Complimenting people on their weight loss may seem like second nature; however, experts suggest that even the best intentions can be harmful.
As a society, compliments are typically perceived in a positive light; so, we may not always consider the possibility that they’ll impact someone in a negative way, says Dr. Shawn L. Blue, psychologist and assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University.
Why weight-related compliments can be bad
Complimenting weight loss promotes the idea that individuals are more attractive when they lose weight, suggests Dr. Blue. “To the individual on the receiving end, compliments can reinforce action to continue losing weight, with the understanding that ‘I receive compliments when I lose weight’ and that that feels good,” says Dr. Blue.
Even a simple, “Wow, you look great,” can carry a negative connotation, implying that said individual looked “bad” before, explains clinical dietitian Emily Rubin, director of clinical dietetics at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
How they support diet culture
Such compliments also support a treacherous diet culture, says Rubin, which, over the years, has been molded by the media and evolving societal norms. Diet culture praises fad diets (quick, short-term, and unsustainable eating patterns) and unattainable physiques, she explains. It shifts the importance of (and reasoning behind) weight loss off of health and onto appearance.
Associating weight loss with ideas regarding restricting one’s intake inevitably changes peoples’ relationship with food. The motivation is no longer healthy, adds Dr. Blue. “The need for social acceptance can make us lose sight of something as innate as the nutritional value of food.”
“This can place a lot of pressure on a person to not regain any weight,” says Rubin. Rubin finds that unfortunately, it often sets them up for failure.
How they affect emotional and psychological well-being
Studies have shown that weight-related compliments, weight bias, and diet culture can foster and reinforce disordered eating habits, or a generally unhealthy relationship with food. All of these things may significantly damage one’s self-esteem and create a negative association and relationship with one’s body, notes Dr. Blue.
“Everyone has a different, unique body structure,” Dr. Blue adds. Comments encouraging weight loss can lead to confusion for those who have different frames. Some people may try everything they can to change their body structure–which can’t be changed.
Additionally, those who consume only certain food groups (and avoid others), in part to fad diets, can end up feeling deprived, adds Rubin. Not only is it not kind to the body, but, physiologically, deprivation of certain nutrients can further hamper mood and mental function.
On the other hand, one who has a history of mental illness–such as depression and/or anxiety–may have difficulty approaching weight loss. Changes in depressive and anxious symptoms can worsen eating patterns, explains Dr. Blue. Even if not to the extent of an eating disorder, one’s mood can certainly impact motivation and affect efforts to lead a healthy lifestyle.
What we can do, as a society
We can work to reframe our perception of “dieting” to focus on health, as opposed to weight, says Dr. Blue. It takes the pressure off of appearance and acknowledges and respects the variability of different body shapes—especially those that do not fit into society’s restrictive definition of the “ideal” body type.
“We can actively improve our language by being intentional–thinking before we speak,” explains Dr. Blue.
Dr. Blue says avoiding comments that reinforce diet culture, such as: “I’m going to have to exercise for five hours tomorrow,” after consuming more than planned.
Instead of saying, “you look great,” Dr. Blue suggests we can expand that compliment and say something like: “I know you have been working really hard to lose weight and to do so in a healthy way. I want you to know that I am proud of you, I would like to support you however possible.”
What providers can do
It’s paramount to support both the mental and physical well-being of our patients, says Rubin. “Personally, I always teach my patients to not be scared to eat a diverse range of nutrient-rich foods [even if this means gaining a little weight back]. I want my patients to be physically healthy, but I will also refer them to a mental health professional when I suspect it’s necessary.”
Weight loss can and should still be celebrated when focused on the positive, says Rubin. She suggests we can give people a chance to share their story by asking, with genuine interest, “How have you been doing.” Instead of highlighting the number of pounds they have lost, Rubin recommends highlighting how their health has improved; perhaps they’ve been able to reduce or go off of their diabetes medication. Share other peoples’ experiences–maybe even your own–to ensure them they’re not alone.
What you can do if you have been affected by hurtful comments
It can be incredibly difficult to speak up when your feelings have been hurt, says Dr. Blue. You may try saying something like:
- “Your comment was not helpful to me.”
- “When I hear you say this, it makes me feel…”
- “Here are some ways you can be more helpful to me.”
Whether you choose to respond to hurtful comments or not, it is highly encouraged that you still take care of yourself and cope with your emotional and psychological struggles, adds Dr. Blue. You may try:
- Addressing these comments with a mental health professional.
- Remembering that others are limited by societal ideals, but you don’t have to be.
- Remembering that others may simply be projecting their own concerns onto you.
- And self-care interventions, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, journaling, art, practicing positive affirmations, using a weighted blanket, and much more.
At the end of the day, everyone can play a part in re-writing the narrative and shifting the importance of weight loss back to complete emotional and physical well-being.