When Is It Ok To Comment On Someone’s Weight?

In order to illustrate the point that I am about to make, I feel that a quiz is necessary. A straight-up Seventeen Magazine style quiz (psst, fellow teens of the 90’s, is that magazine even still out there anymore)?

In which of the following scenerios is it ok to comment on someone’s weight? For simplicity sake, I’m going to choose “she” for these examples. Check all that apply:

A)   When your friend or coworker that has been on a diet to lose weight and it looks like she has gone down a couple of sizes as in “Wow! You have lost some weight, you look fantastic!”

B)   When someone is very thin as in “Well you are so skinny, you can afford to eat that.”

C)   When someone is pregnant as in “Wow, you are really out there, when are you due?”

D)   When someone looks to be very fit as in “You look like you are in great shape, you must work out!”

E)    When someone that is fat says “I like that store, but I’m too large to shop there” and you try to make them feel better as in “nooooo, you aren’t large” or “you are not fat.”

F)    Never

I know, tricky right? What if instead of “check all that apply” I said “choose one.” It’s a game changer isn’t it? Now we all know that the answer is probably F) Never.

And that’s right my friend, it is. I hope you used a number 2 pencil…

Before I start explaining why, let me start off by saying that at least at some point in my life I have been guilty of executing on at least 90% of these “compliments,” if not all of them. Through the years and especially once I became a nutritionist I have become more aware of why these are not ok and are often even harmful, and that is the purpose of this post – to share why and to talk about what we should do about it.

So the answer is F) “Never” and for each instance and the following are the reasons why:

A) When your friend or coworker that has been on a diet to lose weight and it looks like she has gone down a couple of sizes as in “Wow! You have lost some weight, you look fantastic!”

It seems benign enough right? She wants to lose weight, maybe her doctor even wants her to lose weight, she has worked so hard at it – why not make her feel good about it? But what if she has lost the weight by eating very little – like maybe even just a liquid diet? Like maybe she goes days without eating anything? What if she has started using laxatives? What if she has started making herself throw up after she eats? These might be considered more extreme cases and yes, they are more rare, but you are deluding yourself if you don’t believe that they exist around you and compliments like this only reinforce their personal hells of restriction and purging. But what if she has just cut out all sugar and is focusing her intake to mostly lean meats and vegetables and fruit – seems healthy enough right? Or maybe she did Weight Watchers and as Oprah says – she can even eat bread! That seems more balanced right? But what happens when she is tired of salads, tired of assigning points to her food – what if she is hungry!? What if she just wants to eat some pizza and some ice cream with her child and not feel like she has totally screwed up her diet as a result? Is it still healthy when you feel guilty about eating ice cream? Or when you don’t eat the ice cream with your child so that your diet stays in tact? What happens when she does stop these things (because seriously – eating this way is boring and who can do it from now until they are the ripe old age of 90??) and she gains some of the weight back, or all of it, or more commonly – what if she gains more weight then she lost? And the compliments go away and she no longer feels good about herself. Why is it that we celebrate weight loss so much? Why do we shower someone with compliments over it? This is a topic deserves a whole other article – or book really – but it is important to recognize that body weight, and weight loss do not = health. And in our diet obsessed culture – most weight loss that occurs is not long term or healthy. So by complimenting it, we are potentially (most likely) encouraging unhealthy behaviors in each other.

B) When someone is very thin as in “Well you are so skinny, you can afford to eat that.”

This one is double tricky because coming from someone that was called “skinny” all my life until college – let me set the record straight that “skinny” is not a compliment. There is nothing attractive or sexy about the word “skinny,” and use of that word can leave a girl, teen, or woman feeling terrible about her body. So even if you insert a more pleasant sounding word like “thin” or “slender,” still, the whole “you can afford to eat that” phrase has more baggage to it than my under eye area right now going on almost 8 months of my child waking up at least 1-2 times at night every night (UGH - for the love child - sleep!!!). So according to that statement – you must be a certain weight to be able to earn the right to eat certain foods. Kind of messed up right? Talk about phrasing that would make someone feel guilty for eating. Also equally as messed up – if you are thin, it is more ok for you to eat “unhealthy” foods. So pretty much you could live off of McDonald’s and suck down eight Mountain Dews a day but you are thin so therefore it’s ok – you can afford to, you are allowed to,  – you are still considered healthy. This is a big part of the reason why you can’t determine someone’s health by body size. And we really, REALLY, shouldn’t be using someone’s body size to determine permission to eat a food.

