Quick hit: “You look great! Have you lost weight?”

At Shakesville, Amber Leab writes about how being too sick to gain weight – and too sick for life-saving surgery – changed her perspective on that ultimate compliment, “you’re so skinny!” For Leab, being skinny was dangerous, even as the women around her envied her for it. She observes that the culture of thinness is so powerful that it reaches all the way into the operating theater:

On the operating table, I was prepped for the procedure by a female nurse and a male doctor. When the nurse lifted the hospital gown above my abdomen, she exclaimed, “Look at that pretty flat stomach!”

I processed this statement for a moment. A medical professional had complimented me on my thinness, which was so extreme as to prevent me from having life-saving surgery, while prepping me for a procedure intended to help me gain weight.

To his credit, the doctor quickly snapped, “That’s the problem!” but her message couldn’t have been clearer.

Go read the whole thing. And remember, next time you go to compliment a person on how skinny they or how much weight they’ve lost: they might be skinny because they’re sick. And besides, their waistline is none of your goddamn business.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/skiptheandra/ Alex

    Amen to your body being nobody else’s goddamn business.

    Chloe, I remember you wrote a piece awhile ago where you mentioned the response “I feel good” to compliments of “you look good” (i.e. “you’re thinner than you were before”). The author’s ordeal reminded me of that piece. It’s awful when people keep telling you “you look good” when you feel horrible. I struggled with bipolar disorder and body image issues in high school. People kept telling me I “looked good” because I was thin, but often I was thin because I was too depressed or too manic to eat. Now I’m medicated and definitely not “thin” (I weigh about 30 lbs more than I did in high school), but my mental health is under control and, I have to say, I’m actually comfortable with my body. If only our culture were more focused on holistic health than on being “so skinny”…

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    Thank you, Alex, for your comment above.

    I also have bipolar disorder and also have lost lots of weight for the same reason during depressed or manic episodes. However, this is when cultural differences regarding gender are very evident. When I, a man, was super thin, most people inquired as to whether I was sick. Some complimented me on looking “good”, but most worried for my health. That is very telling.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gringuitainkeffiyeh/ Hani

    Ugh, I feel this… the last time somebody told me I had a “perfect body” was back in high school when my meds were making me too sick to eat.

  • http://feministing.com/members/fltc/ F.Toth

    Or she might be skinny because of stress.

    At a time when extreme stress caused me to vomit every time I ate, I naturally stopped eating for a long time–or at least ate very little. My hair fell out in clumps, my skin looked like leather, but at least not eating much kept me from constant vomiting.

    And with my hair falling out and my skin looking like old shoes, people still told me how great I looked–because I was thin!

  • http://feministing.com/members/kmarie/ Katherine

    Such a hard post to read. My cousin has stage 4 colon cancer and has lost so much weight over the year.
    She has always been athletic and looked beautiful to me. She was a fabulous basketball player all through high school and went on to become a Physical Education Teacher and coach countless little league sports teams. And NOW, now when her health is at its lowest and her weight is probably half of what it should be and all of her beautiful muscle tone is leaving her, THAT’S when people suddenly want to compliment her weight?
    “But you look great!”
    Yes, that invasive surgery and chemotherapy nausea really works wonders.
    Mostly, I’m mad at the cancer, but it’s hard not to be mad people too.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sugarfreejazz/ Elizabeth

    It seems to me that any compliment can backfire like this. Sure, it’s inappropriate to compliment someone for being thin in certain situations (like that in the post), but there will always be standards of beauty; it’s just part of human culture. If obesity were in fashion, we would be reading a post about “the culture of fatness” and the dangers of obesity on progressive blogs. Images glorifying fat women would be called sexist and patriarchal.

    Isn’t it better to focus on adjusting and loosening those standards than eliminating them entirely? I think it would be healthier for everyone if we shifted towards a more moderate view on this. Diametrically opposing the current standard in such an automatic manner isn’t going to do anyone any good. It’s unhealthy to be overweight or underweight. Our culture is suffering from both.

    There’s no “culture of thinness.” We have too much food in the U.S. and the worst of it is being forced down the throats of the poor, while well-meaning (but, in my opinion, misguided) activists are trying to spread the notion that being obese is healthy.

    When I was struggling with depression, I gained weight due to chronic over-eating. This was serious, pathological over-eating, mind you (I’m surprised my digestive and cardiovascular systems are still working). Same problem as nazza – different, but equally dangerous, expression thereof.

  • http://feministing.com/members/soozez/ Suzanne

    Oh, yeah, this one certainly rings a bell. 7 years ago I was in the throes of life-threatening post-partum depression, trying to function enough to not lose my job, traveling across the country to work with my 5 month old baby in tow (and dealing with finding a place to stay and childcare for 2 weeks in that city, while just about psychotic from severe lack of sleep as well as the mental illness). The baby was nursing all night long, I couldn’t eat enough, in my depression and stree, to keep up, and I was way too skinny. So what did people tell me, over and over, at the office? You got it: “You look GREAT!” “Wow, you don’t even look like you ever were pregnant!” God, how did you get back to being so thin? You look so great!”. All I could do was stare at them. I was way too thin. I was sick. I was on the verge of killing myself and the baby, too. What was WRONG with those people?!?

  • http://feministing.com/members/mummies/ caitlin bailey

    After learning that I was pre-diabetic, with a history of diabetes the family, I deliberately lost 70 pounds. It is an accomplishment that I am proud of, because it was difficult, and I know that I have improved my health and longevity. However, the reaction of those around me has suprised me a little.

    Growing up an obese teenager, and eventually an obese adult, I felt the effects of my size everyday in my interactions with others. I am now in the “normal” weight range and I cannot emphasize enough the enormous difference in the quality of my treatment by those around me, friends and strangers alike. This stark contrast has been depressing and unnerving, if only because it confirms my worst fears regarding how people viewed me before my weight loss. What, of any substance, makes “normal”me more worthy of kindness and generosity than “obese” me?

    “You look so thin!” or “you’re so skinny!” is something I hear quite a bit from people. I know people have good intentions and some want to try to congratulate me on my success. Unfortunately, for some I believe this compliment represents the pinnacle of lady success. The phrase does turn my stomach a bit, each time I hear it, if only because I think we can find far better ways to praise one another.