Last night, for the first time, I saw an ad targeted at women on how to gain weight. Of course I was intrigued, but more than that, I was surprised. Why is this so uncommon? Millions of women around the world are underweight, and not all of us are skinny by choice. Some of us have chronic illnesses, digestive disorders, mental health ailments, and even genetics that make it difficult for us to pack on pounds. For some of us, pretty hurts.
My Body, My Business
Last year, I was diagnosed with a rare stomach bacteria that causes ulcers, stabbing abdominal pain, and in some cases, stomach cancer. In the three months it took for me to receive my diagnosis I lost 35 pounds, dropping from a healthy 130 down to only 95 pounds–the lightest I’d been since my childhood. My skin was grey and my hair started falling out because my body couldn’t absorb enough nutrients. I looked like death. Do these last few symptoms sound familiar to you? That’s because they are also some of the dangers associated with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
I was desperate to gain the weight back. I had been an athlete most of my life, and the majority of the weight I’d lost had been muscle. I’d always known how hard it was to lose weight, but I hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to gain it.
Much to my dismay, my friends just didn’t understand. How could they? After all, this was an illness that only affected 5% of the world. To them, the most noticeable and therefore the most important symptom of my sickness was my incredible weight loss.
Girls complemented my new size and asked what my dieting secret was. When I told them I wasn’t trying to lose weight, they said I just got lucky. But vomiting up blood and experiencing constant nausea didn’t feel very lucky to me.
The guys seemed to have the opposite remarks: “You shouldn’t have lost all that weight.” “I miss your curves. They were sexy.” As if I had tried to lose the weight. But even if I had, wasn’t it my body, and therefore my business?
All those comments stung. Was I really not sexy anymore because I lost weight? Did I really need curves to be a woman? And why did people think I was healthier now than I had been a few months ago before I was sick?
The Picture of “Health”
Women have always been told what to do with their bodies, and that picture of attractiveness and health has fluctuated greatly over the years. From Marilyn Monroe to Audrey Hepburn, women come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s impossible to discern from those looks who is healthy and who is not. We are trained to assume that weight is an indicator of attractiveness from a young age, and if we fall too far on the skinny or the heavy side of the spectrum, we risk being ostracized and deemed unattractive.
Rather than body shaming girls that are “too fat” or “too skinny” or anyone who doesn’t look the way we want them to, we need to realize that a healthy weight for one person might not be healthy for someone else–and even if it is, it’s not our business. While encouraging a friend or loved one to live a healthy lifestyle is constructive, doing so by critiquing her shape or size does more harm than help.
As women living in a world of dietary fads and photoshopped perfection, we need to encourage one another to focus on wellness and health, not gaining or losing weight. Exercising more, getting a good amount of sleep, and socializing with positive people bolsters not only health, but self-confidence as well. The number you see on the scale or inside your jeans is not the proper way to evaluate your health, and certainly not your self-worth.
You Are More than Your Weight
To my fellow skinny girls out there: You are more than a number. You are a woman. You don’t look like a boy. You don’t look like a skeleton. You look like whatever the hell you want to look like. Let yourself be defined by your killer lipstick, your tattoos, your achievements. The things that you control. The things that define who you are. The beauty we see when we look beyond the scale.
We need to stop focusing on our weight and how our bodies look, and shift the focus instead onto how our bodies feel. Don’t punish your body for how it looks by excessively controlling your food intake. If you feel awake and alive, feel proud of yourself! Your body is loving you, so go ahead and love it right back.
How Can We Help
My friends, well-meaning as they were, didn’t understand my struggle with chronic illness because they had never experienced it. But we can all understand what it feels like to be judged for our weight. And regardless of whether those judgements are positive or negative, they directly affect our self-esteem. By complimenting the character, achievements, and sometimes even the shoes of other women, we can learn to be proud of the things that define who we are, not the numbers that define our dimensions. We need to remind women that weight is not an accurate representation of health, and that we are worth so much more than our measurements can ever express.
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