by Jasmine Peterson
I often talk about the manner in which we associate body size with a state of health – and usually these conversations focus on the fallacious assumption that large bodies are unhealthy bodies. The converse is also true; there is a cultural assumption that thin bodies are healthy bodies, and this is also fallacious. Any person of any size can be healthy or unhealthy. Health is just far more complex than the size of one’s body.
In recent months, I have been under a tremendous amount of stress, so much so that I had been unable to eat or sleep, and I turned to some pretty maladaptive coping mechanisms. During this period, I lost a great deal of weight. It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t desired. It was merely a side effect of the intense stress I was under. It is a signifier of my distress; it is not a signifier of beauty or health.
What I began to notice, however, was that people were making a lot of comments about my weight loss, and my appearance. Their valuations of my body were positive; they were reinforcing my unhealthy weight loss through their positive comments about my body: “You’re so skinny” or “You look so good”. And even when I explained how this weight loss came about, people would make comments like “Well depression looks good on you” or “I wish I had what you had”.
Through these conversations I got pretty angry. How could anyone possibly wish to be going through what I’ve been going through right now? How could anyone desire so much to be thin that they would want to spiral into a state of depression to the point where they were barely able to function? Here people were telling me how good I look and yet I was definitely not well.
I think this is the tragedy of living in a thin-obsessed culture. All of our valuations of bodies, of women’s in particular, rest upon their size. We make judgments about their value as a human being, about their state of health, about their behaviour and characteristics (e.g., thin people are active, intelligent and large or overweight people are lazy, unintelligent) based on what their body looks like. These judgments are deeply embedded in our psyches and in our cultural discourses.
It seems a pretty harmless thing to most people, to comment upon someone’s weight loss. And perhaps most people appreciate when others notice their efforts or hard work. But, because we have come to associate body size with health, we often assume that weight loss is inherently healthy. This is hugely problematic, and may even be one of many factors contributing to disordered eating behaviours. Thus, reinforcing these behaviours by praising weight loss or thinness, even when attained through unhealthy means, is detrimental. I open this conversation in light of my recent experiences, but also because of my concern for our cultural obsession with the thin ideal and its impact on people.
So perhaps the next time you’re thinking of commending someone on their thin(ner) appearance, you might think twice and perhaps find something else to compliment them on.
(photo via Wikimedia Commons)