At a recent dinner with a group of friends, one woman told the group as she perused the menu that she had lost weight recently and was trying to stick to a specific calorie limit each day.
At the same table was someone who had suffered an eating disorder and who has been open about her experiences and the negative impact that diet talk can have on her mental health.
Watching this unfold, and feeling hyper-alert to the potential triggering impact the conversation could have on others at the table, I felt quite conflicted.
On the one hand, I want to be supportive of friends who are setting and achieving health-related goals, of which weight loss may be one.
But on the other hand, I hate discussing weight loss and dieting with other women for a number of reasons. The first is that many women suffer from negative body image and speaking about losing weight and dieting can spark these thoughts and reinforce the notion that our value and self-worth should be dictated by our weight and appearance.
Second, I worry that congratulating friends on their weight loss will validate these same ideas and fuel unhealthy habits around restrictive eating if they are already predisposed to those attitudes.
And finally, there’s enough evidence to show that dieting and restricting calories are not sustainable ways to lose weight, so I don’t necessarily want to suggest that it’s positive or encourage that as a long-term strategy for my friend.
On the flip side, I don’t want to create a culture of hiding dieting or body image issues, and I certainly don’t want to police how my friends talk about their own bodies and health.
That said, these types of discussions might be better kept for smaller groups or private conversations, where there is the opportunity to limit the impact on people who may struggle with disordered eating and exercise, and we can engage with the issues with more nuance.
According to the Butterfly Foundation, a charity for Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues, 15 per cent of Australian women will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime. That’s a significant number, and part of the challenge is that our concept of what an eating disorder is has been centred on extreme cases, without raising awareness of the more common experiences which are less visible but just as harmful. I’m talking about obsessive calorie counting, extreme exercise, restrictive dieting (such as diets focusing on cutting out entire food groups) or unsustainable eating regimes.
For people who are already engaged in unhealthy patterns of thought and behaviour around their bodies, having someone even casually refer to the calories in a certain meal or how much weight they have recently lost can be incredibly triggering and cause their existing disordered behaviour to spiral.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that, as a woman, your weight – whether you’ve gained or lost kilos – is often a source of unwanted attention. I’ve had friends refer to my weight casually, with comments like “You look way slimmer than usual”, or “Maybe now you’ve started running, you’ll have a more lean physique”; or the worst, “Wow, you’ve lost weight, you look so great!”
These might seem innocuous or even positive, but they plague my thoughts about how I look, and I can confidently say that I don’t have an eating disorder or disordered behaviour around exercise and diet. What’s the impact of these throwaway lines for those women who do?
Yes, bodyweight can have implications for our long term health, but that doesn’t mean ‘overweight’ automatically equates to ‘unhealthy’ because different body shapes simply function differently, and it’s really down to an individual’s health profile.
More importantly, it simply isn’t anyone else’s business what your weight is and how it impacts your health. That’s for people to discuss with their doctors, families, and others they want to confide in, when they choose to, not a topic for random commentary from anyone.
At dinner that night, I was saved from having to say something by my brave friend who had battled an eating disorder, who calmly said, “See, people saying things like that is what kept my eating disorder alive for years – I’d prefer it if we didn’t talk about diets at dinner”. I can’t say it was received particularly positively, but I appreciate how willing this friend is to gently call out the negative weight loss chat when it happens.
Perhaps it’s time we ditched the diet talk altogether and focused instead on how we feel, not how we look.