There’s this woman who goes to my gym. She’s always a few ellipticals down from me. She is very tall, and all of her bones stick out. I try not to look at her more than twice or three times. I don’t want to be rude. She is wearing a tank top that flops. It billows. Her arms pump back and forth, the sinew stringy and sharp, her wrists like glass stems. Her face is gaunt, the skin pulled back.
It’s a little like watching someone cutting herself. Like watching a diabetic, like my husband, eat a bucketful of maple syrup. Except maybe if someone was sitting there with a knife, slicing their own arm open, we could say something.
We don’t say anything to each other anyway. We walk past homeless people on the street. It becomes easier and easier, the longer you live in the city. Someone is crying on the subway, but it feels too awkward to ask if they are OK.
Part of the problem is that we’ve learned that saying something is almost always offensive. It’s presumptuous. The people who say something are guys on the street who yell things at women. They’re casual acquaintances who make an inappropriate remark about how much weight we’ve been gaining. They are people without tact or sensitivity. We have learned to be very careful, because we don’t know the whole story. Because we know that everyone makes different decisions. Because we’re supposed to respect everyone’s decisions. Because we don’t want to step on any toes.
When I write about weight I have to be careful not to say anything insulting about skinny women. When I write about feeling unattractive, I have to be careful not to say something that might offend people who are very comfortable with their looks, or very stereotypically hot. A few people got offended when I wrote disparagingly about applicator tampons, because they use them.
In college, I was close with a girl who had been hospitalized with an eating disorder. She became a vegan, and seemed to use veganism as an excuse to not eat much of anything. But no one wants to have that conversation with me, it seems. Because it’s insulting to vegans. Because I shouldn’t suggest that all women who are vegans have eating disorders.
I don’t want to suggest that. But I want to talk about this girl. And a few other girls I’ve known, actually, who were quietly wasting away as everyone around them politely respected their right to be vegans.
There is a point when political correctness hurts us. It prevents us from being honest with one another. It makes honesty synonymous with inappropriateness. It doesn’t even leave much room for careful, caring, thoughtful openness.
I don’t know that if I, or anyone else, approached the woman on the elliptical and expressed concern she would be anything except horrified and offended. She probably would be. Or maybe she’d tell me, “I have cancer!” as if I should have known. There definitely isn’t a convenient answer.
But to the extent that we still tiptoe nervously around eating disorders and pretend we don’t see them when they are right in front of us, something needs to change. Otherwise, how can we keep going back to the gym, and watching women fade around us? And won’t it be that much easier to quietly start skipping meals ourselves? Knowing that first people will say, “Oh, you’ve lost some weight! Good for you!” And then a few of our mothers and best friends will say, “I’m worried about you.” And after that, no one will say anything at all.
Copyright Kate Fridkis