Approximately 25 years ago I was walking in NYC with my husband when we ran into a family friend who was known for saying what was on her mind. After chatting for a few minutes, she said to me, “You don’t look good. Are you well?” Since I was feeling perfectly well, I was taken aback until I realized I had been slimed. In her eyes, I didn’t look good enough. What does one say to this?
As a psychotherapist specializing in treating eating disorders, many patients have complained to me over the years that they have been slimed. Definition of being slimed: when a close friend, family member, or caretaking professional tells you that your body is not good enough, and far too often in our culture, that is interpreted as “too fat.”
One adult female in her fifties told me stories of multiple beloved family members cornering her on separate occasions, sitting her down, and telling her how much they were concerned about her health. Another told me how her sister would quietly move the candy bowl out of her reach when she went home for a visit. Several women over the years, in all body shapes and sizes including one struggling with Anorexia, told me that people asked them if they were pregnant when they were not. These women all felt judged that their bodies were too fat, not good enough, slimed. And men are not exempt from these judgments either. Often my male patients struggling with eating and body image date the beginning of their problems to teasing about their bodies as children or adolescents.
The medical and caretaking professionals can be offenders as well. Patients have shared with me their experiences with all kinds of medical professionals who have advised them to lose weight before addressing or even listening to the patients’ chief complaints. Susan was threatened by her doctor that she would need a “medical weight loss” program unless she could consume fewer calories. Carol was told, in a caring tone, by her physical therapist that he was going to help her with her “whole body problem” despite the fact that she came to treatment for her elbow. Then there is the harm done by pediatricians who advise children during their growth spurts that their weight is fine now, but don’t gain any more. Best intentions. Perhaps many kids would ignore these messages. For others, a seed is planted that infects their sense of confidence with doubt and fear often leading to hyper-vigilance about their growth, body shape, size, and eating.
I would like to give the benefit of doubt to these friends/family members/caretaking professionals. They likely believe in their hearts that their words or actions are truly in the name of health and are helpful. Perhaps others’ comments are due to fat discrimination. I can say with certainty that these comments and attempts to “help others with their body size” is ineffective and typically heard as judgmental. Listen instead of talking. Offer support to people for what they are asking for. Experiment with not making comments about other people’s bodies and see how that feels.