“Wow! You look so good! You’ve lost weight!”
“You must have dropped 20 pounds! You’re stunning!”
“Are you getting skinnier? What’s your secret?”
“How did you lose the baby weight so quickly? I’m jealous.”
If you think that these comments are flattering, you aren’t alone. Culturally, thinness is considered a worthy pursuit. Losing weight is often touted with benefits like improved health, increased desirability, and unlimited happiness. Taking up less space, we’re told, means having more success. So, it’s no wonder that remarks like the ones listed above are deemed complimentary. But, as a Body Image Mentor and Eating Psychology Coach, I must disagree. Adulations regarding weight loss are often times unnecessary, discourteous and triggering.
Here’s why you should think twice before praising lost pounds:
- NOT ALL WEIGHT LOSS IS HEALTHY AND INTENTIONAL
It’s impossible to tell by looking at a person how or why they’ve lost weight. It could be that they are recovering from an illness or experiencing stress at work. Maybe they recently received a cancer diagnosis or lost a loved one. Or, they could be restricting calories and increasing physical activity. We don’t know if somebody is suffering from hormonal imbalances or disordered eating. Nor can we be certain whether their weight loss is intended or resented as a symptom of disease or unfortunate life event.
When we assume that lean is synonymous with healthy and that pounds lost are always admirable we reveal our ignorance and conformity to a culture that worships physical “perfection” no matter the cost.
- IT IMPLIES THAT A PERSON’S FORMER WEIGHT WAS UNACCEPTABLE OR UNPLEASANT
When we comment fondly on someone’s weight loss, the implicit message is that their previous shape was flawed. We are saying, ever so subtly, that their heavier body was not enough. wasn’t healthy enough, fit enough, attractive enough nor small enough.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, it’s worth noting that for many of my disordered eating clients nothing sends them into restrictive behaviors around food, compensatory exercise or binges like being complimented on their bodies. Why? Because they hear what isn’t being said, the silent disapproval of the size they once were, which leads to fear of future weight gain and the looming loss of the physique that is presently garnering affection.
- IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS
As a species, we humans do plenty of policing and comparing. It’s a primitive survival mechanism to observe our peers and determine our ranking among them. We judge actions, survey physical attributes and question character in order to know our place in the pack. And while in the past these observations were necessary, nowadays such scrutiny is just plain rude.
An individual’s size and shape (along many other physical traits and lifestyle choices) do not require social monitoring. Yet, when we make comments about a friend’s weight loss or a colleague’s flat stomach what we’re really saying is “I’ve been watching you and keeping a mental record of your changing body along with my personal opinions about it. I have deemed your recent change favorable. So, although my approval hasn’t been requested I’m giving it anyway. You’re welcome.”
My advice: unless they’re paying you to have an opinion, a person’s body is none of your business. What’s more, a preoccupation with the weight of others is often indicative of personal body image struggles and insecurities. Consider addressing your own needs in this area and leave your friends’ bodies to them.
- WEIGHT TALK IS SUPERFICIAL, THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO A PERSON THAN THEIR BODY
Of all the topics to discuss when meeting up with a long distance pal, reuniting with relatives or spending happy hour with colleagues, body talk is surely the least interesting. So, instead of making assumptions based on outward appearance, congratulating weight loss or trolling for tips why not ask questions to engage one another and explore what’s below the surface?
Inquire about dreams and aspirations, significant life events, thoughts on world news and social issues, recent adventures, awkward experiences, interests and ideas. Be supportive, curious and open. You may end up discovering in the course of conversation, the reason for a person’s weight loss. And depending on what you learn, you’ll be glad you didn’t congratulate them prematurely.
Body changes are complex, personal experiences. Which is why it’s usually best to hold your tongue when it comes to weight. While most people appreciate a thoughtful compliment, not everyone is grateful for body-related attention. So, the next time you’re dishing out flattery consider lauding the character of a person rather than their shape.