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Why Is Weight Loss Anyone Else's Business?

Helen Carefoot |
November 14, 2014 | 3:57 p.m. PST

Web Producer

Weight loss should be something personal. (Dave Williams/Flickr Creative Commons).
Weight loss should be something personal. (Dave Williams/Flickr Creative Commons).

When I binge watch Law and Order: SVU at three in morning, I frequently end up watching an endless stream of infomercials.

Usually, I get up to get a snack or go to the bathroom, but my laziness occasionally keeps me on the couch to see the never-ending stream of commercials for workout programs, weight loss pills and diet plans.

“Lose the weight and keep it off,” one advertisement says in flashing yellow letters. “Don’t give people a reason to judge you.”

ALSO SEE: Orthorexia: A "Healthy Eating" Disorder?

With this kind of suggestive content surrounding us constantly, it is no wonder that the conversations around weight loss and weight gain have become a spectacle for public consideration. Many of us have experienced the strange encounters with distant friends after major - and minor - weight loss or weight gain, and walk away feeling a bit disheartened.

After a particularly food-heavy winter break, I put on some extra pounds. I killed myself at the gym for a month to get the weight off. Many hours at the gym later, I was back to my normal size. 

After I lost the weight, people took notice. Congratulating me for “getting back on the wagon,” acquaintances referenced my recent weight loss repeatedly.

“Way to go get back on the wagon! You look a lot better now,” they said.

Did I really look that bad to begin with? Why did they feel the need to call me out for this? I’ve learned that people will judge for pretty much any reason. But why should my ability to fit into a certain size dress dictate something about me?

Perhaps it is just human instinct. Studies show that humans are competitive by nature. We like to assert our dominance in areas we are proud of and skilled at. A study paid for by Proctor & Gamble found that women who wore more makeup at work appeared to be more competent than those who didn't. In a world where female celebrities' discipline and commitment to snap back to peak pre-baby form after giving birth is judged, criticized and even betted on like the outcome of a football game, it is no wonder that weight and the ability to lose or maintain it is seen as a badge of honor, and perhaps something to lord over others. 

"I think because weight loss is defined by numbers and I feel like people think of it as a score," said Doyeon Kim, a sophomore majoring in Communication. "When something can be put into numbers, it's easier to compete and because you can compare yourself to others in a way that makes sense." 

Author J.K. Rowling famously hit out at this perception of weight as a measure of competency and the emphasis placed on weight loss in relation to other life achievements when she recalled an incident with an old acquaintance at the British Book Awards. 

Rowling recalls the incident, citing her acquaintance’s remarks, and expressing her frustration at the extreme focus on weight change, rather than an old friend's achievements. Rowling explains, “What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate!”

ALSO SEE: The Gluten-Free Trend: Healthy or Harmful?

What Rowling describes isn't unusual. Just as Rowling's weight loss was not the most meaningful accomplishment in her life, my weight loss was not either. During this time, I volunteered extensively and travelled, both experiences that I am sure will positively impact me for the rest of my life.

Yet, at a New Year’s Eve party, I was approached by a group of girls from high school that I hadn't seen since Thanksgiving break. Before even asking about my travels, they wanted to know what workout regimen I was on and whether or not I was eating carbohydrates.

I couldn't help but wonder, if my weight wasn't the most important thing to me at that moment, then why was it of so much concern to someone else? All of my former classmates' prying questions eventually made me paranoid: how long would I be able to maintain my good eating habits? Realistically, how long would I be able to run every morning when school eventually started? Knowing that people were so hyperfocused on my appearance just because of my slight weight change made me paranoid that they were waiting for me to fail. 

For a time, "slipping" seemed like an acceptance of failure. By undoing all of my hard work, by "letting myself go," I was projecting a lack of discipline. I was showing that I accepted failure and slacked off in one area of my life, which could eventually be misconstrued and suggest that I began slacking in other areas, as well. 

Maintaining fitness obviously takes work and involves discipline, which should be praised. But is the praise really worth the possible anxiety brought on by pressures to keep the weight off, or to "not let yourself slide?" If I did "slide," god forbid, or succumb to a late night In N' Out trip complete with a double double and animal style fries but without a jog in the morning, would people judge my capabilities in other areas of my life?

Ori Herschmann, a senior at UC Berkeley who lost more than 75 lbs. in one year through the Insanity workout, does not think so. So far, Herschmann has received nothing but support from his friends. 

"Keeping the weight off is definitely a struggle and it's something i think about every day," said Herschmann. "For me, it was more about finding a healthy and sustainable lifestyle that i could adapt to, especially being in college. As far as people, I feel like my friends watch out for me because they know how hard I worked."

Maybe it's time to take a step back from judging others' competency based on their weight, whether it is the ability to lose or maintain it. Instead, focus on what truly makes an individual competent at a task: relevant experience and knowledge. And if you really want to help someone who is trying to lose weight, congratulate them on their hard work and offer support. Don't wait to see them fail. 

Reach Web Producer Helen Carefoot here and follow her on Twitter here



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