Disclaimer: I am writing this piece as someone who has thin privilege. I do not experience weight-based discrimination like those who live in larger bodies. In naming my privilege, I hope to highlight the fact that my experience of this topic is limited to what I have learned from the courageous work of body positivity and fat activists, colleagues, and clients of mine who live in larger bodies.
A note on “fat”: Many fat activists and people in larger bodies have made the decision to reclaim the word “fat” as a neutral descriptor. The decision to do so is highly personal for individuals living in larger bodies, as many have experienced the word “fat” being weaponized against them. For the purposes of this article, I stick to the wording of “people in larger bodies” or “people in higher-weight bodies” to respect the journeys of those trying to decide what descriptor best matches their lived experience.
Michelle was a three-sport athlete in high school. While there was a part of her that enjoyed the camaraderie with her teammates, the sense of accomplishment she felt when setting new records — there was another part of her that participated in the hopes of shrinking her body. Michelle, who is now studying to be a therapist, didn’t know about eating disorders when she was younger. She reflects, “I had this idea that I wanted to become a professional swimmer so that I would be able to exercise even more. I would get many compliments on my body during swim season, even though that was when I hated my body the most.”
The comments Michelle received on her weight and body when she was restricting and compensating fueled her eating disorder. “There was an underlying message” she adds, “that my body wasn’t good enough before I lost the weight.”
“There was an underlying message” she adds, “that my body wasn’t good enough before I lost the weight.”
As an eating disorders treatment professional, I, unfortunately, hear accounts like Michelle’s on a daily basis — a person loses weight due to an increasingly problematic relationship food — that weight loss is complimented, and the person continues engaging in behaviors that are extremely harmful. I’ve also heard countless stories from friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers sharing that they have received weight-loss compliments when they were experiencing immense pain and suffering — dying from cancer, grieving the loss of a spouse, or suffering from another debilitating illness.
With at least 20 million women and 10 million women in America alone suffering from an eating disorder at some point in their lives and countless others suffering from any number of physical or mental illnesses that might contribute to weight fluctuations, one would think that it would be common sense not to comment on a person’s weight. Why are weight loss compliments such a common social gesture, despite their glaringly inappropriate and problematic connotations?
Why are weight loss compliments such a common social gesture, despite their glaringly inappropriate and problematic connotations?
It’s a complex issue — while some people equate weight loss to desirability, others associate it with health and longevity (and many believe the two go hand-in-hand). But why? Why are these beliefs so deeply ingrained? One answer is fatphobia.
What is fatphobia?
Fatphobia is the fear of being fat or becoming fat, which results in the stigmatization of individuals that live in fat bodies. Fatphobia, which has both racist and classist origins, is at the root of our cultural obsession with thinness and diet culture.
Author of Fearing the Black Body, Sabrina Strings explains in her interview with NPR that 19th-century magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar, warned their white, middle and upper-class women audience that they must start to “watch what they ate” as a mechanism for differentiating themselves from slaves, creating a new aspect of racial identity (if you’re interested in learning more about the racial origins and history of fatphobia check out the resources I’ve outlined at the end of this piece).
Fast forward 100 or so years, and our culture’s fear of fatness shows up regularly on an individual, institutional, and systemic level (much like racism).
From a young age, we receive messages that being smaller is better — from thin barbie dolls with tight skin, thigh gaps, and virtually zero body fat to Disney princesses that are all more or less the same (thin) size. We see fatphobia on TV shows and movies both in casting (most people who land major roles live in thin bodies) and in the actual scripts (fat jokes). Not to mention that airlines don’t make seats suitable for people in larger bodies, or that the fashion industry is particularly exclusive in its sizing and clothing lines.
From a young age, we receive messages that being smaller is better — from thin barbie dolls with tight skin, thigh gaps, and virtually zero body fat to Disney princesses that are all more or less the same (thin) size.
Weight stigma also impacts a person’s chances of getting hired and the quality of health care they receive. Research shows that individuals who fall into higher weight categories are less likely to be hired than their thin counterparts. Additionally, weight-stigma in the health care system runs so rampantly that many individuals in higher weight bodies avoid the doctor’s office for fear of being shamed or embarrassed. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for someone who is “overweight” or “obese” to go to the doctor’s office for a sinus infection and leave with a recommendation for weight loss.
Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking aspects of fatphobia is that individuals in larger bodies often internalize these attitudes, which leads to greater body image concern, anti-fat attitudes, depressive symptoms, stress, and reduced self-esteem.
Our collective fear of fatness is directly linked to the fact that it’s extremely burdensome for people in higher-weight bodies to exist in this world.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Our collective fear of fatness is directly linked to the fact that it’s extremely burdensome for people in higher-weight bodies to exist in this world. Instead of identifying this as a social justice issue, the majority of us have bought into the narrative that fat is bad and weight is always a matter of personal responsibility (spoiler: it’s not).
Do individual choices impact a person’s weight and health? Of course.
However, it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge that there are a number of factors that impact a person’s weight even more so, than certain individual elements. These influences include but are not limited to: family history and genetics, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, sex, dieting history, exposure to trauma, chronic stress, racism, and/or discrimination, food insecurity, family habits and culture, sleeping habits, medical conditions, medications, and eating disorders.
Simply put, weight is far more complicated than most of us are willing to admit.
But what about health? What if a person has or desires to lose weight for “health reasons”?
Good question, to which I would say this:
- This question assumes that in order for a person to “be healthy” they have to pursue weight loss (they don’t). In fact, putting weight loss on the back burner and focusing on healthy behaviors, rather than weight has been shown to improve clinically relevant in various health and physiological markers, including blood pressure, blood lipids, eating and activity habits, self-esteem, and body image.
- Assuming that everyone should be able to fit into our culture’s irrational thin ideal and obtain a perfect picture of health while doing so is ill-informed.
- If diets actually did what they promised they would do, the $70 billion dollar diet industry would be null and void. What most people don’t know is that the diet industry — fueled by fatphobia — actually sets its consumers up to fail (and keep coming back for more). There is a large body of research that actually shows that dieting usually results in initial weight loss followed by weight gain. While there’s nothing wrong with weight gain, most people don’t set out to diet thinking they will gain weight. The human body is incredibly adaptive, and often, weight gain after dieting is a result of a person’s body trying to protect them from starvation.
- The people who lose weight and keep it off generally fall into a few camps:
1) They follow meticulous diet and exercise regimens in order to maintain the weight loss (one might call this disordered eating).
2) They are suffering from a serious mental or medical illness that results in suppressed weight.
3) Their survival genetics aren’t quite as strong as the majority of the population, and for whatever reason, their body was okay with losing the weight and keeping it off (while there are some individuals who do fall into this camp, this certainly isn’t the majority).
This brings me back to my main point: Weight loss compliments do more harm than good because we don’t ever really know how the person lost the weight and there is a high likelihood that they will gain at least some of it back. Although they may be well-intended in the moment, weight loss compliments say nothing more than “Congrats, you’re closer to matching our society’s incredibly narrow beauty standards…”
So what do we do with this information? How do we move forward? Here are a few practical tips:
1. Continue to educate yourself about fatphobia, diet culture, and weight-inclusive principles. At the end of this article I, with the help of my colleagues, have provided a list of resources to help you get you started. Once you learn more, speak out about these issues, and seek out initiatives and policies that are more inclusive for all bodies.
2. Make an unapologetic commitment to refrain from weight loss compliments. Just. don’t. do it. As I previously mentioned in an Instagram post above, it can feel pretty uncomfortable to not offer praise to someone who is subtly or not-so-subtly asking for it, especially if you love them. And yet, how powerful is it to say to someone “I love you for who you are, not what you look like.”
3. Consider these alternatives to weight loss compliments:
4. Say nothing. Literally. Close your Mouth. Don’t comment.
– “I’m so happy to see you”
– “I love you so much”
– “How are you doing?”
– “What’s new?”
– “I so enjoy spending time with you!”
– “I’m glad you’re feeling good” — only use this one when you know, for a fact, that the person is actually feeling good.
In summary, there just really isn’t an appropriate reason to comment on another person’s weight. Weight loss compliments do more harm than good by upholding oppressive systems, perpetuating excluding beauty ideals, and often inaccurately equating thinness to health. On an individual level, you never really know how or why a person loses weight or if they will gain any of it back. So, in the spirit of being kind, sensitive, and decent human beings, let’s lay off the weight loss “compliments” for good.