I whine about the fact that I can’t get my fat ass under 200 pounds fast enough to suit me, I know the day will come where I have to decide enough is enough. There is such a thing as being too thin, and the concern that I could go all crazy pants to the point of having so low a body fat percentage that I stop having periods and I look like a cadaver, just because I can, is a real one.

And honestly, what do you do when you really think you’re seeing someone who might be in danger of hurting themselves because they don’t have a realistic body image and have dieted themselves down to skin and bones? Or when someone you know has become obsessed with exercise and counting calories almost to the exclusion of everything else?

I’m not really sure.

I can only speak for my own situation. I know I am completely capable of getting to that level of obsession, and I have enlisted people very close to me to throw a flag on the play when they actually see self-destructive, bulimic/anorexic, or just plain obsessive behaviors. I also trust their objectivity when it comes to an overall assessment of my health and appearance, both physical and mental. And they are people who can say to me, “You have lost too much weight. You don’t look good,” and I won’t be offended, or insist that it’s not up to them. It’s a wicked short list, though. Like, three people. It’s my own safety line, having seen weight loss stories not end…well.

I want to tell people who tell me that 140 will be too skinny, or that I’m already too skinny (bless your hearts, really) that it’s okay. I understand that you can’t imagine me at a healthy weight because neither can I. But trust that I’m not insane, and even if I do find myself taking it too far, I have a fantastic support team who will let me know when I really start to look like I have The Cancer, or to tell me to stop being a nutjob.

But I keep in mind that their “too” comments come from concern for me, and I take them as such. I ignore it, but I’m not offended, either.

“I guess there is a difference between eating healthy and losing weight.” This comment often comes after my interlocutor discovers I’m not vegan/paleo/juicing/gluten free/etc. I’m under a doctor’s care and my health is being carefully monitored, and I say so, but usually, my reply is drowned out by the statistics of whatever diet it is that ensures optimal health.

“Well… what I do is…” Usually, someone will first ask how I am “doing it,” then will argue with my answer despite the obvious fact that what I am currently doing is working for me.

Okay, these two bug the shit out of me. This one I was all nodding and going OH YEAH.

I have no fucking idea what makes someone, upon hearing that you’ve lost 150 pounds, ask if you’ve tried {insert fad diet of the month} here. I suspect it’s because they want a chance to proselytize about their favorite diet and really aren’t interested in hearing how I did it. Or they want the chance to tell me that I’m risking my health somehow if I eat {insert forbidden food here} because they read it on the Internet. Or they want me to join them in selling powders, supplements, shakes, or {insert money-making weight loss product here}.

The truth is, I have spent a lot (some would argue an inordinate amount) of time studying up on food, and how it affects the body. I’m far from a fanatic about what I put in my mouth, because it’s been my experience that my body can handle just about anything with which I pollute it. It might not handle it particularly well, but it won’t kill me. Or cure me.

What I have found is that there are foods that make my body run like a well-oiled machine, and others that clog up the works a lot. I’ve come to realize that because bodies are so different, everyone likely has a different combination of foods that keep them feeling fantastic. And that there are things they don’t eat because of how a specific ingredient affects them. When you’re on a path like mine where your ultimate goal is good health, you tend to be more aware of what foods make you feel good and what ones don’t.

But boy, there is a lot of junk science out there. Beware of it. There are no magic foods that boost weight loss, and honestly, most of the current scapegoats of the modern diet (I’m looking at you, gluten) are entirely benign in 99% of the population. The good news is that there’s a lot of really good science out there, and because I’m always looking to improve, I swim around in it quite a lot. I’ve given consideration to going back to school to get a degree in nutrition; in part because I think some formal, intense study of it would benefit my own lifelong journey, but also because every day it seems like I encounter someone who has no idea about food, how it works, and what effect it has on the body. Not to mention the special, precious few who constantly share “THIS ONE FOOD CAN KILL YOU” articles on The Facebook. God help us all. The more I know, the more I want to know, and I’m considering boosting my ability to pass this information on to people who could use it. Maybe help other people who were and are in the same boat as me figure out the mind/body connection. I don’t know for sure, but it’s a thought.

