As some of you might know, I am an avid tennis player. After a very long hiatus (like 25 years long), I started playing competitive tennis in several different leagues three years ago. It has been so wonderful in so many ways – I love that I get to play a sport that is not only physically enjoyable, but is also a fabulous social network as well. My tennis teammates are some of my closest friends and I adore them.
That’s why sometimes it feels particularly upsetting when many of them speak in anti-fat, pro-diet, disordered ways about food, weight and body shape. All of these women are intelligent, well-spoken, kind-hearted people. All of these women are liberal, open-minded and generous. And nearly all of these women have either made negative comments about their own bodies, commented on others’ bodies, and have engaged in any number of diets/disordered eating patterns. It is truly mind-boggling. I have decided to write about a few of these comments partly as a way to vent, but I also feel like they can be valuable learning lessons for our readers.
Tennis friend: “Oh my goodness, did you see X on the tennis court today? She has lost/gained a ton of weight– doesn’t she look great/terrible?!”
Why these types of statements are problematic: 1) We have very limited control over our weight – our genetics are the key determinant of our body size. And while we can lose weight in the short-term, nearly 95% of dieters regain the weight, with many of them gaining even more weight than they had lost; 2) There could be a number of explanations for someone’s weight loss/gain – are they going through chemotherapy for cancer treatment? Did they recently have a traumatic life event that significantly changed their appetite? Are they on a medication that is causing them to bloat/lose their appetite? 3) These types of comments reinforce the idea that the most important thing about a woman is her physique. We are so much more than our bodies!
Ways that I choose to respond to comments like these:
“I really prefer not to talk about others’ weight – every body is different and unique.”
“Commenting on others bodies makes me uncomfortable – you really never know what someone is going through. She could have a medical condition we are unaware of.”
“Hey, how about we focus on her tennis game rather than her body shape/size?”
Tennis friend: “I’m so hungry.”
Me: “Oh, I have a granola bar in my bag – would you like it?”
Tennis friend: “Oh, no. I’m dieting.”
Why this is problematic: As Jonah and I have written about too many times to count, diets don’t work long term. When we restrict our intake and actively disregard our bodies’ hunger cues, our body goes into starvation mode. This results in a slowing of metabolism, decrease in energy, and heightened awareness and obsession with food. When you feel hungry, that is your body’s way of telling you it needs fuel. It is not a weakness. It is a necessity, like breathing air and drinking water. Not only that, once someone stops dieting (because the inherent nature of dieting is temporary), that person will likely overeat on high-fat/high-carb foods (which are your body’s preferred macronutrients in times of scarcity), and with their slowed metabolism, the weight will pile back on. Unfortunately, many women engage in this yo-yo dieting, which a number of studies have shown to be more damaging to one’s health than just maintaining a higher weight.
Ways I choose to respond to situations like this one:
“Being hungry is your body’s way of telling you it needs food. I guarantee you will feel so much better if you a eat something. I also bet you would have so much more energy to play tennis!”
“It sounds like you have been on quite a few diets over the past year. I know it’s hard to believe, but it is possible to eat in a non-restrictive way and be healthy.”
“Did you see Serena’s last tennis match? She was eating a snack on the changeover. I think she’s onto something!”
Tennis friend: “My knees/ankles/hips are killing me. If I could just lose these 20 lbs, I know that would fix the problem.”
Why this is problematic: As I wrote about several months ago, focusing on weight loss to cure physical ailments is not the right approach. Yes, biomechanically speaking, weighing less might help one’s knee pain resolve, but there is no guarantee of that. Not to mention, many people of all shapes and sizes have knee/ankle/hip pain (even thin people!). As we age, we tend to lose cartilage, and this often leads to joint pain. Sorry folks, but getting old is unavoidable! There are many ways to help joint pain that don’t involve weight loss (such as quad strengthening exercises for knee issues, medicine, wearable braces). And finally, even if someone were to lose weight to help their knee/ankle/hip pain, it is still highly unlikely they will be able to keep off that weight for any significant period of time.
Ways that I choose to respond to comments like these:
“You know, there are plenty of other strategies to use that could help your ankle pain. I would recommend talking with your doctor.”
“When I had knee pain, I started seeing a physical therapist who gave me a bunch of exercises to try to strengthen my quads – would you like his/her contact info?”
“While weight loss might initially help, it’s nearly impossible to keep off the weight, and it is likely that you will end up gaining more weight in the long run. Maybe you could find some other strategies to deal with the pain?”
At the end of the day, I really do understand why so many of these women make comments like the ones I shared above. And I also know that these comments are not just limited to the suburban female tennis playing community. We as a society have been brainwashed by the media, our doctors, our family and friends to think that it is right and normal to comment on other people’s bodies, to believe that what we choose to eat (or not eat) makes us virtuous or sinful, and to view weight loss as something that is easily achieved and maintained (all of these things being plainly false). I just wish that we could change the conversation to one about things that really matter, like the state of the world, what we are passionate about, how our families are doing, etc. Focusing on our bodies and what we put in them is terribly myopic. How much we could achieve if we just changed our focus.