Strong and healthy: When "compliments" hurt, and what we can do about it instead

I’ve stayed away from blogging about some of the more “trivial” or perhaps “personal” things that have happened. If you’ve noticed that I’ve stayed away from blogging more generally, there’s the explanation. But. Here goes.

People relate to what’s real. I’ve blogged before about how even as a life coach the idea of “having it all figured out” would be a façade. Life is filled with ups and downs and the uncomfortable stuff is where we make progress and learn about ourselves, most often.

So today, I’m going to talk about some words that might, on the surface, not seem like such a blog-worthy topic—at least for some people. But I know that for some, you’ll know right where this is headed.

“Healthy.”

“Strong.”

“Big.”

“Muscular.”

Delivered as a compliment or as a consolation, these are all things I’ve been called. And in and of themselves, they’re not bad descriptors to have used about you.

But it’s what they’re not that stirs up the emotions that I know I’m not alone with when it comes to being referred to as any of the words on that list, or otherwise associated with being larger than ideal.

But what even is ideal?

If you read that little ol’ thesis I wrote about fitness media’s portrayal of female fitness (in CrossFit, specifically), you’d know that these days, strong is in vogue when it comes to bodies. But the kind of strong that’s in comes with a condition. These days, it’s best to be strong despite the fact that you are still small. i.e. Strong is NOT the new skinny, but being appropriately muscular (but watch out for “bulky” because that’s still a no-go for ladies) is actually just the icing on the cake to being a small-ish woman.

So back to those words. I mentioned their use as consolation, and I know that anyone who has ever told me that I look healthy when I’m lamenting about the size of my thighs or wishing I was a little lighter, or who’s reminded me that I am a strong and beautiful person doesn’t mean to rub it in that I am not skinny [anymore]. I am both sensitive to the way people see me and the way I see myself, and a master at twisting words into meaning things that they are not.

But that doesn’t change the way that I wish I didn’t care so much about not being skinny. Because whether I am or I’m not, it takes up brain space. It takes up energy, it makes me cranky, it gets in the way of friendships and of confidence.

And I wish I had an answer.

What I do know is that when I was skinnier, it was never enough. Today, I feel harsh and judgmental when I see women who are “too skinny,” which is a term I would never define out loud but I certainly know it when I see it. And I can look at someone and decide in my head that they are one of the people who are struggling with eating issues.

That is part of the problem. I feel a pang of guilt when I pass that kind of judgment, because I realize that means I am part of the problem. I’m perpetuating the idea that there are specific parameters that outline the appropriate way to have a body. And I’m perpetuating the notion that by looking at someone’s outward appearance, I can assess how well they’re taking care of themselves.

So what am I doing?

Besides of course trying to remind myself that it is OK to be exactly the size and shape and weight I am—and that any changes I want to last better come from a place of acceptance and not of trying to fix myself—I’m also trying to notice things about other people that have nothing to do with their bodies. I listen to and support a podcast called Running on Om, which is put together by a gal who has a knack for both talking about things that really resonate with me and doing it in such a way that always inspires me to talk or write or think about them in a new way. One of her newest episodes, titled “Lauren Fleshmen and Dr. Melody Moore on Changing Eating Disorder Culture in Runner,” reminded me that this isn’t a surface issue but a cultural one. It is 100% worth a listen, but one part that I want to mention here was when they spoke about ways to use different language to address and acknowledge one another, particularly as women. Rather than noticing things about someone’s physical appearance, it draws on something I love about coaching, which is acknowledgement, and looking at what you appreciate about someone. It feels awkward to acknowledge for their energy, or the way they make you smile, rather than telling them you just love their new top, or asking them if they’ve lost weight, but it takes things to such a different place.

I think it’s things like that which can be a part of changing the culture—not just in running but more generally—that makes it so easy and natural for us to think we need to fix our bodies. If there are things that matter more than how we look, then maybe the number on the scale or the size of our pants will eat up a little bit less of our time. And in that, I think there is a lot of power that goes further than making bigger or smaller or somewhere in between bodies acceptable. If we didn’t care so much, the whole frame of reference would shift. We wouldn’t need to reclaim “strong” or “fat” or whatever it is we feel so bad about ourselves for, because our value would be on things that we rationally know are more important than how we look. If we came to ask ourselves a question that gets at “who am I being in the world?”  as frequently as we second guess our bodies would mean we’d have to do a lot more self-work than we likely currently do. It’s easy to pin ab routines on Pinterest; it’s not quite as easy to think about how we’re living our lives and do the self-work required to make sure that we like the answer we get.

I think that could get us to the place where being called healthy doesn't have that same "YOU'RE NOT SKINNY SO YOU SUCK" kind of implication for us. So, thinking that, I for one am willing to try. 

What words are tough for you when it comes to references to your body?
How do you think we could change things so we’re a little less hard on our bodies?