Monday, November 10, 2008

Have You Gained Weight?

Several weeks back, I attended a therapy conference, one that meets several times a year. Because of I've been to a few of these, I've come to know some of the members of this particular group. On the first night of the conference, I ran into another psychologist. I smiled at him as we passed each other in the hall and he said, in greeting, "Have you gained weight?"


No one at this conference knows about my EWHAED idea, so I decided to broach the topic the next day. When we met in a smaller group, with said colleague included, I mentioned how he had greeted me the night before and why this struck a nerve. Outside of a moment of snarkiness (which I feel obligated to report), I explained to him why the focus on weight is troubling to me, why it is troubling to all of us.

"Did you stop to think I was noticing your body?" he explained.

Yes, I did. Not helping.

"I just remember that when I met you last year, you were training for the marathon."

Still not helping.

I explained to the group that this reinforces the idea that women are noticed/judged for their bodies at the expense of other attributes. And, then, I said what seemed to shock the group the most, something I've written here before: "By the way, I also don't want you to ask if I've lost weight."

"Then, what are we supposed to say?" another male colleague asked, clearly frustrated by the parameters I set.

"Nothing! You don't need to say anything about my body or about the way I look. I can connect with you in so many ways, outside of my appearance. Can't we focus on that?"

I think I eventually got my point across, but I'm still marvelling at how difficult it was to make, ironically, in a room full of mental health professionals. Should I have taken on this battle? What would you have said?


Chuckles McGee said...

He really didn't mean any harm. When you see someone after a long stretch, you see them and take notice of changes in their appearance, as it may reflect a change in their life. It's what we do as humans. If you had done something crazy with your hair, gotten a piercing or a tattoo, he probably would have mentioned it instead. You were offended simply because you believe that any mention of weight, shape or size to a woman must be judgmental and evaluative of her worth. He likely would have said the same thing to a male if he were wearing clothing which made the change noticeable.

CL said...

I think you were completely right to say something. The man who asked "Then what are we supposed to say" hit on something so common -- he didn't even assume there was an option of not commenting on a woman's appearance at all.

I almost never comment on my male friends' appearances, and I rarely hear anyone else do it. Even when people say "You look great" I get a little bit annoyed because I don't want people to be watching and judging my appearance at all. I just want to be judged as a person. Especially since I have noticed that friends and family are much more likely to say "you look great" when I have lost a little weight. And it ends up feeling stressful for me because the implication is that I looked worse the last time, when I weight a little bit more... and if I gain weight I will look less great. By reminding me that they notice my weight and my appearance, they remind me that I "should" be stressed out about it.

Sometimes I comment enthusiastically on a friend's new haircut or new outfit -- but that's very different from making comments about a person's weight and body type.

cggirl said...

Chuckles - who are you kidding? In this society, people know full well that the connotations of "have you gained weight" are negative, so even OUTSIDE of this whole EWHAED thing, why on earth would someone feel they can say that? I wouldn't point that out any more than I'd point out a prominent, not-conventionally-attractive birthmark. I would assume the person doesn't want me to fixate on that.

I also think taking it one step further is not to comment on weight LOSS either, which would be great if people stopped doing.

As for someone's appearance in general - I do think there is a happy middle ground. Especially for me, I am someone who loves clothes and clearly puts effort into presenting myself a certain way. Some days I put in more and some days less, but when I put in a bit more and someone says "wow that's a great outfit" or "your hair looks so cool like that" I do like it. I think part of it is that they are commenting on a CHOICE I made, a creative choice to express myself through my clothes/hair, so it's not quite the same.

But yes to some extent it's also nice to feel that I look good so I see no harm in pointing out something that looks good on someone as long as we don't fixate on it. And I see no benefit in pointing out something you perceive bad about someone's appearance. Especially right off the bat when you're just saying hello.

JS said...

Thanks for taking this issue on so directly. As Chuckles McGee's comment suggests, SO MANY PEOPLE DON'T GET IT!!!!

I feel like there should be a little laminated card, like the cards that tell you how much to tip, that say what's OK to say to people. "Hey, new hairstyle! Looks great!" = OK. "Love the new glasses!" = OK. "You've gained/lost weight." = NOT OK. "Are your boobs bigger?" = SO NOT OK, and actually said to me by a client, who was not intending to sexually harass me, just being spectacularly clueless.

Twistie said...

What are you supposed to say?

How about any of the following:

"It's great to see you!"

"What have you been doing since the last time we met?"

