Friday, August 8, 2008

Advice for the question "Have you lost weight?"

It's my grandparent's 50th anniversary this weekend, so they're having a party and I'll see them this weekend. Usually when I see my grandma, she says something along the lines of "Have you lost weight? You look thinner."

I never know what to say to this because 1-I don't have a scale or keep track of my weight so I literally have no idea, 2-My weight as a number doesn't matter to me, 3-My weight seems pretty stagnant for the past few years, so it's not like there would be vast physical differences. She says it practically every time I see her and I'm guessing it's one of those things she thinks would be a compliment (because all women worry about weight, right?). However, it just makes me uncomfortable because I never know what to say. I usually sputter something like "Um, I really don't know," and then change the subject.

For me, health is more important than weight. I try to eat well, although that's not always successful (I'm looking at you, cookies) and this summer I've started biking to class in the mornings and then taking my bike with me to work for the rest of the day. It usually ends up to about 5 miles each day, plus the longer weekend trips I take. Because of that added exercise, I think I have lost some weight this summer, mostly measured in belt loops and baggier clothes.

So what do I say now? And why do people feel the need to randomly say, "Have you lost weight" as a compliment regardless of whether someone has or not? I need your help here, friends.

20 comments:

frau sally benz said...

I always find myself in this predicament with relatives. You could either:
1) tell her that you have and it will go something like this "have you lost weight? you look thinner" "actually, I have, I've been biking" "oh, well that lovely, dear, keep it up!"
OR
2) be a bit more aggressive and it will go something like this "have you lost weight? you look thinner" "you know, I really don't know, but why do you always ask me that? does it matter?" awkward silence "I'm very healthy, if that's what you're asking."

I usually do #2 for my mother and a version of #1 for everybody else.

Amelia said...

I think it's a side effect of the "fat-cult" that we live in (where people, women especially, but not exclusively, feel the intense pressure to be thin at all costs) that people take "Have you lost weight?" to be the ultimate compliment, perfect for any occasion.

Yeah, it is messed up that people seem to be more concerned with appearance than "Have you been eating more fruits and vegetables?" but it's not coming from nowhere.

I also hate being asked that. I got it a lot after my first year in college, when I know for a fact that I gained five pounds.

I tend to go with frau sally benz's #2 all the time, but in a polite way, to get people to think about why they automatically went for that particular "compliment." Because whether I've lost weight or not, that's not the best way to compliment someone. Weight fluctuates, and it (IMHO) is not the measure of anyone's worth. Other accomplishments are more substantial, and, I think, more worthy of commenting on.

Andrew said...

I am unsure of what precisely your grandmother was getting at, but if she is anything like my relatives, it is a general concern about health. I have always been scrawny, in fact I just dropped under 100lbs the other day *rageface* so when my aunt asks what i weigh and if i've lost weight/ tells me it looks like i have, it is generally a health related issue.

SisterCoyote said...

My usual answer is along the lines of "You know, I don't weigh myself, so I really don't know. My clothes seem to be fitting me the same, so possibly not." and then gently change the subject, usually with a "by the way" in the front of it. That allows me to bring up something I am proud of, gently neuters the weight comment, and allows whoever I'm talking to the opportunity to compliment me on something other than weight.

Jezabel Barbie said...

OR
It is entirely possible that you do appear to be losing weight, in which case it is merely an observation such as "Did you cut your hair? It looks shorter." or "Did you get your nails done? They look very professional." You cannot always assume that something someone says based on an observation is an attack against you or an assumption that, as a woman, you wish to hear someone confirm that you "look thinner" than the last time they saw you.

Now, I'm not saying that I get on a scale every day - in fact I avoid them as much as I can - but when someone says something like "are you losing weight?" I do take it as a compliment because that's what it was intended as.

I think you are reading too much into it...

Amelia said...

I think it's a poor excuse to claim that people are merely reading too much into this.

I personally believe that there is way too much focus in this society on appearance vs. accomplishment.

Sure, to some people, losing weight may be a huge accomplishment that may have saved their life, but for most, weight is not a defining characteristic of who they are as a human being. So why do we comment on it so often? Why is asking if someone lost weight so often supposed to be taken as a compliment?

Jezabel, you said "I do take it as a compliment because that's what it was intended as." But why is that supposed to automatically be a compliment?

I find it more productive to try to move away from commenting on weight as a compliment toward commenting on some accomplishment as a compliment. You know?

"Hey! I heard you made the Dean's List at college! That's great!" or something along those lines, instead of automatically heading for the appearance/weight issue, is more productive, I think, and that's why I respond the way I do.

Lindsay said...

when someone says something like "are you losing weight?" I do take it as a compliment because that's what it was intended as.

