I grew up in the late-1990s and early 2000s, when the culture of thin bodies with smooth skin was the beauty standard. As a natural mesomorph - which meant my body was more muscular than the average - I knew I would never achieve the look of the models in my Teen Vogue collection under my bed. Still, I was heavily influenced by the culture of my time, and I believed that my body and my worth were one.
My body held the key to my self-confidence, and any whispered encouragement or positive acknowledgement validated me. I never imagined how craving positive affirmations about my body would become a messy tangle, once those affirmations stopped. I just assumed I would always be thin, and always find my power and worth in my skin, never really acknowledging how unhealthy that was for me at the time.
When I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter, I didn’t worry about losing my body. Instead, I fed off of the constant commentary on my growing bump, carefully documenting as my flat stomach expanded into a perfectly round beach ball. I was a young mom - only 22 when my first daughter arrived - and my elastic skin stretched back fairly quickly, my stomach nearly-flat within a few months. As I lost my weight postpartum, I soaked in all of the positive commentary, feeding my craving for more.
I wasn’t prepared for the future challenges that my messy relationship with my body and other’s opinions had created. A few years ago, I gained a significant amount of weight, and the reality of the dangerous game I was playing hit me. My entire life, my self-image relied on the positive feedback related to my body, and I didn’t know how to deal with the silence.
Over the last few years I’ve had to face the ugly reality that my body no longer received positive affirmation from others, and all of the uncomfortable feelings I felt because of that. It’s taken a lot of strength, personal introspection, and a commitment to love myself, but I’m finally at a place where I’m okay with the silence. I have become more than my body - and I have found my value from within, not needing others compliments to drive or encourage me.
Recently, I started eating healthier and exercising. Not necessarily because I want to lose weight, but because I long to feel more energized and active. As I started to feed and fuel my body differently, I realized that the shape of my body might change too. I knew that if my body minimized, the comments would follow soon after.
“Have you been working out?”
“Your face looks slimmer.”
“You look different!”
The comments of validation, affirmation, and the acknowledging of my body would only feed the hungry beast. I was afraid of the consequences of those comments, and how they would impact me mentally, shifting the reasons for my healthier choices. I knew things could get dangerous - and I wondered - what is the right thing for someone to say if they notice that a friend, family member, or acquaintance has lost weight?
I considered this idea for a while. What would be the safest way for someone to acknowledge my weight loss? I decided, that for me, the best thing to say is simple. Nothing. As hard as it might be to restrain yourself from commenting on another person’s body - the best thing to say is truly nothing at all.
I chatted with Stacey Ivits, MSW RSW, a clinical social worker with experience supporting people with Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating. We talked about the dilemma of receiving feedback when you’ve lost weight, and all of the challenges related to these often messy and complex encounters.
“Body based comments can be harmful even if they come from genuine care, love, or appreciation. Weight can fluctuate based on so many factors, positive and negative, and the receiver can interpret in so many ways that the complimenter may never have intended,” shared Ivits.
Although it can be a challenge to hold back, Ivits recommends that you don’t comment on someone’s body, unless you’re particularly close with them.
“If you’re in someone’s inner circle, open-ended questions that are grounded in genuine interest and care are okay,” said Ivits.
Ivits shared that, if you do decide to ask someone about their weight loss, do so with care, and zero judgement. It could be as simple as saying, “I’ve noticed you’ve lost weight, would you like to tell me a bit about that?”
I like this approach personally, because it allows the responder to decide whether or not to engage, and it respects the journey that the individual is on. The reality is there is a host of very private reasons someone may be losing weight, which is why a flippant comment really can be harmful. A genuine, and caring comment from a trusted friend can open doors to honest and vulnerable communication.
As I continue along my own health journey, I know that I can’t exactly expect everyone to say absolutely nothing, but I can work on training my mind, and my responses, so that I don’t need to become that girl again - because if I really want to get healthy, I cannot go down the unhealthy path of desiring positive body affirmations.