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If someone’s weight has changed, you do not need to comment

WORDS BY CAIT EMMA BURKE

Weight should never be a talking point.

“I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been, I’ve even put weight on my legs – that’s the one part of my body I usually don’t worry about. I look awful.”

These toxic words spewed out of my mouth earlier this week while on the phone to my mum, bemoaning my lockdown-induced weight gain. As someone who tries their best to build up their friends and challenge them when they say body-shaming sentences like these, a different set of rules always seems to apply when it comes to the way I critique my own body.

I’ve been thinking a lot about weight lately, mainly because I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been and I’ve been startled at the way this has made me feel. But then again, since the age of 11, I’ve never not thought about weight. How to lose it, where to gain it, what men think about it, how clothing looks because of it, how I feel because of it, what it looks like during sex.

I’ve witnessed the myriad of ways it colours and shapes women’s interior and exterior lives, whether we want it to or not. Despite this, apart from a period in high school where I dramatically restricted my food intake and experienced what I would now classify as some type of disordered eating, I’ve always believed that, compared to many other women I know, I have a fairly healthy relationship with my body and the way it looks.

Sure, I’ve had my insecurities over the years, and my stomach has always been an area I’ve struggled to accept, but overall I liked being short and curvy, and I often felt better naked than I did in clothing. (I mainly put this preference down to the frustration of trying to participate in fashion if you have big boobs, but that warrants a whole other article).

For all these years though, what I’ve failed to realise is how much my happiness and comfortability in my body has been so utterly contingent on maintaining a certain weight; how inextricably linked it is to this idea of being ‘small but curvy’.

I’m beginning to realise that I only ever felt comfortable in my body because of the validation it received from men; because I subconsciously knew that my proportions fit within what I had been taught to believe was acceptable, desirable even.

Throughout my twenties, I’ve never had to actively work hard to maintain a certain weight. I was never someone who could binge on junk food for weeks, but I could essentially eat what I wanted, when I wanted and exercise very minimally without seeing my sometimes poor lifestyle choices reflected in the shape of my body.

In some ways, this fostered a sense of disconnection – in not thinking too hard about what I put into my body, or how I need to move my body to keep it happy, I came to view it as something that would remain essentially the same no matter what I did. Something that would continue serving me, no matter how poorly I treated it.

But seeing the way my mind has been utterly consumed by my recent weight gain, it’s clear that I have not escaped years of diet culture conditioning unscathed. For me, the most terrifying part is the internalised misogyny; the deeply-held belief that bounces around my brain, telling me that I am less desirable now, that my body is, in some ways, repulsive. The inescapable feeling that I’m taking up too much space.

As I write this, it’s taking all of my willpower to not look at the mirror that’s leaning against the wall by my desk, displaying my side profile. Each time I’ve glanced over, a feeling of bitter disappointment floods through me and a relentless cataloguing of the “good” and “bad” foods I’ve eaten today begins in my head.

I would be worried, if I didn’t know how common this train of thought is for so many women. I feel frustrated more than anything – I thought I had moved beyond this high school-like mentality towards weight gain. I follow influencers who practice body positivity and body neutrality. Women who look undeniably fantastic at a multitude of sizes and shapes.

I can look at these women, at these Instagram accounts, and agree with what they’re saying and know that if they can wear a top like that with a full bust and wide hips, then I can too. But putting this into practice is a heck of a lot harder, and part of me believes that it comes down to how frequently we discuss weight in our culture, particularly amongst our female friendship groups.

Recently, a friend who has a similar body shape to me but, unlike me, has lost weight over the last few months, told me that she has decided she isn’t going to comment on weight, herself or other peoples’, anymore. When people bring up their weight, she will disengage or move the conversation along, politely of course.

I’m ashamed to admit that my first thought was: Well, if I was small like you I wouldn’t need to talk about weight either. Catching yourself when you have these thoughts is important, and I’m becoming increasingly aware of the ways I need to start unpacking and critiquing how I value ‘smallness’ when it comes to my body.

Someone’s weight loss or weight gain should affect no one but them. My friend is right. We don’t need to talk about people’s weight. Every individual has a long and, for many women, difficult relationship with their body and weight.

It’s crucial to remember that weight and health are not always directly correlated; someone who is particularly slim could have a debilitating autoimmune condition that makes it hard for them to put on weight, and someone who has gained weight may struggle with polycystic ovary syndrome.

By discussing weight, whether it’s bemoaning our own weight gain or a well-intentioned compliment to a friend who’s lost weight, we may potentially be reinforcing damaging habits, or drawing attention to a painful issue. “You look amazing! You’re so tiny, what have you been doing?” was what other women regularly said to me at the height of my eating struggles in high school.

Knowing that the people around you think you look “amazing” when you’re subsisting on a small handful of almonds, an apple and a few mouthfuls of tuna each day only reinforces that you’re doing the right thing by eating less, wanting less, desiring less, by taking up less space.

Part of me believes that millennial women will be the last generation to be so deeply indoctrinated with the skinny equals desirable message; watching the proliferation of diverse bodies across social media, beauty campaigns and runways over the last few years has been nothing short of joyous, and seems to signify that real, tangible change is afoot.

Many Gen Z women I know seem to have an innate understanding that talking about someone’s weight, even if it’s a compliment, is never okay, and that picking your appearance apart to your friends is a pointless pastime.

This is not to ignore the fact that platforms like Instagram have introduced a whole host of new ways for young people to feel insecure and less than, but to simply feel hopeful for a brief moment. If I had seen women with E cup breasts and stomach rolls plastered across billboards and dancing in music videos when I was younger, I wonder what my relationship with my body might be like today.

For women like me, my mum and many of my friends and their mothers, wading through the piles of toxic sludge that diet culture has heaped on us in our most formative years will most probably be lifelong work. It will take catching ourselves when we revert back to picking ourselves apart and believing that weight gain equates to a personal failure.

It will take practising body neutrality, or body positivity if that feels within reach. But not talking about weight, whether someone has lost or gained it, and not talking about whether I’ve lost or gained it, feels like as good a place as any to start.

If you’re struggling with body image issues or eating disorders, you can call the Butterfly National Helpline at 1800 33 4673 for free and confidential support, or email or chat to them online here.

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