Whenever people told me I looked good once I started recovering (read: gaining weight), I felt awful. While they genuinely meant to express what they said — after all, I didn’t look like a walking skeleton any more — I translated “you look good” as “you clearly gained weight” and on bad days as “you look fat.” Yet when someone told me I was too thin, I beamed. That was the biggest compliment they could give me, and the fact that so many women interpret these three devilish words similarly is, I think, rather worrisome.
What “you look good” implied
“Laura, you look so good these days,” one of my best friends said. I looked at her sceptically. Was she wearing her contacts? How else could she miss my obviously fattening appearance? My chubbiness? My colossal legs? My insides wanted to scream at her for not being honest with me. Was she kidding me? But instead, I said: “thank you,” and threw her one of my deceptive smiles, before I started deceiving myself again and fell back into my eating disordered habits. I kept falling back, climbing up, then falling back over and over again because of my distorted thoughts, not believing people when they told me I looked much better, healthier, happier. In my head, these compliments implied all the things Anorexia did not want to happen: me eating larger portions of food, me gaining weight, me needing bigger sizes. Most of all, it didn’t make me feel happy. That is, at first.
The “you’re too thin” comment
Then there’s the “you’re too thin” comment. Whenever someone says this to you, it should ring plenty of alarm bells. The only bells it rang for me were bells of joy, but I didn’t realise the impact until I came across this quote:
But after about a year, I faced the fact that the theater was wasted. If I grew cadaverous, no one cared. What did I expect, that you would wrap my rib cage with those enormous hands in which horses must be measured, lifting me overhead with the stern reproach that is every Western woman’s sly delight, ‘You’re too thin’? (Lionel Shriver. We Need to Talk About Kevin, p. 7).
How delighted I’d always felt whenever someone told me that. It was a confirmation of me achieving my goal (being thin — I didn’t yet realise what my eating disorder was really about), and of excelling at something, because people noticed, and because they used “too,” implying that I was not just thin, I was even thinner than thin. I mean, how good could it get?
The compliment that should never be one
But that’s the thing: it’s not good. It’s not good at all. It worries me that it’s not just me who (on the inside) responds like a child that has just gotten the best birthday present ever, but that so many women value these words so much. Suddenly, it has lost its meaning as a health concern and, during its flight between the speaker’s mouth and your (or my) ears, has transformed into a compliment. A compliment that should never be one, but that has become one because being thin is the best thing ever. Low numbers, small sizes, less weight: that’s what you should want as a woman. That’s why “you’re too thin” appears to be the best compliment you can get, right?
Even though the words “you’re too thin” have always made me happy, the actual being thin never has. Yes, I weighed little, but that also meant there was nothing more to hug than just bones. No soft flesh on my thighs; no curves to caress; no natural blush to colour my cheeks; no energy to actually live. This is why “you’re too thin” is not a compliment, but a true concern, a sign that you need to step back and be honest with yourself: are you truly too thin, meaning, are you still healthy or not? Because being healthy gives you energy, power and beauty.