"Are you going to the lecture on X subject? Maybe we can sit together and then go for lunch and catch up."

"Hey, do you remember that great idea we had at the last conference? I've been thinking about it and we should probably do it."

Mostly, I think you can't go wrong with 'it's great to see you again.' It's a friendly greeting that puts no judgements on either party.

BTW, Chuckles McGee, do really think men greet male colleagues with comments on their weight? That certainly hasn't been my experience, or the experience of the men I know. The fact that men who would never dream of greeting Bob with a comment about weight gain or loss not only think it's okay to greet Betty that way, but potentially the ONLY WAY to greet Betty makes it not only judgemental, but sexist as well.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Translating Chuckes McTroll:

"Silly you, you've gone and internalized all the hurtful self-talk society has been bombarding you with all these years! You shouldn't have done that, because it means that when someone makes a comment about your appearance, you take offense! Did that man tell you to take offense? No, he didn't! So it was wrong of you to do that!"

Note to Chuckles: "It's what we do as humans" is a common phrase that, as a feminist, I keep an eye out for. Like the related phrases "it's only natural" and "it's an evolutionary trait", this pseudo-anthropological statement is often used in defense of behaviour that lends the person doing it some kind of privilege.

Commenting on someone else's appearance is an assertion of power over them. "I see what you're doing, what you've been up to." This is the posture and tone of surveillance.

I think choosing to confront the comment was a brave and ultimately healthy choice, and from the report you give of the exchange that followed, potentially productive and helpful.

Anonymous said...

If that's what passes for professional conduct at a professional conference in the mental health field, I'll stick with software, thanks.

Anonymous said...

You can complain about it if you want, but you can't stop it. If you embarrassed him in front of a group, then you've got coming to you whatever fallout comes from it.

vesta44 said...

I think I would have asked him how he would have liked it if someone asked if he gained weight since the last time they'd gotten together. If he wouldn't have liked being asked that question, then it's definitely one he shouldn't ask anyone else, male OR female. And as CL said, there are a lot of other things that can be said instead of comments on weight/appearance. Those are totally uncalled for at any time, IMNSHO.

Tiana said...

I agree with the message of the post and all that, but I just wanted to take a moment to defend the men and point out that I know several who HAVE been greeted that way by both men and women. In fact I know one who is devastated because everyone he meets brings it up at least once and it's really getting to him. Don't assume that it never happens.

azusmom said...

I think you did something that I'd like to do, but don't have the guts to. If we could all just stop commenting on everyone's (and our own) appearance, maybe we could start paying attention to other things.
The sad fact is, weight loss is seen as a great accomplishment, and weight gain is seen as being lazy. We read SO MUCH into peoples' physical appearance, and we make A LOT of assumptions based on that. So of course we're insulted when someone comments on our weight.

MelissaS said...

your exchange made me recoil - i like to forget how- crazy- the world is about weight. as wasmentioned, it is almost universally considered rude to ask someone if they've gained weight. and i agree that it'ss equally disgusting to ask someone if they've lost. well, it's more disgusting that it's an issue in the world. it's such a dumb thing, if you think about it. you handled yourself perfectly, trying to educate the Neandrathal. still, it's so disappointing that your colleague, a professional, could be so clueless.

Katie said...

Seriously? Who SAYS that? If anything, you let him off easy. That's your basic rude question not to ask - up there, you know, with "are you pregnant?" or "so when are you getting married?". I'm appalled that he was so thoughtless. Regardless of your involvement with EWHAED. Even kids know not to say that kind of thing. Wow, I'm speechless. I'd probably have slapped him.

Deb said...

I probably would not have said anything but would have wished I had. I think you are completely right that we just should NOT comment on others' appearances. I mean why is it OK to ask "Have you lost weight?" or "Have you gained weight?" Why not other questions like:

Are you balder?
Did you get hairplugs?
Is your hair greyer?
Do you have more wrinkles?

For some reason peoples' weight is fair game to comment on. Even asking if someone has lost weight can be devastating. I know many times as I have lost some weight the first time someone commented on it in a complimentary way an internal dialogue would start and I would feel so much pressure knowing that people were noticing my weightloss. I felt that everyone was paying attention to my changing size and I would fear failing publicly and being humiliated. And then, you guessed it, I would self-sabotage my diet.

I am not blaming anyone else for my gaining when more than likely they were good-intentioned. I just think you never know how comments on someone's appearance will affect them and it is just best not to.

