sarasvati: A white lotus flower floating on water. (Default)
Or: Why You Should Stop and Think Before Complimenting a Person's Appearance

Losing weight is something that's frequently on my mind, since I weigh far more than I ought to. I weigh enough that it is negatively affecting my health in ways that I can clearly see.

But I started wondering if a lot of the compliments that people get upon having lost wieght are somewhat backhanded, in a way. By complimenting, are they actually insulting?

My train of thought was thus: if I lost weight and somebody who knew me before having lost said weight walked up to me and said, "Hey, you lost weight! You look great now!" are they insulting me, albeit unintentionally? To me, it isn't hard to see how this could be insulting. By saying that I look good now that I've lost weight, there's the implication there that I didn't look good when I was larger.

That I'm attractive now that I'm smaller, and wasn't attractive at all previously, all because of my body's fat stores.

That I'm better and worth complimenting now, but wasn't worth it before.

The person complimenting may not be thinking any of these things, at least consciously, and they probably mean to be encouraging and congratulating. But it's that lack of thought that bothers me. They don't stop to think that complimenting a person's appearance now, when they may never have previously, might be construed as insulting, as reinforcing the all too common opinion that a person is only worth paying attention to if they're thin, or at least thinner than they used to be.

In my mind, that would be something akin to going up to a transgendered person and saying, "You know, you looked better when you were [previous gender identity]." Being fat isn't quite the same personal definition as gender is, but there's still something of the same attitude there. It's like social consciousness is talking rather than an actual person. For gender, it's saying, "You used to be normal, and now you've changed and are strange and not quite socially acceptable." For weight issues, it's saying, "You're worth paying attention to now that you look more socially acceptable."

Imagine if you complimented somebody on how great they look now that they've lost weight, and they reply, "Yeah, the chemotherapy really took a lot out of me, but I'm thankful that the cancer's finally gone."

Rei lost a lot of weight due to his health problems, and admittedly nobody said that he looked better for having lost the extra pounds he was carrying. Some people commented that he looked worse, but that had less to do with weight and more to do with the fact that he had huge dark circles around his eyes from fatigue and was frequently in pain. He did, however, get comments from coworkers that they'd "love to have her condition for a few days" so that they could lose as much weight.

Comments born of ignorance, and intending to be somewhat complimentary in nature ("Your condition has made you lose weight, which is desirable"), but what they're saying is that losing weight and "looking good" is important enough to want to go through pain and discomfort and weakness and a lack of understanding from those around you.

They may as well have said, "Gee, I wish I was anorexic!"

Comments of encouragement such as, "It's great that you achieved your goals," or slightly different compliments like, "You look really energetic," are far more acceptable than saying that a person looks good now that they're thinner. The fact that they're more appealing to you eyes doesn't mean much to someone who's struggled with weight issues for their entire life. They may be the very same person inside that they ever were, and all the complimenter is doing is sending them a message that now they're someone worth complimenting. Now and only now is when you notice them.

You may think you're just making a comment that they look healthier and happier now. But that compliment might be subconsciously backhanded, and have some far-reaching implications. If the person you're complimenting gains weight again, are you going to tell them that they look good with more weight, or are you going to tell them that they looked better before. Social niceties dictate that you're not going to do either, because both of those options are insulting. Even if, "You looked better before," is meant as encouragement, it still means, "You don't look good now."

No, more likely you're not going to comment at all. You're going to look awkward and go quiet if weight issues come up in conversation, because you don't want to inadvertantly insult the person who just put back on 40 pounds. And your silence is telling them that now they're not worth commenting on. It says that you're too polite to say something obviously insulting, although you're probably thinking it. Or it tells them that now they're not thin anymore, you just don't think about their appearance one way or the other.

It seems like this is a situation where nobody wins. Everyone's damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Rei commented that sometimes people just have to learn to accept an intended compliment for the intended compliment it's meant to be. His parents used to make comments about what a nice young lady he'd grow into, and it bothered him until he just decided to take the compliment for how it was, since his parents couldn't see into his head and understand how uncomfortable that gender definition was. And while I can appreciate that sentiment and how much trouble it saves, the "sit back and take it" attitude is why things don't change. Though it would be an awkward and uncomfortable situation, wouldn't it be better to explain to parents why that comment is a bit insulting? Then maybe they'd stop doing it, and everyone would be better off.

Would it be wrong of me, when confront by the comment of, "You look great now that you've lost weight," to ask in return, "Does that mean I didn't look great before?" Yes, it would make the commenter feel uncomfortable and perhaps even guilty, but it might get them to also stop and think, think about how they ought to consider more than their or society-at-large's idea of what "looking good" is.

