Commenting on your friend’s weight loss might sound like a compliment, but it’s not. Here, clinical psychologist Dr Julie Malone reveals the dangers of using weight loss as a compliment – and what you should say instead.
Body positivity has come a long way over the past few years. Instead of promoting the ‘perfect’ woman, beauty brands like Dove now choose to celebrate differences in appearance and celebs like Chrissy Teigen and Lady Gaga publicly share – rather than hide – their stretch marks, cellulite and belly fat. Even Instagram has banned filters that promote unrealistic body image ideals, and, most importantly, Medicare has finally offered more access to treatment for Australians living with an eating disorder.
So how can you do your bit to help end body shaming for good? You can stop using weight loss as a compliment.
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“People think it’s nice to point out that someone has lost weight because as a society we’ve been programmed to believe that thinness is the goal,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Julie Malone from Treat Yourself Well. “It’s often followed by ‘You look great’ or ‘Well done’ and this further reinforces the idea.”
Although you probably meant to make your friend feel good about themselves, phrases like “Have you lost weight” or “You look so thin” can be misinterpreted.
“Making this kind of body remark can result in many unintentional problems for the recipient,” explains Dr Malone. “A common reaction people have to this phrase is thinking, ‘Wow, does that mean I was fat before?’ or ‘If I put the weight back on, will I still look good?’”
Not only that, using weight loss as a compliment can stir up all kinds of insecurities for the person on the receiving end – often for reasons you might not have thought of.
Maybe they weren’t trying to lose weight
“Imagine if someone hasn’t lost weight or they weren’t trying to and they receive this comment?” Dr Malone asks. It might make them think they should start trying to lose weight, cause them second-guess their body or their relationship with food and it can also disturb their sense of self. “It completely reinforces the negative associations we have around fat shaming,” says Dr Malone. “It implies that fat is bad and thin is good.”
Maybe they’re sick
Even if you were trying to make your friend’s day with your comment, noticing their weight loss might bring up problems they’ve been struggling with. “They might be going through a hard time at home, experiencing a relationship breakup or even receiving treatment for an illness such as cancer,” explains Dr Malone. They might be depressed and lonely, too, and receiving a comment like “Have you lost weight?” can make them feel even more isolated.
Maybe they have an eating disorder
One of the biggest issues around using weight loss as a compliment is that it can exacerbate or trigger an eating disorder. People with anorexia nervosa or bulimia spend a large amount of energy and time trying to lose weight, so if you bring their weight loss out into the spotlight – and congratulate them – you’re only reinforcing dangerous behaviour. “It also taps into the person’s sense of worth and makes them feel special only once they’ve achieved observable weight loss, and this creates a negative spiral of body shaming,” adds Dr Malone.
Forget about appearances
Unless you’re letting your friend know that they have something stuck in their teeth or that they’ve missed a spot with their fake tan, there’s really no reason you should comment on their body. Even if you only want to build them up, Dr Malone says there are much healthier ways of doing so – and none of them involve talking about how good they look.
“It’s lovely to want to give someone a compliment, but think about it first,” she says. “Being healthy and happy comes in many different shapes and sizes, so try to focus on things like how your friend feels or what they do instead.”