While made with good intentions, comments about a person’s weight can be damaging in so many ways. Here, psychologists Juliet Rosewall and Amy Chisholm, explain why weight compliments are unhelpful and how we can shift our focus to create positive change
It’s a comment we have all heard or said, “Wow, look at you! You’ve lost weight. You’re looking great.” Often the person on the receiving end of the compliment will appear thrilled with your observation.
A lot of the time, comments like these are given with kind intentions, to bolster someone’s confidence, cheer them up, or praise their efforts. So, what can be the problem with weight compliments? Why is it time to rethink the way we praise, compliment and build up our companions?
To understand the unhelpful impact of weight-related comments, we need to first understand the sociocultural context that gives rise to weight ideals and our preoccupation with the appearance of the body and with weight loss.
In many societies, there is a bias towards a slim physique for women and a muscular physique for men. Many people grow up with the misleading message that “thin = good and beautiful” and “fat = bad and unhealthy”. From a young age, we learn from society, be it our families, the media or our peers, that it is inherently bad to gain weight and that being in a larger body is not desired. We learn that larger bodies are something to be ashamed of or that you should be striving to change.
While it is true that there are health consequences linked with obesity, the relationship between weight and health is not as clear cut as you might believe. And our society certainly has a strong focus on the consequences of obesity, compared with a minimal focus on the consequences of under-eating and being under-weight.
Just because someone is in a larger body does not automatically mean they are unhealthy, or that their health is affected by their weight. Equally, someone with a slim body may be very unhealthy.
There are so many factors other than weight that determine whether someone is in good health or not. Ironically, while striving for weight loss, a preoccupation with one’s body weight and shape can develop, and this preoccupation in and of itself is linked with negative health outcomes!
On top of this, a preoccupation with weight can lead to eating problems such as under-eating and binge eating, which are both also associated with health problems. If someone has used unhealthy or extreme methods to get to this shape or weight, a comment focusing on weight might make them feel validated and thus more inclined to continue an unhealthy (and ineffective) cycle of weight control.
Negative weight-related attitudes, beliefs, and judgements have all sorts of negative effects on us and on society. There is a myth in our society that we can completely control our weight. This commonly leads to a disproportionate focus on shape and weight, body dissatisfaction and for some, dieting behaviours to lose weight.
Sadly, body dissatisfaction is so common, even among people without eating problems, that it has been considered a normal dissatisfaction in our current society. Despite increasing messages of body positivity, current shape and weight ideals continue to be promoted through the media and show no sign of changing. There is increasing pressure on both women and men to adhere to societal standards of attractiveness, which leads to body comparisons and body dissatisfaction.
Can you imagine a society, where we accepted and appreciated our bodies for what they did for us rather than how they looked? We can imagine it, and it sounds good to us.
The rise of social media has only compounded this preoccupation with thinness as an ideal and created new challenges in the way we compare our bodies with others. Body comparisons tend to maintain our issues with shape and weight dissatisfaction. Given the availability of photo-editing tools, and the capability to convey “perfect” (but wholly unrealistic) body shapes, it is so important to be social-media savvy. It is also important to ensure our conversations with loved ones don’t inadvertently reinforce the notion that one must lose weight to be happy, healthy and loved.
Sadly, some people start dieting because others have made comments about their appearance and there is real pressure to lose weight. Perhaps this is the case for you. Research tells us that those who experience pressure to diet or to lose weight from friends, family and the media are, unsurprisingly, more likely to feel unhappy within themselves with their shape and weight.
Weight loss and achieving the imagined ideal body becomes the mission. Weight loss is highly prized as it feels like it will bring a sense of acceptability with those who commented on your weight - and in society, more generally. The truth is, though, that you are more than your weight, more than your body, and you were acceptable as a human being before losing weight. Social acceptance should not be contingent on weight.
When we give compliments solely based on shape and weight, as a society and individually, we need to think more about how our messages could be perceived and what are we really communicating. By giving weight-related compliments we are inadvertently reinforcing societal biases that thinness and weight loss is a marker of one’s acceptability, value and achievement.
Over time, body size becomes a key factor in self-identity and self-evaluation. These compliments can reinforce a focus on body appearance rather than reinforcing the things about our bodies that really matter - their ability to move, to hug, to laugh, to share, to create. They give us life-sustaining breath.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we focused more on encouraging people in what they are doing and achieving with their bodies, rather than objectifying them as objects to be judged? These compliments also inadvertently make our body appearance more important than the many other characteristics about a person that actually matter, like their kindness, humour, intelligence, perseverance or courage.
If you want to uplift someone, comment on aspects of who they are that you love or think is really admirable.
Have a think about the type of compliments you give, and whether they may be reinforcing these unhelpful and life-limiting weight biases. If you notice you do, this is not your fault! This is a product of our weight-centric culture. But, perhaps it is time to experiment with shifting focus onto the non-physical attributes of others. If you want to uplift someone, comment on aspects of who they are that you love or think is really admirable.
Can you imagine a society where we accept and appreciate our bodies for what they do for us, rather than how they look? One where we focus on global health and wellbeing? One where we respect the differences in our bodies and focus on the things about a person that truly matter? We can imagine it, and it sounds good to us.
We want to encourage you to help to create this world. To find a way to shift focus away from the societal pressure to focus on weight, in order for you to look after your body image and the body image of those you talk to and care for.
Juliet Rosewall and Amy Chisholm are clinical psychologists and co-authors of Heal Your Relationship with Food: Effective Strategies to Help You Think Differently and Overcome Problems with Eating, Emotions and Body Image.
If you're worried about your relationship with food, or you're experiencing body dissatisfaction and would like to overcome these negative thoughts, you may benefit from speaking with a qualified therapist.
Visit Counselling Directory to find a therapist online.