While celebrating weight loss is the cultural norm, there’s unintentional harm that can be caused. Consider these reasons before you praise others for their smaller size.
Most people strictly abide by the social imperative to not comment on someone’s weight gain. You notice your friend seems to have put on some pounds and you dutifully stay miles away from the topic, because that’s just rude.
Never, ever, ask a woman if she’s pregnant, because what if she’s not? (The horror!)
But if that same friend appears thinner, we throw a parade. Tell them how great they look, how much we admire their effort, ask them what their secret is. After all, people love hearing that!
Why wouldn’t we praise others for their weight loss? It would be weird not to!
It IS weird. But not because we chose to withhold a lovely compliment that seemingly demands to be delivered. It feels weird because we have an unspoken, unshakable belief that thinner is better. Smaller is prettier. Healthier.
And we assume this belief is universal; that it’s an absolute truth.
But as a health professional who treats people with eating disorders and body image issues, and who knows the harm that is caused by this assumption, I disagree. Strongly.
And this praise and admiration we shower people who become thinner will actually hurt more in the long run. It may feel good on the surface, but it ultimately harms us all. Here’s why.
1. You don’t know how or why someone has lost weight.
In every case, weight loss is either intentional or unintentional. Possible causes of unintentional weight loss include:
- Cancer or other illness
- Grief after the death of a loved one or other traumatic life event
- Depression or other mental health disorders
To compliment weight loss that accompanies those hardships, even if we don’t realize we are doing it, can be awkward and insulting. While that’s not the intention, it is the message.
But what if they meant to lose weight? Shouldn’t you encourage them and commend their hard work? Nope. There’s still too much you don’t know about what is affecting that weight loss or what is truly motivating it.
Sometimes that motivation is from feeling so disgusted with their bodies at their current size that they must make it smaller at all costs – at the cost of adequate nutrition, at the cost of their relationship with food and their body, and at the cost of their self-care. These behaviors can occur across a spectrum, and they are harmful.
2. If and when weight is regained, your silence speaks volumes.
Most of the time, bodies that lose weight, intentionally or not, will gain it back. The evidence is – significant weight loss is not sustainable for the overwhelming majority of people, and many will end up heavier than before they started trying to lose weight.
This is basic human physiology and metabolism, and the body’s innate drive to survive, not a failure of willpower. And for our unintentional losers, if the precipitating event is resolved, weight is usually restored to its previous state. Your compliments to someone’s appearance when it is smaller will reveal that you’re paying attention to their body size. If you notice when they are smaller, you also notice when they are bigger.
Will you continue to compliment them then? If you stop, then the unspoken message is: “Your current body size is a bit bigger than I like. Thinner is better.” People can pick up on these subtleties, so it’s better to say nothing at all.
3. It perpetuates the idea that body size is a meaningful indicator of value, worthiness, or desirability.
By complimenting weight loss, we are validating the cultural message that bodies are more valuable, more legitimately desirable, when they are smaller. It sends the message that no matter the cost or consequences, smaller is better, and pursuing smallness by any means is always desirable.
What if we instead valued and prioritized self-care and body respect? Caring for our bodies with affection and respect, as we would care for a loved one. Adequate sleep, stress management, protecting personal boundaries, a balance of priorities – all of these promote actual health, and pursuing a smaller body for the sake of having a smaller body can jeopardize all of them.
If I am being honest about my goal to promote health and wellbeing in others, and my respect for body autonomy, I cannot in good conscience praise you for losing weight, even if I know for certain that it is making you happy right now.
That also means that I absolutely respect your right to try to lose weight and to determine what your own values and priorities are. I truly want you to be happy and feel good in your body, whatever that means for you.
But I will never, ever tell you I value you more if you are smaller.
Your life means more to me than that.
Adapted from the original post.
Katherine Zavodni, MPH, CEDRD is a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice in Salt Lake City, UT. As an outpatient nutrition therapist, she specializes in eating disorders treatment, family and child feeding therapy, and chronic dieting and weight concerns. She is a passionate advocate of weight-neutral nutrition therapy and health care and applies an exclusively non-diet lifestyle approach in all her clinical work, consistent with the Health at Every Size® and Intuitive Eating® models. She speaks at national conferences, training professionals on how to promote weight neutral care and health behavior in their practices and advocacy efforts. Also a freelance writer, editor, and consultant, Katherine is in the process of creating a nutrition science curriculum for elementary school-age children that is protective against disordered eating and promotes body trust and empowerment.