Why "You Look So Skinny" Is the Worst Compliment You Can Tell Me

Four words meant to be an innocuous compliment, harmless and encouraging. Instead of filling my heart, this phrase sucks it dry.

"You look so skinny."

I received the comment with a bright smile and an energetic nod, giving thanks and mentioning that I was just trying to be healthy. In the minutes afterward, when the comment really started to sink in, I had to excuse myself to the restroom, where I sat and cried. Why? I'd forgotten how good those words felt to hear. They intoxicated me, empowered me, and they made me feel invincible. I wanted more.

I have been a girl of many shapes and sizes, most of them some iteration of round and pudgy. Looking back at pictures of myself, I started to develop the kind of body that needed to shop in the in the "plus size" girls section at J.C. Penney's around fifth grade. What was odd, however, was that no one ever really made fun of me for my weight in grade school. It seems that every fat girl has her platter full of stories of people leaving rude comments in her locker or boys uttering snide comments under their breath. I didn't experience anything like this. My extra layers of fat made me invisible to my peers — all except the one or two who had also been cast out for their own undesirable differences. My extra pounds caused me to stick to these few friends and my books, and I found a way to create happiness in this little world.

In eighth grade, that world started to open up. One particularly popular girl decided that I was going to be considered part of her world. Suddenly, I developed more friendships. People were able to see my personality. I had the opportunity to join the middle school media program, not behind the camera, but as an anchor. Nothing had changed about my body. I was still overweight, but I had suddenly made connections to people and clubs and had found my bliss.

I continued to be a slightly overweight girl through high school, though I stayed active enough that it wasn't as socially ostracizing as it once was. I was immersed in school, I loved the friends and activities I participated in, and my weight was an absolute afterthought. My friends (and boyfriends . . . I started to have those, too) liked to be around me because I was funny and kind. They wanted to be with me because I was intelligent and compassionate. I was involved in the community and I worked hard.

For the first time ever, I was untethered. I needed to be in control, and I needed to find a way to do that quickly.

All throughout college, I maintained those qualities. I still did not find definition or self-worth from my body — which was good, because the numbers on the scale were slowly creeping up. I remember distinctly, during my sophomore year in college, going to the doctor's office and being weighed (I had been bitten by a spider and was having a severe allergic reaction), and the number on the scale read 208 pounds. On my chart, the doctor wrote — "hypertension caused by obesity." I had never — at least to my face — had someone tell me I was obese. I'm still baffled now as to why it never really bothered me. I knew on some level my body was getting bigger . . . the size 10 jeans changed into size 12 and eventually were a size 16 . . . but that wasn't something that upset me. I know that day changed my outlook, ever so slightly, but it wouldn't be until years later — after college — that I would begin a weight-loss journey leading up to my wedding.

I don't know what the exact catalyst was. To be quite honest, I think a lot of it had to do with being in a brand-new city for the first time ever, working at a brand-new job with hugely unrealistic expectations. I had moved to Miami, FL, away from my hometown of 22 years, to pursue a career in education. For the first time ever, I was untethered. I needed to be grounded and in control, and I needed to find a way to do that quickly.

That's when I signed up for a month-to-month membership at a small martial arts gym. I started with just 20 minutes each day on the elliptical while I read library books, desperately trying to find a happy place of refuge. Miraculously, I started to look forward to the consistency of my workouts. Then, I started using a smartphone app to track my calories in/calories out. I stopped eating so much fast food. I started losing weight. I began to gain control of something. At that point, I didn't even own my own scale, so I would use the giant scale that was at the grocery store in my then-home of Miami Beach to check my progress. I quickly saw 10, then 20, then 30 pounds melt off.

That's when the compliments started pouring in.

"Your body looks great! What are you doing?"
"You've lost so much weight! Congratulations!"
"You are beautiful! Keep it up!"

Keep it up I did. My career was spiraling out of control, and I was planning a wedding set for the end of the year, so I kept up the one thing that I was able to control and manipulate in my favor. My time on that elliptical machine grew to the 70-minute mark. Then 80. Then an hour and a half. I got married in a dress that was six sizes smaller than the one I had picked out just six months prior. I felt like a rock star. But that was just the beginning.

The words "you look so skinny" were the bread and butter of my self-destructive path.

