body image · diets · family · motivation · weight loss

“You’ve Lost Weight! You Look Great!” Isn’t a Compliment

compliment-42Last week, a friend reported how horrible she felt when someone in her workplace whom she didn’t know very well complimented her on her recent weight loss. As it happens, my friend is losing weight to prepare for a figure competition. But this remark made her question her “before” look.  In her case, her “before” body is the one she has whenever she’s not prepping for a competition because the competition body isn’t sustainable.  (see here for why that’s the case)

Implicit in the so-called compliment about weight loss is the assumption that you really didn’t look so great before.  But now!  Wowza!  Looking good!

There are lots of reasons to think that you’re not doing anyone any favors by trying to give them the “look at you! You’ve lost weight!” compliment.

1. When we think of it in that way, it’s not such a great compliment. It’s a set-up for self-consciousness and negative self-judgment of our past selves. When remarking on weight loss is offered as a compliment, the speaker clearly thinks that there’s been a noticeable and notable improvement in how the person looks.  Without the normative standard of “thinner is better,” the comment would have no value as a compliment at all.

2. It’s also a set-up for our future selves because, for the most part, diets don’t work in the long run. Much of the research out there shows that those who lose weight by dieting now have a pretty good chance of gaining it all back and more within 2-5 years (if not sooner).  Diets and weight loss programs have very poor results over time.  See Regan’s post, “The Thing about Weight Watchers” and this report from UCLA.

3. It reinforces the notion that it’s okay to monitor other people’s bodies.  When the blog first began, I talked about “the panopticon” in relation to tracking.  The panopticon is a prison design (from 18th C philosopher Jeremy Bentham). Its key feature is that the prisoners cannot tell when they are being watched and when they are not.  The uncertainty about when they are under surveillance means that prisoners begin to regulate themselves. Philosopher Michel Foucault, and later, feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky, offered the panopticon as a metaphor for contemporary society.  Bartky uses it to explain how women fall into line with the standards of normative femininity.  If we condone comments on people’s weight loss (or gain, but we are loathe to do that since it’s thought to be an insult), we are promoting a panopticon-like scenario where people the expectation of random surveillance becomes the norm.

4. It reinforces the idea that it’s okay to let people know that we are monitoring and judging their bodies. One thing that shocked my friend in the story I opened with was that she really didn’t even know the person who commented on her weight.  And yet the person felt completely entitled to say something. What kind of a twisted world do we live in where the state of our bodies is fair game for comments from whoever feels like making them?

5. It assumes that we are trying to lose weight and that, therefore, our weight loss is an accomplishment worth congratulating us for.  I know, I know. For lots of people this is actually the case. When I attended Weight Watchers, we would literally applaud people for losing weight.  I’m sure I read somewhere in WW literature that receiving compliments from family and friends was a good motivator to keep us on track in “our weight loss journey.”  But hello!  Not everyone, everywhere is always trying to lose weight.  It’s offensive to make that assumption.

Almost 20 years ago, Sam and I learned our lesson about casually offering, “You’ve lost weight; you look great!” as a “compliment.”  If that’s the compliment you’re looking for, you won’t get it from us.  We ran into someone who used to work in our office but had moved to another unit.  We complimented her heartily on her lost weight.  Her response, “I have cancer.”

Awkward moment ensued.

Lesson learned.

If I could push rewind, I would approach it differently. I would say, “It’s so great to see you.  How have you been?”  At that point, she could choose either to tell us of her health issues or not tell us.  We could have a conversation about what we’ve been up to lately that focused on things that really matter instead of how her body looked to us.  Thankfully, our friend has since recovered from her illness. But we re-live the mortification of that major faux pas on a regular basis, pretty much any time we catch wind of anyone saying to anyone else, “You’ve lost weight. You look great.”

I do know that lots of people are in fact trying to lose weight and change their body composition.  They are putting in an active effort. They are not hiding it from anyone.  They themselves regard their progress on these fronts as accomplishments.  That’s all good. I myself would like to gain more muscle and I do have another trip to the bod pod scheduled to see how that’s going (for the sake of research, I swear!).

Nonetheless, I still urge everyone to re-think the weight loss comment as compliment for the reasons outlined above.

It’s nobody’s business whether someone has lost weight or not.  Friends, family, co-workers, and strangers do not have a right to monitor our bodies closely enough that they notice changes in our weight.  Even less do they have the right to talk about it, among themselves or to us.

You might want to say that it’s okay if we ourselves initiate the conversation. Still, I feel wary (and weary) of embarking on conversations in which the main topic is somebody’s weight.

And despite the good intentions that most have when they offer this compliment, it often comes across as a covert way of telling someone that they really didn’t look so good before.  We live in a society obsessed with “before and after” shots (it’s through those that WW “leaders” gain their credibility with the clients).  “Before” is always unacceptable. “After,” the “new you!” is to be congratulated and praised.

This whole approach comes perilously close to casting thinness and those who “achieve” it as virtuous.   The occupants of our “before” pictures are seen in a negative moral light.  Not only were we not so attractive with our unwieldy bodies that everyone noticed but kept silent about until we changed them, but also we were not so virtuous, were we?  It may be subtle and covert, but it’s shaming nonetheless.

Please join me in the boycott.

Read more about body image, body shaming, and the assumption that thin is better:

On Comparing

The Day I Discovered the Dreaded Camel Toe

Why the “Thigh Gap” Make Me Sad

Loving the Body You’ve Got