Why not find something else to comment on?

Rachel said...

I wouldn't have said anything. Men are too stupid to understand that kind of distinction, and they don't care about anyone but themselves anyway.

saa said...

Chuckles says, " It's what we do as humans."
It is?!? No it isn't! I think it is what we are TRAINED to do. Sure noticing differences is human/animal biological/survival behavior or what have you but specifically WEIGHT? How much of that is the result of social conditioning? Also, just because you think something doesn't mean you should say it. That is just manners.
Once, as a patient, i participated in a ED discussion with a group of medical students. I think the point was to put a human face on the disease. Unfortunately, one male student kept asking why i wanted to be thin, considering that the opposite sex would be more attracted to me if i was more curvy. I was baffled. I could only answer that this has NOTHING to do with Male Attention. I was only a teenager and this was a grown medical student. Only years later did i realize that Starving was one way to actually WARD off male attention, and was, in fact, what i was unwittingly trying to do.
Sorry if that is off the subject, the "some people dont get it" just hit close to home.

Annie T AKA Agnes Mildew said...

Despite having anorexia myself, I agree with what Chuckles says: he probably didn't mean any harm. I certainly don't think the majority of men are as sensitive about weight issues as women are and don't think twice about mentioning loss or gain to the opposite sex unless they are extremely switched on!

However, I think it is a sad indictment the way society is programmed these days through our ever-vain media, where success = thinness. I abhor magazines which portray women with abnormal hour glass figures - waspish waists, curvaceous hips and enormous breasts. The so-called 'man's wet dream'. But it probably isn't, in all reality. The recent photos of Kate Winslet in Vanity Fair were analysed by a digital photography lecturer from a British university who said they had been Photo-Shopped out of all proportion...yet that is the expectation we have to live up to. And therefore, what mixed messages does that send out to the men?

I also no longer admire Ms Winslet who spoke so vociferously about how angry she was when her thighs were famously Photo-shopped for a shoot years ago. Oh how we forget our roots, eh?

I pity all of us who succumb to the falsehoods of weight, imagery and digital trickery as it impinges on our real lives so drastically.

Jennie said...

I just found your blog and I've only read this post so far, but it says exactly what I've been thinking! I think one of the things about losing weight that bothers me the most is when people start to comment on it. Just because my psychological/emotional/behavioral struggles are physically visible to others doesn't give people the right to comment on something so personal. If there were an outward sign that someone had recently been going through a divorce (like their nose turned blue or something) it wouldn't be appropriate to comment on it just because I can see the visible sign, unless I knew the person and s/he initiated the conversation with me. I would rather not have my weight mentioned at all, even if someone thinks they are complimenting me by pointing out a loss.

zubeldia said...

Two things...

whether this chap meant any harm is probably beside the point. His discourse is just part of a wider script which focuses on weight - and on women's weight in particular.

Second. I was at a women's studies department meeting the other day (I'm just an advisor and not part of the department) and one of my good friends has lost weight. She has been trying to... She mentioned it to me in the summer, that she felt unfit - that she was over 16 pounds her usual healthy weight and she didn't feel good... And so when I noticed that she had lost a lot of weight I commented. I said, immediately afterwards, that I hate to comment on people's weight but she thanked me because she had worked hard to do it.. and she was feeling good about it. Not becase of how she looks, but because she felt healthier (exercising and eating well). The other faculty commented that it takes a lot of work to maintain a decent, healthy weight and the three of us ended up talking about health and exercise and the stress of our jobs, etc... In this situation ignoring my friend's weight loss would seem sort of improbable - and I wonder if just avoiding it, or censuring it - is the way to go... I wonder, instead, whether it's more about how we frame how we talk about this stuff.


S. said...

I can totally relate to this particular post. I really with my weight, be it gain or loss, was not commented on. I don't like to think about it, I went to the doctors yesterday and I closed my eyes when they wieghed me because I just didn't want to know.

Blueskighs said...

Have you heard of the NO S Diet? I have suffered from a pernicious and vicious binge eating disorder for over thirty years. Eight months on the No S Diet has all but cured it. I have been doing a blog for the past eight months about this journey. It is at I found your blog before I stumbled on the No S Diet book at the bookstore this past March. I think your concept of Every Woman Has an Eating Disoder has a lot of validity. What is fascinating to me is how a simple, but specific structure for "moderate eating" has done what years of therapy, 12 step programs, and all that other stuff could not do!

Best to you,

HangryPants said...

