“You’ve lost weight!” “You look fantastic!” “Wow, you’re so skinny now!” “How did you do it?” You pour on what you’re convinced are the ultimate compliments, never considering that praising weight loss isn’t the kindness you think it is.

But, wait, how can that be? Everyone likes the positive strokes of weight loss praise.

Don’t they?

And, even with more awareness of diet culture and attention to political correctness in speech, most of us have done it…and still do it.

We mean well. After all, at least 51% of Americans say they seriously want to lose weight. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear someone say you look slimmer, that you look like you lost weight?

Your goal of complimenting someone else’s assumed weight loss accomplishment on the continuum of social-cultural ideals is blind to what it carries with it.

Praising weight loss or even assuming someone has lost weight — opens Pandora’s Box.

This discussion isn’t intended to add another entry to the list of taboo topics in casual conversation. 

It’s intended to educate well-meaning people about unspoken assumptions and expectations buried in comments about weight.

Put another way, we’re digging a little deeper into this weighty social topic to talk about…boundaries.

When it comes right down to it, talking about someone else’s weight is really an issue of boundaries. 

In a nutshell, boundaries are a personal delineation of where one person ends and another begins – physically, emotionally, verbally, and sexually.

If you’re rolling your eyes right now and thinking you’ve just been slammed with some useless psycho-babble, unroll and hit pause.

Whether or not you think about boundaries, you have them.

You have that inner voice that says, “Yuck, that didn’t feel good.”  Or, “Hey! Wait a minute! Who do you think you are? No one gets to talk to me that way…touch me that way…treat me that way.”

That’s you defining your inner and outer personal space. And chances are there’s a lot of “live, learn, and change” built into it, depending on your age, life experience, and self-awareness.

But there’s another aspect to boundaries that is just as important as defining your own space and personal protection. 

And that’s acknowledging and respecting others’ personal boundaries and even anticipating general boundaries central to healthy communication and relationships.

Think about the social acceptance of touching the belly of a pregnant woman, all under the guise of being happy for the upcoming blessed event.

Now imagine being the woman who didn’t ask or give permission for her belly to be touched.

It really doesn’t matter how innocent your intentions are when you reach out and touch someone else’s body. You’re still violating someone’s personal space…and making an unflattering statement about your own.

What does this all have to do with praising weight loss in someone else?

Fair question, as the topic may sound like a detour. 

After all, you just want to tell your friend she looks great since she started working out like an Olympian. And those organic greens she grows on her window sill are obviously playing a key role in her weight loss.

Setting healthy boundaries is an extension of self-awareness that leads to greater self-esteem.

And buried in self-esteem is the confidence to live by those boundaries, even if those around you haven’t caught up with their own.

Yes, even complimenting weight loss in someone else is a boundary issue that begins with you. 

And sometimes that means not taking what appears to be bait from someone whose own self-esteem and boundaries are in a growing (or wounded) phase.

So let’s get into the essence of why not to compliment someone else’s weight loss…

What are unintended implications and negative consequences of praising weight loss?

Complimenting weight loss has negative consequences for people being praised, as well as for those around them.

Research into weight-normative vs. weight-inclusive approaches to patient care and public health has shown that the relationship between weight and health is more complex than just a numbers’ game.

If you remember nothing else from the above scientific, research-based article, remember this:

Well-being is about so much more than weight! It’s complex, integrated, and often influenced by circumstance.

Yes, well-being is partly physical, and it’s also emotional, mental, financial, relational, social, sexual, medical. All the energy around weight affects overall well-being.

Before you greet your friend with gushing praise for her apparent weight loss, stop and consider the following: 

  • Diet culture and its influence on weight loss and eating disorders.

    We live in a culture that places a lot of emphasis on weight and appearance. The mantra we are led to believe is that “thinness equals health and beauty.”

    This message is harmful and incorrect!

    When you compliment others on their weight loss, you reinforce thinness=better messages and perpetuate harmful effects of diet culture.

    You affirm, however indirectly, that skinny is superior and key to success. Thin good, fat bad.

    You also play into the mindset that beauty and health can be had for a price and a storage room full of products. If you’re not thin and beautiful, you’re obviously not successful. And if you’re not successful, you’re lazy.

    This can lead to a deep hard-to-get-a-handle-on cycle of disordered eating and body image problems.

    You also inadvertently present yourself as another unfortunate, fat-phobic victim of diet culture.
  • Respect.

    Complimenting someone on weight loss can also be rude or intrusive. Yes, you read that correctly. Your well-intended “compliment” may actually be rude or intrusive.

    Your backhanded compliment implies that you’re paying attention to someone’s body size and shape and are linking “appearance” with “worth.” And the person can’t help but question, however silently, “Are you saying I looked bad before?”

    It can also be triggering for anyone with a history of disordered eating or body image issues, or who may be suffering from a disease or illness.

