It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
I’ve never had an eating disorder, but it’s a subject that was constantly inserted into my study of nutrition and health. I’ve known people who have had slightly disordered relationships with food and exercise, and people who have had full-blown, heart-breaking disorders.
No, I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I have been underweight. A few years ago, I had a body fat percentage that was MUCH too low for me (partially because I have “skinny genetics”, but also because of a tendency to accidentally under-eat). I realize now that it played a role in some of my health issues over the years, specifically with hormonal imbalance (for more on my story, read my feature on Primal Palate’s blog).
Having this body type has given me personal insight into how people around me react to a leaner physique, from the time that I was a young teenager.
This Awareness week in particular has given me cause to reflect on how easily friends, family members, and even strangers often make comments on body shape and size, possibly without realizing the effect of their words. I want to talk about two reasons why you should stop and think before commenting on someone’s “skinniness”:
1. You may be unintentionally affirming someone with an eating disorder
This is the scariest factor to consider.
As one of my favorite artists, Andrew Peterson, puts it, “there are mountains on the ocean floor”. In other words, whether you’re casually commenting on someone’s abs in an Instagram photo or gawking at someone’s “tiny waist” in person, it’s next to impossible for you to know what effect your words have. If that person is secretly struggling with a disordered mentality around food or exercise, you may be giving them the exact affirmation they are seeking to continue pursuing their goals of “perfection”.
It may be a good idea to employ a little pessimism and assume that EVERYONE we talk to could be struggling with body dissatisfaction and obsession – then let our comments reflect that assumption.
2. You’re actively contributing to the idea that skinny = healthy
We often point fingers at the photoshopped models on magazine covers or crazy 1000 calories diets for promoting unhealthy body weights. They certainly play a role in our warped view of health. But do we stop to consider how we talk to our friends about their bodies? How we talk to others and ourselves about our own?
My body is a great example as to why skinny does not = healthy. Yes, I was skinny – and struggling with hormonal imbalance and fatigue! At the time, I didn’t think to connect the dots, and I didn’t see a problem with having a low body fat percentage. I think this was partially because I was complimented on my body size. Girls who had more fat on their bodies immediately drew my attention to our differences: my “thigh gap”, thin legs, flat stomach – these things were verbalized and applauded. It’s taken me a long time to un-learn that as I’ve been slowly developing a healthier (and slightly squishier!) body for hormonal balance and overall health.
Genetically, some of us are going to have less body fat than others (raising my hand, here). But in general, some body fat is incredibly important for fertility and overall health. We NEED body fat. Demonizing fat and applauding all thin, lean bodies (bodies which may also be exhausted and deficient in nutrients) completely ignores this fact.
I’m still a fairly “lean” individual because of genetics, but I certainly don’t hold that out to be a marker of health. I assess my health using other standards: am I sleeping well? How are my energy levels? How am I digesting my food? Are my cycles regular? (etc)…and make changes from there.
Friends, language gives us a lot of options for making compliments. And though I’m not against occasional physical compliments (after all, it’s nice to know if my hair looks awesome today), maybe it’s time to use healthier, more creative words of affirmation.