Why I hated to be told I looked good after losing myself

For the first time in several weeks, I had managed to run the school race. In pain and misery I was not in the mood for conversation. But the parents at my children’s school are a social herd and I’m so lucky to count many as dear friends. So it was not long before I heard a cheerful ‘hello’.

Of course, I stopped to talk, and the lovely mother exclaimed how long it had been since she had seen me. I explained that I was not feeling well and still struggling. Then she looked me up and down and with the best of intentions she said, ‘Oh, but you look great.’

I explained again that I was sick so I had lost quite a bit. “Every cloud has a silver lining,” she joked, and I laughed along, though it was somewhat hollow.

She meant well, as did the others who commented approvingly on how slim I looked. But their remarks, perhaps especially because they were said with good intentions, made me realize what obsession there is about being thin. I was in severe pain and was in such a dark place that I barely had the energy to brush my hair, let alone put on make-up. To me, I looked awful, my face strained and miserable, my body bent and way too skinny.

Kitty Dimbleby (pictured), who felled a stone while ill, said even her mother and grandmother clapped for her weight loss

Kitty Dimbleby (pictured), who felled a stone while ill, said even her mother and grandmother clapped for her weight loss

But none of that mattered, because I was thin, and in today’s world, it’s the ultimate achievement.

It really struck me how pervasive and distorted our attitude to slenderness is.

My health has always been a challenge. I was born in 1980 with clubfoot, spinal cord defects and Hirschsprung’s disease. This congenital condition affects the colon.

I’ve had more surgeries than I can count. I was told I would never get pregnant naturally so both of my kids are here only thanks to IVF.

Both pregnancies were extremely challenging, and the trauma of cesarean section meant I did not gain much weight and was back in my skinny jeans within a few days.

I was confused by the awe that my slenderness inspired others – rather than the miraculous life in my arms.

I remember a pregnant friend staring at my skinny limbs and saying, ‘You’re so thin, I’m jealous.

Things leveled off and I had a few years of good health. I started training properly for the first time and started lifting weights. I loved the impact the endorphins had on my mental health and got fitter than ever.

So, in October 2019, before Covid, my gut stopped functioning again and I needed morphine to cope with the enormous pain.

I continued my fitness and I ate as best I could and fed my body with the nutrients I knew it needed. So I still felt strong even though I was sick.

Kitty (pictured) admits the compliments about her appearance made her feel comfortable after weeks of disgust for her failing body

Kitty (pictured) admits the compliments about her appearance made her feel comfortable after weeks of disgust for her failing body

But last April, my bladder suddenly stopped working. My stomach stretched so much that I looked pregnant at the eighth month and I was rushed to the hospital in pain.

I had gone into what is called retention – my bladder had more than twice as much urine as it is designed to handle.

When the UK started to open after the lockdown, I withdrew and spent most of my time in bed. My appetite disappeared and the weight dropped off. I lost muscle and essential fat. I was weak and miserable, unable to gather the energy to play with my children let alone anything else.

Life was marked by waiting for hospital appointments and invasive procedures.

By the end of June, I was small – about as big as I was as a 14-year-old, a stone lighter than my normal ‘healthy’ weight. And a rock is a lot when you’re a petite 5 ft like me, and already slim.

I was in severe pain and so dark somewhere

When I started going out again, managing the school run, a gentle session in the gym or a drink with friends, I got to my surprise many compliments about my appearance.

They were all so well-meaning, and yes, at one point I enjoyed them.

They made me feel comfortable after weeks and weeks of disgust for my failing body. The worship of skinny is so ingrained that I began to believe what was repeated so many times – that being so thin was the upside of it all.

I had thought I looked bad and miserable, but judging by the response from (almost) everyone, I looked better than I ever had. And it wasn’t just women – in fact, a male friend was so insistent in his compliments that even my laid-back husband felt the need to step in and say, ‘Dear, she’s been having a really bad time’ to stop him.

Even my mom and grandma, more aware than most of what I was going through, clapped for the weight loss. To treat it as if it was something I had achieved that was worth celebrating, rather than a side effect of yet another round of horrible illness.

