Body Image, Social Expectation and Weight Loss
I lost some weight, and things got weird...
“You’ve lost weight.” It wasn’t a question. The statement hovered limply in the heavy summer air as I considered how to manage my part in this exchange. I was meeting someone for dinner, lingering with them slightly awkwardly as we were both early. The comment came as we waited for a third person to arrive and render everything more comfortable. Aware that I’d let the silence stretch further than good manners permitted, I decided to go with a question, changing the subject to something that interested the questioner, and was consequently saved from a conversation about my weight with someone with whom I’m not on intimate terms. I still felt unsettled, though. He wasn’t the first person to mention that they see a change in my appearance. From inside my skin, it doesn’t seem all that dramatic but the fact that others seem to think it is somehow makes me even more uncomfortable. Part of my motivation in losing weight was indeed to look different, so why is it deeply uncomfortable to be told that others think I do?
I’ve been forced to consider this a lot in recent weeks, but before proceeding, it might be wise to include a caveat. This is a sensitive topic for a lot of people, myself included. It is one that is constantly leveraged for outrage-clicks or moralised over in media. It is rarely discussed in a way that is not defensive, aggressive, or ungenerous to someone. I’m not interested in that. If you are going through something challenging related to weight, it might be best to stop reading here and check back in next week. If you do want to read on, it is important to remember that like almost everyone else, my perspective is well-intended, honest, and deserves charitable interpretation. If you should find yourself presuming otherwise, I urge you to resist that presumption unless you have good reason not to.
Farrah Storr’s recent column here on Substack about aspiring to skinniness even in our era of voluptuous feminine beauty ideals really struck me. Storr is the editor who famously put model Tess Holliday on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 2018. While extreme skinniness is not something I have tried to achieve despite the super-thin and infamous it-girls of my adolescence in the early 2000s – it is simply a genetic impossibility for a person of my build – the secrecy of self-evaluation and silent distaste for one’s own body resonated. Women of all descriptions still frequently dislike their own appearance. We are just more conscious now that it has somehow become unacceptable to declare it. As if pressures on women aren’t bad enough, we can’t even hate ourselves in peace anymore without being chastised for hurting the group. Current iterations of feminism collectivise us into symbols so that to say ‘I don’t like my weight’ is often interpreted as a statement about how women as a category should be, and an unmitigated endorsement of patriarchal beauty standards.
“It’s very like you”, my husband said after I expressed the strange feeling I get when someone comments on my appearance now, “to hear what people intend as a positive statement and just think ‘You’re calling me fat in the past!’” I laughed at this, but there’s something important at the root of the discomfort; a dissonance worth exploring. If I were to seek answers in our culture’s current conversation about weight, I’d likely become embroiled in the quite extreme narratives of online discourse on body image. In some quarters, I would be told that my discomfort arises from victimisation – that ‘you’ve lost weight’ is a not just a statement of fact but a sort of unsolicited, violent psychic invasion, the tip of patriarchy’s misogynistic spear delineating the boundaries of not just how I am permitted to define myself, but how everyone else sees and can potentially see me. It limits me to being judged in an overtly gendered way which equates my value with my proximity to a feminine beauty ideal constructed by and for males. By this standard, in choosing to lose weight, I am committing a sort of gender treason, distancing myself from other women who don’t fit that ideal (by choice or otherwise) and engaging in judgement of them. Not only am I aspiring to conform to standards that damage us all, I’m reinforcing and weaponising them against others. I’m standing with ‘the men’ in judgement of my peers.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum, I would be told that by losing weight I am being a pragmatist, righteously turning my back on misguided and extreme ideas which seek to ignore biological facts about health and sell (particularly women) false liberation through denial of reality. That I am just electively improving myself and metaphorically (or literally) leaving behind the people who cannot or will not do the same. In choosing to lose weight, they’d argue, I am articulating my commitment to a method of evaluation which says, ‘if you are fat, you have more health conditions and if you are thin, you don’t, so that’s why it’s better to lose weight.’ Here, the statement “You’ve lost weight” is congratulatory, recognising what is interpreted as a shared set of values around health and the nature of reality.
Both perspectives strike me as limited, and both make me deeply uncomfortable in their denial of individuality. One essentially says that ‘Patriarchy enforces thinness on women, so the absence of socially endorsed thinness is an absence of patriarchy’ and the other insists that ‘Women who are thinner are more beautiful’ (according to the realist internet bros) ‘because thinness is synonymous with health’. These two competing conceptions may indeed promote opposing values, but both make the mistake of accepting the metric itself. By saying ‘the thing at the other end of the scale is bad’, you endorse and justify the scale. You reify it.
