You guys may have noticed that ol’ Aunt Fattie hasn’t been around lately. Luckily, we still have friend of the blog Miss Conduct, who is a professional advice columnist (unlike, say, me) and therefore doesn’t get to stop writing simply because she lacks the gumption to take on other people’s problems. Miss Conduct, who is thin, may nevertheless be the only advice columnist writing today who truly gets fat issues, from the perspective both of body image (understanding what people go through and why they might want to lose weight) and body autonomy (believing vocally that nobody else’s body is your business). For instance, here’s part of her answer to a woman asking about getting her family to stop criticizing her weight:
Nobody is owed an explanation of why you don’t like to have your body criticized, and anyone who would actually need an explanation of something so patently obvious wouldn’t be capable of understanding it anyway. Assert your boundaries, and do it consistently. You’ve been letting your family get away with bad habits for a long time — I say this not to blame you, but to let you know that you may have to draw the line in the sand more than once before everyone gets the point. And the line can be drawn something like this: “I realize you mean well, but I’ve decided that I don’t care to have people criticize my body anymore. So please don’t! If you’d like to tell me what you think of my new recipe for brisket/the election results/that new Stephen King novel I saw you reading, I’d love to hear it!” Particularly, you should use the phrase “my body” rather than “my appearance.” Without being touchy-feely, this will get across the extraordinarily personal kind of rudeness that your relatives are engaging in.
Right on! Did I mention she’s funny, too?
Today on her blog, Miss C. is taking comments on a letter she received about the opposite end of the spectrum. The questioner is concerned about the health of a fellow runner, who has noticed another regular runner on her route seemingly wasting away. The question: Given the appearance of an eating disorder, is it appropriate to ask if this woman, effectively a stranger, is okay?
As it happens, I asked a similar question of Sweet Machine and Kate a few months ago. Some of my dance classmates commented that my teacher had lost weight, and I knew she’d had cancer the year before; I wondered whether it was appropriate to say “how are you feeling.” Both SM and Kate agreed that it was fine to check in on the condition that I leave out the precipitating body concern — that is, that I say “how are you feeling,” not “people think you look thin, how are you feeling.” But in that case, the teacher had told me herself that she was a cancer survivor, and I was quite a bit closer to her than this woman seems to be to her running companion.
I’m inclined, strongly inclined, to say that it is always invasive and rude to bring up someone else’s body, even noticeable changes, in a discussion of their health (though, again, not necessarily rude to inquire about their health in response to noticeable body changes, if you can be polite and subtle about it). Of course, anorexia is a serious disease, and if this woman is anorexic she needs help. But the questioner has no idea if she is or not. She could be naturally thin, with a range that bottoms out at model proportions, and could be inching down to the lower end of that range because of her running. She could be on medication or have a different illness that makes her lose weight but doesn’t preclude exercise. She could be going through a breakup, not wanting to eat and distracting herself by running laps. She could have a parasite or chronic diarrhea. Okay, the last one’s not too likely, but the point is that if you wouldn’t be comfortable asking someone about their diarrhea, or their love life or their medications — and with most people, especially strangers, you shouldn’t be — then you cannot presume to ask about their bodies.
Anorexia is a mental illness that needs and deserves help. So is binge eating. But just as you can’t assume on sight that a fat person eats compulsively or in binge quantities, you cannot assume that a thin or even a rapidly thinning person doesn’t eat at all. If this runner is anorexic, I sincerely hope that someone close to her talks to her about it and gets her help. But it’s not the job or the place of a semi-stranger with no knowledge of her life except through body-based guesswork.
Disagree? Want to add perspective? Agree but have a terser, perfectly crystalline way of expressing it? Head over to Miss C.’s blog — she emailed us this morning and said that she’d love to have Shapelings’ opinions (she did not ask for all the above gushing, but tough). So far everyone seems to be saying basically what I’ve said above, and there’s no need for a Sanity Watchers warning — I’ll let you know if that changes, though if it does I expect her to be issuing personalized smackdowns.