As more areas of the U.S. reopen and vaccinated people reunite with the friends and family they haven’t been able to see in over a year, perhaps it’s only natural for them to feel a little off-kilter. Jokes about our collective social awkwardness, for example, have abounded on Twitter. And while we all deserve grace while we readjust, many people online are calling out one particular type of comment as something that can’t, or shouldn’t, be laughed off as a simple faux pas: comments about people’s bodies.
“A gentle reminder now that you’re seeing people you haven’t seen in a year: DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE COMMENT ON ANYBODY’S WEIGHT WHEN YOU SEE THEM,” tweeted Anthony Ocampo. “I can’t believe people are actually doing this.”
The comments and reactions to Ocampo’s tweet could mostly be summed up as one giant retweet. “I return to [the] office in late June and I’m dreading it. I lost weight (in a healthy way) and I’m proud of that but people taking a person[al] interest in and making comments about my body makes me deeply uncomfortable,” tweeted user @509RhymeAnimal.
“Crafting a response like ‘I have conditions that put me at risk re: COVID, I started an anti-anxiety medication, a friend of mine was murdered by her husband, and my cat of 15+ years died pretty suddenly this spring. But yeah I guess I did put on some weight during the pandemic,’” chimed in @AntiNickname.
Having friends, family members, and strangers comment on the way our bodies look has always been harmful, because it perpetuates the idea that our personal worth comes from the way we look and present ourselves to the world. It can also be triggering for those who have dealt or are dealing with disordered eating or related issues. And now, as we inch our way towards the end of a pandemic that’s taken the lives of millions of people worldwide, the words cut a little deeper.
“I had boob-length quarantine hair that I got chopped off to a masculine-leaning pixie and, especially after contracting COVID-19 myself, I gained about 35 pounds since the start of 2020,” Barb Puzanovova, 25, a fitness instructor, tells Refinery29. “I don't think I've gone through a weight gain like that since puberty, if that. It all felt very new to me, and as someone in recovery from my eating disorder and body dysmorphia in a fatphobic society, I had a hard time with both of these changes.” Comments about the way her body had changed made the process that much harder for Barb, especially considering those comments were coming from the people she loves the most — her parents.
“I felt like they didn't trust me to take care of my body, like I was letting them down, like my body was a problem to be fixed,” she says. “As a Health At Every Size trainer, I deeply value caring for ourselves in ways that feel accessible. I focused on walking to get sunshine and fresh air and gentle movement, especially after feeling so out of breath after getting sick. I got a bright yellow water bottle that made me happy to stay hydrated. I did the best I could. And yet those comments made me feel like I failed.”
Even ostensibly complimentary comments, however, can bring up feelings of discomfort, shame, guilt, or sadness for someone who has gained or lost weight due to illness, stress, grief, or for no particular reason at all. “A lot of people may already have a battle with their relationship with their body that you’re not aware of, so when you bring the focus around their body after you haven’t seen them for so long, after everyone is trying their best to survive through this really challenging year, it can definitely feel invalidating and can become triggering to people,” explains Pei-Han Cheng, PhD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in body image.
“I can just let my body be what it needs to be right now instead of immediately trying to bypass the fact that last year was very hard.”
The urge some people may have to comment on the bodies of their loved ones may be out of love and care for them, says Dr. Cheng. “Because we live in a society where we equate your body and size with your personal worth — and more so with women — people tend to feel sort of inclined to comment on people’s bodies. A family member might be curious if there’s anything going on [healthwise]... so we can see those comments or questions have good intentions,” she explains. “But I think whether the intention is to check in or because it is a question or comment out of internalized fatphobia, it’s not really the focus here.”
Commenting on people’s weight places an emphasis on something that’s essentially unimportant, says Dr. Cheng, and it’ll probably do more harm than good. “We really have to focus on the impact of your comment on the receiver. You don’t know what kind of battle that person may have in their relationship with their body,” she says.
Puzanovova says that she logically understands that her parents aren’t trying to be hurtful or rude when they comment on her weight — but what they say still requires her to do additional work to protect her mental health, which can be frustrating. “While I understand where [my parents’] intentions are coming from, ultimately it skips the very human experience of, even if I’m not as healthy, even if my strength has gone, or my blood pressure is higher, that doesn’t make me a worse human being or someone that needs to be fixed,” she says. “I can just let my body be what it needs to be right now instead of immediately trying to bypass the fact that last year was very hard.”
If you’re on the receiving end of a triggering weight-related comment, Dr. Cheng says to clearly express your preference for not wanting to engage in that type of conversation, then redirect to another topic. “We can also steal their thunder by saying, ‘Yes, my body changed during this pandemic because it's doing its best to get through this hard time,’” she says.
And for those who are doing the commenting, Dr. Cheng advises you to stop and think — really think — about the effect your words may have. “Take a step back and think about if what you’re about to say or what you’re about to comment on could be harmful,” she advises. “And I think most of the time, it probably will.”
Luckily, there are so many other, wonderful things that you can focus on and talk about right now. “You are meeting the people you haven’t met for a really long time, and I think you can talk about what you all did to get through this difficult time, what your hopes and wishes as the world is opening up are, what is something that we can do to really reconnect to our old life and our relationships,” she says. “Those things bring more value and substance to our conversation than focusing on weight or focusing on how much weight you lose.”
It’s a simple enough swap. Instead of: “Have you lost/gained weight?” try, “It’s so great to see you again! How have you been?”
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.