the HAES® files: I Am No Shadow

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Stacey Nye, PhD, FAED

“It looks like you have lost weight”.

I hear this periodically. It’s always said with a big smile, some knowing head nods, and usually a “you look great!” attached to the end.

It makes me so uncomfortable.

I know, it’s almost universally said as a compliment. This is how most people in this thin-obsessed culture compliment each other.

But as an eating disorder therapist, I know how harmful these words can be. Oh sure, when I was yo-yo dieting through my teens, 20s and half my 30s, those words were magical. “It looks like you have lost weight” was better than hearing “you have won the lottery” or “you will live forever”. In fact, I recall what a sorority sister once said to me. I had dieted hard and lost a lot of weight during the summer of 1986 and we were back in school, standing in the bathroom together, looking in the mirror, when she said this:

You are a shadow of your former self”.

I remember thinking at the time that this might have been the greatest compliment I had ever received. But now, I am just creeped out by it. What does it even mean? According to The Free Dictionary, a shadow of one’s former self is a smaller, weaker, or less important form of someone or something. Why is this a good thing? Why would anyone want to be this? What the hell was wrong with me?

I started re-reading my college journals looking for answers. Amongst the lists of boys I had kissed, at least half of the journal entries contained critiques of my weight or goals for weight loss. I was certain that losing weight would result in love, happiness and acceptance, and there were numerous rather painful entries bemoaning my inability to lose weight and keep it off. I harshly blamed myself countless times for my lack of will power and self-control. I felt like a failure and feared I would never be loved. My entire identity and self-esteem were wrapped up in the way I looked, and specifically, my weight.

I wish I knew then what I know now, that dieting wasn’t a long-term solution for health or weight loss. I wish I knew then about the HAES® philosophy. It would have helped me to acceptance and respect all body shapes and sizes, eat for well-being based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, and engage in life-enhancing movement for health and not appearance. But no, instead I clung to the promise of weight loss and all that I thought it could deliver, for many years thereafter, in fact.

Furthermore, what is wrong with our culture, when looking like a shadow is even a compliment? I remember the last time I complimented someone on their weight loss. It was at my wedding, 24 years ago. One of my father’s business colleagues, John, was there looking very svelte. “Wow, John” I said, “You lost so much weight, you look great”. He politely smiled, nodded and thanked me. He died 3 months later from AIDS. We didn’t even know he was ill. I still wince at the memory, and at the thought that I was probably one of dozens who might have complimented him on his weight loss, when in fact he wasn’t trying to lose weight at all. He was DYING.

I hope whoever is reading this never forgets this story, and never again makes a similar assumption about someone’s weight and health.  Instead, consider these points:

There’s more to our appearance than weight. Beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and colors and everyone deserves to have a positive body image. Consider how personality, confidence and self-esteem contribute to attractiveness.

There’s much more to us than our appearance. Acknowledging someone for his or her kindness, wit, career success or creativity will contribute to their identity as a whole person, not just an object to be looked at.

And finally, there are many ways to be healthy, including, but not limited to, good nutrition, regular physical activity, plenty of sleep, teeth brushing, wearing sunscreen, access to healthcare, etc. Being healthy takes time, effort and money, and it’s no one’s business but your own whether you choose to engage in healthy behaviors.

I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer. And I love compliments as much as the next person. Next time, though, feel free to acknowledge how color coordinated I am, how artfully I have applied my eye makeup or arranged the six bracelets on my arm. Recognize that I am now able to walk long distances since my ankle surgery, create a beautiful photo book, or tell a great story. Praise me for my success at delivering an important speech, writing a thought provoking blog, or playing a killer game of Mahjong. This is who I am now. I’m no shadow.

Stacey NyeDr. Stacey Nye specializes in the field of eating disorders, body image, women’s issues, depression and anxiety.  She treats adults and adolescents using individual, family and group psychotherapy at her practice in Mequon, WI. She has written articles, book chapters, spoken at professional and community lectures, appeared on television and has more than 20 years of clinical experience in the field. Visit her website at www.nodietdoc.com.

15 Responses to “the HAES® files: I Am No Shadow”

  1. I appreciate this post, Stacey.
    I deal with this periodically myself, on both sides of the spectrum; either curious coworkers who are focused on their own weight and keen to drop a few pounds, or nosy neighbours who want to make small talk by sticking their feet in their mouths and commenting on my appearance. Whenever I look slightly different by wearing my hair straight or pinning it up, I get the “You look great, you’ve lost weight!” quip, which is A) completely untrue, and B) totally unnerving to me. Conversely, I’ve also heard, “Oh! When are you expecting?” from a busybody neighbour, after returning home from a delicious family meal, having worn an empire-waisted top. Both types of comments makes me feel scrutinized and judged. My usual response is, “Nope, I’m right where I’ve always been,” or “Nope, that’s just how my body looks!” but I feel like even that is too much information that I don’t want to give to my appearance-focused colleagues.

