“Oh my gosh you look amazing! Have you lost weight?!”
Have. You. Lost. Weight.
Four words in our culture that are synonymous with a compliment.
The “thin ideal” is incredibly pervasive in our society. We have absorbed the “thin is good” and “fat is bad” message from the moment we were born.
Our world is littered with images of thin bodies on television, in movies, magazines, billboards, online (you get the picture - no pun intended) and they’re almost 100% presented in a positive light.
Fat bodies? Not so much.
It makes sense then when someone loses weight we would see this as a good thing and subsequently praise them for this “positive” change. But is this really something we should be complimenting people on?
No. I don’t believe so, and here are a few reasons why...
5 Reasons Why You Should Stop Complimenting People on Their Weight Loss
1. The children are listening.
When you look at your adorable, chubby little 5 year old child or grandchild are you thinking “gosh, they need to lose weight”? (I truly hope not), but there is a good chance that they are.
Children are pursuing weight loss at younger and younger ages. Most girls start dieting by the age of 8, and there are reports that it’s starting even younger than that, with some children resorting to extreme measures to do so. This is not OK.
As you know, children are like sponges and are always listening, so when you casually comment on a friend or family member’s weight loss, the child begins to internalize the “thinner is better” message, which is also socially reinforced. Particularly as girls reach puberty and gain weight in preparation for menstruation, the drive to diet increases, while their body image decreases.
Considering that image and appearance tends to be very important in our society (especially for girls and women), dieting can be the dangerous beginnings of an eating disorder or disordered eating.
Which leads me to point #2.
2. You never know if someone is suffering from an eating disorder.
When someone loses weight, you have no idea how they’ve done it. They truly could be starving themselves, or killing themselves at the gym. So when you tell them “You look great! Did you lose weight?” that disordered eating or exercise behaviour is reinforced.
Harriet Brown in her book The Body of Truth begins with the story of her daughter who was suffering from an eating disorder. She describes how strangers would approach her daughter on the street asking what her secret was to staying so slim. Her daughter was eventually hospitalized.
Once her daughter gained the necessary weight that saved her life, the compliments stopped.
Positive compliments when thin, no compliments when bigger.
Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, and complimenting an anorexic (or recovering anorexic) on weight loss, or not making compliments when their body is larger, can be the trigger that starts a relapse or deeper dive into the eating disorder, which ultimately, could lead to death.
What’s also very important to understand is that eating orders come in all shapes and sizes.
When we think “eating disorder” we are so used to seeing the stereotypical image of a white, emaciated teenage girl, when in reality, an eating disorder can be present in someone who is fat.
That really throws things for a loop now doesn’t it?
Just when you think you’re helping someone in a larger body by encouraging their weight loss, you could actually be encouraging someone’s eating disorder.
Q: "But what about people who are overweight and don’t have an eating disorder, and are simply are losing weight to become healthy. I want to compliment them on their progress! Are you saying I shouldn’t do that?"
A. (And point #3). Weight loss does not equal improved health.
Have I lost you here? Surely weight loss is good for health, right?
Actually, there is no proof that weight loss in and of itself improves health. I wrote a post about it here.
I will say this:
Not all fat people are unhealthy.
Not all thin people are healthy.
You cannot assume how healthy someone is just by looking at them - period.
Complimenting people on their weight loss reinforces the dangerous idea that weight loss first and foremost is good for people’s health, when in actuality, this can be a fatal belief.
Which brings me to point #4…
4. You have no idea if someone is sick, or what they are going through.
When someone loses weight, unless they explicitly say “I’m on such and such a diet and lost weight”, you have no idea why they lost weight. They could have cancer, or some other debilitating illness.
Significant stress for some people reduces their appetite which may result in weight loss. Perhaps someone is going through a divorce, or lost their home, or a family member died. They are truly suffering, and then someone compliments them on their weight loss.
Now if that person recovers and gains the weight back, the compliments will likely stop, and I don’t think we want to be reinforcing that illness is preferable to health.
Again to my point above, healthy people come in all shapes and sizes, and thinner doesn’t automatically mean healthier.
But do you know what does facilitate poor health?
5. Weight Stigma
Weight stigma encompasses the stereotypes and judgements that are attributed to fat people. The idea of “thin is better” is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even question the validity of it.
Let’s look at the story lines we see in movies and television associated with thin people: almost exclusively, we see the thin (or “fit”) person get the job, the house, the car, the guy or girl, money, success etc., which accumulates to ultimately - happiness.
The story lines we see associated with fat people are either the funny best friend, the nerd or “loser” who gets picked on or bullied. They are often sad and on the sidelines - displayed as lazy, stupid, and unhealthy. Rarely (if ever) do we see the fat person “get the guy” (story lines tend to be a bit more forgiving when it comes to “getting the girl”), but generally, the light fat people are presented in is very dim.
So we have a cultural narrative telling us from so many different angles that fat is bad and thinner is better.
But the reality is - this is nothing more than a belief that we’ve bought into. Beauty ideals have changed drastically over time. You’ve all seen classical paintings of fat women who at that time were revered for their beauty. So “thinner is better” is not a fact, it’s a belief, and beliefs can change.
Ok - but what about the health piece? The reality is - weight in and of itself has not been proven to cause poor health, but there is good evidence to show that weight stigma does have a negative impact on people’s health.
When people seek medical treatment and are diagnosed as “overweight” or “obese”, they are often given a prescription of “weight loss” instead of being tested for the actual symptoms they are presenting. In The Body of Truth, Harriet Brown cites some heart wrenching stories of people dying due to lack of proper symptom diagnosis.
We know chronic stress is a major factor of a suppressed immune system, and the level of chronic stress is higher for someone who experiences weight stigma on a daily basis, which over time leads to poorer health outcomes.
Lastly, since weight stigma is so ingrained in people's belief systems, it can affect things like hiring practices and promotions at work, meaning people living in larger bodies are less likely to earn as high an income as thinner people, and income is an important social determinant of health.
So complimenting people on their weight loss perpetuates this stigma, and stigma hurts everyone.
Choose a different compliment.
For all the reasons listed above, I hope you can see how “have you lost weight” isn’t as innocuous a compliment as it may seem. Even if you still hold the belief that thinner is better, please reconsider using weight loss as a compliment.
There are so many other things you can compliment people on instead. If you want to focus on the physical, compliment someone on their smile, hair, eyes, clothing, shoes, jewelry or makeup.
Or better yet, pick a characteristic of the person that you really admire - perhaps it’s as simple as they always show up on time, or their sense of humour, or their knowledge of current events.
When it comes down to it, I believe we all want to be valued for who we are, and how much we weigh at any given moment truly doesn’t have anything to do with that.