Want to start out with a trigger warning. I’m going to be talking about illness-induced weight loss and our society’s often idiotic response to it.
Part of my recent health journey includes a little bit of illness-induced weight loss. Some of it is explained by the fact that the pain and the pain killers made me not want to eat, and part of it as a result of some anemia that I’m facing. Which has led a few nice, and well-intentioned people to remark and then ask, “You look great! Have you lost weight? How did you lose in?” Now I know that they are trying to be kind, but it’s honestly kind of hard to keep the sarcastimonster in check. Because the sarcastimonster wants to shout, “I do not look great, I look terrible. I am a little thinner because I’m in excruciating pain and because my body is not processing food properly right now. But thanks for the compliment. If you’d like to try out my ‘Excruciating Pain Weight Loss Program’ (patent pending) I can arrange it for you. Just come a LEETLE bit closer while I grab this hammer.”
Yup, the sarcastibeast gets a little, um, TESTY when I don’t feel so well. But the sarcastibeast is right about one thing. It’s always risky complementing somebody on their weight loss. First of all, “You look great.” coupled with “Have you lost weight?” implies that before the person lost the weight, they didn’t look as great. In fact, you’re saying before they probably didn’t look great at all. Which is decidedly not cool. Secondly, unless the person you’re talking to has been talking ad nauseum about their latest weight loss program you never know why they are losing weight. If they have lost weight through deliberate weight loss, they are most likely going to gain that weight back again in the future. And you just told them that the weight loss made them look great. If they haven’t lost weight through deliberate means, they may have started smoking again or they may be grieving or they may have cancer. And you’ve just told them that when they get better, they won’t look as great. And their weight loss may not have been healthy at all. I got a lot of compliments the last time I went through a major crazy weight loss program. I was living on less than 1,000 calories a day. My bowels no longer moved and my hair was falling out. My menstrual cycle had stopped completely. I was cold all the time. I was very sick, and truth be told, I didn’t look that well at all. Yet people complemented me all the time about how healthy I looked.
Complimenting somebody on weight loss may cause somebody who is already coping with something that is kinda a big deal to have to cope with something else. They make come to see their illness-induced weight loss as a silver lining. Think I’m kidding? Joan Lunden has been battling a particularly aggressive form of cancer. She even appeared, bald and smiling, on the cover of Time magazine. (I’ll bet nobody said to her, “You look great! Have you lost hair?”) Last week, during a wonderful interview on the Today show about the challenges and lessons she’s experienced while coping with cancer, Joan started talking about the hidden “benefits” of cancer. She mentioned how contemplating your own mortality tends to focus your life and help you see what’s important. And then she leaned over to Hoda (who also has battled cancer) and smiled knowingly as she mentioned that since she started battling with cancer, she’s lost weight. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.) This reminds me of a friend of mine who admitted she has a whole closet full of clothes that don’t fit her. She bought a whole bunch of clothes when she lost weight during chemotherapy. And now that she’s well again, those clothes don’t fit. But she doesn’t give those clothes away, because when she was wearing those clothes, during chemotherapy, people said, “You look great! Have you lost weight?” Which leads me to another point.
Saying “You look great! Have you lost weight?” gives somebody who may be sick something else to worry about. And something else to worry about is the last thing somebody needs when they are sick. Because the sick person begins to wonder, what will happen when they get better and regain the weight? What happens when they stop smoking for good or recover from the eating disorder? What happens when they stop chemo and recover from cancer? What happens when their red blood cells multiply and their body starts getting oxygen again? What happens when they are no longer in pain and they start eating again? What if all this wonderful stuff happens to their body and they start gaining weight? Will they no longer look great? It may even make the person wonder if getting better is such a good thing.
Which is patently ridiculous and extremely unhelpful.
On today’s episode of my new show, “What NOT to Say!” I’d like to make a suggestion. As a society, we’ve learned that unless she’s wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “baby on board” we’re never to ask a woman if she’s pregnant. I’d like to suggest that commenting on a person’s weight loss should be in the same category. It’s invasive. It’s potentially risky. It’s potentially rude. And we just shouldn’t do it any more.
Jeanette DePatie, AKA The Fat Chick
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