weighty issues

It’s Impossible to Have an Honest Conversation About Weight

Photo: Microzoa/Getty Images

What if I told you how tall I was? You wouldn’t really care, would you? Five-foot-six on a good-posture day, but whatever.

What if I told you what shoe size I wear? Let me guess your response: Shrug. Seven and a half, sometimes an eight. Just FYI.

What if I told you how much I weigh? You think that’s slightly juicier information, don’t you? I can’t blame you. I’m the same way. Without equivocation, apology, or any manner of bravado or justification, I will say that as of this morning, I weighed 154 pounds. Yesterday morning, 150.8. Weight is hard to divulge — I keep backspacing to delete the numbers, or adding “but it’s baby weight!” as a parenthetical, even though the baby is over a year old. No matter where you measure on the scale, weight is a touchy subject — hard to divulge, and even harder to discuss.

A few years ago, I went to a party for women writers at a famous feminist author’s apartment. In a doorman building off of a snazzy uptown avenue, the apartment had it all. Penthouse. Floor-to-ceiling windows. Balcony overlooking Central Park — the whole “made it in New York City” domestic dreamscape. The event was lovely — warm company, gracious hostess, free-flowing booze, and classic blues piped in at a mingle-supporting volume.

But two things bothered me about the event: Many of the conversations were peppered with at least a few self-deprecating remarks about one’s own weight or degree of personal fitness. And, amid a buffet of untouched chafing dishes filled with pastas and meats, the gargantuan salad bowl was empty. It made me want to wander the room with a bucket of fried chicken tucked under my arm, conversing about anything but weight or fitness while powering down several pieces of extra-crispy. The radicalization of KFC.

As the party chatter changed course, I noticed that the weight-and-body stuff, even mentioned in passing, was highly charged. A slender woman who body-negged herself got serious side-eyes from women who were more voluptuous than her. Like, what the hell are you complaining about? A bigger woman who said something about her dress not fitting at the moment was soothed by women of roughly the same size and shape, all saying she looked great, and she looked like she felt assured, not patronized. Would she have felt the same hearing those compliments from a slimmer guest?

It is challenging to mention weight when you’re the same size and shape as your conversation partner, but it’s especially hard when you are not. A simple compliment can cause you to whip out your secret Body-Language Decoder Ring. When a girlfriend you haven’t seen in a while says you look “healthy,” you pause for a beat and wonder. Healthy-healthy, or is that polite for “I notice you’ve gained weight”? Or someone describes you as “curvy.” Do you mean, like, curvy-curvy or curvy-fat? Jesus, we obsess right down to the individual words. It’s crazy.

I hate the crazy, yet I am of the crazy.

What a lifetime of fluctuating weight has done is provide me with a much-too-up-close-and-personal look into how women are treated based on — for lack of a less pugilistic term — weight class. When I was overweight, people would actually yell out about it on the street or use it to cut me down in confrontation. “You’ve got a big ass,” shouted the helpful fellow as I crossed Haight Street one sunny afternoon in San Francisco. The comely drunken lass at a Wyoming honky-tonk, ranting at my boyfriend for ignoring her inebriated antics, wrapped up with a barb aimed at me: “And his girlfriend is a fat bitch.”

When I was on the thinner side, certain women — that thankfully rather rare breed who simply can’t stand to be in the company of a woman whom she thinks looks better than her — would make snide comments about me “wasting away.” While I do believe that skinny women get comments on their size, the force, velocity, and severity, as I experienced it, is much greater around fat. I can’t pretend to have gone through any Universal Lady Experience, but I do think I’ve observed the most common outline of how size is perceived: While a thinner woman is threatening, a heavier woman is disgusting.

But regardless of where you fall on the weight continuum, your body and your choices surrounding it are up for commentary. No size acts as a mute button. Thin women who say something about their weight are treated to reactions that say, in essence, “You’ve got no right to complain,” while women who are larger than the vaunted ideal have their lamentations met with a subtext of “Why don’t you do something about it?” (their size, not their frustration). Both types of response deny women their voice, and their emotions. That’s why, when we’re talking about weight among friends and other benevolent presences, it’s important to be mindful of what we say, and to whom we are saying it. Context, and present company, are important.

Talking about weight is an exercise in understanding — and sometimes checking — privilege. Yes, I know we are all rather tired of the checking of the privilege, however, it’s particularly important where body issues are concerned because of the markedly different ways that women are treated based on their size.

Many mental calculations go into it: “Am I thinner than this person to a degree that it would be offensive to complain about feeling fat?” or “Could my size 2 friend possibly understand what I mean when I say I hate shopping?” Questions such as these are all about recognizing the way people of different body types are treated and the kinds of privileges — and pitfalls — that go along with it.

I have had to learn and relearn this many times myself. I am, I admit, somewhat incredulous when I hear thin (and otherwise healthy) friends complain about their weight, and the comments and/or difficulties they’ve faced around the same. I have, most certainly, said things that fall into the “You’ve got nothing to complain about” camp. (Note to self: Asking a thinner friend “Wanna trade?” is. not. helpful.) So I constantly have to check myself lest I make a faux pas that leaves me wondering about the approximate weight of the foot I just put in my mouth.

As women, weight remains one of the heaviest topics we can discuss since it’s so often tied to who we are, and how we are valued. As author Betsy Lerner says in her memoir Food and Loathing: A Life Measured Out in Calories, “Nothing was a more powerful compass of my mood or a better indication of my self-worth than the number on the scale.” This would be an alarming statement if it weren’t so immediately relatable. No matter what we have going on in our lives, women always find time and space to ruminate on the subject of weight. But thoughts and feelings around a subject so loaded will always be awkward to speak aloud. And it’s hard to know what to say about that.

It’s Impossible to Talk Honestly About Weight