“I guess you won’t be able to eat any of this.” This is something people generally say anytime I’m anywhere in the vicinity of a dessert.

My knee-jerk reaction is to agree with this one, and when I hear that, shove a cream puff in both cheeks like a sugar-crazed chipmunk. But when I’m confronted with the Food Police, I try to give the benefit of the doubt that they’re saying one of three things with that statement.

First, perhaps they’re concerned for my strength in the face of temptation. I get it. I imagine alcoholics hear that in a bar, too. Friends want to make sure that I’m going to be okay with this, that they’re not going to have to drag me home and dump me on the doorstep with creme anglaise drooling from my lips and cookie crumbs spilling out of my cleavage. I actually do appreciate the concern. It means someone is thinking of my comfort. That’s a nice thing.

Honestly, I’m fine, and I deal with temptations all day, every day. And sometimes I eat things that are bad for me. I usually enjoy the hell out of those moments, too. I respond with a short variation of “I ran 3 miles this morning and did some work with the free weights, and have about 600 extra calories banked up. I also had a light breakfast and lunch of mostly veggies and lean produce because I knew there would be margaritas and onion dip here.” (It sounds something like “It’s cool, I worked out today. Is there whipped cream for this torte?”)

It could be that they’re thinking I’m judging them for going back for thirds on the pie. Like I’m the Food Police. “Oh my God! She knows all about food and nutrition and how bad this is for me! She’s going to lecture me on the wickedness of my ways!”

Perish the thought. Eat all the pie, man. Pie is awesome.

The third intention I think is behind it is one of pity, either for myself, or more likely, for themselves. It’s that idea of mourning food that I’ve talked about. I wonder if they’re thinking about my discipline when I’m eyeing the desserts but not partaking, and wish they had it themselves. It’s when I get the “I wish I had your willpower” comment, and it’s so hard to turn that into party small talk. Willpower, and the lack thereof, is such a huge part of that mind/body connection that makes weight loss possible that I can’t even really skim the surface.

Especially while what I’m actually doing is trying to decide between a brownie or an eclair.

“You’ve lost like a whole person, if not more. How much weight is it at this point?” For many, weight is an uncomfortable subject, especially admitting the exact amount of “before” weight. It has been for me for many years.

This is something that doesn’t bother me personally, but she’s right: weight is a touchy subject and not a lot of people are comfortable disclosing what they weigh. I’m doing this so publicly that it’s become non-issue for me, and I’ll tell you what my before weight is, my current weight on any given day, and how much I’ve lost. But I can tell you that at first, admitting even to myself that I weighed 360 pounds was hard. And painful. I couldn’t admit it to anyone or say it out loud for a little while. As it became less something that I was currently dealing with and more a number that was firmly in my rear view, it got easier to admit to, and by this point, it’s a source of pride. I’m not proud that I got up to that weight, but I know what effect it has on people. That’s not being a little heavy, or even merely “fat.” That’s morbidly obese. That’s dangerously heavy. That’s far above the weight where a lot of well-meaning doctors start discussing cutting up your intestines to take care of it.

I know seeing me at my heaviest inspires people, and I don’t take that lightly. I want people as fat as I am, as fat as I was, and as fat as I know I could have eventually become to know that they have it in them to lose weight. They–you, if you’re reading this and doubting all the doubts that have ever been doubted–can transform. You can make your body into whatever you want it to be. I believe that with everything I am. I know you have things that stand in your way, but I also know that there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome, whether you have to go over it, under it, around it, through it, or just fucking outrun it every day. It can be done. I’m living proof of it, and I want to continue to be that proof and that example for the rest of my life. So I don’t ever want to get so comfortable as a thin, healthy person that I forget who I was. I have no problem with being reminded that I used to weigh 360 pounds.

But others might. So when in doubt, if you’re curious, know that not all questions require an answer. And you might be making someone really uncomfortable with your question.

And for the record, I’ve lost a whole person. A good-sized one at that.

