Where Logic Meets Love

Ask Google Jessica: The Weight Edition

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

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Ask Jessica: The Weight Edition | Faith Permeating Life

A while back I responded to some Internet searches about Christians and sex that were leading people to my blog, specifically my How Do Christians Have Sex? post, which is one of my two most-visited posts of all time.

The other most-visited post also gets most of its traffic from searches bringing people to my blog, and that's Stop Telling Me I'm Too Skinny. In that post I talk about how people are always telling me I'm too skinny, need to eat more, etc. even though I have a perfectly normal BMI for my height. Judging by the dozens of comments that post has received, I am not alone in having this experience.

Many of the people who land on that post are searching exasperated phrases like "stop telling me I'm skinny" and "I'm not too skinny." But there are also plenty of people asking questions about their weight, so I'm going to take a shot at answering some of those questions today. As before, please share your own responses in comments!

Can I be married if I am not skinny?
Absolutely! People of all shapes and sizes get married. There's even an online magazine for "plus size brides." As with any beauty/clothing/etc industry, the wedding industry (meaning dress sellers, magazines, photographers, you name it) tends to showcase people of below-average weight with their models and ads. But despite the giant production that weddings have become, marriage at its core is still a commitment made to another person -- that's it. You don't have to fit anyone's expectations of what a "bride" or a "groom" looks like. (If you don't believe me, just check out Offbeat Bride.)

I'm not thin. Will men ever like me?
OK, here's something I will say again: There is no point in trying to attract as many people as possible. If you are destined to be with someone for life, then when you meet them, it will be irrelevant how many people were attracted to you before that. So if your goal in life is for all men everywhere to like you, then yes, you will probably fail at that. I fail at that. Everyone does. But that's a silly goal to have. What you really mean, I'm guessing is "Will I ever find a life partner?" And I don't know the answer to that, but I know that most people do partner up at some point or other, no matter what their body type or abilities or history or whatever. There is no direct correlation between thin=partner and not thin=no partner -- not even close. Yes, there may be some correlation between being thin and being more likely to have strangers gawk and drool over you, but that's not really what you want, is it?

If there's an obstacle here, it's more about your fears and your sense of self-worth than about your body size. Instead of asking, "Will men ever like me?" you should be asking, "Will I ever meet anyone who is awesome enough to be with me?" Confidence and high standards? Now those are attractive.

I am really skinny and some people think I'm anorexic. Will a guy ever find me attractive?
First, see the above answer. (Short answer: Yes, most likely, but what about you do you want a guy to be attracted to? Cultivate those parts of yourself above worrying about your body size.)

Also, be sure you're differentiating between other people's concerns about your body and your own concerns. Are you, or your doctor, actually concerned that you're underweight, or are you just bothered by the assumptions that other people are making about you? Because if you know you're fine and it's just other people, then screw 'em. We unfortunately live in a world where people feel the need to comment on other people's bodies/decisions/children/you name it. And it's rare enough to hear messages about people having a healthy weight and being comfortable in their body that we somehow get these distorted messages where everyone is "fat" or "anorexic." But the more confident you are about yourself, the easier it is to ignore other people's comments.

For those people who are genuinely underweight (or overweight) and have ruled out any related medical conditions, then my caution for you is not to think that when you reach a certain BMI that you will magically become attractive to everyone. The most important things to focus on are 1) loving your body in its imperfection (because none of us have perfect bodies) and 2) celebrating all that your body can do, whatever that might be.

Is size 6 too skinny?
Is a size 6 even a size 6? Look at how much a size 8 can vary from one brand to another. There are all different ways that our body sizes can be labeled and categorized, from pounds to BMI to inches to clothing size. And while all of those can be helpful for different reasons, they all oversimplify one thing or another; for example, gaining pounds can indicate an increase in fat or an increase in muscle, but the scale can't tell you which. And what weight or clothing size is supposedly "too big" or "too small" varies over time and by culture.

Here are some things that I believe matter more than the number on the scale or your dress tag:
  • Is your doctor concerned about your weight or body composition? We get a lot of skewed messages from our culture, but a good doctor will tell you straight up if there's something to be concerned about.
  • What are you putting in your body? Are you giving your body the nutrients it needs to keep your body running as efficiently as possible?
  • How is your energy level? Do you feel sluggish or weak, or do you feel good as you go through your day?
  • How do your clothes fit? The number on your clothes may change over time even if your body doesn't change; the most important thing is to find clothes you feel good in.
  • Are you able to do the things you want to do? Or have you lost or gained so much weight that it's interfering with your ability to live the life you want?
Clearly some of these may be beyond your control, such as if you have a chronic fatigue or pain disorder or limited physical abilities. But what is within your control?

If you are truly healthy, you're taking care of your body, and your body isn't preventing you from doing anything you want to do, then there's no need to measure yourself up to some arbitrary standard about whether your body size is "right."

