When we meet up with someone whom we haven’t seen in a while, one of the first things we generally say is “You look great!” or maybe, “Have you lost weight?” We are culturally accustomed to commenting on appearance and weight, thinking that this is what we should do. Sometimes, though, this sends out a negative message that we may be unaware of. When someone says “you look great!,” what s/he is generally trying to do is express that s/he is happy to see this other person and, in trying to find a way to express this, turning to a superficial compliment.
This situation exemplifies the fact that we may not realize the power of our words and the subliminal meanings of what we say. When I was in junior high school, the thinnest girl in our class used to complain that she was “so fat.” She didn’t do this because she believed it, but rather because we were at an age when appearance and diet were on our minds. What she did not realize, though, was the effect this may have had on girls in the class who weighed more than she did. If she thought she was fat, did this mean she thought other people were fat?
Comments like this are made not only by adolescents who may not fully understand the value of what they are saying, but also by adults. This can be particularly harmful for adolescents who overhear adults making comments about their own weight. When a mother talks about her diet or her body dissatisfaction in front of her child, she is showing her child negative body consciousness. We must be cautious when talking about weight and appearance in all contexts.
This can be exacerbated in the context of dating and marriage. Oftentimes, when an individual wants to set someone up, the first question that comes up is “Is the girl pretty? Thin?” “Is the boy cute?” While physical attraction is a factor in relationships, this should not be the first thing that comes to mind. These reactions seem almost innate, but we are unaware of the potential harm they can cause.
A friend of mine told me about a recent interaction with a shadchanit that truly shocked and upset her. My friend, whom we shall call Leah, had contacted a shadchanit, as she had decided to take a proactive role regarding her dating life. The shadchanit referred her to another woman who viewed Leah’s Facebook page and then called her. She told Leah that she had viewed her profile and noticed that Leah did not look consistent in all her photos. The following is Leah’s description:
“She proceeded to explain, after going through several of my profile pictures, that it had become clear to her that I had lost a lot of weight. (She also asked me how much weight I lost...I calmly told her that I didn’t know her and that’s a pretty personal question). I still didn’t understand what she was getting at. She then said ‘Your friends must tell you...’
‘Tell me what?’ I asked.
She then explained that she had mentioned me to a boy in regard to setting us up and that it was pretty clear he said no because of my older pictures, prior to my weight loss. As if this was not enough, she explained that I should consider deleting my ‘fat pictures’ and putting more limiting settings on my profile so people don’t see them and judge me from them.”
Leah told me that she was upset for several reasons: She had been judged based on her weight, and been given the message that the way she used to look was something to be ashamed of. When Leah had lost some weight it was a personal decision and not one that she thought should have been judged. She did not do so because she did not like who she was as a person and thought weight loss would help, nor was it to become “more appealing,” rather, it was to be healthy and fit. Leah did not take down the photos, as she felt that they were nothing of which to be embarrassed about and that they represented a part of her.
Though the matchmaking world is riddled with judgment and resumes, comments like these are not excusable. The shadchanit hurt Leah and made assumptions about who she was based on her looks. Additionally, boys are encouraged to judge based on looks rather than character. This is a controversial subject that I know will bring up strong opinions. At the same time, it is one that continues to haunt people and I have even see it be a continuous factor in recovery from an eating disorder; those suffering feel pressured to look a certain way and are afraid of living a life alone. Emotional and physical harm may be brought to their bodies as a result of comments made about their weight or fear surrounding not being desired. These women, and men, should be supported for who they are rather than their weight. This is a message that should be conveyed to children from an early age.
The next time you meet up with someone whom you haven’t seen in a while, think about not commenting on appearance. I generally say “I’m so happy to see you.” Sometimes our friend has lost weight, or we want to tell him/her how great s/he looks. I’d challenge you to not let that be your first comment. Whether you interact with adolescents or adults, it is important to keep in mind both the subliminal meanings behind weight/appearance references, as well as the harm that might come from talking about the subject outright.
By Temimah Zucker