“You have such a pretty face!” and other backhanded compliments.

Linda Ayrapetov
May 17, 2017 · 8 min read

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me “You have such a pretty face!” I’d have made a dent in my student loans by now.

You might be thinking, “Hey I wish people would tell me I had a pretty face!” Sure, it sounds nice on the surface. But what people actually mean when they say that is: everything about the rest of me is not pretty, and they want to make sure they’re clear about what they mean. “It’s a shame you’re not losing weight, because then all of the boys would love you!” Does that sound harsh? That’s because it is, and I’ve had those words spoken straight to my face on more than one occasion (one time at the beach when I was 15!)

I’ve been on a journey to body positivity since I was 5 years old, when I remember thinking, “Thank god I’m not the fattest girl in this ballet class.” That’s not normal behavior, but it’s also not a unique experience.

This little girl was already aware of her weight.

These days, I often get complimented on my confidence. It normally comes out something like, “I wish I could be confident like you! It’s amazing!” Aka, if I looked like you, there is no way in hell I’d have any confidence, and it’s making me feel weird that you do. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think those people even know that’s what they’re saying. It’s a backhanded compliment that is usually rooted in their own self-esteem issues. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a reminder to me that being a confident fat woman is not the norm.

Mindy Kaling spoke about this in an interview with Parade Magazine. “I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. Because what it means to me is, ‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?’”

If I’m ever talking about a date or a hookup around people who don’t know me very well, I can feel the judgement in their reaction. Sometimes I imagine what they might be thinking: “Well if she can get a date, I guess I’ll be alone forever!” I realize that’s super cynical and they’re probably actually thinking, “Wow, so excited to hear about this hilarious anecdote!” But I know what I used to think was, “They must be lying, no one dates fat women.” Even though there was evidence all around me to disprove that, I still believed it. Maybe to make myself feel better that I was alone? Perhaps to convince myself that there was an easy solution to not being alone anymore, and that was to lose weight.

“There was an entire 45-pound difference between the old me that I was told men didn’t like, and the new me that I was hoping men might possibly like, and still nothing.”

In 2011, I lost 45 pounds in the span of 4 months. I started by working out a couple hours a day, and not eating. I’d feel very proud on the days that I burned 800 calories at the gym, and ate only 500 calories the whole day. To me, feeling hungry at the end of the day meant it was working. Now, if you know nothing about calories and how weight loss actually works, eating only 500 calories a day is not good. Eating below 1,200 calories a day is actually a really bad move, ESPECIALLY if you work out! All of this didn’t matter to me though, because I was fat, and not eating was helping me lose weight.

This wasn’t a new thing I was trying. I’d done that so many times I can’t even count them all. Eat a few pieces of fruit a day ->lose some weight -> feel excited -> plateau after a few weeks -> feel discouraged -> start binge eating -> gain weight -> repeat. With the weight loss came praise and happiness from everyone around me who gave me those “pretty face” compliments growing up. “You look great, keep it up!” Keep it up. Keep starving yourself. Keep killing yourself at the gym. Keep hating your body despite it all.

This is me in April 2013, one of the last of my “skinny months.”

After my first month or two of the 500 calorie-a-day diet, I found myself deep in the fitness Tumblr community, looking for inspiration, when I discovered the truth about weight loss. I read up on the science behind it, and realized that I’d been doing it all wrong. It was unsustainable to keep up forever. So, I started eating 1,200 calories a day (which was still low for my height/weight and fitness regimen, but at least it wasn’t 500) and tried harder to feel more positive about myself.

I lost all of this weight right before studying abroad in Rome. I was so excited at the thought of men starting to notice me. All I heard before going to Rome was, “Italian men are so forward, they’re going to be all over you.” Well, when my semester in Rome came and went, none of that happened. There was an entire 45-pound difference between the old me that I was told men didn’t like, and the new me that I was hoping men might possibly like, and still nothing. My friends who were around my size were getting hit on, and I felt like I’d been lied to. Everyone said if I just lost weight, men would like me. Why isn’t this happening yet? Well, there were many reasons it wasn’t happening, but the only one I believed was that I just hadn’t lost enough weight yet. The truth was, even though I saw other women getting hit on who were my size, I didn’t see us in the same way. I still saw them as being able to carry their weight in a thinner, more beautiful, and stronger way than I was.

