This has truly been the week of tone deafness. United Airlines, Sean Spicer, Pepsi and now Cosmopolitan.com all seem to be in a perverse competition of sticking their feet in their mouths. I’m not going to attempt to name a winner. I leave that job to the internet.
But if this week is a dark cloud passing over us all, the silver lining has been the reactions of average people online illustrating that no, in fact, not everyone in the world has suddenly lost their minds. People swiftly corrected White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Hitler did not use chemical weapons. They called out United Airlines when its CEO initially stood by the security crew that violently dragged a passenger off the plane instead of apologizing, and brought much-needed dark humor to an otherwise soul-sucking week in digital America.
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But as an eating disorder fighter, daughter of a cancer survivor and woman in today’s brutal beauty myth landscape, I couldn’t help but feel like everyone missed the most serious problem with Cosmo’s big blunder.
In case you missed it, Cosmo ran an article about Simone Harbinson, a 31-year-old mother of two who triumphed over a cancer diagnosis that at different points in her battle left her with a collapsed lung, a blood clot, a serious infection and internal leakage. It’s a harrowing story that’s complicated by a back injury that landed her in the hospital again for surgery and rehab. Then, in an epic display of frivolity, they sold the woman’s journey as how she lost 44 pounds without working out. You can imagine the reactions that started rolling in.
Good to know that "several life-threatening setbacks" (*cancer*) is the key to weight loss. Do better, Cosmo. Do better. pic.twitter.com/HsQxu1bIAp— Bailey Kircher (@baileymkircher) April 11, 2017
For the record, they weren’t the only ones. Scroll through Simone’s Instagram feed, and you’ll see screenshots of other publications — like The Daily Mail Australia and Elite Daily (also posted via a Women’s Health social account) — selling her story as a weight loss victory. Cosmo has since spun the story as how Simone came to love her body.
Their blatantly crass take on a cancer survivor’s battle earned them exaggerated headlines claiming the publication was trying to peddle cancer as a diet plan, mainly based on one tone-deaf tweet.
Yes, the tweet — unsurprisingly, now deleted — displayed a complete lack of sensitivity and respect for this woman, her battle and the battles of countless others. One could even argue that Cosmo was subtly celebrating any means of losing weight without exercise, which would include some eating disorders. That sends young, impressionable girls dangerous messages about diets and weight loss.
But what should offend all of us most is this simple fact: Cosmo made weight loss the point.
Weight loss is not the point of your journey. Even if you never battle cancer or have kids like Simone, weight loss will never be the point of your life. Your journey, your experience, the lessons you learn and people you meet along the way, these could all be the point. Weight loss shouldn’t make your survival more triumphant or your journey more meaningful.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight or celebrating the accomplishment of your goal if and when you do. But even in this experience, the change in number is a tiny fraction of the story.
Simone’s weight could never tell us how much her kids love her or how much joy and laughter rings through her home. That number will never reveal anything about how many people she touched and inspired while she went through her cancer treatments.
There are many parts of Simone’s story that could take center stage to her and to people reading about her journey online, like conquering cancer or being a mom or finding peace with her body. Cosmo wrote about all of these, sure, but in the end chose to focus on her weight loss. If we’re going to criticize Sean Spicer, United Airlines and Cosmo for getting the message wrong, then we need to get the message right.
Even if it were Simone herself instead of Cosmo who put the attention on her weight loss above all else, we should be the ones to highlight everything else that she’s done, everything she means to her family and friends, and everything emotional and physical that went into that number on the scale. We should be the ones to say, “You are so much more.”
You cannot define Simone’s acts of self-care by pounds lost, and we should all seethe when her story is reduced to a number. There are traces of many of our journeys in hers. We’ve fought the same fights, encountered similar hurdles, taken a swing at the same demons. Some of us lost, some of us fell, some of us are still fighting. When yours is over, do you want it summed up by a number on the scale? Will you remember it that way?
Linnea Zielinski is the site director of Metro.us.