“You look great. Did you lose weight?”
“Wow, you must have lost a TON of weight.”
This holiday season, as we reunite with friends and family, many of us will likely dole out these compliments. Some will use them as codes for “you look great” or “it’s good to see you,” even when the recipient has not lost weight and never needed to. Unfortunately, these comments can have unintended consequences.
...I was already underweight due to an eating disorder — and their valorization of my unhealthy body would make it even harder to get healthy.
I would know. I received them from my peers as I lost 20 pounds during my sophomore year of high school. What they didn’t know was that I was already underweight due to an eating disorder — and their valorization of my unhealthy body would make it even harder to get healthy.
The first compliment I received after deciding my already-thin body was not thin enough and embarking on a stringent low-calorie diet was, “Wow, you’ve lost a LOT of weight.” The girl on the crew team I’d joined to aid in my weight loss really said it as if it were in all caps. I had only lost five pounds at that point, but her comment reaffirmed my fear that I had weighed a LOT in the first place.
I received similar flattery from another girl in school after losing ten more pounds: “Have you lost weight? You look really, really pretty.” I decided the concerned comments I’d received from my parents and friends must be off-base, since other people thought I looked so great.
A month later, my therapist realized my dieting had evolved into full-blown anorexia, and advised me to return to my pre-diet weight. The prospect of weighing what my teammate had implied was “a LOT” flabbergasted me. I thought my therapist was unreasonable, even out to get me. Why would she want me to get fewer compliments?
My parents later took me to another therapist who specialized in eating disorders to convince me my weight loss was a problem, not a necessary measure to correct a not-thin-enough body. “You look like a prisoner of war,” they told me in his office. He showed me charts and said my BMI really wasn’t considered healthy.
“Then why do people keep complimenting me?”
They had used my weight as a way to start a conversation in a socially acceptable way.
“That’s just how women compliment each other these days.” He explained that my crew teammate probably just admired my body and the other girl probably just thought I was pretty and wanted to be my friend. They had used my weight as a way to start a conversation in a socially acceptable way. I had to remind myself of this constantly when returning to and then surpassing the weight I’d deemed unworthy of compliments.
This year, let’s all try to refrain from giving weight-loss compliments. If someone shows up to your New Years Eve party looking thinner, remember you don’t know how they got that way. If they lost weight through disordered eating, your praise could encourage unhealthy habits. If they lost it through a medical condition, you could make their recovery harder. And even if they were once clinically overweight, telling them they look better now implies they looked worse before and will look worse again if they gain the weight back which, statistically, they will. This type of flattery promotes the myth that smaller equals better, a myth we should instead be challenging.
Tell them they look beautiful, or healthy. Or better yet, forget appearances and say something nice about the things they have done or created or said.