I hated my fat body, and all fat bodies, so much that I actually couldn’t understand how anyone who wasn’t a size 0–4 was getting asked out. I was that person who complimented women’s confidence, jealous and spiteful that they were bigger than me and able to have it. I would praise myself for being a “good fat girl” compared to those who weren’t. I would feel sorry for fat women who weren’t trying to be thin the way that I was.

“I navigate life a little bit differently, trying not to be stereotyped as a lazy fat person.”

When meeting new people, I still feel the need to make it known that I’m a “good fat girl” by talking about spin classes, or bringing up my Fitbit. It’s subconscious at this point. It makes me feel validated as a “good fat girl.” I want people to know that I’m not like those other lazy fat girls who deserve to be fat. I’m not sitting at home eating full sized pizzas in one sitting, I’m a fat girl trying to be thin and taking care of myself! As if that’s some sort of unique take on life- trying to be thin and take care of yourself? Almost everyone is trying to do that, whether they admit it or not. So why do I feel the need to make that known? When I talk about spin, I’m often met with a condescending, “Wow, good for you!” as if they either a) don’t believe me. or b) are happy I’m unhappy with my fat body. These are just the tiny ways I navigate life a little bit differently, trying not to be stereotyped as a lazy fat person. I don’t talk about how much I love pizza and tacos, because I’m well aware that it’s only cute when a thin person does it. (Is anyone else tired of food themed clothing with dumb slogans tho?)

I often think, as long as I’m a fat person who’s trying hard not to be, I’m worthy of respect. I want to be clear, this is so so so stupid. Are lazy thin people out here trying to prove to the world that they deserve to be respected in their thin bodies? (Spoiler alert: they’re not.) I wish I could tell you that I’m above all of this, but no matter how hard I love myself and know that I am healthy, I’m always hyper-aware of my size.

“I am not my thinnest right now, yet I feel better about myself than I ever did at any of those smaller sizes.”

Over the years, I’ve developed an obsession with shoes and purses, because buying those things doesn’t automatically come with a sweaty fitting room meltdown. Recently, I’ve stopped going to stores that don’t carry plus sizes, for the sake of my own mental health. Sure, I might be able to squeeze myself into the biggest size jeans at Primark, but what if I’m not able to, or they don’t look good on me? It’s just not worth enduring another fitting room meltdown that so many women are far too familiar with. I also recently donated my skinny clothes, because there was no denying how sad it made me feel to look at them. I’ve been 5 different dress sizes throughout 2013–2017, to give you an idea of the variety of sizes I had in my closet.

Here’s the thing though: I do not hate myself anymore, and I feel amazing. I am not my thinnest right now, yet I feel better about myself than I ever did at any of those smaller sizes. It’s taken me a long time to get here, but I have the healthiest life right now: mentally and physically.

Mentally, I can credit my success to being a talkative person who’s also not ashamed of her thoughts. I’m lucky to have many best friends who’ve listened to me complain and figure myself out over the years. I’d like to think we all help each other out by lifting each other up and validating one another’s feelings, but I’ll tell you more about that later.

Physically, I take spin classes 2–4 times a week, an occasional salsa or ballet class, I go out of my way to take the stairs, I track my fitness on my Fitbit, and I have a consistent and healthy sleep schedule. I make healthy food choices most of the time without depriving myself, and I drink more water than anyone I know.

With all of those efforts, my weight has stayed relatively steady. And that’s okay. It’s just fine. I lead a healthy life, and I’m not really interested in adjusting it any further and ending up back in 2011. I take spin and dance classes, because I like them. I actually enjoy the healthy food I eat. I shop at stores that carry my sizes and buy clothes that fit my body beautifully. I quickly got over the whole “men won’t like you” thing because it was never true, and I see that now. I love my job and I love my friends. I have a good life, so why should I hate myself and turn everything upside down to change a small detail about my life? That detail just doesn’t really matter to me anymore.

Here I am, living my best life.

I didn’t write this for anyone to feel sorry for me, or conversely, feel super proud of me. I just wanted to give you an idea of what has been going on in my mind and body, because these thoughts are not specific to just me, and maybe you never considered that.

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