Words have power. For good or for bad, they are powerful.
Throughout our lives words pick up nuances. Some might say they carry baggage. Words are weighted down with history, and these can be different from person to person. It reminds me of deciding on a name for a child, looking through the books and lists… Names evoke memories of the Jacobs, the Maxes, the Jennifers I once knew. Some leave a bad taste simply because of the scowl across the playground one boy gave me in second grade, or the girl who taunted me in seventh.
With that in mind, I’ll share a word that has pulled the rug from under me for a while now. A word I never thought I’d hear anyone say about me. A word that, as an adult, I honestly never wanted to hear.
But now I hear it pretty often. It jars me when someone says it. Could be just me, but it never comes across as a compliment. It carries a reproach. Maybe it’s the words that often come before it: too skinny, so skinny. They always sound like it’s something extreme. Like I’ve gone too far.
You’re starting to get too skinny, Beth.
When are you going to stop? When are you at your goal?
You’re so skinny. Do you eat anything?
(Reminder, I want to say…you are speaking to a person who has weighed more than 300 pounds.)
In high school, even college and beyond, I used to look at the skinny girls with envy. I longed to be them. I didn’t think about healthy or unhealthy. I just knew skinny was a good thing to be. It’s what people liked and wanted. Skinny meant pretty. Desirable. Choose-able. Worthy.
Now, when someone says I am skinny, it makes me think I am slight. I am weak. I am a pushover. In my mind, I’ve traded my fat for muscle, not just a lower number on the scale. I work hard for how I look, and I choose it in many different ways every day. I’d like to think what I’ve lost in fat I’ve also gained in confidence, but words like skinny set me back on my heels.
I’d rather hear someone say she is so lean. She is so strong. So fit. So healthy. Skinny, in my mind, doesn’t cover any of those things.
Stepping back, I think about the people saying these words. Do they mean to hurt my feelings? Do they know the word stings? Probably not. Are some speaking out of concern? Do they worry for my health? Maybe. Are they speaking out of jealousy, as some close to me have suggested? Perhaps. For all I know, some may see it as a compliment, but I don’t hear it that way. Such is the way of words. Sometimes what we mean gets lost in translation, even when we think we are speaking the same language.
In the end, it doesn’t matter much. I have learned in recent years that I can’t control other people’s actions, including what they say. I can only control my reaction to them. So I feel the sting, step back, then let it go and move on.
I’m the one who has to live in my body for as long as it lasts. There are a handful of trusted people that I listen to in earnest. Their thoughts matter to me and I take them seriously. Everyone else may either be speaking from their own agenda or may not know me well enough to have an informed opinion. So, they are taken with a grain of salt and the benefit of the doubt.
And I can watch my own words more carefully when it comes to the bodies, minds, and health of others. How do I know what others are going through? How can I keep from stinging them, wherever they may be on their path? Words have a power. Speak carefully. Speak generously. Ask questions. Watch my mouth as much as I can. Who knows how often I hurt people with my words without even meaning to?
You can imagine my smile when I opened this gift from my daughter at Christmas. She has seen me at my heaviest. She has seen me do the work transform myself mentally and physically. She took such care to make personal gifts for so many in our family. She texted me about a month ago to ask me for a photo of my first tattoo. She chose one word for me, and it is one that makes me proud, and makes me want to keep going.
Choose your words to build people up, to make them feel brave. Capable. Strong.