It was the first time her mother had met her intended. The lights were low in the restaurant, music playing.
The waiter put down a basket of bread -- and her fiancÃ© pulled it beyond her arm's reach.
"My mother saw what a control freak he was," reports the now-50ish writer, who asked that her name not be revealed. "It took me longer to see it and break the engagement." (Incidentally, she weighed only 125 pounds, but her fiancÃ© had already made remarks about her little tummy.)
Whether they're wordless or spoken loud and clear, comments about weight and weight loss can sting -- even when they're given with the best intentions. Just about everyone who has struggled with weight has moments that stick in memory.
A few of the worst offenders we heard about:
- The father who described his overweight daughter, age 10, as a "grotesque baby elephant." Some years later, the same woman's mother said, "I guess you're more acceptable now that you're older."
- The doctor who inquired, "Are you too fat to have sex?" (As one member pointed out on the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic message boards, "obese" -- not "'fat" -- is the correct medical term.)
- The networking friend who said, "I am shocked that you, as a lawyer, have not gotten your weight under control. I would never recommend you for a job."
- The boss who saw fit to break the news that "you'd be so much prettier if you lost a little weight."
- Normal-weight friends who ostentatiously say to waiters: "I'm doing the low carb thing, so no roll for me, please." (One overweight woman reports that a waiter turned to her after one of these little announcements and said, "You just don't care, huh?")
- The guy who said, "Guess if we ever went out, it would be to the gym first thing, huh?"
Where Do They Get Off?
Larrian Gillespie, MD, a urologist/gynecologist who is the author of The Goddess Diet, says as a doctor, she sometimes has to comment or advise about weight and weight loss. But in her personal life, she doesn't do it.
"When someone tells someone they have 'such a pretty face,'" she says, "there is a subconscious tagline that the rest of you isn't so hot."
Gillespie advises dieters to respond to that patronizing chestnut with: "Thank you, so do you." That leaves the person nowhere to go with their next, supposedly constructive, comment.
Part of the problem, especially for women, is that we are so often judged by our physical attributes, Gillespie says: "How you look is hooked to your success."
There is also the implication that an overweight person is stupid: Can't they read that extra weight is unhealthy? There is no shortage in the media of what some overweight people call "U&D" articles -- for ugly and doomed.
Part of the problem is that people often don't understand complicated conditions like obesity.
Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health in New York, says obesity may be a result of underlying genetic tendencies, thyroid problems, or even lack of exercise. But it's hard to exercise when you're heavy, so it's a cycle, she says.
"Others may never understand the struggle overweight people go through," says Catherine Vieira-Baker, PhD, a psychologist with the May Institute in Walpole, Mass., a behavioral health facility.
"This whole country has poor eating habits. People don't differentiate between those who are trying hard and those who aren't."
Some people, Gillespie says, venture to advise out of a sense of misguided caring. Her own daughter has a medical condition that caused her to gain weight. "She has to tell people to accept her as she is."
"Don't forget," she adds, "what people say comes from their own back story. Sometimes prejudice is a way of gaining superiority." Often these comments hide hostility or a desire for you to fail in your dieting efforts.
How to Respond
On the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Daily Journaling: Friends Talking" message board, Elizabeth0505 posts that whenever she eats anything "vaguely unhealthy," she gets the "I-know-why-she's-fat" look.
Even if it was your only meal of the day, you could be eating a hamburger and have people throw looks!
"Consider the source," advises Viera-Baker. "Is this person someone you need to wrap up energy in? It depends on the nature of your relationship with the person. If you know this is a sincere person who cares about you, you may not take offense."
Diet4Me, on the "Daily Journaling" message board, says she deals with judgmental people one person at a time.
"There isn't a formula," she says. "Some people you have to ignore; they aren't worth your time. With other folks, you can turn the comment into a joke. Then there are those you have to slam with a barbed insult."
One man tells of being in a store with his daughter when an older woman came up to him and said, "I surely hope you won't let your daughter get fat like you." He looked at her and said, "And I hope she doesn't get senile like you, either."
"Ignore them, brush them off, don't give these people the option of judging you," Elizabeth 0505 chimes in on the WLC board.
Often, says WLC member Darby, the person making the comment also has a noticeable problem.
"I never sink to their level and insult them back," she says, "Though I have been tempted. ... Try not to let these nincompoops bother you too much."
Adela23 says sometimes she pops out with an honest reaction: "Gee, that's a rude thing to say." Another woman sometimes says, "Tell me again why this is your business?"
'You Look Great!'
Even compliments ("You've lost a TON" not being one of them) are often difficult for people who are losing weight.
Some dieters, Vieira-Baker says, take a compliment as meaning that maybe they were not in such a good place before. "Whether or not you respond to this (possible) underlying message," she says, "another way to look at it is that the person is acknowledging the effort you took to make such a dramatic change.
"You can't pick how you get compliments," she adds. "You can react to the parts you wish."
Some formerly overweight people may be uncomfortable with compliments because they find them frightening, says Gillespie.
"It's fear ... the idea that it's a curse to say you look good, because WHAM, you will regain the weight," she says. "They see (their weight loss) as tenuous at best -- luck, chance, rather than a positive step of ownership and power." Giving a compliment to someone who has lost a lot of weight can be a catch-22, Viera-Baker says. "It could be taken wrong, but not to say anything -- not to recognize the effort -- could be an insult." Things get especially tricky when members of the opposite sex start showing interest where there was little before. Some people, of course, relish the sudden attention. Others aren't used to it, and aren't sure how to react. Still others say, in effect, "If you didn't like me before, you can't date me now."
"I get really peeved when guys to whom I have been invisible look at me," says Aquamoose on the "Emotional Eating" message board. "They think they are being nice, but it brings out the nastiest side of my personality. I suspect I should stop (feeling that way)."
And keep in mind that these would-be flirts are only human. Even people on the Weight Loss Clinic message boards say they have to be careful of judging others by how they look.
WLC members who've been there say that if someone is trying to give you a compliment (no matter how clumsy), the best way to handle it is usually to say "Thank you" -- and leave it at that.