But when there's no visible difference from visit to visit, I feel like it's just something she says because she thinks it's something I would like to hear.

I agree with Amelia - I think appearance vs. achievement is a huge part of our society.

The Great American said...

My personal opinion is that you've complicated a very simple question. Just say, "yes" or "no" or "I don't know". It's not rocket science...

Amelia said...

You're right, TGA, it's not rocket science, but it isn't as easy as you want it to be.

The topic being discussed here is a product of a society that puts so much attention on looks as to make the question of losing weight a compliment. And in such a society women and men alike are often driven to extremes to look thin.

The question being discussed is a small part of the larger problem of patriarchy, because (I think, because I can't back this up with any concrete numbers at the moment) women are bombarded with messages telling them to be thin for MEN.

So it's not as simple as answering "no" or "yes" because that does nothing to solve the larger problems at hand.

frau sally benz said...

I do take it as a compliment because that's what it was intended as.

Is it really even a compliment though? It seems more like something people say just to say it. Almost like they think they have to say something that seems nice even if it isn't actually true at all. That's when you go with #3 "Well, actually, I gained about 10 pounds since the last time you saw me." (Can you tell that my mother brings up my weight a lot?)

Jezabel Barbie said...

Amelia-

The "larger problems at hand" aren't the largest problems with today's societies. Not everything involves a woman doing something for a man - like you yourself mentioned women that CHOOSE to lose weight for health reasons or just because they want to be in better shape for themselves. But I don't think you can assume that all weight loss and desire to be thin can be placed on the men and their desire for "thin" women.

Some of my guy friends and I were talking last night about this same topic, and all of them agreed that they do not want anorexically skinny women. They, like most men, like a woman with curves... especially if they are in the right places. If a woman looks like she just arrived from a starving, third world country she is not as desirable to the average man as you seem to think.

I don't understand why you insist that it is not a compliment? It's true that other achievements other than beauty are often overlooked for surface things - because things on the surface are easier to see than accomplishments. When people say something about someone's appearance they are doing one of two things: 1. complimenting them or 2. dissing them. Call me crazy, but when someone says "Have you lost weight?" they tend to mean it as a compliment and in no way intend on dissing them.

Appearance is something that is subjective. I do not think some people that my best friend thinks are attractive are actually attractive and vice versa. It's not something really that can be evaluated on a standard scale of 1-10. Achievement is something that is measured on a standard scale, but not something everyone knows about unless you wear a sign on your forehead saying "I just made the Dean's List!" or "I just graduated law school!" Appearance is easier to see than accomplishments, as I already said.

Amelia said...

Jezabel - Thanks, you provided a lot for me to comment on.

The "larger problems at hand" aren't the largest problems with today's societies.

Perhaps not, but that doesn't mean that they should just be forgotten. Weight preoccupation is, however, a large problem that diverts the attention of many women away from being productive members of society because they are so focused on their appearance. It's pretty hard to be in a healthy mental place that will take you farther in your career if you are constantly obsessing about caloric and fat intake.

They, like most men, like a woman with curves... especially if they are in the right places.

That is a problem, because only a certain kind of "curves" are generally acceptable in this society. If you have curves here, there, or there, that may be attractive. But if you have them anywhere else, you're probably seen as lazy and less desirable. And so what do women do when they have those extra curves? They often become focused on "fixing" them. And that leads back to my first point.

It's true that other achievements other than beauty are often overlooked for surface things - because things on the surface are easier to see than accomplishments.

The problem I see with our society is that instead of recognizing that achievement is often more important than appearance, we have become fixated on appearance only. Who cares if you're a sucessful person with a good head on your shoulders? If you're not "attractive" in the narrow sense that has become to prominent in America, then people won't even want to know what you've accomplished. Because appearance matters more.

When people say something about someone's appearance they are doing one of two things: 1. complimenting them or 2. dissing them.

This does not take into account people, for example, who pull the "Have you lost weight?" line when it is obvious that you have gained weight. This does happen often because it seems that it is necessary to "compliment" people and appearance is the easy way to go because everyone wants to hear that they're skinny (and I think that it's wrong that being thin is supposed to be the ultimate compliment). In this situation it may appear to be a compliment, but it's not because it's not true. But it's also not a full-blown insult because they didn't come right out and say "Dang, did you go up a size?"

Kacie said...

I always say: "No, actually, I've gained weight."
that usually shuts people up.

Renee said...

Yeah I really hate that statement. It implies that the body is always imperfect and we should all be on the path of perfection. One of my coworkers used to say that constantly in a mean vicious way to imply that she was better because she was skinny...well a few years ago a ran into her and she obviously gained about 80 pounds and I looked at her smiled and said, "gee you look great have you lost weight?" As mean as it was my message was stop judging other people bodies.

