Reflections On Sticks & Stones…

One of my readers asked if I would shed some additional light on the social dynamic described in my article, Sticks and Stones. The point of that particular article was to illustrate how seemingly innocent “small talk” conversations contribute to and perpetuate the deep seated cultural mindset that we “earn” our food through exercise – or else suffer the negative consequence of weight-gain.

In Sticks and Stones, I mentioned that the small talk comments I receive from others vary depending on what I’m wearing. If I’m wearing my knock-about-town comfy Pilates clothes, remarks tend to be about me – my discipline or “strength.” When I’m all dressed up, comments tend to be about the sales person – the weakness for Girl Scout cookies. And a reader wrote in asking if I could explain why. Why does the focus of the remark change, depending on what I’m wearing?

Well, I can only write about what I observe. To make any type of statement as to why what I observe occurs would simply be a guess on my part. A very well thought-out, educated guess – but a guess none-the-less. So if you’re game for some musing, I am too.

First off, let’s take a look at what small talk is. Small talk is a social lubricant. It helps us feel connected to one another and tames the tension of awkward silence. It’s conversation for its own sake – whether it is between new acquaintances, work colleagues, or sales people and their customers. Oftentimes small talk is centered around what is clearly obvious – “nice weather we’re having.” And this is what made it such an important topic for Sticks and Stones. Our small talk makes it obviously clear that we – as an entire culture – have deep pain around our weight and ourselves.

Let’s put small talk aside for a moment and talk about real conversations. Longer conversations have the potential to cover a wide variety of topics. And inevitably the subject of weight comes up – especially between women. I’ve even turned it into a game: How many minutes does it take for the subject of weight-loss to come up? Since I’ve started playing this little game with myself it’s never taken more than 20 minutes.

Now given my lifestyle, the people with whom I am most likely to engage in small talk are sales people. And the type of sales people with whom I am most likely to interact? Those dealing with food – grocery store clerks and servers – or those fitting me with the right sized clothing. So it’s no surprise to me, that comments regarding the diet/exercise/weight-loss paradigm would surface.

Now as to the question of why the focus of the remarks changes depending on how I’m dressed, I think it is simply wrapped up in the bonding ritual of small talk and the cultural norms of being polite. Small talk is often centered around what is “obvious.” And if I’m wearing my Pilates clothes, an obvious assumption is that I exercise. And given our cultural views on exercise – it is hard and uncomfortable and therefore requires motivation and discipline – an easy way for a sales person to bond with me is to compliment me. Or to comment on how my assumed workout “makes up” for the ice cream in my cart…

As I described in Sticks and Stones, if I’m not wearing my Pilates clothes – I’m dressed up. And yes, I find it to be much more practical to dress up when I go shopping for clothes. It’s much easier to judge a new top or a pair of pants when I’m wearing the rest of the outfit for which the potential garment is being assessed.

And another way in which women try to compliment each other – women are the only ones fitting me for clothing – is to reveal their own insecurities and inferiorities. I’m not claiming that this behavior is functional or healthy – simply that it is something I observe.

So without the “obvious” way to bond with me though a comment regarding my workout habits based on my Pilates attire, and to avoid a potential insult by making a remark about my dress size, an easy way for a sales lady to connect with me is to share her trials and tribulations. And since I’m trying on clothes, the subject of sizes and weight-loss already bubbles just below the surface.

And that is really the point of both of these pieces. Culturally speaking, the subject of weight-loss is at the forefront of our minds. And, as a culture, we have some very detrimental ideas about what we need to do to lose or maintain our weight. These destructive ideas create dysfunctional relationships with food, exercise, our bodies and ourselves. And, even worse, in the course of trying to bond with one another, we are only deepening and perpetuating the pain.

So how to we heal this pain? The first step is to recognize what’s happening. Then we can begin heal ourselves. And when enough of us are healed and the tipping point occurs, our culture is also healed.