Rapid, drastic weight loss is cause for concern, not celebration
I have been thinking a lot about the way that people automatically encourage weight loss in others. When we see someone visibly thinner, or someone tells us that they have lost weight, we respond with some variation of “congratulations!” and “I wish I could do that!”
But I think we need to deconstruct this, and I think we need to deconstruct this now. Because rapid, drastic* weight loss is not a healthy thing for people to be trying to deliberately inflict on their bodies, and society needs to stop overtly and tacitly encouraging it.
Rapid, drastic weight loss is a sign of a number of possibilities.
One of the possibilities is cancer or other life-threatening illness. When my mom was dying of cancer, people who didn’t know frequently commented her on her weight loss. Sudden weight loss is also a byproduct of a number of other diseases including diabetes, some cardiac disorders, gastrointenstinal problems, and others.
Another of the possibilities is drug use. A member of my family was using meth which caused significant weight loss. Many people talked about how good she looked. I worked for a couple years with folks recovering from chemical abuse and dependency, and as they recovered they would often gain weight. While the weight gain was indicative of increased physical, mental, and social well-being it was often lamented and socially criticized, which I found incredibly depressing.
Yet another possibility is depression, an eating disorder, or other mental illness. Any change in weight can be an indicator of a number of mental illnesses, especially severe depression. The malnourishment doesn’t only accompany the mental illness but also reinforces it by creating a lack of energy, lowered immune response, etc. in the person—it is a harmful feedback loop, if it’s not stopped.
Finally, a possibility with major weight loss is intentional starvation practices. No, I will not use a word so benign as “dieting” or “lifestyle changes.” If a person is restricting their calories to such an extent that they experience rapid, drastic weight loss they are also malnourishing their body. They are literally starving themselves, robbing their bodies of the precious nutrients they need, often wreaking havoc on their metabolisms. Study after study and the experiences of individual after individual indicate that as soon as proper nourishment resumes and starvation ceases, this weight is gained back, and often more.
These are just facts, folks. So why are we so quick to congratulate every weight loss that we see? Why are we so quick to assume that it is positive, that it’s a marker of good health? Especially when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Why do we explicitly encourage this behavior in everyone from loved ones to coworkers to that lady we always see at the library when there is no circumstance in which drastic and rapid weight loss represents health in adults?**
Because make no mistake: in adults, rapid weight loss is always a sign of the body experiencing illness of some kind. It may be mental, it may be physical, it may be an addiction, or it may be self-inflicted. But whatever the reason, it’s not an indication of health.
For the record, I do not believe in policing any individual person’s decisions. I’m speaking more generally, about our actions as a society. I’m talking about how we respond. No, I do not think that someone trying intentional weight loss should be lectured about the risks (educated, if he or she asks, sure, but not lectured). I think that we should aspire to an ideal in which everyone we encounter is safe to be in a body free from any judgment.
Giving verbal praise is actually a form of policing and judgment. It is giving a message about what bodies are supposed to be. What I am calling us to is compassion, kindness, respect, and minding our own damn business. What I am calling us to is to stop immediately seeing health and willpower and unicorns and rainbows when we see rapid weight loss in someone else. It’s a lie. A powerful, pervasive lie that is gaining more and more traction in our society, but a lie nevertheless.
* This post is not about people who are trying to lose weight “the healthy way” by losing slowly over time. Please keep this in mind in your comments.
** I did think of one example in which rapid fat loss may be neutral or healthy, and that is in growth spurts in adolescence. Some adolescents experience rapid growth spurts in which they start short and pudgy and end tall and lanky. Other than that? Yeah I’m wracking my brain.