body image · diets · fitness · weight loss

Are People Really Happy for People Who Lose Weight?

smiley faceThis topic of weight loss has come up quite a bit lately, even though we are a blog that professes (rightly) not to be about weight loss and definitely not about dieting.

I can’t even count the number of posts we’ve written over the years that say fitness is not measured by weight loss (recent case in point: Sam’s musing yesterday).

And anyone who knows me knows well that I do not compliment people on weight loss. Pretty much never, since that time Sam and I both remember all too well when we complimented someone who, in fact, had indeed lost lots of weight — because she had cancer! Yes, that ranks up there with the times in my life I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.  And of course, Sam’s recent weight loss has a lot to do with having her thyroid removed because she had surgery for thyroid cancer in the summer.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “you’ve lost weight! you look great!” is not a compliment. Granted, lots of people are trying to lose weight. And, granted, those people probably like it when people notice (maybe?) because heck, they’re trying. Why isn’t it a compliment? Because it implicitly says, “and you used to look like shit, and guess what? I noticed that too!” And it implicitly assumes that everyone wants to lose weight, that losing weight is a good thing in and of itself, that being fat is not good (and looks awful), and that people are entitled to monitor the size of others’ bodies. And all of that is crap that we shouldn’t be assuming and doing.

But here’s something: I wonder whether people are actually happy when someone they know loses weight (not because of cancer, but because of effort)?  The reason I wonder is that at any given time, I would say a good 50% of the people I know are trying to lose weight or thinking about it, and more than 50% of those aren’t successful (not surprisingly, given this and this and this and this and oh so much more!).

So I’m going to go out on a limb here, and it may be a lonely limb that reveals me to be petty and small-minded: a lot of the time, people aren’t actually happy for you when you lose weight. First, there are the killjoy feminists like me who don’t really notice anymore when the people around them lose weight.  I consider the not noticing to be a personal accomplishment of mine.

But even more than that, there are those people who are battling the odds when the odds are heavily not in their favour. That would be the majority of people on a diet or weight loss program, actively trying to lose weight. I’m going to venture that a good portion of those people actually feel a little screw turn in their gut whenever someone they knows beats the odds and actually “succeeds” at that elusive goal: weight loss.

Seeing people who, for whatever reason (sometimes cancer, sometimes dieting, sometimes grief, sometimes — though not nearly as often as we’d like — exercise) drop pounds can start an internal monologue that, far from being thrilled for the person, quickly turns inward to self-flagellation and a sense of failure: If she can do it, why can’t I? What am I doing wrong? What’s wrong with me? I’m such a failure.

I’m happy for you if that’s never you. But if that’s sometimes you, join the club. Because I do go there, still today–my non-weight loss noticing-self can go there.

So I’m just going to put this out there and be totally frank. I really can’t stand it when people talk about their weight loss. I don’t care what the reasons. I don’t care if you’re trying or not trying. I don’t care if it’s for performance or for looks or just because that’s what friends, family, and strangers like to talk about.

You know, you can dress it up any way you like. But to me it’s such a personal thing that our social world has made into a public thing. And I’m always stumped about what we’re supposed to say. “Good for you!” even when someone is trying just goes against everything that feels right to me. It’s like encouraging something that I see ruin the lives of perfectly excellent people who think that weight loss will afford them something they need in order to feel good about themselves (or better about themselves). I just can’t have the conversation anymore, with anyone. [I like Carly’s suggestion of saying, “how does that feel for you?” but those don’t feel like my words]

So this brings me back to the question of whether people are really happy for people who lose weight. If you’re like me, you’ve read lots of stuff on dieting and weight loss in your time. And they always talk about the saboteurs. Those are the people who want you to eat another helping because they cooked it, or a piece of cake because it’s a special occasion, or chocolate because it’s Valentine’s Day, and therefore thwart your efforts at weight loss. Are they happy when their loved ones lose weight? Sometimes, the literature says, they feel threatened.

And then there are those people who are trying and getting nowhere. Are they happy for you? I’m not so sure. But I think it’s complicated. And that’s because successful weight loss is hard to square with the reality of how difficult it is to lose and maintain weight loss. And so when someone achieves it, we may be a little happy for them (maybe some people are super happy for them), but lots more people just use it as another reason to get down on themselves. And that’s the painful truth for many.

I don’t mean to be saying that that’s the only reason, or even the main reason, I don’t like to talk about weight loss (yours or mine). But it’s not a neutral subject, and it’s loaded with all sorts of cultural meaning that hooks into horrible attitudes that I don’t like to encourage. And even when someone’s reasons aren’t about that stuff, it’s still highly personal and that makes it at the very least an odd thing to advertise and go on about.

I can’t control what others want to talk about, but over the last little while, after a few conversations (with a few different people) that made me squirm and feel uncomfortable, I know for certain that I’m not taking part anymore. And for all of these complicated reasons, I’m going to be totally honest and say I’m happy for people about all sorts of things, but not super happy for someone simply because they’ve lost weight. I realize that makes me sound grumpy and petty, but there it is.

9 thoughts on “Are People Really Happy for People Who Lose Weight?

  1. I completely relate. I cringe now to think of my own evangelical food rules I followed for years and tried to covert everyone else too.
    Weight, body size and eating habits are all topics I try very hard to avoid.

  2. Agree. Mostly. The exceptions tend to be people doing it for health or sports performance reasons. Then I’m happy for them.

    1. But what’s at the root of needing to have a conversation about it? Having different reasons doesn’t make it easier or more likely that it will be maintained. And it doesn’t make it any more interesting a conversation. I don’t know, I’m just struck these days by how persistently the conversation seems to be popping up whenever I talk to people. And it’s already February! I can expect that from January. But February?

      1. I guess I hear it from friends with health agendas–getting off type 2 diabetes meds and/or blood pressure meds–and friends with sports training agendas, in terms of planning and gearing up for spring/summer racing. It’s like catching up on goals, kind of like the way academics talk about our writing plans and how behind we are. Kind of boring, yes, but it matters to us!

      2. And the athlethes don’t expect to be able to maintain it except through spring/summer racing! That’s the joke among the triathletes we know talking about why do the half ironman in June b/c then you can relax and get fat! The health people are trying to avoid more interventionist methods of weight loss, surgery, for example, or stronger drugs etc. There’s a lot at stake.

  3. I think I’m happier for people who just choose to make their life better. Like getting more active and fueling their bodies. Although, technically, what you eat and how we choose to “live” should be just as taboo in conversation as weight. It’s all a personal choice.

  4. If weight loss is the only goal, we aren’t loving ourselves enough. And I’ve been there after losing weight from cancer. My mother thought it was amazing that I lost 25 pounds in 2 weeks. WHAT?

  5. I’m happy for people if they lose weight, if I know they’re happy about it which they’ll usually volunteer. I also tell people they look great whenever I think it, no need to ask if they’ve lost weight. When people look snazzy, let ’em know it! Maybe it’s the outfit, maybe it’s the light, whatever.

    Being happy for other people takes nothing away from me and doesn’t lead to self-recrimination on my part. Beating yourself up over your self-perceived failure at weight loss isn’t a healthy behavior, period. (Using the general ‘you’ not the specific ‘you’ here.)

Comments are closed.