When several patients in the same week bring up the same conversation, I know it’s a sign that it may be helpful to send this out to everyone.
We just had Thanksgiving a couple of weeks ago, and soon the Christmas and New Year’s holidays will be here. A time when you might see family, friends, and acquaintances whom you haven’t seen in months or a year or more.
A situation that is rife with all sorts of comments about weight and shapes and bodies.
In which of the following scenarios is it okay to comment on someone’s weight?
A. You haven’t seen your cousin in a year, she is 30 pounds heavier than last time, and you are shocked by the difference.
B. Your sister just gained the same 10 pounds she gains and loses every year for the last three years, and you want to tell her what she should do instead.
C. Your aunt lost a significant amount of weight and went down several clothing sizes, and you want to compliment her on the change.
D. Your coworker mentions she shops in the junior size section of the store, and you comment on how you wished you had that “problem”.
In none of these scenarios is it okay to comment on someone’s weight.
Most people will understand why A and B are inappropriate, though there are lots of insensitive people who ignore social politeness. And at some point, we can talk about the unhelpfulness of “concern trolling” and giving unasked-for advice.
Some will have trouble with D, thinking it’s okay to comment on thin people’s bodies. But many people are just as shamed and teased if their body is considered too thin. It’s just as sensitive a topic.
The hardest one for many to accept is C. It is not okay to comment on someone’s body when they lost a noticeable amount of weight.
Why is it wrong to compliment weight loss?
There are two main reasons why it is damaging to compliment someone on their weight loss.
1. You don’t know what they did or what caused the weight loss.
You may be inadvertently supporting really damaging behavior. Or, you may be making someone incredibly uncomfortable.
There are so many possible reasons someone loses weight. Here are just a few…
- Intentional dieting – dieting is a struggle, takes away our focus on other parts of our life, and has a 95-98% failure rate, but yet it’s still so common.
- Eating disorders – it is very common to hide an eating disorder even from our closest friends and family.
- Digestive disorders – many digestive conditions create problems in retaining nutrients.
- Medical treatments – many treatments cause an unwanted weight loss, such as chemo treatments for cancer.
- Bariatric surgery – some people are very public about their surgery. Others want to keep it very private and they have a right to that privacy.
- Stress – they may be going through a really stressful time in their private life and are struggling to cope.
Even if you think you know and even if it’s someone you know well, you almost never know the whole story.
2. You are insulting their previous body and setting the stage for future shame if they gain the weight back.
Bodies change all the time. Weight goes up and down all the time.
Weight stigma is a much deeper topic, but in short, our society shames anyone who is outside of a very narrow weight range and considers fat is bad and thin is good.
“Wow, you look really good!”
I have been on both the giving and receiving end of that statement.
I vividly remember in my early 30s, I went on a major “health” kick and was going to get thin (which my weight at that time wasn’t even considered heavy). So I put myself on a super restrictive diet and started a running program.
I worked up to running a 5k and around that time, I was getting so many compliments.
It felt good and bad at the same time.
The good: praise can feel so satisfying at first, especially if you’ve been in a body that society deems unworthy of praise.
The bad: The response in my head was: “You have no idea how awful I feel.”
This same time period was one of the worst of my life – my highest anxiety and my lowest depression. I was flat out miserable.
By the time I did my second 5k, I injured my foot and my will to maintain the restrictive diet disappeared. I gained the weight back and the compliments immediately stopped which triggered a worsening anxiety and depression.
On the flip side:
About a decade ago, I was at a Christmas gathering and saw a family member I hadn’t seen in a while. He had lost a bunch of weight and my reply to him was that same cliché: “Wow you look really good!”
He replied “Oh, so you’re saying I didn’t look good before?”
I immediately felt ashamed, and yet proud of him for calling me out on it.
He was right – I had never complimented him before at a larger body size and my compliment implied that he only looked good when thin.
I’ve made a conscious effort ever since to not praise bodies and especially not praise weight loss.
And now, following Health at Every Size principles in my practice, that rule has become even more important to me in caring for my patients.
So what do you say instead?
Body shaming and weight stigma is a very serious issue and not going to be fixed overnight. But we can make a dent in it by stopping the body comments – good or bad, compliment or critique.
I challenge you as you get together with people over the holidays – find a compliment for everyone you see that doesn’t involve their body size.
When I can’t think of an alternate compliment fast enough or if I’m asked directly to comment on someone’s weight loss, I will simply say the truth: “I don’t comment on people’s bodies anymore.”
And if you are about to criticize someone or give them suggestions they didn’t ask for, you’ll never go wrong with biting your tongue.
Here’s a variation on this topic….
Is it okay to comment on a person’s weight to someone else?
A common one I hear is “Oh, have you seen so-and-so? You should see how much weight she lost. She looks amazing!”
Alas, no. This isn’t okay either. This does harm as well.
It reinforces the idea that body size is more important than the person. That people are somehow “lesser” if their body size doesn’t fit the “ideal.”
If it’s said to someone who is in a larger body size than the one being talked about, it piles on even more weight shaming, which is damaging to health than actual weight is. “My gosh, if that’s what she thinks about her, then what does she think about me?!”
If it’s said to someone who is in a smaller body size than the one being talked about, it can both influence an intense desire to avoid feeling weight shamed and reinforce a false moral superiority about being in a smaller body with reactions like “Well, thank goodness, that’s not me. I’d never let that happen.”
On both sides of the spectrum, body comments cause weight shaming, feed diet culture, reinforce unhelpful behaviors, and harm other people and ourselves.
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