Let's do an experiment: Raise your hand if you've ever said "Oh my gosh, did you lose weight? You look amazing!" Probably just about all of us, right?
While you might think you're being thoughtful by acknowledging someone's weight loss, your compliment might have unintended, unforeseen consequences. Put simply, a body-image-related remark — no matter how flattering it's meant to be — could do more harm than good.
We spoke with Juhee Jhalani, PhD, a New York City-based clinical psychologist, about why you should never congratulate someone for dropping pounds, plus other ways to compliment a person with affirming alternatives.
1. It Enforces the Thin Ideal
When we shower someone with praise for shedding pounds, what we're implicitly communicating is thinner equals better or more attractive.
"If losing weight is reinforced by our friends and family, then unconsciously we are likely to aim for that," Jhalani says.
Here's why: We're wired to please people and engage in behaviors that will lead us to be socially accepted. Hence, we tend to repeat behaviors — like losing weight — that are positively reinforced.
Unsurprisingly, this thin ideal contributes to anti-fat attitudes. We may become fearful of being judged or socially rejected for gaining weight and anxious about losing appeal or acknowledgement from our friends and significant others, Jhalani says. Consequently, we may even start to body shame ourselves, she adds.
2. It Can Encourage Disordered Behaviors
A seemingly innocent comment about how thin someone looks can be a major trigger, especially for those struggling with disordered eating.
When a person with an eating disorder is praised for weight loss (or, conversely, fat-shamed), he or she is likely to avoid weight gain at all costs by engaging in dysfunctional behaviors like restricting food, binge eating, purging or excessively exercising, Jhalani says.
"What may be an ideal size or weight for you may not be for someone else or their culture."
3. The Weight Loss Might Not Be Intentional
Newsflash: Not everyone is trying to lose weight. In fact, significant weight loss could be a sign that something more serious is happening in someone's life.
"Now more than ever, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we do not know what a person or a family may be going through," Jhalani says. "We must keep in mind that weight loss is one of the symptoms of depression, chronic physical illness or an eating disorder."
Weight loss can also be related to grief, from mourning the death of a loved one or maybe losing a job and financial security.
All this is to say, don't assume a person's weight loss is intentional. Someone may simply be struggling mentally, physically or emotionally.
4. It Implies the Person Looked Bad or Worse Before
Sometimes your well-meaning comment on someone's weight loss can be a backhanded compliment. A person on the receiving end of your flattery may think, "If I look better now, how did I look before?" In other words, when you congratulate a person for going down a pants size, you're essentially inferring that they looked worse prior to weight loss.
And, again, this sets up a vicious cycle where we equate our worth with appearance (especially thinness), which can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and a distorted body image.
So, to avoid offending someone or causing them anxiety, Jhalani recommends keeping your judgement to yourself: "What may be an ideal size or weight for you may not be for someone else or their culture."
What to Say Instead
Think of other people's bodies as private property — you don't want to trespass with body-centric comments. Here's how to maintain healthy boundaries and embrace, accept and respect people for who they are without ever bringing weight loss into the conversation.
1. Ask Inviting Questions
Questions like "How are you?," "How's life?" and "How are you keeping up with everything?" welcome the person to share whatever it is they feel comfortable disclosing (whether that relates to weight or life in general).
More importantly, it shifts the conversation from something superficial like looks to something inward, which is more meaningful.
This approach also communicates that you care about what's going on in a person's life beyond the exterior. And expressing concern for our loved ones' well-being is especially important now.
"The world needs more compassion and empathy than ever during these [difficult] times," Jhalani says.
Avoid questions like “What’s new?” “This may seem like a benign question, but it actually induces performance anxiety,” Jhalani says. It implies that we must have something novel or exciting to share. “This becomes even more difficult during the pandemic where nothing is new,” she says.
2. Express That You're Happy to See Them
Say things like "It's great to see you today" or "I am so glad that we got together." This communicates that spending time with them is valuable (and this has nothing to do with how much weight they lost or how they look).
3. Compliment Their Vibe
"I love your energy today" or "You look happy" can be good conversation starters, Jhalani says. This also shifts the focus from talk of physical appearance to health and wellness.
Celebrate others for their core values and not for how they look or their clothing size.
"Take a moment even before you meet or greet someone and reflect mindfully on what is internally beautiful about them," Jhalani says. And then tell them! The more we focus on the interior, the less we equate our worth with weight.