Some Compliments Are Better Left Unsaid
I cough and gag one final time, elbows leaning on the porcelain with my hands folded into the bowl. My eyes burn as the tears slide down my face, mingling with the foul remnants surrounding my mouth. My stomach feels as though someone has wrung me out from the middle and the back of my throat burns from the acid forcing its way unnaturally upwards.
I feel like every single drop of energy has been sucked out of me and I wonder how I’m supposed to stand to flush. Tiny black pinpricks are dotting my tear-blurred vision as I sit here hunched over the bowl. I feel completely empty. An emptiness that extends beyond the hollowness of my stomach and settles as a dull, lifeless ache in my chest. I am a failure.
Just as I begin to tell myself that this bullshit routine isn’t worth it, the voice in my head pipes up in a sickly-sweet whisper: “That’s one step closer to being good enough”.
I remember the way Ben traced my flattened stomach with his hands. “You’re looking good, Han,” he’d said, with a hint of pleasant surprise.
I remember the way Mum paused the cooking as I strolled through the kitchen in gym tights and a sports bra, my bare middle exposed, begging for attention. “You’re looking fit, darlin’,” she smiled fondly at me, unwavering kindness in her eyes.
I remember the way my friend sized me up as I squeezed into her size 8 denim overalls. “Wow, you have lost weight!” she exclaimed, beaming as her wide eyes slide up and down, taking in the shape of my new body.
Their praise sings through my head, playing on a self-indulgent loop, sending pride buzzing through me. Suddenly energised, I shove myself up from the bowl, flush, and set about cleaning myself up. My resolve has been strengthened. The shame of an inglorious vom is quickly overshadowed by the joy that swirls through me.
“One step closer.”
I’d always been uncomfortable receiving compliments, but now I found myself confused by them. Here I was, in the midst of an eating disorder and people were excitedly telling me how “fit” I looked, how “slim” I was getting. Words drenched in positive connotations seemed to jar with the abuse I was subjecting my body to. But maybe they were right? According to the BMI scale, I was actually progressing towards a ‘healthier’ weight range. So why did I feel so conflicted when these labels were attached to me?
On the outside, I was transforming into a thriving and healthy 20-year-old. But on the inside, I was tearing myself apart.
I was stripping my stomach lining and scorching my oesophagus and gums with bile and acid on a daily basis. I was rupturing blood vessels in my eyelids from the force of hating my body and punishing it for trying to do something as simple as keeping itself fed and alive.
I knew in my head that what I was doing wasn’t right. It wasn’t healthy. Or sustainable. But each time someone fed that smaller part of me that was frantic for approval, my resolve grew a little stronger. It became an addiction, chasing the praise of complete strangers who valued me for nothing more than the shape I had forced my body to take.
Ultimately, it was my unrelenting desire to be accepted by others that led me astray. I’m not going to sit here and blame the compliments I was paid in kindness for causing my struggle. No one means to do harm with a compliment. I know that those who loved me simply wanted to give my self-esteem a little boost. But the way compliments were being structured towards me started to skew my perception of why people appreciated me.
When we praise someone for managing to make their body look a certain way, what are we teaching this person to value about themselves?
Compliments are a powerful form of reinforcement. Each time I received a comment dripping in admiration about my weight, or lack of, my grasp on who I was began to slip.
The ramifications of this go far beyond those of us who suffer from disordered eating habits. It affects the relationship that every person has with their body.
Each time you comment on someone’s figure, you give strength to that despicable voice inside their head whispering to them that this is the measure of their worth.
When you congratulate someone for losing weight, you feed the notion that we should be praised for living up to the fucked-up standard of beauty that society has set for us.
It was comforting to know that my friends thought I looked good. But as I began to regain the kilos, the compliments started drying up. The constant reminder that I was admired, envied, desired, suddenly vanished. The cruel voice reared its head, roaring, “I told you!”
We are so much more than the shape of our bodies. A friend once told me that she would never love me any less if I was 50 kilos heavier, so why should she love herself less for being five kilos heavier? Our bodies are nothing more than vessels for the people we have become – individuals defined by experiences and interactions, not by how pleasing our appearances are to the world.
I’m not suggesting we tip-toe around one another, terrified of accidentally triggering some inner turmoil. Instead, we should take time to consider what we are praising the people we love for, which of their qualities we are drawing their attention to. Is it their non-existent tummy that looks good in a suffocatingly tight dress, or is it their ability to treat those close to them with unwavering, selfless compassion? The second we narrow a compliment down to someone’s body, we strip away everything else that is so unique and endearing about them.
Cover by Laurine Bailly