I'm skinny so why do people comment?
I wish I knew! I don't think it's the same way in every culture, but in American culture people seem to open their mouths all the time to talk about other people's bodies, life decisions, and so on. Here are some of the explanations I've seen:
  • Misguided compliments: Our culture equates skinny and good, so people think that saying you're skinny, even too skinny, will be taken as a compliment and you'll be flattered.
  • Jealousy: People assume you are naturally thin and wish that they were too, so they make comments in a kind of "sour grapes" way, as a way to convince themselves that being thin isn't all that great. They might hope you'll respond by pointing out your flaws.
  • Thoughtlessness/awkwardness: People feel the need to fill silences, so they comment on what they see without thinking through how it might come across or make the other person feel.
  • Socialization: Women grow up learning to talk about body weight, particularly talking self-deprecatingly about their own weight. This normalizes weight as a topic of conversation.
  • Concern: Sometimes people will speak up if they genuinely care about you and are concerned that your weight might indicate a health issue or eating disorder. This can be done in an appropriate (private, serious) way, or an inappropriate (public, teasing) way.

Is it inappropriate to tell someone they are too skinny?
Well, is it inappropriate to tell someone they are too fat?

You may remember this video of a news anchor that went viral a few months ago. It led to a lot of (unproductive, IMHO) arguments about whether or not the letter this news anchor received actually counted as "bullying," but I thought those discussions missed a lot of important points that were raised. One, that most people are aware -- even hyper-aware -- of their own bodies, so you should assume that they're already aware of how much they weigh. Two, that it's far more inappropriate to comment on the body of a stranger than someone you're close to. And three, the format you use and the words you use make a big difference.

I won't say that it's never appropriate to talk to someone about their weight, knowing what I do about eating disorders and how intervention is sometimes extremely needed. But the vast majority of the time, the comments you may want to make about someone's weight are 1) unnecessary and 2) unhelpful. As I said in the above comment, weight is too simplistic a measure to put people into black-and-white, good-and-bad boxes where you could objectively label someone "too skinny."

How do you get your dad to stop telling you that you're too skinny?
This is a really interesting question and goes back to the questions I raised in the original post about whether and how I should speak up when people make comments about my weight. Some people said they were comfortable saying straight up, "Please don't make comments about my weight." As I said in the post, I recognize that many of the comments are meant to be compliments or lighthearted teasing and I personally wouldn't feel comfortable calling out the other person's rudeness quite so bluntly. One option is an equally lighthearted, "Nope, I'm actually a perfectly healthy weight!" or a "Hey now!" that makes it clear they've crossed a line without totally embarrassing them for it (particularly if they genuinely think they're paying you a compliment).

I usually get comments from people I don't know very well, but when it's someone you see on a regular basis and they make these comments often, then that may call for a more serious, private conversation about their comments. Some people will disagree with me on this, but I think you should assume the best about the other person's intentions (that is, they are really trying to compliment/tease you and not insult or belittle you) unless they're clearly trying to put you down or have a history of doing so. This could mean saying something like, "Hey Dad, I know you like to tease me about being skinny, but I'm actually a healthy weight and I'm proud of that." If the person says they're just joking, you can say, "Yes, I know it's a joke, but I would really appreciate if you didn't make those jokes anymore." The person may get defensive if they're embarrassed about what they've said and didn't realize how it made you feel, but if they care about you, they'll stop making the comments. If they don't care enough to stop, then there's a bigger problem with the relationship than just these comments.

Those are my thoughts -- what would you change or add?

2 comments:

  1. I totally agree it's about confidence, and loving what you do have. As an overweight child who became an overweight woman, it seems as if I've always really struggled with my body. This hasn't been helped by the fact that I've never dated, and my family isn't much on giving complements about anything.

    It's only been recently that I've started to look at my body somewhat objectively, and beyond the labels that *I* put on it. I can see my strong legs, my delicate hands, the unique color of my eyes, and how I do have a shape that can be described in terms other than the ubiquitous "round."

    I found My Body Gallery especially helpful in getting an objective look. It's a project that allows women to upload their photos, and specify their clothing size, weight, and height. Users can then type in their information, and see these pictures. I feel like it gives a much more realistic picture of what I really look like. No, I'm not thin, but nor am I as big as an elephant. I know of a couple other women who have appreciated looking at bodies much like their own, and have been pulled back into reality from that image our culture has so heavily promoted.

    I absolutely agree that's about the health, rather than the number inside the dress or on the scale. It's all about being healthy and fit. Being underweight can be just as dangerous as overweight. It's all about finding what is best for your body.

    Thus endth the novel :)

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    Replies
    1. That's great that you've been able to identify all the positive things about your body and see it in a more objective way. I've heard similar positive reactions to My Body Gallery (here's the link for anyone looking - be aware that many of the pictures are scantily clad) and think it's a cool project. I think it's helpful not just for getting a realistic picture of what different body sizes are like but for seeing how much variety there can be even within a single BMI in terms of how much fat vs. muscle you're carrying. There's an interesting article from Nutrition Diva I read a while back called The Perils of Being Skinny Fat that confirmed for me the importance of continuing to exercise and eat healthy -- even though people see me as thin, I want to be a fit thin and not a flabby thin.

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