    Consider a different topic that is often rife with well-intended but hurtful commentary: death/grief.

    Most of us have been on the receiving end of comments that, no matter how sympathetically intended, bite more than bless:
    “He’s in a better place now.” “
    At least she is out of pain.”
    “Think about all the good times.” “
    I know how you feel.”
    “You’re really holding it together well.”

    Could anything feel more painful at the most vulnerable time in your life?
    “If death always equals a ‘better place,’ why bother living at all?”
    “Yes, she’s out of pain, but that does nothing to heal mine. Are you saying I’m selfish to want her here with me?”
    “So I need to get over my grief by reliving ‘all the good times’ with a loved one who’s no longer here?”
    “No, you really don’t know how I feel.”
    “Holding it together? I’m in shock. I’m numb. I’m on autopilot. But I’m not holding it together.”

    The thoughtlessness is so obvious here, perhaps because death and grief are inevitable for everyone. But the same issues of respect and lack of presumption are at the heart of comments regarding weight and weight loss.

    Imagine how the person you’re complimenting would feel if you were praising weight loss that had occurred because of cancer.

    And imagine how you would feel finding out…and not being able to take back your words.
  • Stigma.

    Weight is complex and multifaceted. It cannot be “just” a matter of willpower or discipline.

    So many factors, including genetics, environment, mental health – and even weight regain from prior dieting – influence someone’s weight. And many of these factors are outside one’s control.

    By complimenting someone’s weight loss, you may unintentionally strengthen weight stigma and discrimination, dangerous dieting cycles, and feelings of shame and self-blame.

    Think about how many social media posts relate to weight loss. So many photos of ‘before-and-after’ dieting regimes, “what I eat in a day,” post-gastric bypass surgery.

    The posts are often followed by “you look amazing”-type compliments and requests for tips for accomplishing the same.

    Even commercialized weight-loss programs encourage their customers to post before-and-after photos on social media, digging deeper into the stigma of thin-is-better. (And no doubt encouraging observers to pull out their credit cards and “fat clothes” to join the revolution.)

    Followers offer themselves up in the name of health and rejuvenation. Weight loss can be a component of greater well-being, but it doesn’t equate to it. Significant difference.

    They expose the photographic documentation of their past and present eating habits: gluttonous sugar feasts juxtaposed against measuring-and-cooking-colorful-meats-and-veggies.

    And then there are the photos from the front…and then the side…the fat ones…the skinny ones. A diet culture devotee’s booking photos, complete with numbers across the bottom: Lost 25 pounds!

    What’s the stigma? 

Smaller is better.
Thin is ideal.
Fat people are unattractive, lazy, and gluttonous.
Body size defines worth.

And what’s the underlying expectation set up by this routine?

You got it. Now s/he has to maintain it. And we’re all going to be waiting…watching…and judging.

  • Misinformation.

    Being in a smaller body, becoming more lean, and/or reaching a lower number on the scale are not the same as being healthy.

    There are stronger markers of health, some of which have nothing to do with weight.

    Examples include hydration level, stress management, and sleep patterns. (Appearances alone can be deceiving.)

    Commenting on body weight (even your own) also perpetuates the belief that body weight is completely under one’s control. Pregnancy, menopause, thyroid, cancer, depression…be damned!

The “healthy lifestyle.”

Perhaps you’re hearing a little voice nagging with a question about the relationship between weight and health. After all, isn’t being in a large body a reason for health problems?

The World Health Organization discusses excess weight from a “weight-normative” (remember that term from earlier?) approach rather than a “weight-inclusive” approach.

Its statistics, warnings, and recommendations don’t paint the whole picture.

The word health itself is a loaded topic with divergent definitions, theories, and access roads.

In her book, The Wellness Trap, author Christy Harrison sheds light on how the concepts of “health” and “lifestyle” have been co-opted by the “wellness” industry.

We get tripped up by the semantics of “health,” attaching meaning and directives to it as a defining commitment to a righteous “lifestyle.”

The end result is a view of health that who we become transfers, via our misguided ideals and expectations, onto others. And everyone’s well-being is lost in the process.

It’s not enough that we sacrifice our own well-being by falling into this conceptual snare. We have to preclude the potential well-being of others by focusing on things like their weight, their beauty, their success.

Even celebrities who are the inevitable focus of vicariously thriving fans – and who are often part of the problem – know the cycle is vicious, if not dangerous.

Praising weight loss (and focusing on weight in general) is as malignant as body-shaming to well-being.

It is two sides of the same coin.

The takeaway? 

Weight loss does not equal health.

Dr. Elayne Daniels is an anti-diet, Intuitive Eating-certified psychologist, consultant, coach, and author specializing in eating disorders. She is passionate about helping people of all ages and genders truly live their lives.

Contact her here to learn more. And, if you’re struggling with overcoming an eating disorder, this e-book might be useful.