I got this question from a blog reader:
How do you cope with people who have lost significant amounts of weight, and who suddenly seem to think that they have all the answers? I have seen this recently with a few acquaintances, one of whom has lost a massive amount of weight and now seems to spend most of her time criticising others for being unable to do the same. I’ve expressed my concerns to her- firstly that she’s using [a commercial weight loss program], which means she may well put all the weight back on again- but also that her manner has become incredibly toxic and fat phobic. She is not the only one, though.
I suppose what I’m saying is, how can people who know what its like to be the subject of fat-shaming and discrimination suddenly forget all that and perpetrate it against it others once their circumstances change?
This is something that has happened to every fat person I know. We have a friend who experiences short term weight loss and suddenly they are a Weight Loss genius and expert on why everyone should be thin. Often it doesn’t matter if they themselves struggled for a long time, or even if this isn’t their first ride on the diet roller coaster. Of course, people are allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies, but that doesn’t make it ok for them to add to the oppression of fat people by diet culture.
Let’s start with some of the reasons this happens (of course your mileage – and everyone else’s – may vary so these things may or may not be true for your newly minted weight loss genius friend.) I think it’s a confluence of things having to do with our culture’s obsession with weight loss and thinness:
They have, for the moment anyway, moved themselves out of a stigmatized social class. They are like the kids who suddenly became popular in high school and then join their new “cool” friends in teasing the kids who used to be their friends in junior high. They are enjoying their new-found privilege and acceptance and they feel like they need to use the language of the people who used to oppress them to keep it, so they now sound like a walking, talking weight loss add complete with before and after pictures and weight and measurement changes that they tell anyone who will listen.
This often comes with a double dose of anything from advice to scorn for the people in their lives who are fat, and especially those of us who aren’t engaged in weight loss. This is because the “cool” kids are only powerful if everyone else wants to be them, so if they are resting their self-esteem on thin being more valuable than fat, but we don’t buy into that and we don’t think that thin is any more valuable, that challenges everything for them from their self-esteem to their social status.
The second issue is the way that we are taught to credit everything good to thinness/weight loss and everything bad to fatness. There is a more complete explanation here, but the basic issue happens when people make behavior changes and they experience health changes and weight loss (at least for the short term) as a result. Instead of seeing both the health changes and the weight loss changes as side effects of the behavior changes, they give all the credit to the weight loss.
Often people will credit weight loss with better treatment socially, when the fact is that they have, at least in the short term, solved social stigma by changing themselves to appease their oppressors. Basically they’ve given the bullies their lunch money and, at least for the moment, the bullies have stopped beating them up. It’s important to make the distinction because otherwise they are oppressing fat people by blaming our bodies when the actual problem is the stigma, bullying, and oppression we face because of weigh bias.
As far as how to handle it:
I suggest that you resist, with conviction, the urge to tell them how good they look now – it sounds like you are saying that they looked bad before. If we want to opt out of a world where some bodies are seen as better than others, then not suggesting that somebody’s body is better because it’s a different size is probably a decent place to start.
Often when this happens people are really excited and expecting a compliment. I know that there is an extremely high chance that they are going to gain the weight back. For that reason I try to comment in a way that will lessen the self-esteem hit if they end up in the vast majority.
By the way, if they don’t bring up the weight loss I don’t bring it up. Weight loss isn’t always welcome – it can be from medical issues, medication, stress, grieving etc. and I don’t want to bring up something painful. Plus this conversation is awkward enough, I’m not going to go through it if I don’t have to. (If you’re dealing with unwanted weight loss compliments, or want some suggestions for talking about your weight loss without hurting fat people in the process, I have some suggestions for you here!)
If they bring up weight loss what I tend to say is something like “I’m glad that you are happy” or “You were beautiful before and you still are” or something that is as neutral as possible. While it’s important to me that people be allowed to make choices for themselves including the choice to attempt weight loss, it’s also important to me that I not perpetuate and praise diet culture or make it seem as if I think a body is more valuable or in some way better if it is currently smaller than it was before. Other people feel differently about this, choosing to celebrate other people’s weight loss and of course that’s their right.
If you are uncomfortable with the amount/frequency of diet talk and weight loss talk, you have several choices. You can decide to just live with it (in this case having a mantra that you say in your head like can be helpful – I use “hey, that’s bullshit!”)
You can try responding to diet and weight loss talk with Size Acceptance and/or Health at Every Size talk (ie: Them: “I ate super clean today and I’ve lost however many pounds this week” you: “I just feel so much freer, happier, and healthier not moralizing food or talking about my weight!”).
You can change the subject. My friend Jeanette (aka The Fat Chick) told me about a friend of hers who memorized a bunch of facts about monkeys and every time someone brings up diet or weight loss talk, she uses one of her random facts to change the subject to monkeys.
It’s also perfectly ok to set boundaries. Something like “I respect the choices you make and how you feel about your body, but I’m not interested in diet or weight loss talk so if we’re going to hang out we need to find other things to talk about.”
However you decide to handle it, it’s also totally reasonable and ok to be disappointed and hurt by your friend’s actions, and remember that however you choose to deal with it on any given day is totally valid, as are your choices to not be part of diet and weight loss culture.
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