    In my early 30s, I had an older male colleague who constantly approached me with (what seemed to be) feigned concern, asking if I was tired or sick. After saying “no” or “yes” dozens of times and feeling like something must be “wrong” with my face to give the impression that I always look ragged and awful, I finally said, “No, I’m not tired. I’m not sick. This is just how my face looks. But thanks for always letting me know that you think I look like shit!” and I walked away. He never did that again.

    I would rather have a go-to retort that simultaneously lets others know I’m not interested in having my weight or appearance be the focus of anyone’s scrutiny, while affirming my growing comfort with my aging body and face.

    • Thanks Amy. I find that the people who make the comments are the people who have some of their own weight preoccupation themselves, which unfortunately, probably describes most people! My close friends and family have learned not to talk about weight around me anymore. Recently I started working out with a trainer in order to prepare myself for trip to Israel. One day the secretary looked at me and started to say “you look like you…” and I cut her off mid-sentence. “Don’t even finish that sentence,” I warned. “I’m not here to lose weight. I’m here to get fit. If you comment on my weight, it makes it about weight loss, and then if I stop losing weight or people stop commenting, I may stop exercising”. I apologized to her the next week because I thought I was a bit abrupt with her, but I’m guessing she never said that to anyone again!

  2. An interesting and important comment. I want to add a personal story. A few years ago I fell (while dancing), broke my hip, and during the lengthy recovery lost my appetite and, consequently, a lot of weight. Despite all my decades of consciousness about the dis-information and anti-feminism of thin-obsessed culture, there was a part of me that loved looking at my then slender body. But there was also a part of me that felt vulnerable and fragile, beautiful and tragic. Eventually I gained the weight back. And now a part of me still winces when seeing how fat I am. (I share this for the sake of what I know must be others, dedicated to fat liberation, who still struggle with the externally-imposed values. Like we said in the 60’s, “the process is the goal.” And I hope that there are young fat women to whom my mental images are incomprehensibly odd.) ANYWAY, I recently flashed on an image of my present fat self moving like a great ship through a channel of people, pushing aside all those who won’t respectfully part for me. I don’t mean to imply that it’s good to trample on people. Not at all. These are deep fantasies, almost pre-verbal. My point is how strongly the images of strength and weakness are linked to size and gender-approval in cultural subconscious. In the early days of fat-awareness, we proclaimed “the Goddess is fat!” This, in-your-face to a culture that romanticizes death and consumptive beauty. Oh, and the irony of it all is that when people see me now, some of them still say “You look great! You’ve lost weight?” And I generally respond with, “No, but it’s my radiance and good spirits that you are looking at. Thanks!”

  3. Well said, Stacey. Thank you!

  4. “You’ve lost weight! What’s your secret? You look great!” These words have a different impact when heard by a cancer patient. Many patients who are dying or going through chemo hear these “compliments” quite often. Which only goes to show that concerns for others’ weight are not really about health.

    • Thanks Paul. Unfortunately I think you’re right. Especially when people say they are trying to lose weight to be healthy, and then they are cut out major food groups or consume a lot of chemical-ridden diet products. Very misguided. Even the eating disorder patients I see realize how messed up it is when people compliment their weight loss. “If they only knew”, they guiltily think.

  5. Great post Stacey. Resonates very strongly with me. Despite years and years of internal and external advocacy for my own and other fat bodies, and feeling as though I can speak confidently about the problems of the weight-centred health paradigm and the Health at Every Size alternative approach, I STILL get tongue tied when “You’ve lost weight” comments are directed at me and often just say “nope”. I love the solution offered by sgbfishman and next time I’ll say “Nope, that’s my radiance and spirit you’re looking at.”

  6. I know somebody who has tried for decades to lose weight. She is/was a lovely, smiley, radiant person, except for those inner demons which drove her self-dislike. I saw her recently after a gap of many months, and having heard through a mutual friend that she had finally found a diet that works. She has indeed lost a lot of weight, but she has also lost her smile. She looks thin, but sad, and I couldn’t bring myself to give the usual banal “compliment” on her weight loss ‘achievement’. I just didn’t know what to say. The judgement of society really makes me angry sometimes.

    I saw something on social media lately which really resonated with me: Mother Teresa didn’t go around worrying about the size of her thighs – she had s*** to do 🙂

    • Thank you for your comments. Dieting and starvation have been shown to lead to many cognitive and personality changes such as depression and irritability. People also become so preoccupied with what they can and can’t eat, they are no longer emotionally present in what they do. Definitely not a fair trade, as far as I’m concerned!

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