Weight loss: Why we should stop complimenting it

Such comments are well-intentioned, but can have unintended negative consequences.

“In that case, we inadvertently reinforce or reinforce the thin ideal that our society tends to emphasize and idolize,” says Alvin Tran, an assistant professor of public health at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, who researches eating disorders and body image. “We have to be very careful when we do approach conversations about someone’s physical appearance, especially their weight.”

This is especially important when talking to people with eating disorders or serious body image issues, as such comments can make their situation worse. Compliments about someone’s weight loss or leaner body perpetuate society’s deep-seated diet culture, Tran said, and the idea that thinness is inherently good.

“We tend to operate (as if) we can somehow look at people and, based on body size, determine whether they’re healthy,” says Tamara Pryor, a senior fellow and director of research at ED Care. an eating disorder treatment center based in Denver. “We have large-bodied people who are in a state of malnutrition as well as extremely short-sized people who are malnourished, and people who are standard-sized but still very severely compromised by an eating disorder. People can’t look at them and tell it.”

But if you’re pleased or in awe of how someone looks, shouldn’t you compliment them at all? What is and isn’t right to say? CNN sought advice from Pryor and Joann Hendelman, the clinical director of the National Alliance for Eating Disorders.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

CNN: Why else is complimenting someone’s weight loss or thinness problematic?

The muscular guy at the gym may be at risk for an eating disorder, experts say

Tamara Pryor: It is intrusive. Whose business is it for us to judge, especially to express it verbally? We may look at people and make judgment calls, but we have to keep it to ourselves. I come from the second wave of the feminist movement, where it was “my body, my business”. This is still the case.

CNN: How might people on the receiving end feel?

Pryor: If someone would say to me, “Oh my god, you look great. You’ve lost some weight,” I would think to myself, “What did you think of me beforehand? Was I not acceptable?” I could imagine the pressure the recipient would then feel to maintain the lower weight or lose more weight in order to receive more praise or be accepted. They may be thinking, “What about me and the essence of who I am as a person?” There are both physical effects and significant psychological effects that persist.

Joan Hendelman: If you don’t get that compliment, then it becomes, “There’s something wrong with me. I’m not good enough.”

CNN: What should people consider when praising someone’s thinner appearance?

Pryor: Any questions about appearance tend to trigger, and this is more appealing to people with eating disorders, because they have such a heightened sensitivity about how they are judged based on body shape and size.

You can kick diet culture out of your diet, experts say.  Here's where to start

My patient and her mother went to a clothing store. She is extremely underweight and anorexic, and has just started treatment. While in the dressing room, her mother gasped as she realized how extreme the weight loss was when she saw her daughter putting on clothes. In comes the clerk, who hears the mother say, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. I had no idea your weight had gotten so low. I’m so thankful you’re in treatment now.”

The clerk said, “Are you kidding me? I would die to be that skinny. How did you do it?” So, then the patient has this mixed and contradictory reaction: She can feel her mother’s very real concern, but on the other hand, she is being complimented.

Handelman: I have known and worked with people who had cancer or some other reason their bodies were small. For them, compliments are very uncomfortable because they know they have this horrible disease, and yet people compliment them on this weight loss that they would give anything not to have.

CNN: What can people say instead?

Pryor: Find ways to engage that don’t include commenting on their bodies.

If someone has had to lose weight for health reasons, it is not best to compliment them on their persistence in achieving that goal. Because then it’s like, “Oh, boy, what if I fail or gain some weight?” It feels like a lot of pressure. Instead, if someone mentions recent weight loss, ask how they feel about the weight they’ve lost or what made them lose it, rather than making a judgment call yourself.

Handelman: Compliment them on what they’re wearing, or say something like, “Your eyes are so bright today” – things like that. If a friend is still so fixated on being thin to get compliments, and I say how awesome it is, I’m supporting their focus on their body size and doing them a disservice.

CNN: How can people stop viewing weight loss or thinness as ideal and inherently good?

Pryor: Think about what it means to be healthy and what your body can do for you — like getting the nutrients you need or getting strength.

Handelman: If we could all accept that our bodies take us from one position to the next, and that it’s not about what our bodies look like, but what’s inside — it’s amazing how much our bodies can give us back.

It is important to accept who we are and our uniqueness. We must accept our genetics. The more we can accept our bodies, the healthier we are likely to be. Believe that our bodies know best.

Related Posts