About a week and a half ago, I went to a work retreat where I knew I would be seeing people I hadn’t seen in a while. I was looking forward to it. Just before dinner, as most of us headed down the hill towards the dining hall, I saw Brian and Teri, a couple who were a year behind me in seminary. I waved. They didn’t seem to notice. I said “Hi, [surname]!” and waved again, to which I got a polite “…Hello…” in response.
I was a little bummed. Had I done something that offended them?
“Wait, is that Cindy?” Teri said as they got closer.
Oh, right. I haven’t seen them in probably a year and a half, maybe more, and they wouldn’t necessarily have known that I’ve lost a ton of weight, or that I wear bright red lip stain now, or that my hair is about six inches shorter. They weren’t ignoring or placating me before, they just didn’t know it was me. I waited a few seconds for them and we kept walking together. Inevitably, they said the two things everyone says when they see me now:
“You look so great!”
Thank you. I have moments when I feel I look better than other moments, and overall, I’m more pleased with how I look than I was 10 sizes ago. But it’s really awkward when people say some variation of this now because I am accustomed to being ignored. I had the same green eyes, same pretty freckles, and better boobs a year ago, and no one ever greeted me with “you look amazing!” Which makes it feel like the fat I am so ashamed of really DOES make me ugly and undesirable, because the more of it I lose, the more compliments I get. Take that one anxious step further, and in a society that fixes a woman’s worth to her appearance and it feels like the less of me there is, the more I’m worth.
“How did you do it?”
This one is a little less common, but still happens often enough. I’m never sure how to answer it, because weight is a complicated issue. There is no way to answer it without there being stigma attached. For me, I started losing weight by accident a little while after my PTSD started to settle down a bit, when I was suddenly flirting all day with someone, when an old friend became one of my very best friends, when work was in its busiest season. In other words, I was the happiest I’d been in a very long time. For a while, the “how” was flirting and smiling.
Then it became a real effort. The flirting ended for a while, work was slow, my boss was on my case, PTSD never went away, and then losing weight became the only thing in life that kept me sane. The “how” was hours in the gym, and counting calories, and spending what little money I had on Ace bandages, sports bras, and blister Band-Aids.
Mono, it turns out, is also an effective way to lose weight, mostly because eating made me want to wretch and I was too tired to cook anyways. “How” meant hours laying in bed, relying on others to help with basic things like laundry, praying that my liver count would return to normal.
Right now, it’s a fight. Every friggin’ day is a fight to unlearn a lifetime of habits and attitudes. It’s exhausting. I don’t have to look up calories all the time because I remember them, but it’s a running total all day, remembering every bite of chicken or carrot or cookie to know if I should have the graham crackers I’m craving before bed. It’s harder and slower now because I can’t eat much less than I do most days without being too low on calories and workouts are a habit that still feels forced. “How” is trying to be kinder to myself, disassociating shame and food, going broke buying clothes that I keep shrinking out of, and figuring out how I am going to live in my differently shaped body.
I don’t know how to explain those two things as anything but awkwardly encouraging. I know it’s my own hang-ups that bog me down, and none of the awkwardness and anxiety I feel comes from anyone else. I just never know how to respond when people say them. My weight isn’t complicated for them, it’s complicated for me. At the same time, it’s almost as awkward when I see someone I haven’t seen in a year or more and nothing at all is said. I can see it on their faces, flashes of surprise and adjusting to my “new” face, but nothing gets said, and there is an underlying awkwardness for a few moments until it fades.
And I won’t even begin to talk about how awkward it is that I still have a long way to go if I’m going to lose all that I should.
I don’t know what the answer is, if there is one. I don’t even think I know if there’s a question. Maybe just an acknowledgement of the weird, stupid, nebulous place I’m in, and maybe a request for a little bit of grace, should you ever have to endure my whining about choosing an apple over potato chips.