Jezabel Barbie said...

Amelia - I suppose it's my turn now...

Weight preoccupation is, however, a large problem that diverts the attention of many women away from being productive members of society because they are so focused on their appearance. It's pretty hard to be in a healthy mental place that will take you farther in your career if you are constantly obsessing about caloric and fat intake.

There is a difference between being weight conscious and being weight obsessed. You have described the latter. You don't have to obsess about your weight. Sure there is a push by Hollywood to make women want to appear thinner, that's something I'll agree with. I will not, however, agree that because of that push that every single woman in America is affected by it and trys to emulate the skinny women Hollywood parades around.

That is a problem, because only a certain kind of "curves" are generally acceptable in this society. If you have curves here, there, or there, that may be attractive. But if you have them anywhere else, you're probably seen as lazy and less desirable. And so what do women do when they have those extra curves? They often become focused on "fixing" them. And that leads back to my first point.

Again, this is not in all cases. Queen Latifah is a larger woman with curves in many places, but many would argue that she is beautiful - which she is. There is a difference between curves and being obese. If you are morbidly obese, yes, very few people would find you attractive - but then again, if you were morbidly obese you would have many health problems and should consider attempting to lose weight in some way simply to better your life as a whole (not just to look better, but in order to decrease risks of certain diseases, heart attacks, and etc.)

Who cares if you're a sucessful person with a good head on your shoulders? If you're not "attractive" in the narrow sense that has become to prominent in America, then people won't even want to know what you've accomplished. Because appearance matters more.

Still - not in all cases. Take for example, Hillary Clinton. She is in no way attractive, yet she has made some remarkable achievements, that even I (and I strongly dislike her for many reasons) will acknowledge. She is a senator, and she ran for the democrat nomination in one of the closest races for the ticket I've ever seen. People don't tend to comment on her being ugly, but they do however mention her achievements in the election process.

This does not take into account people, for example, who pull the "Have you lost weight?" line when it is obvious that you have gained weight. This does happen often because it seems that it is necessary to "compliment" people and appearance is the easy way to go because everyone wants to hear that they're skinny (and I think that it's wrong that being thin is supposed to be the ultimate compliment). In this situation it may appear to be a compliment, but it's not because it's not true. But it's also not a full-blown insult because they didn't come right out and say "Dang, did you go up a size?"

Silly me, I left out sarcastic people... but I highly doubt Lindsay's grandmother was being sarcastic in this situation... I guess I'll comment on it now since you brought it up... some people do use backhanded compliments - however, that doesn't mean that all people who say "have you lost weight?" are saying it because they mean "damn, you look like a cow stop eatting at the buffet every night." That is up to the discression of those who hear the comment to assess. But we can't assume that just because a few people would say it that way and mean something different that all people will say it that way. That's like saying that all men will cheat on their wives based on the fact that some men do...

cyn said...

Next time somebody says this to me, I am so tempted to reply "Oh, really? Must be all the throwing up and feeling sick after chemotherapy."
I hate it how everyone thinks that if you're losing weight it's because you want to or because you want to "be pretty". They just can't face the fact that beauty AND health comes in all sizes and shapes. Some people need to be reminded that fat is a feminist issue. I mean, when someone tells boys like Andrew that they have lost weight, it's because they're concerned about their nutrition. When they say that to women, it's because they're concerned we're not having a sex life. You know, a sex life our man enjoys.
I've been losing heaps of weight after being diagnosed with PCOS and treated with metformin. Maybe I weighed more before because of the condition, but that doesn't mean I am more human being or more woman now. It doesn't mean I deserve living more now than before. Coincidentally, I've been feeling more depressed and miserable than ever since being diagnosed and treated. And I was a lot healthier and a vegetarian when I almost weighed 200 lbs. Healthier, happier and knowing I was doing the right thing. Now at 150, I get too stressed, pressure goes up the roof every time I'm stressed, and I get very tired easily. "Lose weight. Feel better"? What a load of bollocks.
I suggest you change the topic to something more important. When she's like "Oh, have you lost weight?", be like "I don't know, but I'm doing this thing at uni/work/professional life". And if it's too much and you're absolutely sick of it and you want to give her a lesson, make the chemo joke.

Amelia said...

First of all, I would like to congratulate Lindsay on sparking this conversation. Seems like it's been a while since we've had one.

Second of all, I will be replying to Jezabel later on tonight (or maybe tomorrow). I have to take my German friend to the airport. I will probably be replying with a post.

