Americans are obsessed with thinness and youth, and many of us have had enough of it. As a society, we really are trying to change — our awareness and activism around body inclusiveness expanded greatly over the past decade, and the kind of fat-shaming and ableist schoolyard taunts that were commonplace a generation ago are more commonly shunned today. Yet even the most well-meaning people inadvertently propogate these noxious beauty standards because they just want to say something nice.
My own eating disorder became so powerful and deeply rooted because its seeds were sown in a medium of admiration, fertilized with praise and encouragement.
I was never a fat kid, I was not bullied for my size (I definitely was bullied for other things, that’s for another post). I just had goals: I wanted to be the best at everything, which included achieving the vaunted status of a thin person. I certainly didn't realize it at the time, but as luck would have it, being a thin person was a great way to get the currency I liked to deal in: attention, affection, and admiration.
My body was noticed, my obsessions were interpreted as hard work and discipline, and I was praised for my looks. The inverse correlation between my weight and the compliments I would receive was undeniable. I remember a time when I had become very thin again after coming to a place of acceptance that being a size 6 was probably a healthy, “natural state” for me. A colleague, who I had known for many years, complimented me on how great I looked, noting that he noticed I “struggled with” my weight. He was being kind, but he played into the conspiracy, reinforcing my unhealthy thoughts and habits and rewarding my hungry ego with a surge of dopamine.
We are often kind to our friends, children, and even strangers with compliments about their bodies. What, exactly, are we encouraging? We notice these things because we were taught to value thin bodies, thick hair, straight teeth, and smooth skin, but these things are not all that makes a human being beautiful.
Society will take time to change, but we don’t have to wait. We can change how we individually choose to emphasize the role of appearance in the compliments we give, and make an effort to notice how we subconsciously associate beauty and thinness with health, wellness, ability, or character. This will not only change how our loved ones value themselves, but will simultaneously rewrite our own definitions of beauty. There is an abundance of beauty in the world, in each of us, that’s easily noticed when we choose to celebrate it.