“Congratulations!” a coworker once said to me, enthusiastically patting his stomach, and for a moment I wondered if he thought I was pregnant, and where that idea had come from.
“For what?” I asked.
“You’ve gotten thinner,” he beamed.
I hesitated for a moment. It was one of those strange exchanges where the correct answer is not always the honest answer. Just as “how are you?” can only be followed by “good,” “you’ve lost weight” can only be followed by “thanks.” In our broken conception of wellness, thinner is automatically healthier, thinner is automatically more desireable, thinner is to be noticed and congratulated.
This exchange happened two years ago, when I suddenly dropped the freshman fifteen that had stuck with me stubbornly through my college years and then lost a little bit more. I had not felt that I was ever particularly overweight, but the regularity and effusiveness of the compliments I received afterward made me question this. (Another coworker, sweet and well-intentioned, gave me frequent reminders—“Oh yes, you used to be chubby!”)
I squirmed at these comments because losing this weight for me was no victory.
When I first moved to Honduras three years ago, I ate everything my host family ate: beans, eggs, cream, tortillas. Heavy, simple plates—bland, but satisfying. But then suddenly one day, months in, I just couldn’t do it anymore. The food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I was used to—it was too much of the wrong food, at the wrong times of day, and I reached a breaking point. I felt I couldn’t take another bite.
So little by little, I stopped eating. I “forgot” food at home and replaced it with apples and yogurt from my office’s store. I offered my lunches to coworkers. I would lie and say I wasn’t hungry, that I had already eaten, that I wasn’t feeling well.
It would be much later before I understood what was happening. During my first year in Honduras, I couldn’t control my new environment, the words of the people on the streets, or whether it was safe to go out at night. I couldn’t control what I ate or when I ate, but I could control if I ate, and I grasped onto that. In the midst of a world that felt overwhelming and scary, going to bed with a dull pit of hunger in my stomach felt simpler, like a monster I could contain.
I will not overstate those few months of chosen hunger. I never completely stopped eating, and as soon as I was cooking for myself I began to eat regular, balanced meals again. In the months after, I developed a morbid curiosity in reading about eating disorders (see Katy Waldman’s excellent “There Once was a Girl”), and determined that my behavior was neither regular enough nor long-lasting enough nor severe enough for me to have suffered from any of them.
However, we sometimes become so worried about whether a behavior is diagnosable that we forget to ask ourselves if the behavior is healthy.
Today, I am in a much better place. But recent conversations have made me realize that my experience was far from unique. A few close friends have struggled with eating disorders. Many more friends, especially young women, who face particular pressure surrounding their weight, have hovered on the margins of unhealthy behavior, never close enough to seemingly warrant intervention, but suffering nonetheless.
More people should be aware of this and sensitive to this. Two years ago, I lost weight not because of a diet or positive lifestyle changes, but because of stress and unhealthy behavior. Two years ago, I was met not with concern or sympathy, but by a flood of people telling me I had never looked better.
I don’t blame anyone for words intended kindly. But culturally, and as a community, we can be more sensitive to sudden changes in the lives of the people around us and save our congratulations for things that actually warrant praise.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).