Why I hated being told that I looked great after losing weight: It’s seen as the ultimate compliment. But for women like Kitty, who’ve shed pounds because of illness, divorce or stress, it’s plain insulting
For the first time in weeks, I’d managed to do the school run. In pain and miserable, I was not in the mood for conversation. But the parents at my children’s school are a social bunch and I’m lucky enough to count many as dear friends. So, it wasn’t long before I heard a cheery ‘hello’.
Of course, I stopped to talk, and the lovely mum exclaimed how long it had been since she’d seen me. I explained I’d not been well and was still struggling. Then, looking me up and down, and with the best intentions, she said: ‘Oh, but you look amazing.’
I explained, again, that I was ill, so had lost a substantial amount of weight. ‘Every cloud has a silver lining,’ she joked, and I laughed along, although it was somewhat hollow.
She meant well, as did the others who commented approvingly about how slim I looked. But their remarks, perhaps especially because they were said with good intentions, made me realise just what an obsession there is around being skinny. I was in serious pain and 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 hunched and far too skinny.
Kitty Dimbleby (pictured), who shed a stone while ill, said even her mother and grandmother applauded her weight loss
But none of that mattered because I was thin and in today’s world that is the ultimate achievement.
It really hit me how pervasive and twisted our attitude to slimness is.
My health has always been a challenge. I was born in 1980 with a club foot, a spinal defect and Hirschsprung’s disease. This congenital condition affects the large intestine.
I’ve had more surgeries than I care to count. I was told I would never conceive naturally, so both my children are only here thanks to IVF.
Both pregnancies were extremely challenging, and the trauma of C-sections meant that I didn’t gain much weight and was back in my skinny jeans within days.
I was confused by the awe my thinness inspired in others — rather than the miracle life in my arms.
I remember how a pregnant friend stared at my skinny limbs and said: ‘You’re so thin, I’m jealous’.
Things evened out and I had a few years of good health. I got into exercise, properly, for the first time, taking up weightlifting. I loved the impact the endorphins had on my mental health and became fitter than ever.
Then, in October 2019, pre-Covid, my bowel stopped working again and I needed morphine to cope with the immense pain.
I kept up my fitness and I ate as well as I could, feeding my body the nutrients I knew it needed. So, I still felt strong, despite being ill.
Kitty (pictured) admits the compliments about her appearance made her feel good about herself after weeks of loathing her failing body
But last April, my bladder suddenly stopped working. My stomach distended so much that I looked eight months pregnant and I was rushed into hospital in agony.
I had gone into what’s called retention — my bladder had more than double the amount of urine that it is designed to cope with.
As the UK started opening after lockdown, I retreated, spending most of my time in bed. My appetite disappeared and the weight fell off. I lost muscle and essential fat. I was weak and miserable, unable to muster the energy to play with my children let alone anything else.
Life became punctuated by waiting for hospital appointments and invasive procedures.
By late June, I was tiny — about the size I was at 14, a stone lighter than my normal ‘healthy’ weight. And a stone is a lot when you are a petite 5 ft like me, and already slim.
As I started going out again, managing the school run, a gentle session in the gym or a drink with friends, to my surprise I received many compliments about my appearance.
They were all so well intentioned, and yes, to a point I enjoyed them.
They made me feel good about myself after weeks and weeks of loathing my failing body. The cult of skinny is so ingrained that I started to believe what was repeated so many times — that being so thin was the upside to it all.
I had thought I looked unwell and miserable yet judging by the response from (almost) everyone, I looked better than I ever had. And it wasn’t just women — in fact one male friend was so insistent in his compliments that even my easy-going husband felt the need to step in and say: ‘Mate, she’s had a really bad time,’ to stop him.
Even my mother and grandmother, more aware than most of what I was going through, applauded the weight loss. Treating it as if it was something I had achieved worth celebrating, rather than a side-effect of yet another bout of awful illness.
Kitty (pictured) admits she’s found herself struggling with the inevitable weight gain since her health has improved
After a while I didn’t know what to believe; the version of me I could see in the mirror — which I knew was too thin — or the version reflected to me by everyone else, which was apparently the best version of me they’d 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’ve found myself struggling with the inevitable weight gain.
