Why “You look so skinny!” wasn’t what I needed to hear

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains information that may be triggering to people struggling with eating disorders.

A few months ago, About-Face posted a link to Beauty Redefined’s article “When ‘You Look So Skinny!’ Does More Harm Than Good” to its various social media accounts.

The authors, Lexie and Lindsay Kite, caution readers to be aware of the compliments they might dole out to an acquaintance who has lost weight and hasn’t spoken about it openly “because you don’t know if they are working out and eating healthfully or depressed and struggling, or suffering with an eating disorder or resorting to other unhealthy extremes to fit an unhealthy ideal. You just don’t know.” In light of this, I wanted to share my own story.

My background rendered me a perfect storm for an eating disorder, as I was an intense perfectionist who thrived on others’ approval. Furthermore, I was lauded throughout my life for my naturally tiny physique. When I began to seriously study dance in high school, I soon learned a lesson that contradicted everything I knew about myself: I would never be good enough.

Dancers are surrounded by literal and metaphorical mirrors. There are, of course, real ones hanging on walls that facilitate technical improvement, but the appearances of the other girls in the room became metrics by which we compared ourselves. The environment of comparison was toxic; once one girl began to visibly develop an eating disorder, other girls started to fall prey to the disease like dominoes.

I began to gain weight my senior year — in retrospect, it was likely just my body’s natural growth — and I didn’t know how to accept my changing physique. When I entered college, significant stressors triggered my body anxiety: My best friend was naturally slim, and I was addicted to comparing myself to girls around me; I lost an important friendship; and I had an enormous amount of work from a school where everyone pressured him- or herself to be perfect.

I decided I could achieve perfection by strictly controlling what I ate. I also wanted attention, even salvation, from someone noticing I had a problem — but no one did. When I went home for the summer, I received compliments about my weight loss: “You even look smaller than you did at the beginning of the year!”

I went to parties where friends squealed over how skinny I was and boys flirted with me in unprecedented numbers. However, whenever someone told me how good I looked, all I could think was, “You have no idea what I’m doing to look like this.”

My world revolved around near-religious gym habits and a constant preoccupation with only eating when I thought I deserved it — which was not often. Outsiders didn’t know that I had to pretend to dislike certain foods when all my friends would eat them, or that I would break down to my best friends about how fat I thought I looked. With all intentions of love, they assured me I was “tiny,” and therefore had nothing to worry about.

This brings me to my point: No one understood the prison I was in that made me look the way I did. No one knew that with every “You look so skinny,” meant as a compliment, I was further entrapped. That was where my self-worth rested, and as long as I was told I was thin and beautiful, I was worth something.

This is where Lexie and Lindsay Kite are correct: complimenting someone’s weight loss might have drastically unintended consequences. We have to change how we compliment women, for using “skinny” as a compliment implies that they would be worth much less if they were to look any different. We must focus on encouraging each other’s minds, hearts, and spirits if we are to foster genuine confidence in each other.

This article was written anonymously for the About-Face blog.

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