June 18, 2021

The Biggest Loser

Oprah on her show in 1988, pulling a wagon full of fat

New York and California officially reopened this week. New York has been hopping for a while now; according to the New York Times, it returned in May. The other day a friend remarked that it felt like Mardi Gras. Another friend described it as manic. It’s delightful to see the city operating at full tilt, especially having been here through last spring’s shut down.

There are some days, however, happy as I am to be out and seeing people, where I feel as though I am participating in some sort of strange before and after reveal, and I remain confused about how to deal with it. 

Perhaps this has happened to you. You are out, at a dinner party or a picnic, say, or just going about your day, and you run into a person you haven’t seen in the last fourteen months. Or perhaps you’ve seen them, but only above the shoulders in a Zoom frame. And wow, do they look different! It’s like they’ve undergone some sort of makeover during the pandemic and come out the other side a new person, often with very little evidence of the transition on social media. 

I’m not just talking about a pandemic glow-up, though I am talking about that. I’m talking the other way too. In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered both. There are the people who appear to have participated in some version of the before-and-after transition we all know so well because it fuels entire magazine industries and television franchises. They’re not carting a wagon of animal fat behind them, but they might be. And then there are the people who have very visibly had a terrible year and the terribleness of it is evident not just in their appearance but in their demeanor (remember body language below the neck?) and the entire tone of their conversation. 

I am finding both scenarios equally complicated to deal with. 

Let’s begin with the more familiar of the two. We have a well-developed language around weight loss that often sounds similar to what you might say to someone who’s won an Olympic gold medal or triumphed in a cosmic superhero battle. And yet, congratulating people on being thinner increasingly feels problematic. It reinforces the belief that smaller is better. Not just better, but more valuable. A belief that doesn’t need reinforcing because it already permeates nearly everything. I wrote a piece for the New York Times a few weeks ago about feeling good about myself despite my age and how that contrasted with my mother who only felt good about her appearance when the illness that would eventually kill her resulted in significant weight loss. After the piece was published someone tweeted at me that the grandmother of a friend had requested she be buried in her girdle. I have not stopped thinking about this since. “You look amazing,” in response to weight loss, also suggests you did not look amazing before. The flip side to this is the many people I know have worked hard to counter early pandemic habits, which, among other things, led to entire wardrobes not fitting, and not having that hard work recognized is also deflating. People want to be seen, especially after a year of not having been.

And what to do about the people who glowed down, as it were? I emphasize that this question is absent of judgement. The past year has been terrible. We all know who it’s been most terrible for. And yet approximately no one leaves the house looking for sympathy because they look and sound terrible. Maybe they don’t even know they look or sound terrible. Maybe they think they look fine. Maybe they do look fine…you don’t know what people have looked like in the last year; this is what ring lights and filters were invented for. Maybe they think they look absolutely awful and want some encouragement that things are not as bad as they seem. Maybe they don’t care, because existing in the world right now is a triumph of its own. Maybe the best thing to do is say nothing? But is it? 

I decided to ask an expert for some advice. I reached out to my friend Bea Arthur, a New York City-based psychotherapist, for some guidelines on how to best move about this new world and how best to acknowledge people’s differences. Here’s what she had to say: 

“First of all, we’re all different now,” says Arthur. “Period. Physically, emotionally, we’re just cellularly different now. We should expect that people will be different.”

The best first response for everyone, Arthur says, is a general one. “Maybe start off with, ‘How has it been for you?’ Keep it as vague as possible. Like, I haven’t seen you in so long. Keep it topical and keep it surface level. You don’t know what people are going through.”

Arthur says she often begins conversations by asking “Is your family okay?” 

“A lot of people, people have gotten more protective about their personal space because boundaries were blurred, you know, like work, home, office, family. I would over-index on really trusting the intimacy of your relationship, and really defer to what this person might want to reveal about this difference.”

Arthur says conversations might go either way and it’s important to continue to respect boundaries: “We should expect that they may or may not want to talk about it. We should also expect that they might want to talk about it a lot. A lot of people haven’t talked to other people in a long time. We all really just want to catch up.