Jennifer Liebrum starts her recent essay in the New York Times with a comment she received from a friend: "I’m so jealous. You’ve lost so much weight, you look amazing." She goes on to explain that this was not an isolated incident. In fact, since January, when her 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a rare type of leukemia, Liebrum's gotten quite a few compliments on her sudden weight loss. Liebrum's weight loss was of course unintentional — the result of stress, grief, and the indescribable pain of watching her child deal with a life-threatening illness. "'My mom is not skinny because she worked at it,'" Liebrum quotes her daughter, "'It’s because I’m sick.'" Liebrum's essay highlights why unsolicited comments about someone's body are so problematic — you just cannot judge the state of a person's well-being from weight fluctuations. "My weight loss is not a goal you should aspire to, nor should it be confused with health," she writes. Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to Liebrum. All too often, one's weight is considered conversational fair game, whether it's the subject of a compliment or some impromptu advice. We asked our fellow R29ers what sorts of non-compliments they've had to deal with, as, you know, women with bodies that can change for all sorts of reasons. We've rounded up some of their responses below.
"I had hyperemesis gravidarum (uncontrollable nausea and vomiting during pregnancy) so by six months pregnant I had lost 16 pounds. People were (and still are) very 'ohhh you're so lucky, you won at pregnancy!' But throwing up all day for months was really not winning at anything. I felt physically awful and actually depressed; I couldn't enjoy daily life at all. Thankfully, my son and I are totally healthy now, but my tooth enamel will never be the same." — Amelia Edelman "I caught viral meningitis in my senior year of high school. The sickness was so bad, I had to be out of school for a month, during which time I could only eat popsicles without getting sick to my stomach. I returned to school 18 pounds lighter, and a football player I had a crush on (who had rejected me horrendously prior to my illness) pounced on me my first day back. 'Hi! How are you? I've missed you.' I don't know if it was the residual Codeine talking, but I responded bluntly. 'Um, I thought we weren't talking anymore?' and he said, verbatim: 'Don't take this the wrong way, but you look really hot, like skinnier.' And I was like, 'Yeah, don't talk to me ever again.'" — Cat Quinn "In high school, I had a tumor in my breast and was going to the doctor every week. Because of the stress and the meds I was on, I got very very skinny. I believe I weighed 105 pounds senior year of high school (which, for my height, is VERY underweight). I felt horrible but all the girls at school used to compliment me, saying 'I wish I could be as skinny as you.' It was such a strange feeling because I didn't want to have to explain my situation to all of these people every single time someone gave me a 'compliment.' After high school, though, once I was healthy, I found the process of gaining weight very difficult, because some part of me now saw this skinny girl as the one people thought was beautiful. Now, I'm healthy and at a normal weight and couldn't feel better! BUT the traces...those comments left on the way I saw my body took years for me to shed." — Adriana Ridings
While well-being can certainly be something you can see sometimes (no one looks their best with the flu, and it's true that confidence and happiness can be observable), stories like these show just how willing we are to overlook other, more important aspects of health in the pursuit of thinness. As Liebrum writes, "[i]f you want to know how someone is, look in their eyes, because their size is not where the information is." Share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments, and be sure to read Liebrum's powerful story in full.