I understand not wanting to have someone comment either way on your appearance/weight gain or loss, but asking someone who you hardly know if they've gained weight is just flat out rude!

Anonymous said...

"You have gained weight" is not rude, it's a perfectly objective remark upon your physical appearance. Not much more than "oh, you started to wear red more often?". Answer "so did you." or "yeah, you're pretty much the same" or "you've lost some". You GIVE it the power it obviously has over you! If your body gets bigger or smaller, what's the big deal? Ok, if he said it in a condescending way or in a way which signified that he perceives weight gain as something to be ashamed of, you were right to accuse him of behaving wrong.

Anonymous said...

"You have gained weight" is not rude, it's a perfectly objective remark upon your physical appearance. Not much more than "oh, you started to wear red more often?". Answer "so did you." or "yeah, you're pretty much the same" or "you've lost some". You GIVE it the power it obviously has over you! If your body gets bigger or smaller, what's the big deal? Ok, if he said it in a condescending way or in a way which signified that he perceives weight gain as something to be ashamed of, you were right to accuse him of behaving wrongly.

Michelle said...

Commenting on someone's weight most certainly IS rude, and whether or not it was meant to be hurtful has little relevance to whether it actually was. I strongly disagree with the comment that "men are too stupid" to understand such subtleties, but many humans are uneducated regarding them. You are doing your part to spread the word, so kudos.

Peace_7272 said...

I'm a mental health professional and this makes me disappointed in my profession. It should NOT have been difficult to explain to a group of therapists why this question was rude and inappropriate. I fear for their clients.

Anonymous said...

It's funny because in Latin America it is just a part of life to discuss weight and judgment seems to not be a part of that. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but here in the US, it feels so invasive and personal. How can it not be loaded, with such a focus on weight in our society? I think in an ideal America, we would be able to talk casually about weight along with hair, or any other appearance changes. Unfortunately, we just aren't there, with the increase in eating disorders.

drstaceyny said...

To respond to your comments as a whole, I wish that "Have you gained weight?" and "Have you lost weight" were equal in valence and weren't a criticism and compliment, respectively. But, they are. My problem is not so much the observation of another person (it's good to notice another, right), but the value that each statement has come to have. I wish that a comment on someone's weight could be as uncharged as a comment on someone's hair, but it's not. Do I think my colleague meant any harm? Actually, no. I think, maybe because of demographics, the fact that weight gain equals "bad" has escaped him. However, he's living in a society where this is abundantly clear. I think there are certain situations where it's appropriate to comment on someone's appearance (how can you not?), but I generally think that there are so many other qualities to notice about someone, that our world does such a good job of pointing out the superficial, that it's important for us to fight to balance this out.

Anonymous said...

I've been navigating those rocky waters - a year ago I had a serious eating disorder. I'm 5'2" and although I was 125 pounds, well in the middle of the 'healthy' weight range, I wasn't getting regular menstrual periods.

Even people who knew this, or suspected it, still were always "you've lost so much weight! You look great!"


Yeah, thanks. I also happen to be eating fewer than 400 calories a day. So shut up. :P

Now, a year later, I've gained back everything I lost and more (even though I'm still a size smaller than I was pre-ED...muscle, maybe?), putting me well out of the supposed range for my height. I DREAD meeting people I haven't seen in a while because I KNOW they will notice. They may mean no harm in commenting on weight, but we DON'T EXIST IN A PERFECT WORLD. People find it offensive whether or not it is meant as such. Frankly if someone looked at me and said "you've gained weight" I'd probably burst into tears.

Pauline said...

AlthoughGAIN WEIGHT to many the fuss is all about loosing the excess fresh, a few others wish they could grow a little fuller.

Maya said...

Deb, "Are you balder?", just made me snork! That would have been a great comeback!

sarah said...

good site. It's true what you're saying here. As long as women focus on weight and size, they can never be fully themselves. Sarah

hope505 said...

GOOD FOR YOU!! I loved reading about your response to what that man had said, and I am so glad that you got the opportunity to bring it up in a group, not just one-on-one. Thank you for saying those things.

FireintheBreeze said...

It's really hard when people comment on weight. Every time I go to my work (Chinese restaurant, one a week) my boss says something about my weight..whether it be that I've lost too much weight or starting to gain some back. It's terrible and makes me dread work. People at school are the same. Why do they feel the right to say anything? It makes battling an eating disorder much harder when people are constantly saying things which are just none of their business!