I recently went to dinner with a friend I hadn't seen in a few months. She remarked that I'd lost some weight. "Yeah, I've just been really stressed out lately," I replied.
My friend, whose own hyper-self-awareness makes her uncommonly aware of weight issues that linger among women of our age group, looked at me disdainfully and said, "You've been working out a lot and eating less." Which was entirely true. After she called me out, I started thinking about why her reflex was to put me on the spot, and why mine was to shrug it off.
Over the last few years, the body-image acceptance movement on the Internet has grown massively. Not only have celebrities like Kesha opened up about their own struggles in an attempt to raise awareness of eating disorders, but regular women have spoken out, mostly via powerful personal essays like this one, about their emotional journeys with weight. This new candid attitude towards female body image and the outside factors that affect how we all feel about our own bodies will undoubtedly change the game for girls who are growing up now.
Now, if you hang out with women you haven't seen in a few years and you've lost weight, it's scrutinized in a similar way that it may have been 10 years ago if you'd gained weight—with weird looks, snap-judgments, and sometimes even passive-aggressive remarks. It's because of the movement's overwhelmingly positive effects that this troubling aspect of it has mostly gone unspoken: The fact that women who decide to begin a new diet or exercise routine in order to lose weight feel as if they've been silenced. In a piece on The Cut called Nobody Wants To Be The Girl On a Diet, Lauren Bans writes: "Whatever the reason, when it comes to thinness, 'effort' is unbecoming." She goes on: "I've known smart women who've gone to extremes to hide the fact that they have to work for their figure. I've been one of them. I once got out of sharing bread pudding on a date by saying that the sight of it made me sad because it was served at my grandpa's shiva."
The concept of personal self-improvement is becoming increasingly more blurred with "hating your body" or not "loving yourself as you are," when in fact those ideas can—and often do—co-exist. If you're a body-positive, liberal feminist, fat acceptance is an easy thing to jump on board with; but the acceptance of women who are fat (or average, or thin) and don't want to be is a little more complicated. And to be quite honest, so is insinuating that one of the few safe spaces for fat women need concern itself with being open to all women.
Sarah, 26, learned to discuss her fluctuating weight (she's been anywhere from size 2 to a size 14 since she was a teenager) with caution, even when she was "obsessed" with going down a few dress sizes. "There is always a line with friends. I used to pretend I wasn't trying to lose weight, because I couldnt handle how everyone would always yell at me: 'But you look great before!' Sure. But I want to look different." Lately, at a breaking point with the faux-casual attitude she felt forced to adopt, she's been more frank with them: "I say 'Yeah, I'm not eating as much and working my ass off. It sucks. But this is what I want.'"
"When you're engaged, and you have a wedding dress that's basically one layer of clingy silk, you want to be in shape for it," says Emma, a 28-year-old who asked friends for workout class recommendations in order to tone up before her wedding. "[But] instead of helpful suggestions I was immediately reprimanded for trying to change myself for my wedding day with shit like, 'He wants to see YOU walking down the aisle, not Human Barbie.'" And that is the crux of the problem: This attitude is built on the assumption that you want to lose weight for a guy, or because you've been brainwashed by years of Photoshopped models, or for any reason other than yourself.
Dr. Barbara DeAngelis, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Soul Shifts, explains that this extreme attitude is an antidote to years of silently adhering to the standard of conventional female beauty. "Young women now are aware of generations before them who felt perpetually not thin enough, attractive enough, or sexy enough, and consequently, never lived comfortably in their own skin." But she sees the endgame, too. "Many adjustments in social attitudes go through this kind of temporary extreme opposite shift before they balance out, and I believe there will be an eventual mellowing out of the stance that it's somehow a betrayal to womankind to take care of yourself."
Laura, 28, a writer who frequently advocates for body positivity, explains that the extremity of the movement is hardly as hostile as mainstream culture continues to be towards overweight women. "Fat women who lash out and say dumb shit like 'Real women have curves' are just trying to claim some feeling of body positivity, because they get so little. Sure, it's misguided, and hopefully she'll learn another way to get that self-confidence, but constantly being told by society that you are too fat, you are too big, and you don't fit." It's a space where fat women feel good, she's basically saying, which is about as rare as a place where thin women feel bad.
Yesterday, Facebook removed their "feeling fat" emoticon after online advocacy groups protested it with a campaign called "Fat Is Not a Feeling." From the point of view of fat acceptance groups, it's easy to see why that emoticon—and this mentality, in general—is enraging. Body-positive culture may be growing on the Internet, but in society at large, overweight women still face an unholy amount of discrimination, judgment and condescension for their appearance.
Rebecca, 19, a prominent figure in Columbia's current No Red Tape sexual assault advocacy group, says: "When I say I want abs, people in [on-campus] radical groups judge me because they think I have enough 'pretty privilege' as it is. Or because I'll take it too far and be unhealthy."
Laura's pragmatic rebuttal: "If you want to diet and lose weight, it's your body, do what you want! Just listen to the MANY, MANY, MANY other places that say that's a great thing to do."
Sometimes it really is hard to know whether our own weight-loss goal comes from outside or inside ourselves, from self-hate or self-love. Domonique Bertolucci, author of a self-help book on female friendship called The Kindness Pact, explains: "The way to tell the difference between low self-esteem and a healthy desire for improvement is to listen to your self-talk. If you want to change your diet or increase your expertise regime out of love and respect for your body, a desire to feel more vital or energetic or to live a longer or better life, go for it. But if you find yourself thinking that 'everything' will be better in your life when you lose weight, it's a big warning sign that you are doing it for the wrong reasons." We're all the product of our environment, to a point, so it's certainly worth determining the real origin of your motives for wanting to change your body.
But that doesn't mean it's not wrong when other women assume they know your motive, and immediately strip away your personal agency. They may have the best intentions, but it comes off judgmental and dismissive, almost like a flipped-upside-down version of that Mean Girls "My nail beds suck" scene. When you dare to comment on what you see as a shortcoming in your own appearance, you're assumed to be a self-hating victim of society's standards of female beauty. The positivity becomes negativity.
Nobody should be burdened with feeling (let alone voicing) that their dissatisfaction with their body is bringing down the entire body acceptance movement or making a larger statement on modern feminism. Maybe you just think your nail beds suck.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.