“Marjorie, I wanted to check in with you. Several of us have noticed that you’ve rather dramatically changed shape lately.”
I was perhaps 20 years old and in college when this was said to me, and up to that point in my life, I’d been generally a larger-than-average person but had recently dropped several dress sizes. The kind, albeit awkward, comment was made by the postmodernist, feminist drama professor I worked for at the time. I remember bristling–changed shape?! What she meant was that I had gotten dramatically smaller rather quickly, and she was worried I had an eating disorder or was doing some other acts of self-harm. I suspected, however, that she would not show the same level of interest in students who had dramatically gotten larger in a short time period, and this struck me as hypocritical and like mincing words. Why not just ask me if I had intentionally lost weight?
Today, you will rarely hear me use that language, although I do technically weigh less than I have much of my life. If we must discuss it, I would prefer to discuss that I’ve changed size, although even that is not a very useful metric.
And a big part of the reason why goes back to that conversation, and what was going on in my life at that time. The thing is, I was losing weight, getting smaller, because I was sick with an illness that nearly claimed my life. I didn’t know it yet, but that “changing shape,” was one of the first symptoms of a major autoimmune disease. What I knew at the time was that I was exhausted, sleeping 12 or 14 hours a day and needing more. I felt sick and nauseous and had no interest in food. I had to force myself to eat, making myself add butter and peanut butter to the half bagel I’d force down, because I knew I needed the calories, but derived no pleasure from it. For more than half a year, I experienced this general malaise and got no answers from the doctors I visited. Did I think maybe I was depressed? No, I didn’t feel sad, just tired. Any chance I could be pregnant? Not unless it was an immaculate conception!
So I got smaller. I wasn’t on a diet, and my changing size was not intentional. It was NOT evidence of living a healthier life. I wasn’t taking better care of myself, and I certainly didn’t feel better in my skin. And the hypocrisy of our usual language around weight loss really began to dawn on me. When people say “weight loss,” it is usually used synonymously with dieting–with intentionally limiting one’s food intake to become a smaller size, usually under the guise of being “healthier.”
And of course, the drama professor wasn’t actually observing my weight in any case–she was observing my size (or my shape, as she put it). I took up less space than I had before. But even if she had seen me jump on a scale, that information would not have been any more useful than my apparent reduction of space. Weight does not equate health. It wouldn’t have told her if I was being safe to get to that size, any more than it told the doctors if I was shrinking due to burgeoning chronic illness, a mental health crisis, or divine intervention!
Today, with my now multiple autoimmune conditions more-or-less under control, my weight is still a pretty useless measure of my health and well-being. Over the past 20 years, I’ve gone up and down in size a few times, most often due to health crises, hospitalizations, medication changes and the like. However, about 8 years ago my health stabilized, and I began a slow, intentional transformation of how I live my life. As a result, over several years, I have changed shape–I have become quite a bit smaller. And, when I felt ready, I started going to the gym and became a dedicated weightlifter. I now lift with the explicit intent of increasing my size, and presumably, my weight will continue to change along the way. But it is not a very useful measure of my progress. I do not lift weights to “burn calories” or become smaller. I am far more interested in how many sets and reps I’ve done for a particular lift. And if I “gain weight” because I’ve become more muscular, I would consider that a win!
I’m not embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about how my body has changed over the years, I just don’t think it’s very useful. The larger-bodied people who are looking to me for advice probably don’t want to be told about how fast I got smaller while potentially dying in the hospital. One month of hospital food interspersed with several major surgeries will do wonders for your waistline! (Truly, I looked awful–all the “weight” I’d lost during that time period was muscle. My body had eaten itself up to rebuild and heal after surgery. I was just as fat, but I’d lost about 20 pounds.)
My weight is simply not meaningful data. My size (and shape) continues to change, but without context, no one can correctly identify if those are healthy or unhealthy changes for me. And so I tend to avoid the whole subject–yes, I’ve changed size and “lost a lot of weight,” but without knowing more about the journey, it really doesn’t tell you anything at all about me.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .