While it may seem harmless to compliment someone on their weight loss, it can actually be mentally damaging. Here, psychologist Nancy Sokarno explains what you should say instead.
Talking to someone about weight loss is a tricky topic to navigate, no matter the circumstances. If weight loss is a positive and healthy thing, compliments can often come across as backhanded insults. On the other hand, if the weight loss is on the concerning side, any comments about their weight loss could be taken the wrong way.
Weight loss could be attributable to many conditions – physical ailments or mental health conditions – such as eating disorders, bingeing and purging, or even anorexia nervosa, where the person is purposefully not eating to lose weight. A suppressed appetite can be a criterion of anxiousness or depressive episodes.
By bringing awareness to someone’s weight loss, you could trigger insecurities or validate distorted cognitions.
In all cases, weight loss should be about finding a healthy approach to eating. Unfortunately, society can place an emphasis on glorifying being thin and skinny. Therefore, most people’s first instinct is to compliment someone on weight loss without thinking about how it could be harmful to that person. Here’s what to say (and not say) about someone’s weight loss.
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What to say (and not say) to someone about their weight loss, according to a psychologist
‘Have you tried…?’
Asking a person about the fad diets they might have tried aren’t helpful, especially since most fad diets are only temporary. Every person’s weight-loss strategy is different and the emphasis should always be on a healthy approach to eating.
‘You look great ‘
Compliments like ‘you look great’ and ‘have you lost weight?’ are actually backhanded compliments that can imply that the person didn’t look good before.
‘How much weight have you lost?’
Asking questions that focus on the number on the scale can imply that the value of that person is only in the amount of weight they’ve lost.
‘You looked better before’
Whilst the intention of these types of statements are usually to state that you like the person no matter their weight, saying they looked better before is never helpful.
‘Be careful you don’t gain it back’
Again, these kinds of statements obviously aren’t helpful and can simply diminish a person’s achievements.
‘I can’t believe…’
Statements that begin with ‘I can’t believe’ such as ‘I can’t believe how good you look’ just shows disbelief in a person and their achievements. They’re not encouraging in any way and can again emphasises that they didn’t look good before.
Focus on the health aspect
A person is so much more than a number on a scale so try to make comments that focus on the healthy side of things, ideally avoiding the word ‘weight’ entirely.
Perhaps their overall goal is to achieve better health or to run a marathon – talk about those things instead. Compliments like ‘how is the training coming along?’ can open the lines of communication without placing an emphasis on their weight.
The key thing to focus on is supporting a person, rather than questioning their intentions.
Whether the weight loss is deemed healthy or not, it’s better to be a person that they can turn to for support, rather than them feeling judged. Saying things like ‘you look energised’ or ‘you seem really happy’ are positive ways to show someone support.
Offer up empathy by sharing your own experiences, especially when talking about body confidence and feeling comfortable in your own skin.
Focus on the emotional side
Try to dig deeper with that person in an emotional sense by asking how they’re feeling rather than what they look like. If their weight loss is a positive thing than it could have an array of emotional benefits on their life, such as providing more confidence and energy.
On the other hand, if their weight loss is concerning to you, asking them how they’ve been feeling could prompt them to talk about any underlying issues that might be the cause of the weight loss.
Nancy Sokarno is a psychologist from Lysn. Lysn is a digital mental health company with world class wellbeing technology which helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.