Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thoughts on Compliments on Weight Loss

I've lost enough weight now - 35 pounds over the past 18 months or so, 45 pounds from my highest ever (which was during my current job so I have coworkers who have seen the whole spectrum; in fact I'm now down to a bit lower than I was when I graduated college and started this job!) - that I've started getting more and more frequent compliments and comments on it. 

A disclaimer: I'm not in any way in this post trying to complain about people giving me compliments in regards to something they view as positive! Nor say I'm not proud about succeeding in my intention of losing weight. Just musing over the inherently complex feelings associated with a topic that our society has given moral value to, yet that should be inherently neutral.

And another caveat: I virtually never comment on other people's weight loss. I feel like I ought to; going through it myself I ought to recognize it in solidarity, or something, right? In part it's because I feel uncomfortable highlighting weight for the reasons I have some discomfort accepting it myself, as discussed below. But in large part it's just social anxiety - I'm afraid I'll think someone looks smaller, say they look great, and in reality they'll have gained 10 pounds since I last saw them, thus making them wonder what I thought they looked like last time!

Weight is, of course, a touchy subject in today's society. For some people, though - and I'll support a stereotype here by saying it's been mostly middle aged women with perhaps slightly high but relatively normal weights - it's apparently not, so much, but just a normal topic of conservation (sort of a good thing... but not necessarily). There are some coworkers, who are perfectly lovely women, but who I'm not that close to, who were among the earliest, and the most frequent, to comment on my weight.

They not only comment, but want to dig into how I did it. Their approach to these questions make me think they're looking for some "secret", and more specifically, a secret diet - they bring up their attempts to cut out all sugar, or carb cycle, or whatever. For how not that close we are, their questions and direction of conversation seem far too personal. They don't know why I gained weight in the first place or how I lost it, so they don't know whether they're inquiring about a sensitive situation.

I never quite know what to answer to "how did you do it?" Especially to those who are mere acquaintances, I don't feel like bringing up the component that's "I used to eat my feelings on a lonely Saturday night with half a pizza and a pint or more of ice cream, and I don't [frequently] do that anymore." I usually just say that Abe does most of the cooking now and makes me eat more vegetables, which is certainly a part of the truth. The idea of discussing any kind of diet that's meant to be short-term makes me very uncomfortable. I don't see what the point is in losing weight via any method I don't think I can maintain indefinitely - why bother losing if I can't use the same methods to maintain the loss?

Somewhat on the flip side, other colleagues have made it clear they believe my running is the key to my success. Though I've been consistently running for five years now, it's become more public knowledge over the last year or two, as I've joined the firm's Hood to Coast team, taken running breaks in the evening or on Saturday during tax season, etc. I've had the direct comments, "Wow, your running has really paid off. You look great!" As well as more oblique comments (particularly one from a male supervisor, who understandably doesn't want to make a comment directly about my body; I think my father-in-law and husband are the only men who've directly commented on my weight (and my relationship with my FIL is such that it wasn't a problem to hear from him)) - "I'm really proud of all the [running] work you've put in over the last year", that seem to be clearly equating hard work at running and training for races = the weight loss.

But running in and of itself is absolutely not how I've lost weight. I've gone through plenty of times of running (albeit, relatively lower mileage, but 10 or 15 miles a week is still not nothing!) while maintaining, or even gaining weight. It's part of the equation, but it's far too easy to feel like you've "earned" treats and more than make up for the calories burned! To be complimented for losing weight with the running is actually somewhat disappointing to me, as it both ignores all the running I did when I wasn't losing weight (I was still working hard then!), and discounts all the reasons I run that have nothing to do with weight or calories. And it totally minimizes the habits, beliefs, and emotions that have a great deal of impact on my weight and eating habits. I'm not losing weight because I'm dedicated to running, it's because of my dedication to dealing with a bunch of other crap.

