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November 17, 2010 / Katie

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.

13 Comments

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  1. Anna / Nov 17 2010 5:54 pm

    Thank you for this post. This is a problem that really bugs me.

    Recently, I had a really awful flu where I couldn’t keep any food down. I mentioned I was worried my roller derby costume wouldn’t fit right because I ahd lost weight, and someone went “Oh, that’s great!” I was so hurt and offended. Am I really so horrible and disgusting that my two week illness was a good thing?

    I don’t really notice if other people lose weight, so it’s msotly when people tell me they’ve lost weight, and look at me and expect congratulations. I have no idea what I’m going to say. “Are you okay?” “Is everything all right?” “Oh no!”

    When I’m not gaping like a stunned mullet, my favourite response is “Does that make you happy?” If they respond yes, then I just say “Well, I support you in anything that brings you happiness, but I would love you all the same no matter what you weighed. You were gorgeous before, and you’re gorgeous now.”

  2. ThePowerofMyth / Nov 17 2010 5:55 pm

    Awesome post!!! I completely agree with everything you have said! I am right there with you I don’t understand why we as a society congratulate rapid weight loss….it confuses me too. Especially when one is educated on all the terrible things rapid weight loss could mean. It doesn’t make logic sense at all, once you really sit down and think about it.

  3. Regina T / Nov 17 2010 6:49 pm

    Funny you should write this post, because my 32 yr old niece just posted on Facebook that she’s lost 35lbs in a month. I had no response for her, since I know the “back story”. Basically, she just got out of an abusive relationship with her boyfriend who is the father of her two boys, ages 2 and 5 months. He also has another baby that is a year old now, whose mother he impregnated DURING their relationship. They lived together for 3 years, during which time he couldn’t and wouldn’t keep a job, she paid for everything they needed-including his booze, he kept her away from her own mother and even threw her out of the house after the last baby was born, he smokes Salvia and Spice while watching his kids, beat her, bullied her, belittled her, received 2 alcohol related convictions, and is now living with the other baby’s mother. My niece FINALLY wised up and left him, taking the boys with her.
    So, after all that….after enduring countless blows to her self-confidence and for the first time in her life finally being on her own……she posts that she’s lost 35 lbs in a month. The congratulations to her just disgust me. It’s almost as if the people are saying “How fantastic that you were able to drop 35 lbs! Enduring all that abuse was SO WORTH IT!”. I just want to scream at them! I wonder if anyone’s going to market THAT as the next diet craze! People can’t see that this much weight loss in a month has GOT to be wreaking havoc on her body and mental health. They just want to congratulate her and pat her on the back about her “awesome weight loss”! Nevermind that she’s done the more admirable thing of getting away from her abuser and making a better life for herself! Nah…..it’s all about the weight loss! *blech*

  4. Meowser / Nov 17 2010 9:38 pm

    Yeah, you tell ‘em. I have a friend who has Crohn’s disease and has always been thin; during the course of his illness, he lost 20 pounds, which scared the crap out of him. I told my dad about this and he said he thought the weight loss would be good for the guy’s heart! Now, my friend does have cardiovascular issues also (as does his father, also quite thin), but I said something like, “Not like that; constant diarrhea and shitting blood is NEVER good for you.” I actually regret being so wishy-washy about it, because this stuff pisses me off, too.

  5. ivan / Nov 17 2010 10:55 pm

    I was diagnosed with Crohn’s many years ago. I was one of the only obese patients my doctor saw. during extreme flair ups the weight would drop very fast and my family (noy knowing any better) would celebrate the weight loss which in a way was a perverse celebration every time I started to get ill.

    I would gain the weight back as soon as I got through the episode feeling guilty and like a total failure because I couldn’t keep the weight off

    In hindsight, the weight saved my life as many folks who had it as bad as me died from Crohn’s back in the day before the meds they use today were available.

  6. Hel / Nov 18 2010 3:20 am

    My sister lost 10 kgs in one month due to depression, but she looked so horrible that nobody dared to say “you look better”, now she has gain back a few kgs, and all the people says that she look better.

    My grandmothers always say “you look wonderful”, when me or one of my sisters gain weight. And “I can notice you never pass a war”, when you don’t clean your plate. That’s because the two of them live during the spanish civil war and they associate fat with healthy and beauty, and not the other way.

  7. wriggles / Nov 18 2010 7:58 am

    Rather than reversing automatic congratulations, I think it would be better to be move to a more open minded stance.

    I say this as someone who’s never lost the sense that spontaneous weight loss is far more a cause for concern medically than the opposite and that our one track minded obsession with weight loss at all costs has undermined that to the point of erasure.

    However as has been indicated by commetors, sometimes weight loss/gain is an outcome of other changes. Regina T’s niece’s weight loss to me is about her (and her kids) survival, of going through something that took it out of her and required her mind and body to dip into what revserves she had, weight is only an outer manifestation of this.

    Congratulations for her weight loss doesn’t acknowledge that survival as being more important than paying tribute to the privileging of thinness.

    • Katie / Nov 18 2010 12:10 pm

      Rather than reversing automatic congratulations, I think it would be better to be move to a more open minded stance.

