• Sarah Russell

Why it's not okay to comment on someone's weight

On a run last weekend, I bumped into a bloke I’d not seen for a few years. In fact, the last time was about 8 years ago at an awards bash where we both won awards for contribution to running and the community.

At that time I was really unwell, I’d been through four abdominal surgeries by that stage, had just had surgery for a colostomy bag and due to some complications I couldn’t eat solid food at all and was literally starving. I had been existing on liquids, soups and sugary tea for about 6 months, was about to have more surgery. I felt like I was dying and just existing was almost impossible.

My weight had plummeted to below 7 stone (more than 2 stone lighter than I am now). I remember having dragged myself to this awards do, had taken my own blended soup for them to reheat (as I couldn’t eat any of the meal) and was about to go back into hospital for another major surgery. It was an incredibly difficult time and I remember thinking I might never get better, I might never be able to eat again and I might never run again. It was a desperate time.

Anyway on Sunday, this bloke I’d not seen for a while greets me with ‘Blow me, you’ve put some weight on!’ - literally the first thing he says - to which my jaw literally dropped.

I’ve actually got a pretty good relationship with my body. I’m body confident, don’t have any hang ups about my weight or food and frankly I’m just grateful to be able to eat and run and be alive. Having a permanent colostomy bag and far too many scars on my stomach, having endured six major surgeries, has given me perspective on life I might not otherwise have. It's fair to say I’m pretty much at peace with my middle aged body these days.

Of course I’m heavier than I was then (duh!). When I saw him last I was skeletal, frail, unwell and literally starving to death. These days I’m fit, able to eat pretty much anything, I’m strong and healthy and well.

His greeting was met with a few choice words from me, but we went on our way to enjoy our run.

However, I felt niggled and triggered for the rest of the day. I’m genuinely not overly sensitive and kept trying to brush it off. Just a thoughtless comment from an insensitive old man who should know better right? No big deal.

But it is a big deal. I spent the rest of the day thinking ‘gosh I really am fat now’ ‘maybe I should go on a diet’ and my feelings towards my body and my food changed in an instant. I found myself planning a diet of iceberg lettuce and water for the remainder of my miserable life.

But seriously. That thoughtless, throwaway comment was so damaging. And how much more damaging could that be to someone who might be secretly struggling with anorexia, bulimia, an eating disorder or any other type of mental health issue. It’s enough to throw someone off course and into despair and trauma.

Aside from the fact his comment was rude, totally inappropriate and crass, it got me thinking about how we should be so very careful about commenting on people’s weight regardless of whether they’ve gained or lost weight.

Back in the dark days of being ill, when I literally couldn’t eat and was super thin. I experienced the same attitude from people who felt it was ok to comment on my weight then too. ‘Wow look at you, you look great and so skinny’ (errrrr?) ‘You might not be able to eat but you look good on it’ was another one. (remember at this point I was literally starving to death).

I remember one particular girlfriend I’d not seen in a while, bumped into her and she looked me up and down and said ‘Oh wow.. look at you skinny Minnie!’ in a way that was tinged with jealously, as she enviously eyed up my skeletal starving body. I mean. Really? How is that even ok? She had her own issues with food and weight and I get that, but to be envious of someone who is starving because they’re ill? Not ok.

It shows how screwed up we are as a society (and the comments weren’t just from women either) that we praise weight loss at any cost. Ok, some people may not have been aware that I was sick. But even so.

So my point is this. It’s rarely okay to make comment about anyone’s weight. Because you probably have absolutely no idea what's going on behind the scenes for them.

After my own experiences, but also after working with people having cancer treatment, with crohns disease or colitis, those experiencing grief, mental health struggles, divorce, emotional distress, stress and all kinds of difficulties and challenges, people lose or gain weight for all sorts of reasons.

Thinness does not always equal health. (Check out HAES (Health at Every Size) for more information and also the brilliant ‘Just Eat It’ by Laura Thomas).

Yet as a society it seems to be what we praise and hold in high esteem. When someone we know loses weight the assumption is that they’re on a diet, working out and being healthy. What if it’s not?

We seriously need to rethink. When we comment that someone looking is ‘great’ because they’ve lost weight, you can’t assume it’s coming from a healthy place. Their weight loss may be coming from a place of sickness, emotional distress or hidden illness.

Equally when someone gains weight, let's not assume they've lost control and are stuffing their face. They may in fact have developed a healthier relationship with food after years of restriction or disordered eating and might now be in a much happier and healthier place. Or like me, might not be ill anymore.

People said I looked great when I was dangerously underweight and unable to eat. How screwed up is that?

A couple of kind friends who were more enlightened (and thoughtful) would say ‘Mate, you look like you’ve lost a shit load of weight. What’s going on? are you ok?’ to which I’d reply ‘no, actually I’m not’. But they weren’t the norm. In fact I can think of only two.

I’m a pretty resilient person. I’m body confident, fit, strong and really don’t have any issues with food. I’m always banging on about ‘health at any size’ and that weight loss shouldn’t be a goal. Instead we should focus on health, intuitive eating, mental wellbeing and being physically active. Our weight will take care of itself if everything else is in place.

But that one comment from that one guy threw me for more than a moment. And it got me thinking about just how damaging comments about weight can be – whether we gain or lose – it’s rarely ok to comment or make judgement.

So here's a thought.

If you notice a friend, colleague or family member has lost or gained weight, instead of telling them they look ‘well’ or praising them for their weight loss (or comment on their weight gain… no please don’t do that.. !) perhaps what we should be saying is ‘Are you ok? What’s

going on with you?’ instead and just check they’re alright.

Because the one thing I’ve learned is that our relationship with our bodies, exercise, food, weight and mental wellbeing are inextricably linked and hugely complex, and the slightest throwaway comment (even if it’s meant well) can be hugely damaging.

And whatever you do, when you bump into someone you haven’t seen for a few years and they now look healthy, strong and fit, don’t comment on how much weight they’ve gained 😉 unless you want a punch in the face.

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