The compliments that feel like they're truly congratulating my weight loss don't make any pretense at assuming to know how or why I lost weight. My mom, my bonus mother-in-law, close friends. They may know varying degrees of detail, but they do know that I've struggled and dealt with issues (physical and mental) that impacted both the gaining and losing of weight. They can tell I'm happier and healthier, not because of my weight loss, but in correlation with my weight loss. The HR rep at work, who knows a lot of my health history, due to its impact on work and benefits, emailed me recently "You are looking so good and healthy!". That's a nice thing to hear, and regardless of her thoughts behind, it sounds like a neutral compliment, not judging how or why it's happened. 

Although, speaking of people I'm close to - my husband actually didn't compliment, or fully recognize, my weight loss for some time! I was starting to feel bad enough to bring it up (though I knew he supported me in my actions, it would be nice to know he appreciated the result!), and then he made a really dumb offhand comment in conversation, basically pointing out that I was larger than his sister (even though, at the time I'm pretty sure I was about the same - though I was larger when we first met). 

I had to bring it up after that, stating that (1) under no circumstances should you directly compare one woman's size to another's, especially if one is your wife, and (2) it would be nice if I felt like he recognized and acknowledged that my work was paying off. He understood, and continued supporting my actions, but also giving me compliments on occasion as well. (He's now told me not to lose too much more weight! I don't think there's much risk of losing much more, though I wouldn't mind another 5 pounds or so - but at this point they are just vanity pounds.) Before I brought it up, I think he was truly oblivious, both to how much I'd really lost (I subsequently gave him some numbers, and he was pretty shocked!), and how much it would mean for him to mention it. I think some men would also be afraid, perhaps thinking they'd get a stereotypical "well, what'd you think I looked like before" kind of reaction. But I think in some relationships, an overt acknowledgement is important and helpful. 

All of that to say, weight loss (and gain) is complex, and so are compliments and discussion about it. I think there are even more issues I haven't even touched on here, such as the idea that women "owe" it to society to be small and petite, and being ok with a larger size if you have healthy habits, and so forth. There are a lot of reasons we shouldn't be making people feel like they have to lose weight, and while compliments are nice to someone who nonetheless wants to, I think it's a potentially dangerous conversation if it creates an atmosphere of expectation. 

I also wish I hadn't had to lose weight in the first place - surely that would be the greater accomplishment, to have not gained it in the first place? But as cliche as it is to call this a "journey", it is true that I wouldn't be quite who I am today without it. 

6 comments:

  1. I too have felt the sting of the implied notion that women owe it to society to be thin. That a heavy woman is less than a woman. That extra pounds make a woman a bit of a disappointment in general. "That woman gave a wonderful presentation." "Yes, but she's a bit heavy isn't she?"
    Excellent post, friend.
    - Karey

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    1. Thanks! :)

      Indeed, I could have gone into an entire post on that, though probably not as eloquently as others have done. (Do you read http://fitisafeministissue.com/?)

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  2. You know, I have also experienced some success with weight loss recently, but it's more along the lines of 10 - 15 lb. As excited as I am about fitting into all the cute clothes that I seriously never thought I would fit into again (yay!), the primary reason I feel better is just because I've been working out REALLY hard and I'm just stoked about all the awesome things my body can do. So when I occasionally get the compliment on my appearance, I think to myself, sure I love the way I look, but that's not the biggest thing I'm excited about!

    So that's been my experience.

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    1. Yes! I think good portion of my running gains this year are due to being lighter - while I also feel more comfortable in how I look, the performance is more important!

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  3. I generally don't comment on weight loss, even friends, because you never know what the reason is. I had a friend one time who lost a bunch of weight and got compliments from it and no one knew it was because she was fighting cancer, so those compliments were naturally more upsetting than flattering. I had another friend who had struggled with an eating disorder but gotten healthy, which had resulted in some weight gain. During a period of life stress she had a relapse, which resulted in losing a bunch of weight and getting compliments from it. Which, again; not something that made her feel good. So I think it's always smart to be very careful about calling attention to or making comments on changes in people's bodies, especially weight, because you never know for sure what the whole story is or what the person's own feelings are about their weight change.

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    1. Totally agree! And even when the weight loss is intentional, it can still be a messy topic.

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