I continued to up the ante on my weight loss, getting more and more serious as the talk about my body continued to fuel me. I decided I shouldn't eat any more than 1,200 calories a day. I bought a fancy scale and tracked my weight twice a day. I took up running instead of the elliptical. Small jogs morphed into the "5K, Every Day" mantra. Then I joined a boxing gym. At first, the gym was a wonderful addition to my fitness routine. I was learning new skills, feeling confident about my strength, and learning a new kind of discipline. But that slowly morphed into an obsession. I'd spend three or more hours there each day, because I would make myself walk there and back (even in the middle of January in Chicago), run three miles on the treadmill, then complete two back-to-back classes. I didn't think I had a problem, because if you looked at my body from the outside, it wasn't what you would identify as "problematic." I was down to 125 pounds and a size two — which was pretty normal, I rationalized. There were still people smaller than me, and I didn't look like any of the girls in those eating disorder ads. Plus, I ate.

I ate, then I meticulously wrote it all down.

I stopped getting my period, but my friends and strangers still hadn't stopped telling me how good I looked on the outside.

"Damn, girl, look at those thighs! They are so toned!"
"I'm so proud of all the weight you've lost."
"You look so skinny!"

I lived and died by that last one. "You look so skinny." I wanted to hear that more than "you are so kind," or "you are so smart," or even "you are so beautiful." The words "you look so skinny" were the bread and butter of my self-destructive path.

I'm sad to say that during those two years, I didn't try very hard to be kind or smart. I didn't show compassion or my sense of humor. I was so invested in my weight and what other people thought of it that every other quality I may had previously possessed lost its importance. For a thing that had never really mattered to me previously, my body and the mass it had on planet Earth were taking up nearly all of my brainpower.

I can't pinpoint an exact rock bottom, but I do distinctly remember one frigid Winter evening as a particularly low point. I had finished a full day of work to be dropped off by a co-worker at the gym. I'd get there 45 minutes early so I could run on the treadmill before my first class of the day. I did that, made it through my kettlebells class, kicked ass in my boxing class, then began the one and a half mile walk back to my apartment. By this point it was nearly 8 p.m., and all of my free time after school was being taken in the name of physical fitness. As I walked across the bridge to get to my 55th-floor apartment, I spontaneously burst into tears. Not just one of those singular "pretty tears" either. Full-out hysterics. I was exhausted. I was sweaty and cold. Even though I had endurance and the ability to sling heavy weights around in the gym, I felt weak. But above all? I was hungry. I was so, so very hungry. I looked at all the restaurants that lined my path home, and I longed to eat at any of them at all. But I knew I couldn't, because it would be too hard to "track" and it wasn't time for a "cheat" meal yet, which were hard for me to enjoy because I'd just constantly feel guilty about eating them. It pains me to think that those feelings of hopelessness and despair were all self-inflicted that night, but the hurt I felt was so real, so palpable, that it finally began to dull the euphoric rush of "you look so skinny."

But above all? I was hungry. I was so, so very hungry.

I'm not sure what turned me around in the end. Some of those weeks seem a little hazy. Eventually, I stopped going to the gym for three hours at a time. I ate more whole, real foods. I slowly started to gain some of the weight back. I stopped tracking my food every day. Then I stopped looking at that app at all — I deleted it from my phone. Finally, my period returned to normal. My mindset around my body, however, was irrevocably damaged.

I'd be lying if I said I'm "fixed." I never considered what was wrong with me an eating disorder, but I know it wasn't normal. I'm still not normal. I catch myself falling into those old thought patterns and daydreaming about being thinner than I am right now. It's hard to find a balance, but it's becoming easier. I've surrounded myself with women I admire for their entrepreneurial spirits, kindness, senses of humor, and positive attitudes. I monitor the media I consume and the ideas I allow to float around in my brain. I notice immediately when those old thoughts begin to take root. I am kind to myself, and I give gratitude for my body. Not just for how it looks, but for what it does each and every day to keep me alive.

Most importantly, I'm feeling ready to share this story. On that day, when that well-meaning woman told me "you look so skinny," I felt the euphoric rush that meant more to me than being lovable, funny, or just even nourishing my body. It scared me, and as beguiling as it was, I managed to turn away from it. There are so many other ways to compliment the women we admire in our life — "you are so witty," or "you are so gracious," or "you are so strong." Go ahead. Pick your words right now and say them to yourself, then share them with someone else.