“Well, good for you, but I’d rather live well. Life is short.” I’d understand the defensive response if I was proselytizing, but this is usually offered spontaneously, as if my mere presence is an argument for restrictive eating.

I wouldn’t put this in the category of “things to not say” exactly, but it’s one of those statements that does invite discussion, and usually argument. And like she says, it’s like my mere existence is a challenge to their own status quo.

Thing is, it’s not something I think even deserves an argument. If that’s how you feel about being fat, go nuts. I’m not telling you to lose weight. Only you can make that decision. And I have had people tell me “I’d rather eat and be fat and happy than hungry, skinny, and miserable.” What do you want me to say? Okay, then? I don’t need you to defend your decision to be fat, if that’s what makes you happy. And I’ll bite my tongue when you start listing the reasons why you could never do what I’ve done. It’s why I will usually make some non-committal response and extricate myself from the conversation. If we’re discussing weight and you’re pleading a case for obesity, we really don’t have anything to talk about.

I know where it comes from. When you’re fat, you’re on the defensive constantly about your weight, and you endure far more well-meaning but ultimately insulting and irritating comments than you do when you’re losing weight, or if you’re thin. And if you read the articles about “Things You Should Never Say to a Fat Girl” you can do the same thing I’ve done here. If you hear what’s behind the comments people make under the guise of being helpful, there’s usually a lot of subtext.

What she goes on to say at the end of her article is that ultimately, what we hear when people make comments that irritate or flatter us has as much to do with our own feelings about ourselves, our journeys, and our choices as it does about the person making the comment. It’s not news that sometimes perception and intention aren’t in sync. I argue, along with the original author, that what the comments should do is make us look at how we feel about ourselves and what’s going on with us, even if we react the way we do because the answer isn’t pretty, or neat, or pleasant to hear about. And that holds true about anything people comment about, whether it’s your weight, your choice of college major, or the car you drive.

Fielding comments about my weight loss and my appearance has been an interesting learning experience. There’s a school of thought that says that you should never comment on someone’s appearance because no matter what you say, it can be taken as an insult. Which is weird, because unless you’re blind, it’s the first thing you notice. And I wonder if we need more articles that teach us to listen with different ears than we do articles telling us what not to say in the first place. If you assume that people are saying things from a place of kindness, and it’s been my experience that they usually are, you will hear a compliment. If you assume they are criticizing you, you will feel attacked.

There are enough douchebags out there who work hard at being insulting that we don’t have to invent insults where none were intended, I think.

Oh, and the last one: “You’re disappearing.” Not true; you’re paying more attention to me than ever!

This is one of my favorites, right up with my sister’s remark, “Remember when you used to be fat?”

I know what she means! With the people that I know–we’re talking friends and family, people in my community, at church, my physicians–it seems like the smaller I get, the more notice I get. It’s the exact opposite of disappearing!

But when I think about it more closely, I realize that I no longer stand out in a crowd. When you’re morbidly obese, you do. While I’m still fat, I’m pretty close to our (pathetically fat) national average and if you saw me walking through an airport or standing in line at a checkout, I doubt you’d give me a second thought. For the first time in a long time, I blend. I disappear.

Or would, if my hair wasn’t such a vibrant shade of floozy red.

If I had to add my own little pet peeve to her list, I confess I look forward to the day when my weight isn’t the first thing people comment on. The other day after Mass I said “hello” to a group of friends and we had a quick little exchange of pleasantries, and not one of them said a thing about how I looked. And it wasn’t until I got to the car that I realized how good that felt. As nice as compliments are, and even though I don’t mind discussing my appearance, it was nice to just have a conversation that didn’t include it. I wasn’t singled out or the focus of attention, and I had forgotten what that was like.

It’s not that I don’t like talking about it, or that I don’t appreciate a “you look nice today” or anything, but to get to the point where my transformation isn’t noteworthy all the time will be nice. It’ll be part of who I am and maybe not feel so much like all of who I am.

Perhaps when the thin person has fully emerged and the fat girl is locked up inside me where I can keep a close and wary eye on her, I will really get to the point where I “disappear.”

That’s a weird-ass thing to look forward to.