Lots of women (and probably men, too) know the feeling: when someone you know literally weighs you with their eyes, before saying something like: “Did you lose weight? You look so good!” Anytime some has commented on my weight loss, I want to cringe. Even sitting here on my couch thinking about it, I feel vaguely icky. And to be clear, I’m a straight size person—my body pretty much conforms to our culture’s expectations for women’s bodies, and this still really gets to me. But in my 20 years as a registered dietitian, I've seen how comments about weight have even more powerfully affected my clients, many of whom have come to me because they are considered “overweight” and want to lose some, or because they want a better relationship with food. For many of my clients, “compliments” about weight can have a intense and complicated effects on people who are already dealing with their bodies being appraised and judged (and stigmatized).
I appreciate that people may be trying to pay each other a compliment, but I really don’t think that comments on anyone’s weight, whatever they may be, are complimentary, even when they’re intended to be, for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, it's just intrusive.
I don’t like the feeling of being assessed based on the size of my body relative to the size of my body at an earlier time. It’s honestly kind of creepy—why are we all paying such close attention to each other’s bodies?? It all comes down to the fact that the size of my body—or anything about my body, really—is no one’s business but my own. Maybe I’m having a moment or a day where I don’t feel like thinking about the way my body looks right now. Or maybe I’m someone who feels self-conscious when it seems like other people are looking at me appraisingly. Maybe I just freaking prefer that the only people who think that much about my body are me and my partner. But it’s not just those things, and I don’t think it’s just me. There are other great reasons to not comment on someone’s weight.
It just reinforces some honestly pretty crappy cultural norms and values.
Whenever we compliment people for being thinner or smaller, we’re rubber stamping a standard of beauty that places straight-size people above plus-size people in terms of attractiveness and worth. This in and of itself makes it a habit to quit. Weight loss isn’t inherently good or bad, and being thinner should not be synonymous with “better.” Oh, and by the way, I know it’s hard to believe, but some people are actually happy with their weight, no matter what it is. Really!
Sidenote: It doesn’t even work that well as a compliment.
If you’re telling me I look great when I’m thinner, I can only assume that you think I didn’t look great until now, or that if I gain weight, I won’t look great again. So, let’s say you give me this compliment on my weight loss, then I gain weight. I assume, you’d say nothing, and then secretly note how much bigger (i.e. worse) I look? See what I mean? Crappy compliment.
Even when we know that someone’s weight loss is intentional, it’s still not our place to comment on their bodies.
Look, I get it; some people are actively trying to lose weight, and if you know that about them, it’s only nice and polite to compliment them, right? Here’s the thing though. First of all, see my first point about how commenting on bodies is intrusive. Beyond that though, even when people are dieting, their weight can cycle up and down through gains and losses. So, a compliment about their size can set them up to feel like they’ve failed, or maybe for embarrassment, if they put weight on again. It’s like when someone insults your boyfriend, and then you get back together with them. Awkward.
It can trigger some pretty big issues.
For someone with food and/or chronic dieting issues, weight compliments can be loaded. Let me explain.
If someone has a history of disordered eating—and often, you won’t know this about a person—a comment about weight loss that’s intended as a compliment, can take off running in their mind. If you say, “You look great, you’ve lost weight!,” they may perceive it as encouragement to lose more weight, because in their mind, more is better. As someone who used to have issues with food and eating, when someone would comment on my weight loss, I’d feel a deep sense of panic. What if I gain weight? This is actually how I thought when I was in the midst of struggling with food and eating, and I’d guess that I’m not alone.
You don't know what's really happening with someone.
I can’t write this piece without commenting on the fact that of course, there are situations where a person may lose weight unintentionally from something traumatic or even just unintended—disordered eating, illness, extreme stress—you just never know. I remember someone telling me that they once complimented a person on their weight loss, and then found out that that person had cancer. Not cool.
As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a situation when commenting on someone’s body size makes sense.
Weight and our relationships to our bodies are such a personal things, and the potential for harm well overrides the benefit of the “compliment.” If you want to pay someone a compliment, tell them what a good friend they are or that they always make you laugh. Choose compliments that center the things about people that are truly important. Let’s turn the focus away from peoples’ bodies, and on to what we love about them. Those are compliments that are always well-received.