This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Google the words “Adele weight loss” and a troubling corner of the internet opens up. The singer is said to have shed around around seven stone after her divorce – news greeted by the media as an “incredible” achievement. Countless articles were written about the “secrets” of her diet, offering pseudo-weight-loss tips to readers who may wish to do the same. Very little thought was given to the repercussions that such a message might have on readers. After all, she looked “amazing” post-weight loss.
Focusing on someone’s weight like this loss poses many problems, among them the fact it perpetuates the myth that smaller is always better, and that anyone who drops a dress size should be congratulated. Secondly, it overlooks the fact that weight loss – especially drastic weight loss – can be caused by so many things besides exercise and intentional dieting, such as illness, mental stress or eating disorders. In some cases, encouraging someone’s weight loss can actually be seriously detrimental to their mental health.
However, it’s January, which traditionally means an onslaught of Instagram ads and glossy front pages encouraging you to do just that. We asked five women to tell us their weight loss stories, including the consequences of the comments and attention they received.
CW: eating disorders.
Jessy*, 32, a freelancer from Vienna
Three years ago, I had the first major depressive episode of my life and lost weight as a result. I rarely got out of bed. But when I was out and about, my weight was always being commented on. It ranged from, “Oh, you don't look good,” to, “You look really good” – both of which made the situation more difficult. I hated myself, and at the same time, such comments reinforced my loss of appetite. I enjoyed being perceived as beautiful without having done much at all. I was sad, but I felt noticed. It was particularly absurd that people interpreted my lack of appetite as a positive attitude towards life.
A few months later, my father died. It was the most traumatic time, and I lost more than 22 pounds. The feedback was unreal. I felt so guilty – while I was dying on the inside, I looked “amazing” on the outside. Friends told me: “It looks great on you. Don't change yourself at all!” So I should be a grieving daughter forever, right?
I tried to dress so that people wouldn’t notice my weight, because I had to fight back tears with every comment. The worst part was that I thought I was betraying my father, as if all the compliments denied my grief. Some joked that I was unrecognisable. I didn’t recognise myself anymore either.
Tammy, 23, a student nurse from Aachen
I've always had a dysfunctional relationship with food. When I was younger, this manifested itself through frustration eating, overeating and binge eating. Obviously, I gained a lot of weight.
About nine years ago, I decided to stop stuffing myself. I didn't eat anything for days, and when I did, only very small amounts. I also started doing a lot of exercise. I lost weight rapidly, which of course did not go unnoticed. Compliments came from every angle. People asked me for tips. That spurred me on to starve myself, and I became increasingly depressed, because the suffering and pain behind my weight loss remained unnoticed.
In the end, I ended up in hospital. My eating disorder improved slowly, after many setbacks, but it remains a daily struggle.
Bea, 32, a podcaster from Vienna
In 2012, I wrote my entire master's thesis in six weeks. It was a stressful time, and I hardly ate and barely slept. Even when I was done with it, the tension and anxiety remained. All my nerves were shot. In the end, I lost six stone. As a result, I suffered from various ailments. My hair fell out, and I had dental and skin problems. My whole body was failing.
My relationship with my body is difficult, because I was bullied for being chubby as a child. I was called a "fat pig". After losing weight, I was praised. Hardly anyone cared that I’d graduated with honours; it was all about my appearance. I was happy not to be the "fat pig" anymore, but I knew I’d lost the weight because of my mental illness. It wasn’t healthy.
Clearly, to so many people, the most important task of a woman is to look good – which means slim. No matter how you feel inside, the body is the most important thing. Either you get devalued for your weight or you get praised.
Ena, 23, a student from Vienna
I had bone cancer when I was 17 years old. On any given day, I either looked like a pufferfish stuffed with cortisone, or someone auditioning for America’s Next Top Model. I wanted neither. I still can’t eat properly. Instead, I watch cooking programmes all day and imagine what I'll eat in the future.
I recently told a friend about my problems. I told her that I’d lost about a stone. She said, “Well, at least there’s something positive about it all.” I’m yet to understand exactly what is good about not being able to eat. Because of my experiences, I don't comment on the appearance of others unless I’m seriously concerned about their health. Even then, I ask as carefully as possible.
Julia, 22, a student from Gelsenkirchen
I've had recurring bouts of depression since I was 12 years old, and they continue to this day. Last year, I had more than just an episode; it turned into a full-blown depression.
Eating became difficult and often felt impossible. Again and again, I slipped to a dangerously low weight. Since I've been underweight, I've been getting compliments. I try to hide my body by wearing certain clothes, but people still praise my weight loss. I never say thank you. I've never lost weight on purpose. I don't see it as an achievement.
Going home last Christmas was a challenge for me. I'd see old friends and they'd all tell me how "good" I looked. I'd feel bitter about it all. The real achievement is fighting my depression. When someone praises me for my weight, I have to stop myself from thinking my weight is the only thing I have under control. I wonder: will these people think it's bad when I’m healthy again and look bigger?