"People are so conditioned to equate 'fat' with 'bad', they can't tell a woman she looks good without providing size-based commentary," writes Maeve Marsden. Photo: Stocksy
Don't ask me if I've lost weight. I haven't. Or maybe I have. I don't know, I'm not counting.
I've been 'overweight' since I was about 10, fluctuating between what people might describe as 'chubby' or 'curvy' and can't-buy-clothes-in-regular-shops fat. A few years ago, I finally stopped worrying about the kilos and focused on just being happy and healthy. I don't know what I weigh anymore, but I do know what I'm worth.
As a result of this shift in focus I am happier and, if you go by the attention I've received from the ladies, I'm also more attractive. I leave the house more confident and, in my opinion, better dressed, largely a result of following plus-size bloggers and having a friend who works at a plus-size store (we won't mention her by name in case she gets in trouble for sharing her staff discount around!).
And yet, despite the fact that I'm fairly sure I've gained a bit of weight in this time, many friends and relatives greet me with "Have you lost weight?" when I am looking particularly good. They haven't gotten out the tape measure or scales; indeed I question whether they've even scoped out my frame for a potential change in size. What they mean by "Have you lost weight?" is "You look nice today".
So why not just say that? What value does asking if I've lost weight add to the compliment? All it does is remind me you've noticed I'm overweight and think a change to how I look would be an improvement. As an aside, I loathe the term overweight. It makes me think of luggage. I prefer to describe myself as fat.
People are so conditioned to equate 'fat' with 'bad', they can't tell a woman she looks good without providing size-based commentary. Alas, commenting on size brings with it many risks and pitfalls. Firstly, it reinforces size-based judgment, even when it's supposedly supportive. Instead of judging a person on their humour, warmth, great fashion choices or intellect, you're commenting on whether they eat less and exercise more. For me, every time someone asks if I've lost weight, I am reminded that I haven't, I'm reminded I am different and I am reminded that I live in a society that thinks I am a problem.
Secondly, not everyone loses weight healthily and happily. By asking someone if they've lost weight, you could be opening up a conversation about depression, chronic illness, eating disorders or stress. A person may not want to be reminded that they've lost ten kilos due to Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Thinner is not always better.
Thirdly, by telling a person that their weight loss makes them look better, you set them up for a fall if they gain some weight back. I recently got into a Facebook debate with a woman who commented on my friend Viv's selfie: "While you've always been stunning, I want to congratulate you on your shrinkage - you've gone from a 10 to a 10+."
Leaving aside rating a woman's attractiveness out of 10 (which we shouldn't leave aside because gross, but I only have so many words), by specifically indicating that my friend looks better skinnier, the commenter is saying that if she gains any weight back she'll be back to a boring old 10! The argument carried on, as social media arguments tend to do, 'til the commenter stated "Maybe it's a little arrogant for me to assume this, but I find it hard to imagine somebody would go through the hard yards of losing weight and not see that as an achievement."
Viv finally weighed in ('scuse the pun), writing: "I have a chronic illness. Losing weight because I'm sick, and will be sick for the rest of my life, isn't an achievement. So yeah, your assumptions regarding my body and health are way off. And even if I had lost weight on purpose, I agree with everything Maeve said. Also, I miss my boobs."
The triumph of winning a Facebook debate was tempered by empathy for my friend, who I knew was unwell and who I continue to have engaging and challenging discussions about bodies, size, feminism and the way society equates 'healthy' with 'skinny'.
When I was 21, I lost 17kg in a few months by starving myself and taking up smoking. Should I have been congratulated then? Or should I be congratulated now for being a fatty who dances, plays soccer, does a little lounge room yoga with her girlfriend and eats her greens? How about you just don't comment on my health or size AT ALL?
Some people do work hard to lose weight and, if they tell you about it, feel free to share their joy. But don't let their experiences colour your assumptions about others. When you place value on size, you reinforce damaging 'rules' about what makes a person attractive. Making desirability about size reinforces the idea that to take up less space is better, that 'shrinkage' is an achievement.
This idea is so ingrained that it takes intellectual and emotional work to break down societal pressures to see thin as better, more beautiful, more successful. One way we can achieve this is to actively not comment on other people's size. "You look stunning tonight" will suffice.
Maeve Marsden is a freelance writer, director, producer and performer. She performs in feminist cabaret act Lady Sings it Better, consults on education outreach campaigns, and collaborates on various creative projects. She tweets from @maevegobash.