3 things to consider before praising someone’s weight loss
"You look amazing, have you lost weight?" is a question asked frequently between fellow human beings as a well-meaning compliment.
And doesn’t it seem such an innocent statement? Usually spoken with noble intentions, to make the complimented one feel boosted and happy. The truth is that this comment can be far from helpful. It can reinforce the message that pervades our culture, where weight equals worth and smaller bodies reign desirably supreme.
In a culture where fatphobia and thin idealisation are rampantly rife, this means that any weight loss – regardless of the means of achieving this - is seen as ‘good’.
Then, it’s no wonder that people want to pursue these body goals. It feels wonderful to receive this acceptance and approval, which may have been glaringly absent before, as likes and positive comments appear on an Instagram feed. If self-worth is low, this external validation boosts it to euphoric levels, at least fleetingly. You suddenly feel ‘enough’.
Of course, working to keep our bodies healthy is a wise decision. By nourishing and moving the home, that is our body, this is a cornerstone of kind self-care and good mental and physical health.
But health and weight loss are not necessarily synonymous.
The pursuit of an ‘ideal body’ can be extremely toxic. And it is not an achievable or sustainable goal for most of us, as genetics play a considerable part in our make-up.
If you are taller, larger boned and muscular in frame, then striving for thinness, can place on you on a never-ending treadmill of body dissatisfaction. You’re having to fight against your body to attain something that is only possible with miserable deprivation and constant vigilance. No wonder that your relationship with food can be vulnerable to breaking down.
Many diets encourage weight loss, using meal supplements, long periods of not eating, eliminating food groups or taking special pills, all being a part of the process. This can quickly result in extreme hunger and preoccupation with food. With surprising speed, you can fall into patterns of binge eating, purging, over-exercising and worsening body image, as an understandable backlash. This is not healthy.
If you become underweight through dieting, people will likely show concern and prompt you to seek help for an eating disorder. However, if you are average or overweight, your symptoms can be hidden, and you may be praised for the exact behaviours that would cause concern in an underweight body.
Heartbreakingly, this is seen so commonly in the therapy room. People don’t even realise that their relationship with food is disordered because ‘It’s not anorexia'. Whereas, the truth is that eating disorders occur in bodies of all shapes and sizes.
Changing the narrative
So next time you are tempted to praise someone’s weight loss, stop and consider the following:
1. They may be struggling with disordered eating through restrictive eating or overexercise.
These symptoms are often invisible and carry much shame and secrecy. By praising weight loss, you are reinforcing this message that weight equals worth. By praising weight loss, your friend is less likely to open up about disordered eating struggles and to carry on suffering in silence.
2. They may be struggling emotionally or going through a stressful period of life.
Stressful life situations impact appetite and mental well-being and can disrupt a relationship with food. Don’t assume that weight loss is a conscious decision. There may be much more going on beneath the surface.
3. Is this the most interesting thing about them?
If you feel drawn to commenting on someone’s weight loss and body image, pause and reflect on your own relationship with food. We all tend to focus on the issues that are dominant to us, as individuals. It might be that this has become a central focus and core to your own self-worth.
And consider how wonderful it would be to experience a culture where we offer each other acceptance, regardless of body size. If you stop praising weight loss, you are doing your own valuable bit to moving things in the right direction.
If you are struggling with disordered eating or body image issues, you may wish to seek out further support through counselling.
This article was written by Harriet Frew.
Find a therapist dealing with Eating disorders
All therapists are verified professionals.