- Dr Jenna Daku
Why complimenting weight loss is problematic
If you're close with me, you may have noticed that I have stopped acknowledging or complimenting you if you've lost weight. This isn't coming from a malicious place, it's just that as I delve deeper in to Health at Every Size & Body Acceptance, and intertwine it with my own lived experiences and those of my clients, I've come to realise that this practice is extremely problematic. Here's why:
It's (unintentionally) body shaming:
However well-intending, when you compliment someone for their weight loss you are inadvertently (and unintentionally) body shaming them for what they looked like before losing weight. Think about this for a second: When someone tells you that you look 'great' and follows it up by asking you how you lost weight, how do you feel about the way that your body looked like before?
I know for myself that when I was caught up in dieting and someone would say this to me, I would cringe at the thought of what my body looked like before. This would trigger a critical internal dialogue in which I would chastise myself for having 'let myself go' like that, and vowing to never gain weight again. But because my body loves me and slowed down my metabolism in response to my restriction (to try and preserve precious energy) and ramped up my scarcity mindset (to source out food in what it perceived as a famine) I would fall off my diet wagon, gain weight, shame myself, and start over again. Fun fun fun. Receiving compliments for being in a smaller body can contribute to feelings of shame and guilt when you, 90% of the time, regain all the weight you've lost and more within two years of dieting.
It contributes to weight stigma:
I used to diet and try to lose weight before I went home to Canada for a break, in anticipation of those glorious, confidence-boosting compliments about my weight loss that left me feeling like I was walking on clouds. But, it was absolutely crushing the times when I would show up at home, aware that I had gained weight, and didn't receive those compliments. I felt like I had failed. I felt ashamed. I felt anxious and gross. It wasn't fun. Plus, it took me out of the experience of arriving at home and in to the loving arms of my family and friends, and left me preoccupied with trying to lose weight before returning to the UK. Not exactly my idea of a break, at least not anymore.
In retrospect, what I've just described is my experience of internalised weight stigma - negative attitudes and beliefs about myself because of my weight based on weight-based stereotypes and prejudice. Weight stigma is massively problematic. It contributes to harassment, prejudice, and discrimination. It causes stress and suffering for people who are at the receiving end of it - and those who have internalised it. It increases body dissatisfaction and is a risk factor in the development of eating disorders. The extent to which it impacts on our physical health isn't fully known yet, but preliminary studies are showing that it might impact blood pressure, digestion, blood sugars, and more. It's so problematic that that the World Health Organisation (WHO) published an entire document on weight stigma and considerations for public health, which you can find here.
It overlooks serious health concerns related to weight loss:
Another reason why complimenting people for their weight loss is problematic is because weight loss isn't always intentional - there are many malignant reasons why people might lose weight: Perhaps they are struggling with a medical condition or with their mental health, making it difficult to maintain their nutrition. Maybe they've lost their job and are struggling to financially afford or regularly access food. It's possible that they could also be suffering with substance misuse, which would impact their access to and relationship with food. They may have experienced trauma and abuse that is making it difficult for them to engage in self-care. Relationship or work stress could also be a contributor for weight loss. Or maybe they are silently struggling with an eating disorder, and thoughts about food and their body have completely taken over their life to the point that they struggle to function.
It normalises disordered eating:
Unfortunately, cultural landscape has normalised disordered eating. This means that a lot of people who are genuinely struggling and in need of support, aren't reaching out because they're afraid of not being 'sick enough' or they fear being judged for taking up resources they don't feel they deserve. Or worse, they try and tell medical professionals about their struggles but walk away with a prescription for antidepressants and praise for engaging in healthy eating and exercise behaviours. Sadly, I'm not making this up for some added punch. I've had several clients share experiences like this and how it prevented them from accessing help sooner. Now, please don't think that I have negative feelings about the medical community, they're definitely doing the best that they can, and the two hours of training that the average GP in the NHS receives on eating disorders certainly doesn't help the situation. All of this helps paint a picture of why so many of my clients arrive for an initial consultation in my office doubting whether they need or even require support - despite feeling as though their lives are spiralling out of control. This is further compounded by the fact that many of my clients have at some point been complimented for their weight-loss or so-called 'healthy' eating and exercise behaviours. Weight loss compliments perpetuate the normalisation of disordered eating behaviours and could invalidate someone's suffering if they're silently worried about food, exercise, and body image -- and sadly, many people are.
We are worth more than our weight
With this being said, I want to clarify that my intention isn't to evoke guilt. I've definitely engaged in weight-based compliments before because I've wanted to make someone feel good. But knowing what I know about dieting and weight loss, and hearing what I hear as an eating disorder therapist, I can't stay silent about this. Plus, there are thousands of other ways that you can connect with and compliment those you love and care about (spoiler alert: they have nothing to do with weight!):
- Ask them about their studies, interests, or work and compliment them for their accomplishments.
- Support them through a difficult period.
- Compliment their bravery and their vulnerability.
- Tell them that you love them, and why - just because. I'm willing to bet that their weight doesn't make it on to that list.
- Point out their kindness, their honesty, their sense of humour.
- Acknowledge their tenacity, their creativity, their loyalty.
- Express interest in their life, interests, and emotional wellbeing.
- Compliment them by telling or showing them that they are important to you.
- Show them that you care and that you're interested in them by reaching out, asking questions about their lives, and digging around to compliment them any one of the myriad of qualities that are worthy of your recognition and praise.
I'll finish this section by sharing one of my favourite poems by Rupi Kaur:
If we look at the bigger picture, our weight and our physical appearance is pretty uninteresting. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it's outright boring in comparison to all the other great things about us. Diet-culture places a massive emphasis on physical appearance above all else, and this really drags us away from the myriad of other qualities that we have that make us unique, interesting, and attractive. I feel that it's high time that this change.
So the next time you notice that somebody has lost weight, you might consider asking if they are ok instead of assuming that their weight loss is intentional. Or, you could choose to list one of the other reasons why you love them and are proud of them, that has nothing to do with their body. And same thing goes if they've gained weight -- but I think I'll get in to that in another post.
We can all do our part in shifting the disordered narrative around bodies and food, and to make the world a safer place for people of all shapes, colours, sizes, and ability to live unapologetically in their bodies. That is, after all, a fundamental human right xx