Kitty (pictured) admits she has struggled with the inevitable weight gain as her health has improved

Kitty (pictured) admits she has struggled with the inevitable weight gain as her health has improved

After a while, I did not know what to believe; the version of me I could see in the mirror – which I knew was too thin – or the version that everyone else reflected on me, which was apparently the best version of me they had ever seen.

Close friends spoke up, but from everyone else the applause was deafening.

So perhaps it is no surprise that as my health has improved, I have found that I struggle with the inevitable weight gain.

For the first time in my life, I have been upset by a number on the scales. I eat well (most of the time) and I am still somehow a very slim woman. I should rejoice that my appetite and energy are back, and most importantly, that I am no longer in pain.

I should be happy that I can train daily, whether it is a brisk dog walk, yoga or keeping up with my six-year-old son.

And that’s me, most of the time. However, once you have been showered with compliments when you are at your thinnest, it is hard not to believe that you look bad when you gain weight.

Jane Ogden, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Surrey, is not surprised that I have struggled. She says: ‘We have been conditioned by the fact that thin equals good and weight gain equals bad. So while you rationally know that weighing more means you are getting healthier, the peer reinforcement you received makes the thin, sick version look good, hard to accept. ‘

The comments I received hurt my relationship with my body

It has helped to know that I am not alone. My friend Grace, who is tall and slim, lost two stones due to the stress of divorcing her husband and told me she found the compliments “confusing”.

“I knew I was too thin for my height – that I did not look good. But everyone commented on how good I looked,” she recalls. “The most shocking were female friends, those with a healthy weight, who almost seemed angry at me for losing me.

‘As a result, I’ve got body dysmorphy – my relationship with my body has been damaged. I have not gained weight yet and it will be a while before I can accept that it is OK to do so. ‘

Meanwhile, Alice, whose husband’s affair made her unable to eat, remembers being ‘comforted’ by friends who said she was at least now thinner than the other woman. ‘At the time, it was reassuring,’ she says, ‘but I can see now how messy it is’.

Hilary, who lost her baby when she was 24 weeks pregnant, says: ‘Because it was clear that the baby was not growing as she should, I was worried so I did not eat much. So grief affected every appetite I had left.

Kitty (pictured) said she stops all talk of weight or size in front of her daughter because she does not want her to think that women strive to be thin

Kitty (pictured) said she stops all talk of weight or size in front of her daughter because she does not want her to think that women strive to be thin

‘I was doubly hurt – I still wanted to wait, so it was painful that no one could see that I had been pregnant. I was too slim for even my clothes before pregnancy. People would say, “I know you’ve been through a terrible time, but you look good”. As if my “good” appearance would be any consolation. ‘

For Amelie, who underwent a mastectomy earlier this year, the comments were not about weight loss.

She says: ‘The doctors were hoping to be able to perform the reconstruction operation by using fat from my stomach. So there were a lot of comments about my body in connection with the surgery. People who say, “Lucky you, what a silver lining, you get a breast job and a tummy tuck.”

‘I was too slim for this procedure and the discussion provoked a lot of revolt. Still, some friends joked that I could get some of their fat. Not surprisingly, none of this helped. ‘

For my part, I have realized that so much of this is social habit, rather than being malicious. I have also been guilty, especially when I know someone has worked hard to get fitter.

I have always tried to be careful not to celebrate ‘lousy weight loss’. But I also understand that people do not know what to say when someone they know is going through a hard time, so feel that a compliment is the best icebreaker.

It’s a ‘safe’ option to comment that someone looks good. But it is something like society that we need to change. We need to stop complimenting women (and men) to get smaller. Especially if the shrinkage, as is so often true, is due to some kind of disorder.

Especially those of us who are raising the next generation: I do not want my nine-year-old daughter to think that thin mother is the best version of me, that as women it is what we strive for.

So I am militant in stopping all talk of weight or size in front of her. I want her and my son to know that mom is strong and healthy and that people train to feel good. Nothing more.

As Professor Ogden advises: ‘We need to find a new language to compliment each other. Instead of commenting on people’s looks, talk about how smart or kind they are. Especially with children. It will take generations to really change things, but we can start now. We need to focus on what the body can do rather than its size. ‘

In the meantime, I have saved the weight and focus on staying fit and healthy no matter what size jeans fit. Most importantly, I fight against any sense of loss for my super skinny figure and remind myself that I prefer food, exercise and good health over compliments.

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