For the first time in my life, I’ve found myself upset by a number on the scales. I eat well (most of the time) and I’m still by any measure a very slim woman. I should be delighted my appetite and energy are back and, most importantly, that I’m no longer in pain.
I should be revelling in the fact that I can exercise daily, whether it’s a brisk dog walk, yoga or keeping up with my six-year-old son.
And I am, most of the time. But when you’ve been showered with compliments when you are at your thinnest it’s hard not to believe you look bad when you gain weight.
Jane Ogden, professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey, isn’t surprised I’ve been struggling. She says: ‘We’ve been conditioned that thin equals good and weight gain equals bad. So, while you rationally know weighing more means you’re getting healthier, the peer reinforcement you received that the thin, ill version looked good, makes it hard to accept.’
It’s helped to know I’m not alone. My friend Grace, who’s tall and slim, lost two stone due to the stress of separating from her husband and told me she found the compliments ‘confusing’.
‘I knew I was too thin for my height — that I didn’t look well. But everyone commented how good I looked,’ she recalls. ‘The most shocking thing was female friends, those at a healthy weight, who seemed almost angry with me for losing weight.
‘As a result, I’ve got body dysmorphia — my relationship with my body has been damaged. I’ve not put the weight back on yet and it will be while before I can accept that’s it’s OK to do so.’
Meanwhile, Alice, whose husband’s affair left her unable to eat, remembers being ‘comforted’ by friends who said that, at least, she was now skinnier than the other woman. ‘At the time it was reassuring,’ she says, ‘but I can see now how messed up that is’.
Hilary, who lost her baby when 24 weeks pregnant, says: ‘Because it was clear the baby wasn’t growing as she should, I was worried so wasn’t eating much. Then, grief impacted any appetite I had left.
Kitty (pictured) said she is stopping all talk about weight or size in front of her daughter because she doesn’t want her to think women strive to be skinny
‘I was doubly hurt — I wanted to still be expecting, so it was painful that no one could tell I had been pregnant. I was too slim for even my pre-pregnancy clothes. People would say: “I know you’ve been through a terrible time, but you look good”. As if my “good” appearance would be any comfort.’
For Amelie, who had a mastectomy earlier this year, the comments weren’t about weight loss.
She says: ‘Doctors were hoping to do the reconstruction surgery using fat from my stomach. So, there was a lot of commentary on my body within the context of the surgery. People saying: “Lucky you, what a silver lining you get a boob-job and a tummy-tuck.”
‘I was too slim for this procedure and the discussion caused a lot of upset. Still, some friends joked I could have some of their fat. Unsurprisingly, none of this helped.’
For my part, I’ve realised that so much of this is social habit, rather than being malicious. I‘ve been guilty, too, particularly when I know someone has been working hard to get fitter.
I have always tried to be mindful of not celebrating ‘misery weight loss’. But I also understand people don’t know what to say when someone they know is going through a tough time, so feel a compliment is the best icebreaker.
It’s a ‘safe’ option to comment that someone looks good. But it’s something as a society we need to change. We need to stop complimenting women (and men) for getting smaller. Especially if that shrinking is, as is so often true, due to some kind of suffering.
Particularly those of us raising the next generation: I don’t want my nine-year-old daughter to think skinny mummy is the best version of me, that as women that’s what we strive for.
So, I’m militant in stopping all talk about weight or size in front of her. I want her and my son to know Mummy is strong and healthy, and that people exercise to feel good. Nothing more.
As Professor Ogden advises: ‘We need to find a new language to compliment one another. Instead of commenting on people’s appearance, talk about how clever or kind they are. Especially with children. It will take generations to truly change things, but we can start now. We need to focus on what the body can do rather than its size.’
Meanwhile, I’ve binned the scales and am focusing on staying fit and healthy, regardless of what size jeans fit. Most importantly, I’m fighting any feelings of loss for my super-skinny figure and reminding myself that I prefer food, exercise and good health to compliments.