I was getting married in two months and picking up my wedding dress -- an a-line gown with a lace bodice and buttons down the back. It fit like a glove when I ordered it, but three months had passed since then and now it hung a little loose on my frame.
I stepped out of the dressing room, irritated at the prospect of paying for alterations, while the sales associated initiated waves of praise saying, “Looks like you’ve lost weight for the wedding. Congratulations. You look great.”
I wanted to be polite, to smile at her, and say thank you -- I knew she meant well -- but I felt embarrassed, annoyed and a little pissed off. I hadn’t been trying to lose weight. In fact, I was kind of in the middle of a breakdown. For some reason, people generally assume that someone who’s lost weight intended to, or did so in a healthy way.
I know what you’re thinking. If you’re ever going to compliment someone on his or her weight loss, wedding season is the time to do it. Commending the wedding-day weight-loss hurdle seems normal (a whole different issue in and of itself), but it’s just one example. At every stage of my life, healthy or unhealthy, upcoming life milestone or not, the size of my body has been a go-to subject for my family, friends, and coworkers. Complete strangers have made comments about my weight loss -- thank you, random cashiers everywhere, for making I.D. checks more awkward than they normally are.
I don’t remember when I started trying to control my weight, and I don’t remember the first time I felt like I didn’t like my body, but I also don’t remember ever not doing these things. I grew up in a cycle of yo-yo dieting that became more extreme as I got older, so that I was almost constantly in the midst of rapid and drastic weight loss or weight gain throughout high school and college. It seems perfectly normal that people would compliment me when my weight was on the downswing -- they had good intentions. The problem is that they unknowingly rewarded unhealthy behavior. When someone draws attention to the size of my body, even if it’s intended to be positive, it makes me uncomfortable. It also affirms the irrational notion that the shape of my body defines my self-worth.
80% of girls in the U.S. have been on a diet by the time they're 10. I’ve met six-year-olds who are concerned about their size. Kids -- with baby teeth, who can’t count to a hundred, who give fantastical answers when you ask what they want to be when they grow up -- are already strategizing for weight control. Family members and peers often promote this behavior. People began applauding my diet shenanigans when I was a pre-teen and it hasn’t stopped since.
Recent research suggests that around 22% of people are dieting right now and almost 60% of adults want to lose at least 20 pounds. Now, bear in mind that diets don’t work. The five-year outcome of dieting is typically regaining the weight, and 40% percent of dieters actually gain more than they lost. Constant dieting is as bad or worse for your body than being overweight. So why do people feel the need to pat you on the back every time you drop ten pounds? The weight will probably return with a vengeance in two months anyway.
Another poor time to bring up a person’s size is when they’ve lost weight due to anxiety, depression, or other mental obstacles. Who hasn’t gained or dropped a few pounds after a significant loss or during a period of acute stress? Every boyfriend I ever had took at least ten pounds when he left.
And similarly, there are times when weight fluctuation is caused by physical illness. In my sophomore year of college, gallstones melted 30 pounds off in two months -- two months of pain and discomfort from gallbladder attacks, which was followed by a parade of flattery about my slimmer figure. It made me feel terrible, this bizarre suggestion that being sick was working out for me. In these instances, the outcome is prized above the means. We promote weight loss instead of healthy lifestyles.
It’s appropriate to congratulate someone on their weight loss if they’ve made their goals public knowledge or have at least shared their intentions with you. A friend posting before and after photos on social media is asking for recognition and encouragement. But when I walk into the office, sleep deprived, hands full of unfinished and unraveling projects, it’s not the time to comment on the shape of my body. It’s not okay when we meet up for drinks, or when we run into each other at the grocery store, or even if we see each other for the first time in a long while because I can guarantee you I have a hundred different accomplishments I’d rather talk about. I feel constant pressure to look a certain way, and pointing out the size of my body is an unpleasant reminder that my weight is important to others. Remarking on someone’s weight loss is a bad conversation starter, period.
When you compliment someone’s weight loss, you’re assuming that they accept the status quo standard of beauty, and you’re applauding them for their attempts to reach said standard. Second, you’re presuming that they’ve lost the weight on purpose, and in a controlled and healthy way.
I can’t say I’m not guilty of tossing out random weight loss praise. And I’ll likely do it in the future because it always feels like something someone wants to hear. But we should be trying to compliment with more creativity, to convince those around us of their everyday beauty. We can remind them that people appreciate their smile, their funky fashion sense, their slapstick humor, or any other unique pleasantry unrelated to a number on the scale. After all, real beauty lies in details and quirks.