“You look so skinny in that dress!”
“Did you lose weight? You look gorgeous!”
“Those pants make your legs look so slim.”
It has become so natural for us to compliment someone’s weight, I think to the extent that we often don’t even realise that we’re doing it. Sometimes it’s embedded in another form, the hot core at the centre of the remark. When we offer this praise, we genuinely believe we’re offering the height of compliments, the thing everyone yearns for. And in a way, we’re right, as this is what society has taught us to be of the most value. Our appearance is the best thing we can offer this world, namely through a small body.
It’s estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, and 30 million in the US. Simply put, it is far too familiar still, with causes rooted in the media, perception of beauty and weight loss industry. But there’s another cause, one that you hold right there in your hands, and that is providing commentary on someone’s body. It’s a small thing, blink and you might miss it, but it holds so much power. Your words can affect someone. A comment that you toss over without thinking can remain rooted in someone’s mind for years to come.
“But don’t they want to hear that they’re thin?”
I wish it were that simple, that telling someone they have accomplished their goal is enough to stop them from doing further damage to their precious body. But it isn’t, it’s fuel to the fire, it’s a confirmation of the goal. This isn’t just about people who look thin, as eating disorders come in many shapes, sizes and personalities. This is a rule that you should apply to everyone in your life; stop complimenting weight. Let’s take a look at why.
As mentioned, eating disorders are far too prevalent in our society, and often you won’t even realise someone is suffering from one. Is it a high metabolism or a lack of eating? Is it a healthy increase in exercise or an excessive obsession? Are they eating healthy or restricting themselves to extremes? You just can’t know, and therefore you shouldn’t risk complimenting the wrong thing. By telling someone that they look thin/skinny/small, they will most likely hear “This is good, I should keep doing this.”
Consider the Pavlovian dog experiment, where the dogs were rewarded for salivating by being given food. It shows that objects or events can trigger a conditioned response. So your weight-centred compliment elicits the unconditional response of making them continue and believe what they’re doing is right.
And it isn’t just about eating disorders; there are many causes of weight loss that shouldn’t be praised. Weight loss can be a side effect of depression, chronic illness, or so many other adverse life events. Your comment on their weight may make them feel uncomfortable. When my father passed away two years ago, I lost much weight and didn’t even realise it. It sounds crazy now, as someone who had an eating disorder for years and still battles with body dysmorphia. But at the time, I genuinely didn’t even notice. Until I began seeing friends again and someone complimented how thin I looked. The thing I wanted for so many years only served to make me feel worse than I already did. So I was thin now? Yeah, because my father passed away and I’m grieving.
When you compliment weight loss or a thinner physique, you really don’t know what you’re praising. Just because it seems like a positive thing to you, that doesn’t mean the same applies to others.
We’re obsessed with weight. Take a look at a magazine cover aimed at women, and notice how many weight comments appear. We judge celebrities for their weight, we promote them as role models despite the intense money, time and airbrushing that goes into making them look this way. We focus on weight more than any other trait, even loyalty or kindness. We’re obsessed with it, and it creates a cycle of focusing on it and furthering that obsession.
We’ve managed to equate weight to self-worth, and like a pair of headphones deserted to the bottom of your bag, we can’t seem to untangle them. Thin is beautiful, and beautiful is importance in the world. Our weight is more important to us than how our hair, skin or clothing looks. We need to be thin, or at least we think we do.
The obsession with weight needs to stop, but more than that the worth placed on it. To measure ourselves by our size is to run society to the ground. We need to focus on who someone is rather than what they look like. Many of us compliment someone’s weight far more than we do their internal qualities. The first step to removing this focus comes from you and your daily actions. Catch yourself in the moments that you equate your worth to your size, and now that you notice them you’ll realise how plentiful they are. And whenever you have the urge to compliment someone’s size, redirect that compliment, using the examples below.
We have been raised to be fatphobic, this is something I only learned in recent years, but I now recognise to have been present my whole life. Your fatphobia is playing up when you look at someone and judge them for their weight. When you assume someone is unhealthy or lazy due to being fat. When you assume all fat people are unattractive or can’t be loved.
Fatphobia isn’t just directed at others; it is often directed at yourself. Berating yourself for putting on weight and believing that it means you’re unattractive. Thinking that you owe your partner a thin body. A prevalent instance of fatphobia is how women are pushed to lose weight after giving birth to avoid having a ‘mom body’ and having ‘let themselves go’ as if proof that they have brought a child into this world is such a shameful thing.
When you compliment weight loss, you’re insinuating that being larger is wrong; you’re affirming that weight loss is the only way to be deemed attractive. By noticing and commenting on weight loss, you become complicity in fatphobia for the both of you. You need to give yourself and others the permission to be fat, to be whatever size they are.
By complimenting weight loss, you’re essentially saying that they look better now than they did before. Indirectly you’re saying they looked bad before this, that the weight loss is a positive thing when it isn’t actually. It relates back to how weight-centric our society is, as we assume that smaller is always better, when that really isn’t the case. I know thin women who have been the most unhealthy people I have ever met, eating junk food, smoking and never exercising. And I know larger women who exercise several times a week and look after their bodies. It isn’t a competition, but my point is never to assume health through weight and not assume that weight loss is positive.
Someone could be offended by your comment, in the moment or later when they reflect on it. And you can play it safe and avoid any upset simply through not commenting on their body. Because at the end of the day, it’s really not yours to comment on.
There are many things we deem inappropriate to mention or discuss, let’s make weight one of them. Need an alternative to compliment someone in an outfit or how they look? Just remove weight from the equation.
You look so healthy lately!
This outfit really suits you!
What a flattering outfit!
You look so happy and confident today.
I love how you look in this.
You look beautiful/gorgeous/pretty/cute/sexy!
It is that simple; just don’t comment on their weight. As I said, weight is not the sum of their beauty or worth, so don’t make your compliment imply that.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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