It is widely assumed that most people love being complimented on their weight loss. So it is no wonder that we often don’t think twice before dishing out body comments like, “Wow, your diet is really paying off!” or “What’s your secret? Your body looks amazing!”
Here’s the thing: Even if your comment is positive, experts are now saying that complimenting someone on their weight loss can actually be very harmful.
“Complimenting others on their size or appearance may seem like a kind gesture, but can actually be more harmful than helpful,” registered dietitian nutritionist Kara Hoerr tells Simplemost.
Hoerr is a nutrition coach based in Madison, Wisconsin. She works with many clients who have dealt with disordered eating and body image issues.
“When we comment on size, we’re telling that person they look better now than they did before,” explains Hoerr. “This can further fuel disordered eating behavior or drive the person to continue with their weight loss efforts even if it’s an unhealthy way.”
In fact, many people say that being complimented on losing weight can fuel disordered eating or lead them to over-analyze their bodies.
In an Instagram Story last year, Demi Lovato (who is in recovery from an eating disorder) got personal about why complimenting someone on their weight loss can be difficult.
“Idk who needs to hear this but complimenting someone on their weight loss can be as harmful as complimenting someone on their weight gain in regards to talking to someone in recovery from an eating disorder,” Lovato wrote, according to Glamour. “If you don’t know someone’s history with food, please don’t comment on their body. Because even if your intention is pure, it might leave that person awake at 2 am overthinking that statement…”
Outside of concerns about body image and eating disorders, it’s important to remember that weight loss isn’t always intentional or desired. It can often be related to a medical condition or another private issue that someone may not wish to discuss.
Take, for example, the way the media shamed actor Chadwick Boseman for losing weight and not being as muscular as he was in his “Black Panther” role. It was only after his death that fans learned his weight loss was actually due to his cancer battle.
Freelance writer Michelle Rennex tweeted about this issue after Boseman’s death, saying how disturbing it was to see the media criticize Boseman’s appearance even as he was fighting for his life:
Chadwick Boseman died after battling colon cancer for years and just months ago tabloids were making puns over his rapid weight loss and describing him as “deathly skinny” as though “shedding a few extra pounds” were a choice…. and not a literal side effect of his illness pic.twitter.com/1c8jXzy2ss
— Michelle Rennex (@michellerennex) August 29, 2020
Though heartbreaking, the media’s treatment of Boseman is a good reminder for all of us that what we see on the surface is often just a tiny part of the story.
“The fact that Boseman had been criticized for his weight loss speaks to how superficially most people view others when their sole basis for judgment is the images they see online,” certified personal trainer and health coach Kelly Coffey said to Insider. “It’s up to us to remember that what we see doesn’t represent anything close to the whole story. It’s on us to practice being respectful of and compassionate toward all people and all bodies, always.”
So although you might notice that your coworker has lost weight or that your friend looks slimmer than usual, resist the urge to remark on their body or inquire about their diet.
Dr. Kara Pepper, a practicing primary care internist and certified life coach who specializes in eating disorder recovery, says that when we compliment someone’s weight loss, we never know what we are actually complimenting. On her Instagram page, she posted a graphic that gets to the heart of the issue; it was later shared by fellow doctor @arghavan_salles on Twitter.
It reads: “When you compliment someone’s weight loss, you may be complimenting: An eating disorder, illness, depression, a broken heart, anxiety, loss of a loved one.”
When you compliment someone’s weight loss, you may be complimenting:
-their eating disorder
-a broken heart
-loss of a loved one
Try complimenting something unrelated to their appearance instead.
— Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD (@arghavan_salles) July 26, 2021
And by the way, the same could be said about someone’s weight gain. That’s why it’s important to drop the body talk, positive or negative, and focus on things that really matter instead. But, don’t worry: You can still compliment your friends. But how?
Registered dietitian nutritionist Hoerr tells Simplemost that instead of saying “You look amazing!” or similar, you can instead just ask your friends, “How are you feeling?”
Then, if you want to compliment them, focus on more than just their waistline: instead, say “I love seeing your smiling face” or “Your fashion sense is always so on point.”
“Tell them you love their style or that they look confident. These are all small ways you can put the focus on other aspects of the person rather than their appearance,” says Hoerr.
Remember, you never know what someone is battling under the surface. And, besides, not only can it be triggering, but body talk is boring! There are so many more interesting things to discuss than carbs and calories — like the best new hair colors for summer or how to train cats.