I was mindlessly picking at my couscous when I spotted an old colleague at a local restaurant. Something about her was different; apparently I had been staring at her long enough for her to meet what I thought was a very discreet gaze. She smiled eagerly and began to approach. As she got closer, it immediately clicked into place what about her that I thought was different.
“Hey, oh my god, you’re so skinny now!” I said, way too enthusiastically, as soon as she stopped by my chair.
She responded with a proud “thank you, glad you noticed” and then we exchanged the normal pleasantries and made a hollow promise to meet up for coffee later to “properly catch up.”
As I went back to my meal, I slowly began to realise what I had just done. As much as I despised people who greet me by commenting on my physical appearance, I too, had succumbed to tradition, and became one of those people.
Greeting people by commenting on their weight is somewhat of a (displeasing) universal habit. It even happens in the more developed parts of the world where body-positivity and “Say No to Size Zero” campaigns run religiously. And in the Maldives, it is safe to say that this particular greeting has become tradition, and “hey whoa so fat now” and “aye, so skinny now,” have become socially acceptable greetings for any occasion.
Despite the antagonism this greeting ignites, the sad reality is that we have come to accept this. Most of us smile and nod politely, or choose to take the “aye, so skinny now” comments as compliments (and it is usually said in the intention of a compliment). One could argue that such greetings are inevitable in a close-knitted community like the Maldives where everybody knows everybody’s business. Perhaps commenting on someone’s weight is perceived to be an acceptable thing to do because some people genuinely believe that their comments are “coming from a good place.”
On several occasions I have been labelled “too sensitive” for calling out people who greet me by commenting on my weight. Or perhaps, there is a culturally accepted level of superficiality in Maldives and we, too, have internalised some nonsensical beauty standards that people are expected to adhere to. The bottom line is that it is a thing that we do, and an outlandish habit we have learned to accept.
“I was having a really good day – I took a couple of selfies that day because I discovered really good lighting, and work was almost over,” Lamha*, a lawyer working at a top law firm in the Maldives shared. “While I was on the phone waiting for my boyfriend to come pick me up, a colleague walked in. It was just me and this guy I’d known for merely two months. He saw me relaxed and leaning back in my chair and started ‘Eh, Lamha you have big tummy don’t you! It’s all flabby isn’t it!’” the lawyer recalled. “He then called over another colleague and pointed my stomach out to him again. My boyfriend had to ask me twice what was wrong when he came to pick me up, because he couldn’t hear what I said; my voice barely came out. It wasn’t a good day.”
It has always baffled me why people choose to initiate conversations this way. On the (many) occasions that I have been shamed for gaining or losing weight, I have always consoled myself into thinking that ‘maybe people are just health conscious’, because it simply cannot be that we are all that superficial. But even if that were the case – if we are commenting on people’s weight out of genuine concern for their health – this still seems like a pretty counterintuitive way of showing it.
A person’s size is not an accurate depiction of their health, how happy they are, or what their circumstances are in life. One of the biggest misconceptions amongst the majority of Maldivians is that “thin is healthy” and “fat is unhealthy.” This assumption is fundamentally flawed. Bodies come in all shapes, sizes and colours in real life – much like a Dove campaign and less like a Victoria’s Secret ad. “Thin” and “fit” are not synonymous, and “fat” is not a necessarily a bad thing. There are many factors that go in to weight gain and weight loss, and this experience is different for everyone.
The “ideal body weight” does not factor in what is happening inside someone’s body either. A person’s appearance is not an indicator of their cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar, and the continued array of scientific terms that our physicians prescribe to ensure that we are healthy. What should matter is what these numbers indicate. Moreover, for some people, weight gain and loss is a constant battle due to pre-existing health conditions and it is a deeply personal issue. Therefore, initiating conversations by commenting on their appearance can be highly triggering and uncomfortable for some.
“After I moved back to Male, everybody kept pointing out that I had lost weight. I didn’t notice it so much myself, but everyone was telling me that I got thinner,” Jana*, a 27-year-old marketing official said. “I didn’t think much of it at first. But then people kept asking me weird things,” she elaborated. “People straight-up asked me if I had been taking drugs because apparently, I had lost that much weight. I was so shocked that someone could ask me that with a straight face!”
“I became overly conscious of my body because everybody had an opinion on it. And what made it more uncomfortable was the lack of middle ground – some called me ‘junkie-skinny’ while others congratulated me on finally shedding my ‘baby fat’ and looking ‘fit’. When people kept rewarding me for my weight loss with positive comments, it reinforced a need to maintain my physique. I never used to watch what I eat, but then I became extra cautious of what I was eating, and then it spiralled into something very unhealthy…” Jana, chuckled nervously and trailed off.
“I’m fine now. But at one point, I was legitimately underweight. There was a point where I weighed exactly what I did when I was in grade five, can you imagine!” she said. “Oh my god, would you believe it; since then I’ve obviously gained weight and I’m healthy, but now, people keep telling me that I’ve gained weight again. There really is no middle ground.”
The problem with the discourse in Maldives is that there is too much focus on these surface-level descriptors. While most of us do not have any malicious intent when greeting people this way, we often overlook how this could affect the person on the receiving end of these comments. Complimenting someone on his or her weight loss may seem like good courtesy, however, you could also potentially be endorsing some unhealthy choices. Likewise, calling out people who have gained weight may undermine their person struggles since everyone’s bodies react to food and exercise differently.
This perpetuates a rigorous beauty standard that is unhealthy and unrealistic, which ultimately makes this particular greeting pretty redundant. Perhaps the most disheartening fact about this greeting is that it takes focus away from people’s achievements and accomplishments, and shifts to something completely frivolous such as their physical appearance. Too often, even the most adept people are left aghast when their physical appearance needlessly becomes the topic of conversation in completely unexpected situations.
Maldives, in general, would be a nicer and more pleasant place if people gave sincere, healthy compliments instead of picking at each other’s insecurities. Perhaps next time, consider greeting your friends by complimenting their outfit choice, their new hairdo - or better yet, ask how their family is doing or how work is going. Steer away from rhetorics that could make people uncomfortable.
Be considerate, be kinder.