Or even selfishly, why should I be the one to be uncomfortable by backhanded compliments like that? Why does it have to be me? Why can't it be them? If somebody has to be uncomfortable, why must it be me? Why do I have to stay silent and keep perpetuating society's slanted views?

Sure, it makes social interactions less complicated and less trouble free... But in the same way that it would if homosexuals pretended they were straight, and if ftm folk would just wear dresses.

Nothing changes by being silent.

Nobody thinks unless they're made to.

I hear that a lot of people who lost weight and are met with the comment of, "You look great now," often reply, "I feel great now," as a subtle way of trying to convince the other party that looks aren't the be-all and end-all of weight loss. Things like that mean that I'm not alone in my opinion that such appearance-based comments carry a touch of insult with them.

Frankly, I think I'd like to watch a few people squirm when I ask them if I didn't look good before. I want to know what they'd say. Would they break social norms too and say that I didn't? Would they backpedal and try to salvage their comment? Would they stop and think and admit that I had a good point?

Would they learn?
sarasvati: (bite me)
Inspired by this post, I decided to bring over a rant that I first posted on Livejournal, regarding public perceptions of overweight people. It was written in January 2010, when I had little else to do all day but watch videos I found online. (Not that this has changed much, given my employment status...)

I'm watching Supersize Me, and thus far it's definitely an interesting watch, but I've found one quite objectionable thing that I feel needs addressing. The comparison of smokers to fat people.

The comparison wasn't that both smokers and fat people are in unhealthy situations. No, the likeness being drawn is that they both intentionally put themselves in unhealthy situations. The person being interviewed mentioned seeing one guy start heckling a smoker about his habit, and how that was socially acceptable, but heckling a fat person for eating too much wasn't. He said he could draw no distinction between those examples.

Nice to know that some people are really effing blind.

For one thing, outside of stupid tabloids, babies aren't born with cigarettes in their hands and mouths. A child can be born obese, on the other hand. It isn't common to see parents pushing cigarettes on their kids. It is increasingly common to see parents pushing unhealthy fatty food on their kids. Smokers don't make appointments with doctors and are suddenly told that they have a "smoking condition" which will make them smoke for the rest of their lives. Some people, on the other hand, end up with metabolic disorders through no fault of their own, which makes them gain weight easily and shed it with great difficulty.

I think comparing fat people with smokers is unfair. Comparing compulsive overeaters with smokers might be a little closer to the mark, but the insinuation is that every single overweight person is overweight because they choose to overeat.

It may even work that way in the majority of circumstances. But not all, and it's not fair to tar everyone with the same brush.

In media, it's still a gag to have a fat character who's obsessed with food. Heckling smokers in public may be more acceptable than heckling fat people, but smoking is also more accepted in the media. Nobody blinks an eye if somebody lights up a cigarette in a movie. But everybody laughs if a fat character dives after another piece of chocolate cake.

I'm overweight. I also eat for comfort more than I should, and eat more junk food than I should, and I don't eat as many vegetables as I should. And some of that is my own fault and I hold myself to blame. But some of it is because I have not yet broken down all the habits of childhood, where my parents thought it was better for me to drink Coke than orange juice, where they'd allow me to eat 3 burgers from McDonalds when I was 8 years old, and where vegetables other than potatoes were a rare occurance in the household. I haven't always been this large, but I have nearly always been a larger than average child, and I'm sorry, but when my eating habits are under the control of my parents (mostly my dad, who's still largely overweight), there isn't much a child can do to stop developing bad eating habits and to avoid putting on excess weight.

In the obesity crisis these days, people tend to overlook that aspect of things a lot. They see an adult who's fat, and who has been fat all their lives, and they blame the person. It doesn't cross their minds for a second to remember that for many years, that person's food was under somebody else's control. My father once tried to force me to eat bad eggs or else go to bed hungry, not listening to my complaints that the omelet tasted horrible and metalic. How am I to blame for the weight I put on during those years?

And yet somehow I am. If anything, people will look at fat adults and hear that they were fat children, and also instantly make the assumption that once the person got out from under their parents' thumbs, they should have worked out every day and dieted like a fiend and lost all that excess weight very quickly so that they could avoid being blemishes on society any further.

Here's a newsflash to all who think like that: IT DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY!

I'm not defending everybody who's overweight. I'm simply saying that all overweight people are not the same as all smokers. And I'd appreciate it greatly if people would stop saying that.

If you want to look at it from an overeating point of view, how about this: implying that overeaters are as publically reviled as smokers makes them feel bad. Which makes them want to eat for comfort. Which makes them larger. It's a load of bullshit, but it might fit better into some heads to phrase it that way.

Very very narrow heads.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I had an explosion of fanfic ideas last night that I really must write down before I forget about them.


sarasvati: A white lotus flower floating on water. (Default)

August 2011

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