Hidden Under the Surface

More often than we realise, we don’t see things clearly at first glance. We make snap judgements on mere seconds of observation, and usually speak without thinking about the consequences. Amaan Akhtar highlights to us why it is important to break the habit of making superficial comments on others’ appearance and behaviour, since there may be a health-related issue lying underneath the surface of it all.

When we notice something different in a friend, a family member, or even a stranger’s appearance, we often feel compelled to remark on it. It is the norm in our society to do so. We are conditioned to make some response, as if the individual expects a particular feature about themselves to be evaluated by others. And truthfully, it is understandable that we can’t help it sometimes, as we’ve been influenced by comparative body standards our entire lives.  

But not every change in a person’s appearance can be judged on such a superficial level.

We often casually throw out a compliment such as ‘Wow, you look so slim’, ‘How did you do it?’ or ‘You look so much better now!’ - (which is more of a backhanded insult) - when we see a friend lose a lot of weight. Other times, we utter a snide remark to our sibling like ‘You look really tired’ or ‘did you not sleep well?’, when we observe the heavy eye bags and drooping eyelids they wear on their face.

But we never stop to think about what this individual is really going through. As more people are becoming aware of mental health issues, we also need to learn to look under the surface for signs of concern. Even with mental illnesses, there are always underlying symptoms which gradually become more apparent in a person’s appearance and behaviour. Especially if it is an extreme shift from how the person used to be. We need to consider things carefully, and think about whether our sibling was just sleep-deprived that particular day or week, or are they suffering from insomnia because of depression. Or whether our friend’s weight loss was from a healthy lifestyle or from developing an eating disorder.

While these are just some examples, there is an endless list of common day-to-day observations we make on people in our lives, that might be in fact a symptom of something far worse. Yet, we risk the ability to help someone in need when we brush away these changes in their appearance (and behaviour) as “ordinary”.

When someone is suffering from a mental illness, it is possible (but not always) for the symptoms to manifest in their physical appearance as well. It is something we really need to consider objectively, as we would do so if we saw someone suffering from a physical condition or disease. Think about it – would you ever say such remarks to someone who displayed symptoms of cancer and appeared to be going through chemotherapy?

In comparison, there are also subtle signs and warnings that a person may be harbouring a physical condition or disorder as well. That drastic weight gain we see on someone may not be a simple as we may think: it could certainly be the effects of an overactive gland in the body, chronic stress or even a side effect of medication they’re on. So it doesn’t help to say things like, ‘Wow, you’ve put on a lot of weight haven’t you?’ Because they are no doubt, already aware of this fact.  

Finally, there may be erratic behaviours that we witness from a loved one – whether they are family, a friend or our significant other. We sense the moments when they’re feeling jumpy or easily angered in our company, and we blatantly assume that they are just ‘being sensitive’. But how can we be so sure? We can’t feel the emotional numbness and avoidance they experience; the re-living of traumatic experiences that have scarred them for life. It can be very easy to be ignorant when someone is going through post-traumatic stress or grief. Not everyone can mask their pain all the time, but we can certainly miss the signals if we don’t pay attention. While it may not be our job to look out for others, it certainly is our duty as a human being to show compassion and consideration when people are silently crying for help.

And this is not to say that you should now play “detective” and scrutinise every different feature and aspect of your friends, loved ones, acquaintances and colleagues over the past couple of months. But rather, take it as a lesson not to quickly jump to conclusions about other’s appearances and behaviours, and really assess whether the people you care about are facing serious issues with their mental and/or physical health. You may be able to give them the support they need, when they really require it most.

Love from Label: We hope you enjoyed reading this piece! To support the work that we do, please take a look at our SHOP of body positive clothing - all sustainably made and gender neutral. Proceeds go to support the running of this magazine, to fund Label's shows and to the charity, BEAT.