“You need to eat more” and other things not to say to someone who is underweight

“You need to eat more,” he said, pointing at me accusingly.

I did not know this man. He had appeared from behind the gas pump while I watched the numbers go up.

“I try,” I said.

I could tell he was not trying to be mean. I imagine his thought process was something like, “This anorexic girl thinks she’d be ugly fat, so I’m going to tell her it’s okay to eat.”

What he didn’t know was that I wanted to gain weight.

Even if I didn’t want to gain weight, there is a difference between someone you don’t know–or barely know–saying you are too “fat” or “skinny,” and someone you are close to saying that you might consider gaining or losing weight for your health.

Last week, I wrote about how I lost weight because of many factors, including a health obsession, anxiety, and a fast metabolism (Skinny: How Anxiety Can Affect Weight, and How I Regained 10 Pounds in a Year). I told this story to show that anxiety can affect many areas of your life, and that there is hope. But today I want to talk about something that has been on my mind for a long time.

Ever since I was a kid, I have had people tell me to eat more, to get “some meat on those bones,” or that I was “skinny,” “bony,” or just “skin and bones.”

I was “thin as a pencil.” “A stick.” “A skeleton.”

To someone who was afraid of skeletons, being compared to one was both embarrassing and terrifying.

I hated–and still hate it–when people look at me and say something like, “I wish I could be that skinny.” Because I don’t want to be.

There is a huge problem, despite much pushback, with body shaming, and I don’t want to say that being called underweight is the same as being called overweight. What I do want to say is that insecurities can go both ways.

The man at the gas station would never have approached an overweight person and said, “You need to go on a diet!” But he felt like it was okay to talk to me because he assumed I had the opposite body image issue that I actually had.

I’m not afraid of gaining weight. I’m afraid of being too small. Too unhealthy. Too bony. His comment came at a time when I was feeling especially insecure and trying hard to eat enough. Because of his comment, I lost my appetite and struggled to eat the rest of the day.

Whether someone intends or does not intend to be underweight, words like “skinny” and “bony” have negative connotations. No one says a woman is beautiful or that a man is handsome because they are “skinny.”

When that man talked to me, the first thought that went through my mind was that this was how people always saw me. If this random guy saw me and immediately thought, “She’s skinny,” then everyone must think that, too.

I am writing this because I have always wished that more people understood that not all thin people are starving themselves for their appearance, and not every thin person considers themselves “lucky” because they can eat more. Sometimes eating is hard, and gaining weight feels impossible. Doctors tell us we need to gain weight because it is unhealthy to be so small.

Other thin people have tried extremely hard to keep their weight down in healthy ways, and calling them lucky brushes over their efforts.

Instead of being called “skinny,” which makes me think of “skin and bones,” I would love to be called “thin” or “small.” I’m sure other girls and guys feel the same way.

So often, our tendency when we realize something is wrong (like weight shaming) is to try and revise our fault by reversing it. So we do the good thing in saying it’s beautiful to be curvy and full-bodied, but we turn right around and say it’s bad to be skinny.

The best way to fix something is not to reverse it. It is to realize that there is beauty in everyone.

We can practice identifying and signaling those things that are unique about a person by keeping our eyes open for what makes them beautiful. And we can stop ourselves before making assumptions about a person’s appearance.

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