I recently received a short e-mail from a friend.  She agreed to let me post it here, in it’s entirety:

Subject: body thought

When I am happy–I eat–I gain weight.
When I am sad–I don’t eat–I lose weight.

When I am on the thin side, people compliment me all the time. When I am on the fat side, people ask me if I’m pregnant or reminisce about when I used to be thin.

I think I would rather be happy, though.

I know other people for whom the opposite is true: When they are happy, they tend to loose weight and when they are unhappy they tend to gain weight.  And then again, I know even more people who feel that rather than their weight following their overall mood, their overall mood follows their weight: When they are thin, they tend to be happy, and when they are fat, they tend to be unhappy.

So which comes first, the weight or the mood?  It’s different for different people, for sure.  But for many people, when someone they know looses weight, it’s a cause for congratulations and celebration.  But this is just not always the case.

Because this is an issue near and dear to my heart, I’m going to be uncommonly frank about my own experiences.  Here is part of my story:

When I was 19, I was in the process of breaking-up with my fiance, Alex (not his real name).  It was becoming clear to me that, among other problems, Alex and I wanted different things, really different things, in our lives.  He wanted new, white-walled houses in the suburbs, a stay-at-home wife to mother his eventual children, and either big or fast cars.  I wanted funky, old downtown living, a fascinating career, a co-parent for my eventual children, and high quality public transportation.

But I was in love!  And so was he!  And we had so much fun together!

So I took a week and went to a multi-generational church camp where I had been going for years and had many dear friends.  I went knowing I would decide what to do by the end of the week: I would either come back re-invested and re-committed to my relationship with Alex, or I would come back and break up with him.  I told my church friends that I was feeling unsure about my relationship, but I did not tell them the extent of the problem.

Church camp being what it was, we played endless rounds of cards, stayed up all night and slept all day, skinny dipped in the lake, had deep, philosophical conversations followed by trite, pointless ones.  We played mini-golf and went boating, we cranked the AC so it was freezing our rooms to act as a counter-point to the boiling air outside.  Everyone else smoked their cigarettes and I knitted cigarette smoke saturated hats.  I think this was also the year when one particularly annoying young man kept using particularly inappropriate pick-up lines.  (This one directed at me: “I came here to hook-up with someone, but it hasn’t happened yet.  My first choice said no, so now I’ve got someone else in mind.  But she seems to be preoccupied with her knitting.”  Damn.  You think I’m so desperate that I’ll go for someone who tells me I’m his second choice?  Think again, buster.)

What church camp did not include that year, at least for me, was eating.

On Friday morning, as I was packing up, I pulled on a pair of jeans and then looked blankly at them when they literally fell down around my ankles.  I figured they must be my roommate’s, so I stepped out of them and handed them to her.  She shrugged, said they weren’t hers, and handed them back.  I figured someone must have left their pants in our room, although I couldn’t figure out why.  So I put on another pair out of my bag.  Which also fell off.

I ended up sitting amongst my clothes, trying to figure out why none of them fit any more.  My roommate asked me, “Well, what did you eat this week?”

And I started thinking back.  I hadn’t eaten anything that morning.  Or the previous night.  Or the previous morning.  Surely I had eaten something on Wednesday?  But no.  I had been in charge of running the camp that year, so I was intimately aware of what food had been served and when, and I knew I had not eaten any of it.

“I don’t think I’ve eaten since the drive up here on Sunday.”

It was not that I was trying to loose weight, or that I was trying to starve myself in any direct way.  Rather, my haphazard, painful week had left me with no appetite and no routine to remind me that I hadn’t eaten.  I was not in a good place.

I returned home very late that night about 25 pounds lighter of body but far, far heavier of soul.  Alex immediately told me how good I looked, how good the week must have been for me.  It was the first of these sort of insensitive comments that I came to know intimately over the coming weeks.

On Saturday morning I returned Alex’s grandmother’s engagement ring to him.  He thought I was just putting off the wedding, so I explained to him in no uncertain terms that I was breaking up with him completely, and that I was going to my mother’s house.  He was deeply, unimaginably shocked and hurt.

The following weeks were a pendulum ride between feelings of freedom and deep pain.  I knew I had made the right decision, and I had done most of my mourning during my week away, but it was still hard.  I had to tell my friends and family, one by one, that the relationship was over.

But what made all of those conversations truly intolerable were the way they all began: “You look great!  Wow!  Things must be going so well for you!  How much weight have you lost?  Can you tell me your secret?”

I vacillated, as I often do in response to insensitive comments, between an open and honest response: “I’ve actually been pretty depressed and stopped eating for a week.  I’ve broken up with Alex, and it’s been really hard.”

And a rather mean, petty response: “Oh, sure, it’s a great program!  First you decide to break up with your fiance, then you get really depressed, stop eating, and after you’ve done the breaking up, you have all of your “friends” tell you how great you look!  I say you should totally go for it, you look like you could drop a few, don’t’cha think?”  And yes, I would actually do little air quotes around the word “friends” if they caught me on a particularly bad day.

In short?  It sucked.  Granted, it was a painful part of my life anyway, and you’ve just got to take those hits and roll with them I guess.  But having a constant barrage of comments about how “Great!” I looked felt like a literal slap in the face over and over again from people who should have been supporting me.

The point of this story of mine and the e-mail from my friend is that just because a person is skinny, or just because a person has lost weight, does not mean that it’s time to celebrate and congratulate.  Certainly, for some people at some times, it is.  But the assumption is misplaced and can bring deeply hurt feelings and more pain at an already painful time.

So what to do about it?  Well, for starters, feel free to stay out of someone else’s body changes.  So you’ve noticed that they’ve lost weight?  Okay.  Unless they’ve told you they’re trying to loose weight, there’s not necessarily any reason to go further and start a conversation about it.  If you want to check in and see how they’re doing, put a hand on their should, look in their eyes, and say, “Hey, how are you doing?”  That gives them the space to say, “Horrible.  I’m depressed and I’ve stopped eating” or “Great!  I’ve been exercising twice a week and I’ve lost some weight I was hoping to lose” or even something completely unrelated to their weight loss.

But whatever their response is, it will be something they have chosen to tell you in the context they feel comfortable with.  And this is really far more important than talking about their weight anyway.