      Yeah, I agree, which is why that’s what I emphasized in the closing of the post. I don’t believe this post is calling for anyone to switch from saying, “awesome, congratulations!” to “wow, what is wrong with you?” I think we can hold a healthy amount of concern for someone—to hear about rapid weight loss and wonder what they might have been through recently—without getting all up in their business/policing their body. Because while we should take a neutral stance toward the bodies of others, rapid weight loss is not a neutral thing. We can be concerned about whatever has gone on in the person’s life to cause the weight loss without commenting on their body. That’s what I’d like to see more of.

      I’m not following you on the distinction you are making about survival. It sounds to me like all of the stories here are about survival. In fact, that’s one of the terrible ironies of this attitude, because as commenters here have pointed out, and as I’ve read elsewhere, fat is often protective against illnesses like cancer. A fat person losing a lot of weight after surviving cancer or depression or abuse is an indication that the body protected itself against the assault as well as it could. But the weight loss is not an indication of the survival itself, it is an indication of the medical, psychological, and/or social distress the person was going through. That’s the case in Regina T’s comment. Yes, Regina’s niece did survive a terrible circumstance, and that is wonderful, but the weight loss is not a biproduct of the survival, it’s a biproduct of the abuse.

      What I’d like to see from society in response to Regina’s niece is for people to stop congratulating her weight loss and instead treat her with the respect and autonomy that she deserves as a human person. To hold in their heart compassion for what she has gone through, to see her weight loss as a part of the trial rather than an accomplishment to celebrate, and to honor her by not saying anything about her body size at all.

      • wriggles / Nov 19 2010 6:57 am

        I don’t believe this post is calling for anyone to switch from saying, “awesome, congratulations!” to “wow, what is wrong with you?”

        Because make no mistake: in adults, rapid weight loss is always a sign of the body experiencing illness of some kind.

        We agree sudden unaccountable rapid weight loss is a very bad sign, just not always. I think you might be conflating weight loss with calorie restriction, assuming that all loss takes the same path and the same kind of toll, it doesn’t, human metabolism can do far more than we can manipulate it to do.

        I used the example of Regina T’s niece to illustrate that reserves are there to be used if needed. You say it’s a sign of the abuse, I say its a sign of the survival of it, you say puhtatah, I say puhtatoe.

        Point is it’s probably not about illness, although she might want to make sure, and like we both said, should be congratulated on her survival-which is truly something to celebrate-rather than a by product of what it took to survive which isn’t.

        The part about paying tribute to thinness was directed at the ‘congratulating’ mindset.

  8. Returnofconky / Nov 18 2010 10:09 am

    My grandmother broke her neck last year and very nearly could have died or been paralyzed. She had blood pressure issues and was in the hospital for several weeks. She was absolutely thrilled that her hospitalization resulted in weight loss of 17lbs. Our society is sick.

  9. JoannaDeadWinter / Nov 18 2010 4:19 pm

    This week is Health and Wellness (or, as I prefer, Healthist Wankfest) week at my college. One major focus is on smoking cessation, and one of the handouts discussed barriers to quitting. Obviously, weight gain is one of the biggest reasons people don’t want to stop smoking.

    Guess how the authors chose to address that?

    They offered “healthy” eating and exercise tips so that smokers could keep their weight down without smoking.

    Their weight is, already, *unnaturally* low because of a bad habit, and rather than welcome the weight gain as a sign of restored metabolic health, they focus on smokers’ appearances. (Isn’t a fixation on appearance what GOT them there to begin with?)

    Anyway, your story about people recovering from addictions and gaining weight as a result made me think of that. Talk about missing the point, eh?

  10. inge / Nov 21 2010 7:24 am

    This is so true.

    I lost 30 kg over eighteen months because of overcoming (for good, I hope, but one never knows) a low-level binge eating disorder caused by diet attempts, and that was *scarily* fast. I went to the doctor to check against possible serious illnesses causing it — my mother was so happy about losing 25 kilos just before she was diagnosed with cancer — and got a load of crap about my waist measurement and my cholesterol, as you– I would say “could not imagine”, but you probably can. That was three days before I fainted in the bath because of low blood pressure.

    And I hate it with a burning passion when people congratulate me and ask me “what did you do?” If I have the time I’ll tell them that I discovered HAES and intuitive eating and tell them what it is all about — this needs some time, because hastily explained intuitive eating is only a confirmation of people’s “fatties just shovel in the junk food all day” stereotypes. I don’t yet have a good short answer. People asking me if I am ill to have lost so much weight is actually the less stressful alternative.

  11. nono / Dec 5 2010 11:21 am

    Hello, I hope I’m not too late to the discussion. I completely agree with this post. I feel really uncomfortable whenever anyone talks about someone’s weight positively precisely because it sends a message about what bodies are supposed to be (well put!!).

    I’d like to know what HAES folks think IS a productive response to positive comments. What response promotes positive body image? And what response would promote positive body image WITHOUT making the other person feel like too much of an a-hole when they say the following:

    1. “I’ve lost a bunch of weight recently!” (I like Anna’s “Does that make you happy?” but I’m a little worried that could sound combative coming out in my voice!)

    and

    2. “You’ve lost a bunch of weight recently!” or “You look so great, have you lost weight??” (As someone whose weight has gone up and down and up and down multiple times, I’ve gotten these comments at various sizes, and they totally make me feel like crap even when the person is well-meaning.)

    Thanks for your input!!

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