Third of all, I think that Jezabel and anyone else interested in the topic of weight preoccupation and disordered relationships with food should read Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body by Courtney E. Martin. Amazon Link.

You'll be hearing back from me in the near future, but please keep up the discussion!

Jezabel Barbie said...

Cyn -

They just can't face the fact that beauty AND health comes in all sizes and shapes.

Health comes in various shapes, but being exceptionally overweight cannot in any way be healthy. There are so many negative health affects that happen the more overweight someone is.

When she's like "Oh, have you lost weight?", be like "I don't know, but I'm doing this thing at uni/work/professional life". And if it's too much and you're absolutely sick of it and you want to give her a lesson, make the chemo joke.

I honestly think it's terrible to make a joke like that, especially to your grandmother. Firstly, it shows a lack of respect for her. We all must remember that Lindsay's grandmother is from a completely different time and generation. Because of this generation gap and difference in perceptions, it is possible that her grandmother either is telling her she looks like she's lost weight because she either: 1. sees a difference in Lindsay's appearance because there is one, 2. sees a difference in Lindsay's appearance because she is aging and does not notice or remember that there is no change, 3. is telling her that because she feels that is a compliment. Whether or not it is considered a compliment seems to be the debated topic here. But honestly, telling your grandmother you appear thinner because you're on chemo and are constantly throwing up? That's just awful.

FeministGal said...

I've gotten this a lot lately and was hoping to write about it myself. Great post Lindsay. I'm training for a triathlon and am really proud of how strong i've gotten over the past few months, it's been an amazing process for me and i am really looking forward to competing... However, when i see someone that i haven't seen for a while i always get the, "wow! you've lost weight!" The thing is, i need to keep weight on if i want to keep up my strength so i explain to them, "I hope i haven't, i'm training for a triathlon and can't afford to lose weight because that means i'm probably losing muscle..." Then, if i'm feeling snarky, i explain it's not always complimentary to say that to women, due to different circumstances... There are lots of ways to do this, some joking, some more aggressive.

Jezabel wrote "Sure there is a push by Hollywood to make women want to appear thinner, that's something I'll agree with. I will not, however, agree that because of that push that every single woman in America is affected by it and trys to emulate the skinny women Hollywood parades around."

I strongly disagree. Research shows that women ARE in fact affected by the impossible standard of beauty through advertising and the media. We consume over 3,000 ads daily, whether we are conscious of them or not, so yes, we are affected, in many ways. (for more info please see http://www.jeankilbourne.com/lectures.html)

Jezabel also wrote, "Take for example, Hillary Clinton. She is in no way attractive, yet she has made some remarkable achievements, that even I (and I strongly dislike her for many reasons) will acknowledge. She is a senator, and she ran for the democrat nomination in one of the closest races for the ticket I've ever seen. People don't tend to comment on her being ugly, but they do however mention her achievements in the election process."

This is an interesting and ironic example because of the rampant sexism that Clinton has faced. You see, Clinton would have much less likely achieved all the things you mention if she WAS stereotypically attractive. Clinton had to conform to masculine standards and not make herself seem too "attractive" or feminine to be taken seriously in a political arena. Another great example of sexism and the effect that patriarchal beauty standards have on women today.

Also, Amelia, great points you made to Jezabel Barbie!

(sorry this comment is so long!!) :)

Lindsay said...

Update from the weekend:

My grandmother did comment and say, "Lindsay, you look thinner." It kinda came out of nowhere while my dad and I were discussing how to frankenstein up two old bike wheels to replace mine that were stolen (I hate you, bike wheel thieves!) so I wasn't on my game, ready for a reply. I just kind of replied, "I have been riding my bike around more, which I can't do anymore because I don't have any wheels."

The more I thought about it though and talked with my sister, I realized that since I don't see my grandparents very much and sometimes I don't know what to say to them, the question could be a reflex mechanism, something to say when they're not sure what else to say. Just like my brother and his wife get bombarded with baby questions and my sister gets asked about her love life, it's a general enough statement that my grandma can inquire every time and it's still somewhat relevant.

I'm not saying that it doesn't suggest a larger cultural fixation on weight and appearance (it does) or that it isn't problematic (it is). I just realized that I could do a larger part in making my grandma realize that it's not important to me in the way that my studies, my family and friends are. Then again, I have to find a happy medium between talking about "school" and talking about "Yale" - the last thing I want to do when I go to my grandparent's small, blue-collar town is talk about all the opportunities I have at my Ivy League school.

So what I'm trying to say, I guess, is that although I'm not a fan of the question and it's implications, I can understand why my grandma repeatedly asks every time I see her, partially out of societal influences and partially because I could be a little more open with my life.