The long reach of weight loss compliments

It seems that nearly every time after we reunite with someone after a long time, someone always throws out a compliment like this:

“You look like you’ve lost so much weight! You look fantastic!”

As if there’s no other reason you could look fantastic. As if your appearance is the most important thing about you. As if you looked heinous before. As if losing weight is always a good thing.

Explaining that last one to people isn’t always easy because the dominant cultural message is that weight loss is good, and the more weight you lose, the better. That this isn’t always the case is enough to blow some people’s puny little minds. Worst of all, this type of thinking and compliment is so reflexive that often people don’t even think it through before they say it.

I’ve been thinking about this lately for two reasons. The first is this article here, which I shared on the ED Bites Facebook page and think is a must read.

Snippet here:

Thirdly, by telling a person that their weight loss makes them look better, you set them up for a fall if they gain some weight back. I recently got into a Facebook debate with a woman who commented on my friend Viv’s selfie: “While you’ve always been stunning, I want to congratulate you on your shrinkage – you’ve gone from a 10 to a 10+.”

Leaving aside rating a woman’s attractiveness out of 10 (which we shouldn’t leave aside because gross, but I only have so many words), by specifically indicating that my friend looks better skinnier, the commenter is saying that if she gains any weight back she’ll be back to a boring old 10!

The second was that I’ve been going through the same experience quoted above.

A number of years ago, I hit an unusually high weight for me, due to the combination of medications that led to severe binge eating. The medications were necessary, if somewhat temporary. While I was at this high weight, I had an internship that was actually quite interesting. I enjoyed my co-workers and learned a lot.

About two years later, I had relapsed massively. I lost a Royal Shit TonTM of weight in a short period of time, and had begun a final downward spiral that would end very, very badly. My co-workers didn’t know about my eating disorder. It wasn’t relevant, and despite the fact that I blog under my real name, I try to keep the ED stuff somewhat separate from professional stuff.

In the midst of this relapse, I ran into a former co-worker at a conference, and the first thing she said was (yep, you guessed it), “Carrie, you’ve lost so much weight! You look fantastic!”

Now, however, I’m within shouting distance of that weight. Not super duper close, but close enough. Close enough that, when I saw my weight recently* all I could think of was that comment and how I must look horrible now that I’ve gained a lot of that weight back.

I’m far enough along in my recovery that it didn’t seriously derail my day, but it continues to itch at the back of my mind. It’s that subtle association between losing weight and looking good. So gaining weight means…what, I look hideous? Rationally, I know it’s bullshit. Rationally, I know I look fine.

But still. There’s that doubt, that culturally-instilled sense of guilt and shame at having gained weight.

There’s also a small part of me that misses the compliments about my size. I haven’t heard them in a very long time and although I’m not vain and generally don’t care much about my appearance, I do kind of miss it. The compliments made me feel special, even if I knew it was a stupid, superficial special.

So here’s the thing. The next time you reunite with a friend, don’t mention their weight. Compliment them on their eye shadow, their taste in music, the sparkle in their eyes, but zip it about weight. You never know if it could come back to haunt them.

*The nurse weighed me blind just fine, but thought nothing of handing me a paper with my weight on it. *headdesk*

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15 Responses to “The long reach of weight loss compliments”

  1. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Thank you for your strength and for sharing!

  3. Great Article! Thanks for saying what some of us are all feeling and i will defiantly be more conscious of how i great friends because i have been guilty of this myself.

  4. The one that gets me is when someone finds out about my history of anorexia and says, “Well, you look fine now!” Objectively I know it’s a compliment, but every time I hear it it hurts a bit.

  5. Thanks for sharing. This is a great post. I’m a dietitian in private practice-many of our clients struggle with people commenting on weight and appearance. Many of the points you make in this blog will be good to share with them!

  6. I’d be interested if you had any good suggestions for responses for when people do comment on weight loss–comments that aren’t aggressive but still get the point across that those compliments are not appreciated.

    • It depends on the person and the circumstances surrounding the comment. Some people aren’t going to get it, and I just say “Mmmm” to acknowledge that I did hear them but don’t otherwise respond. If someone is closer, I might take more time to explain why I don’t appreciate the comment “When you say X, it makes me feel Y” or even just a simple, “It makes me feel uncomfortable when people compliment me on my weight.” You don’t need to explain yourself or justify it.

      Does that help?

    • When people comment on my weight or body, I say, “I’m not comfortable talking about my body.” It’s not aggressive- it’s just fact- it’s my right. I’ve never had anyone get angry at me for it. Sometimes people become overly apologetic or embarrassed, and then I follow up with, “You didn’t do anything wrong- it’s just my own preference.”

  7. I have been exceedingly lucky to have friends and family who have never really commented too often on my appearance, even throughout several pretty significant weight fluctuations. The most egregious comments I’ve ever gotten have actually come from nurses…totally obnoxious and unprofessional.

  8. thank you so much for this article I am in recovery now have been working out and when a somebody at work mentioned I put weight on I relapsed a little but am back. just need to need to know how to handle ignorant people that talk about weight such a sensitive subject

    • Kind of like I mentioned above, it depends on the person and the context. At work, I tend to just change the subject or say something like “It makes me uncomfortable to discuss my weight.” and then change the subject.

      If the person isn’t a close co-worker, I’d be inclined to let it pass, but that’s me. I generally find those types of comments more annoying than triggering, so the calculations might be different if they are more of a bother.

  9. Leslie Robin Neshama July 26, 2015 at 10:56 am

    How did weight loss become the currency with which we greet people, compliment people, notice people? Was this in-style 200 years ago? One hundred years? Do other world cultures work in these ways?

    Somehow we have whittled down how we interact with others. It is obviously a very accepted practice. And as you say, we notice and comment on weight upon greeting friends and family. We can change that, especially in our own ‘spheres of influence’.

    Something as simple as intercepting the first comments with something like: “Oh it is so good to see you. I have so missed you, it’s been such a long time!”.

    My point is that we are not victims here, even despite our cultural norms. We can establish new routines, and new routines with those around us.

    It makes me smile. Doesn’t it sound facetious — I am a very large woman. I do struggle with binge eating. But what if someone greeted me by saying “You look horrible, you’ve gained so much weight”.

    I take great strength from knowing myself.
    Knowing who I am, and what my life is about. Let us think about ways to encourage life and vitality and affirmation other than noticing weight.

    Fantastic post, Carrie.
    Thank you.

    withallmyheart

  10. Gourmetpenguin July 27, 2015 at 10:16 am

    For once, my mum has managed to be perfect about this: she’s started saying how strong I look these days. I can cope with that 🙂

  11. U did awesomely. I wish I could. I try and see the positive in things but I get upset I eat and eat and eat.. then get sick or take a bunch of laxatives with the food. I can’t seem to get away from them now tho. My dr has me on topamax for the purging and he recently uppedy dosage of lamictal. I was already on topamax for migraine, but he said it helps with thepurging as well. II’m stuck in a place I don’t wanna be. Things are finally looking like they are gonna be lookin up here soon with finances here soon, but in the meantime I have to deal with who hasn’t been paid and what that means for my family. I can’t move snymore! – we have moved over 36 times in almost 27 years of marriage. …. I don’t deal well with change, I don’t know if my illnesses have an impact on my ED but bipolar (dxed age 14) and borderline personality, , anxiety and tachycardia so I have a lot of mental stressors that hit me and don’t help, and when I get desperate I wind up in icu. Tired of everything!!! I wish I had your strength!

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