“You look amazing!” she enthused.
I didn’t. I was fourteen pounds underweight, with jutting bones at my cheeks, hips, wrists and ribs. I was 20, and I’d been surviving on less than 500 calories per day for months. Every other part of my life was spinning out of control, but I was in charge of what I ate — those carefully measured, meager portions of fruit and nuts, with the occasional piece of chicken for a treat.
That was two decades ago, but I clearly remember how that person’s well-meaning — if incredibly misplaced — compliment made me feel: happy, the way we’re expected to feel when people say spontaneous nice things to us.
I got better, although my disordered eating continued, sporadically and on a less severe level, well into my 30s. Today, my concern with weight and body image stems from a completely different place. I’m a mum of three and want to do everything I can to ensure none of my kids never deprive their bodies and minds of the fuel they need because they have poor mental health, are experiencing trauma or simply don’t know how to deal with all the crap life throws at us.
In the bigger picture, this requires a combination of encouraging conversations about emotions and feelings, giving them permission to make mistakes and being a positive role model in terms of lifestyle choices — plus lots of other things that vary depending on each child’s individual personality and needs. And when we drill it down to weight loss and body image in particular, how we talk about those things (both to and in front of our kids) plays a crucial part.
“When you congratulate people on weight loss, you reinforce the belief that thinness is important and that they have higher value when they are thinner,” Lauren Muhlheim, clinical psychologist, director of Eating Disorder Therapy LA and author of When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover from Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating tells SheKnows. “This can cause people to fear fatness and believe that they won’t be accepted if they gain weight. Furthermore, body size is largely genetically determined and an individual’s ability to control their own weight is really quite small. Bodies naturally come in all sizes and shapes and it’s high time we stopped marginalizing people in larger bodies.”
Which is why I won’t congratulate anyone on their weight loss.
I’d never blame my disordered eating on anyone else, and with the benefit of two decades of facing up to, treating and prioritizing my mental health issues, I can see that any happiness I felt as a result of compliments on my appearance was fleeting; I was crying out for help and my eating habits were a symptom of a much bigger issue. Having said that, those compliments did reinforce my skewed view at the time that what I was doing to myself was a positive thing, and made me fearful of gaining weight.
“Eating disorders are complicated illnesses that stem from a complex interaction of biological, psychological and environmental factors,” Muhlheim says. “We know the environment plays a role. Our culture — with its glorification of thinness — encourages dieting, a behavior that can trigger an eating disorder in those who are genetically vulnerable. It can also make it harder for people to recognize they have a problem, and it can make it harder to recover.”
We live in a “thin is beautiful” society — and it’s bullshit. We may have moved on from the days of diet shakes and “heroin chic” fashion, but for every pressure we leave behind, another one rears its ugly head. Yep, I’m talking about social media. A study into the internalization of appearance ideals across cultures, published in the online edition of the journal Eating and Weight Disorders in October 2018, found that the media are the top source of body image pressure for women, with the thin ideal being the most persuasive message by far. Too many people still think the worst thing you can be is fat. And she may have retracted her comment, but too many people still agree with Kate Moss, circa 2009, that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
My kids aren’t quite at the selfie-filtering stage yet, but I’m trying to lay the groundwork now. I’m increasingly aware that how we approach conversations about weight loss and body image is crucial at this point. I have no control over what they hear in the playground or on Snapchat or YouTube, but I can control the message they get at home, and that’s not going to be one that celebrates weight loss.
A version of this story was published September 2019.
Want to encourage positive attitudes about food and bodies? Here’s a few inspirational quotes to get started: