‘You’ve lost weight’: The unconscious judgements in compliments

I returned home from overseas in March, and entered two weeks’ isolation under the rules to contain COVID-19. This was early in the virus spread, so I was lucky enough to spend the two weeks in a holiday house near the beach.

During those two weeks, I did not leave the property. On sunny days, I could not go to the beach or walk into town. I had my groceries delivered from the local supermarket, and occasionally spoke to a neighbour over the front fence. But mostly, I was alone.

What I did, was eat – lots! I was bored and lonely and spending most of my day on Netflix. I would start off eating healthy – cereal for breakfast, and a sandwich for lunch. By dinner time I was looking for all the favourite comfort foods I had bought – schnitzels, mashed potato, chips, chocolate, and several bottles of wine. I also took a case of beer with me, left over from my last birthday, and drank one every day.

By the second week of isolation I realised something had to change. I was feeling the weight pile on. Already a larger person, this added weight was not welcome.

I started exercising.

There wasn’t a lot of variety in the exercise I could do, stuck in a house. I alternated between a high intensity interval workout in the lounge room, and jogging around the outside of the house. I even completed 20 kilometres around the house one day, (333 laps – and my legs paid for it!), but usually managed between 7-12 kilometres.

Returning to home and work, I continued my exercise routine. I also started changing my diet. I still drank wine and beer, and ate chocolate and chips, just a lot less than before. As all the cafes were closed, I made my lunches to take to work. This allowed me to focus on healthy options.

You can imagine what happened. I lost 12 kilos (so far!). I felt good. I was fitter than I had been in years. I was even hammering new holes in my belt to hold my pants up!

Then I started receiving compliments from people, both at work and in my private life, about my weight loss. For some reason, these compliments made me uncomfortable.

I realised I was interpreting ‘You’ve lost weight’ as ‘You’re not as fat as you used to be’. While this obviously was not the intended message, it was a clear message behind it. To notice I have lost weight, they must first have noticed I was fat. Not being able to say ‘You’re not fat anymore’, they use the commonly accepted phrase of ‘You’ve lost weight’.

Our culture is ingrained with the concept of ‘thin is best’. I don’t need to go into this idea – there have been countless articles, critiques, and studies done to prove this point. What I’m focusing on is the praise we give weight loss, and how this message is received.

Some people crave this positive reinforcement of the hard work they have done to achieve their weight loss goals. Some people accept these comments as the normal response to weight loss, and even give the comments out themselves. Then others, like me, find the comments offensive.

As you can see, I interpreted the message as an unconscious acknowledgement that not only did they think I was fat, they paid attention to how I looked and judged me negatively for being fat. They could now judge me positively because I was aligning to the societal belief of ‘thin is best’, and publicly declare their acceptance of my physical form.

This also implied they felt more comfortable with a thinner me, as well. I mean, who wants to be friends with a fat person?

It got me thinking about the privilege thin or average weight people have, of which they are unaware. How else to explain someone feeling they have the right to comment on my body in the workplace, or in public?

I also thought of what message these comments send to others within earshot; others who may struggle with their own body issues. Giving this praise, and accepting it, reinforces the message of ‘thin is best’. If praise is only given when someone loses weight, this can reinforce negative body beliefs for others.

At my first dinner out since restrictions eased, two friends commented on my weight loss and started asking questions about my diet and exercise. I quickly but politely shut the conversation down. I thanked them, and said I did not want to discuss this further. They both accepted my stance, hopefully without offense, and it was not raised again.

But can I do this in the workplace? In my particular workplace, it is usual for staff to discuss their weight, diet and exercise. How then to politely shut down comment on my weight, without impinging on the conversations of others? I also know some of the people I work with take offense easily. If I were to raise concerns regarding their comments about my body, this could easily lead to conflict, and eventually involve management. Both things I wish to avoid.

Should I skimp my pride and go along with the status quo, to avoid conflict? Or should I politely introduce the topic of inappropriate body comments, opening a discussion (and possible conflict) which could change the conversation positively for me and others?

Courage would dictate I take the latter course. Another benefit from the Black Lives Matter and #Me Too movements is that courage is not always easy, but is usually necessary. This issue may not be as life threatening as what BLM and #MeToo are addressing, but every step towards confronting prejudice in any form can only be good for society as a whole.

I will challenge the idea that my body is an open topic of conversation for others, and hope this brings about positive change. In the meantime, feel free to talk about my self-inflicted, isolation haircut. Now that is a topic worth discussing!

Published by davidmckwrites

I am a writer from Melbourne, Australia. I am currently working on two writing projects. The first is a contemporary gay novel about a man experiencing growth and change after the end of a relationship. The second is a collection of novellas following a private detective in Sacramento as she solves missing person cases with the help of her four spirit protectors. I also write poetry, short stories, plays and film scripts.

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