“You’re not still losing weight, are you?”

It’s amazing how often someone who is losing weight will hear that. When you hear about fatphobia and sizeism, you hear about people who are targeted due to being overweight. I think the reason why I didn’t expect all the comments during weight loss is because almost no one ever commented on my being overweight, apart from one person who was projecting her own body issues. It never occurred to me that this would get worse, rather than better, once I started losing weight. Judging from talking to other people, I’m far from being the only one who experiences this. It seems to be usual to encounter an amazing amount of anxiety and even hostility when it becomes obvious that you are losing weight, and this mainly comes from other women.

It turned out that weight loss is like disability, in that your body is suddenly put in the public domain and people feel free to comment on it. You can’t hide weight loss. You can keep as quiet as a mouse about what you are doing, but once your body changes shape significantly, it’s thoroughly obvious to anyone who sees you. Overall shape is one of the first things we notice about someone, after all. Perhaps it’s particularly odd for those of us losing weight, because a state of change is not where people generally locate their feeling of core identity. If you’re overweight, you’re probably either determinedly thinking of yourself in other terms, particularly the ones which don’t change – I will always be short, brown-eyed and pale-skinned, and I’ve always had long hair so that feels like an essential part of me as well – or you will have come to terms with your shape, maybe due to the Fat Acceptance movement or similar, to the extent that you identify strongly with it. In the first case, these things aren’t changing and aren’t relevant to the weight loss; in the second, you’re identifying yourself by your larger size, so that many people report that even after they’ve lost the weight and have been maintaining for a while, they still think of themselves as fat and find it hard to get their head around the fact that they are no longer anything of the sort. I was in the first group. I was only overweight for a few years, and on a relatively small scale, so that by the time I started losing weight, my mind was still catching up to the idea that I was overweight to begin with. I’d always been slim, it felt like me, it was therefore very odd to be in a body which was no longer slim, so I mentally shelved that problem and focused on the things which didn’t change instead. Cognitive dissonance all over the place.

Whatever you are feeling, you are probably not identifying primarily as the “incredible shrinking woman”, and it’s a shock when other people see you that way and even call you that. The comments tend to be edgy in tone, often backhanded compliments or otherwise indicative of anxiety around the issue. I have four support workers who come in throughout the week to help out with disability-related matters. They’re all women, and they cover a range of shapes and sizes. One of them, herself trying to lose weight and not having a good time with it, kept on saying in admiring tones, “Look at you, you’re wasting away!” I felt thrown by the fact that it was phrased as a compliment, and it took me a while to pluck up the courage to ask her not to use that particular phrase. It’s an odd phrase for anyone to have to react to, but in my case it was also an unpleasant reminder that some people with ME do actually waste away from the illness, and can even starve to death. I don’t see illness as just a metaphor, it’s something very real to me.

Illness metaphors are apparently quite common in this situation, even though no one who speaks in this way is really saying that they think illness is something to be aspired to. (People who have anorexia, who aspire towards an unhealthy level of thinness and who really may be “wasting away”, never use the term as a compliment, as far as I can tell.) They’ve become so common that much of the time, when someone uses illness as a metaphor in a weight loss compliment, you realise that they don’t mean anything by it, so you smile and thank them nicely. Other people are less kind, and there can be more than a tinge of malice involved. Like all backhanded compliments, there is a flavour of, “Hah, you think you’re superior to the rest of us, but really there’s something wrong with you.” I think that anyone would struggle with being told in a joyous tone that they are “nothing but skin and bones”, and it must be particularly painful for anyone who has experienced an eating disorder. There is a grey area between healthy weight loss and disordered weight loss, true, but that is no reason to conflate the two. I have spoken to far too many women who have been accused of being mentally ill (which should never be used as an accusation, as if mental illness were a crime) if they so much as started snacking on apples instead of crisps. There is a profound unease in our society about women taking control of their own bodies and shapes, and it’s strongly associated with illness.

Although this whole business of receiving compliments on weight loss is quite odd anyway. On one level – yay, I’m doing something which is hard work, and people are recognising my accomplishment! On the other – I’d like to be able to choose when people are talking about my body, thank you very much, and I can get rather sick of having the topic sprung on me. Especially when the conversation is so emotionally loaded. Not to mention that it’s quite hard to compliment someone on how they look now without unfortunate implications about their previous appearance. As a few people have put it, “So what was I before, chopped liver?”

My doctor’s reaction struck me as well. She never breathed a word when I was overweight, which I appreciated. Fat-shaming is completely inefficient as a method of getting people to “reform their ways” (back to the moral/religious language I wrote about earlier), and even more so when someone is overweight as a result of illness or disability. When I asked if it were possible that my hormonal problems were due to being overweight, she discussed the way that excess oestrogen is stored in fat in a completely neutral manner. When I told her that I was losing weight, she made tactful encouraging noises, cheering me on without pressurising me. All of that was an ideal response.

What was less ideal was when she said to me the other week, “You’re not still losing weight, are you? You’re looking quite skinny!” Now, if I actually were continuing to lose weight past the point that is healthy, an intervention may have been warranted, although “skinny” is generally considered a derogatory term and I’m not a believer in insulting someone as a way of expressing concern for their wellbeing. But I stopped losing weight three months ago (and she’s seen me a few times during that time), my BMI and measurements are well within the normal range, I’m back at the weight that was normal for me for most of my adult life, I’m eating a good amount, I look fine. I’ve been weighing myself every week or so just to check that my weight is indeed stable, but I was perturbed by this comment, so I asked my partner and support workers whether I looked like I was underweight, or at least still losing weight. They confirmed that I hadn’t lost touch with reality, that I was indeed absolutely fine. But my GP’s comment continued to bug me.

Again, it turns out that I’m not the only one in this situation. I can’t count the number of times when someone on the weight loss forum has posted about how someone has told them, “You’re looking ill, you’ve got to eat more,” “You need to stop losing weight,” “You’re taking this too far,” when they are nowhere near underweight. In fact, it even happens to people who are still substantially overweight! To be honest, I think such comments are inappropriate at any time. Even when the person in question is dangerously underweight, it is unlikely to be helpful to inform them of it in this way. If the weight loss has been caused by physical illness, then all that happens is that the other person says, “Actually, I’ve got cancer,” and there is an embarrassing silence. If it’s been caused by mental illness, then you’re just going to irritate or upset them, and an offhand remark of this sort is not going to make someone with severe anorexia say, “You know what? You’re absolutely right! You’ve made me realise that I’m too thin, and I am now entirely cured of my anorexia! Thank you for pointing it out for me!”

But most of the time these comments are directed at people who are not remotely underweight. It’s been suggested that other people are so used to seeing us as overweight that they see our former size as normal for us, and when measured against that, anything thinner than “normal” must be too thin. I may feel that I am back to my old self, the body I was used to inhabiting for so many years, but my GP met me when I was overweight, and that’s when she formed her mental image of me. I think that in her case, it was mostly that. I don’t think it was malice or an attempt to play power games, although in many instances a comment of this nature will be due to exactly that. It’s always complicated – I suspect that some of it may have been the fact that I’m now thinner than her, but the topic of the weird insidious competitiveness that lurks in the background whenever weight is raised as a topic between women is for another post, I think – and the topic is an absolute minefield however you approach it. The odd tactless comment can happen to anybody. Men have long bewailed the fact that there really is no good answer to give to a woman who asks, “Do I look fat?” and concluded that it’s best not to bring up the subject of anyone else’s weight with them. Maybe we should take a leaf out of their book.