Both perspectives attach a value to weight that claims to be telling us something real about the world and, essentially, judge individual women on how fat or thin they are. Both are incomplete theories, dismissive of the agency of (largely) women. Clearly, a person can be thin and not-healthy. They can be healthy and not-thin. Any form of feminism which renders a woman either a compliant symbol of virtue or a pawn of patriarchy is pretty sexist. A woman is an independent thinking being who merits freedom from gender-based oppression, or she isn’t. If my ‘liberator’ is telling me how I must look or behave, then I’m not really being liberated. Bodily autonomy – or any meaningful autonomy – entails that no one woman’s choice for her own body is taken as a choice for or truth about women as a group. Owning your body surely means that what you do with it is no one else’s business.
When people comment on the fact that I’ve lost weight, it’s the assessment that is bothering me. The knowledge that someone is literally weighing my appearance and forming a judgement. About me as a person – my health, but also my values. My politics. Determining which side of the spectrum I fall on. Do I think that thinness is health, or do I think that fatness is a radical rejection of patriarchy? What standard am I setting for others, and what commentary am I making on their circumstances and their choices through my own? When I weighed more, people seemed to understand to keep this assessment to themselves (though it seems evident that they were still making it).
Now that I look slightly more in line with some people’s aesthetic values, they share their assessment with me like a tiny, well-meant gift I have absolutely no desire for. Ultimately, I lost weight intentionally, so on a level I clearly must agree with them, yet I truly don’t want to hear it. No secret part of me is flattered when someone says, “You’ve lost weight”. I just feel judged, and I hate it. I see the beauty in other people very easily – all kinds of other people – but I’m less able to see it in myself. I’m unsure how to square that circle. I think that open conversation and ideas about weight and body image are pushed underground because most of us don’t know how to square that circle. We know what we are supposed to say and think, and most of the time it doesn’t line up with what we actually do think. This leaves only the people with extreme views bellowing at one another online.
British reality tv show Love Island came back for another season this week. It sees conventionally attractive swimwear-clad young people of opposite genders shacked up together in a Spanish Villa like a sort of annoying, aspirant sexy lab experiment, and encourages them to couple up while temptation beckons from every swimwear-clad siren (gender irrelevant) who passes. At the end of several weeks, the winning couple wins £50k. The show is like an anthropological text. It is unbelievably popular, and it presents our culture’s cognitive dissonance so clearly. Despite an almost universally endorsed advocacy for inclusivity and diversity, couples almost always form between people of the same ethnicity and the show’s (always painfully attractive) black women are just not appreciated or pursued the way the lighter-skinned women are, particularly by white men. The contestants are always athletic, or at least slim. They uniformly fit the male and female beauty standards that we so often claim we reject. Then, it cuts to advertisements, and these are disproportionately (compared to usual tv ads) populated by larger models or depict women with body hair. This stands in jarring contrast to the lithe, hairless bodies featured and evaluated and complimented on the show itself, as though the network can rebalance the blatant ideology behind Love Island by completely – if briefly – rejecting it for the duration of (very frequent) ad breaks. In reality, all this does is serve to highlight our collective hypocrisy.
The wider quandary is inescapable. We make healthy and unhealthy choices for their own bodies. Our entitlement to do this seems clear. Women (among others) have fought many battles to gain individual rights over their bodies. We should resist the urge to transform one another into symbols or conduits for public opinion, outrage, or standards. I’m aware of the culture in which I live, and the impossibility of living independently of it. I’m very aware of the distasteful stigma elicited by weight gain and the petty adulation borne of weight loss. None of us lives in a vacuum. As an individual, though, I work to resist other individuals’ evaluations of my body. The aunt who waited till my mother left the room to tell me gleefully that I was fat when I was fourteen. The work colleague who said that my face is nicer now it’s less round. The friend who told me that I never need to change (what a preposterous statement). All of it is someone else declaring their value system and judging me on the basis of it. Suddenly, I become aware of their expectations, their judgement. For the brief moment of our interaction, it becomes my problem and it impinges on my relationship with my body. That’s the discomfort. That’s where it comes from. It’s in the distance between who we feel we are, how others see us, and who we’d like to be.