C) When someone is pregnant as in “Wow, you are really out there, when are you due?”

I can’t even with this one. I have no idea why carrying another person in their stomach for 9 months gives some people carte blanche on body commentary, but for the love of all that is good people, stop it. For some women this body change is enjoyable, for some it is agonizing. You don’t know which type of woman you are talking to so just don’t do it. She will carry her baby just fine without your examination and evaluation of her body changes I promise.

D) When someone looks to be very fit as in “You look like you are in great shape, you must work out!”

Maybe this person is fit, meaning they have found the right mix of movement that they enjoy in the right amount for themselves and they are healthy and feel good as a result of it. But this could also be someone that feels like a slave to the gym. They absolutely hate running but they make themselves do it everyday, 7 days a week for an hour. Maybe it’s someone that is not training for anything, but they still workout twice a day, everyday for hours no matter what. Or maybe they are training for something, as a matter of fact, they are always training for something, and they never rest. It affects their relationships, their health, even their safety at times… but they look fit. And again, compliments like this only potentially reinforce disordered behaviors. And what about that person that actually is fit but doesn’t fit the stereotype? It’s important to remember, you don’t have to fit our cultures image of fitness to be fit. I love this story about distance runner Mirna Valerio to illustrate this point.

E) When someone that is fat says “I like that store, but I’m too large to shop there” and you try to make them feel better as in “nooooo, you aren’t large” or “you are not fat.”

Some of us are large, some of us have fat bodies. We actually don’t have to look at this as an insult and someone acknowledging this about their bodies doesn’t mean that they are insulting themselves. But inferring that they are insulting themselves or inferring that no one should refer to their bodies as large or fat especially when they are is actually insulting them. It’s inferring that fat or large is a terrible thing to be – so terrible that you shouldn’t admit it – that you are putting yourself down by saying so. Whether that person is insulting themselves or not, by saying something like this we are piling on. Body size, large or small, actually says nothing about our abilities, character, personality or integrity. We bring that baggage to it. So in this case, we know they are large, they know they are large, let’s not try to act like they are anything but, because actually, having a larger body or a fat body isn’t anything that anyone should feel bad about.

F) Never

So what I’m suggesting is that we actually shouldn’t be talking about each other’s bodies in any way, even if it is well-meaning. And I do believe all of these examples are well-meaning, and at minimum, not intended to harm. I believe that most of us want to make each other feel good and I believe that we want to cheer each other on in health. But by saying the things discussed above, in most cases really what we are doing is dangling a carrot of the thin ideal out in front of one another. And as long as we continue to dangle the carrot of thinness out in front of one another, we are going to increase body dissatisfaction among us. What I’m suggesting is that we need to stop putting so much emphasis on the way our bodies look and therefore putting so much energy into changing them and instead put energy into truly taking care of our whole selves by caring for mind, body and spirit. And I don’t believe that you can do both, I don’t believe that you can be at war with the vessel that you have been given and truly take care of it and the rest of you.

So what I am saying is that we need to change the conversation. We can make each other feel good by saying “you look so beautiful today” or “I love your hair/shoes/shirt/outfit.”  How about really long-lasting compliments with impact like “I really loved what you said in ______ (the meeting, class, Bible study, your blog post) yesterday,” or “Great job on that _____ (email, presentation, marketing piece or social media post)” or “I really admire you for _____ (something you did, something you said, who you are).”

Through changing what we say to each other, we can stop dangling the carrot of thinness out in front of one another and help each other pay less attention to what our bodies look like so that we can pay more attention to the lives that we are living in them.