Read this before complimenting someone on their weight loss…

About 15 years ago I lost a significant amount of weight. Nothing worth writing a motivational book about, or anything, but it was still the the head-turning, life-altering, question-provoking kind of weight loss. Most people didn’t realize that I wasn’t particularly kind to myself throughout my weight-loss journey. It wasn’t fun. Actually, it was a low point in my life, was grueling, and I was probably borderline unhealthy about the whole thing. I’m not going so far as to suggest that I had an eating disorder, but I guess I am saying that if I had pushed myself any further, that’s probably the direction I was headed. The bottom line is this isn’t a period in my life that I reminisce about. Yet at the time, people didn’t ever consider that it might be something I might not want to talk about.

I don’t think anyone would argue that weight is a fairly sensitive topic. And that you wouldn’t just strut up to somebody and pleasantly ask them if they had gained 5 pounds (at least, I wouldn’t suggest you do this!). What does sometimes surprise me, however, is how the reverse situation, someone’s weight loss, isn’t treated as something equally private. I can appreciate that commenting on someone’s weight loss is usually a well-meaning (and possibly well-received) compliment. But I’d like to caution that it is still a double-edged sword.

I remember having mixed feelings when someone would approach me about it. Even when someone was trying to congratulate me, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. If you consider that the compliment was typically phrased along the lines of “You look good! Did you lose weight?”, it made me pause. If you think about it, what is the underlying messaging, there? Was there was a problem with the way I looked before? Did people think that thinner was better? That I was better when I was thinner? I know this isn’t usually what the person intends. And granted, attention in general makes me uncomfortable. But this lead me to understand that people were ultimately noticing and paying attention to not only how I looked, but what I weighed.

It fueled my obsession, realizing people would probably equally notice if I slipped, too, and gained a few pounds back. It really amplified the tremendous amount of pressure I was already placing on myself. Danae Mercer, journalist and self-love advocate, alluded to this in her YouTube confessional last year. Sadly, it was at her thinnest (and unhealthiest) that she sometimes received compliments, and was even approached about a modeling contract. People would make references to how she could “eat like that” and still “look that good” without realizing that she was secretly struggling and extremely unhappy. While my experience is different than Danae’s, there were parallels that resonated with me. Again, people who were well-meaning and likely tossing around such comments to me like praise, it was really hurtful to have someone say “I wish I could eat like you and still be skinny”. The person had no idea that I was obsessing over calories, severely restricting my diet, and that if they witnessed me eating dessert, they probably caught me in a rare moment when I had caved, or even more rarely allowing myself a treat myself after months and months of hard work. It would totally make me stiffen up, and took self control not to toss said dessert in the garbage and run to the gym.

Again, I am admittedly sensitive, but I’ve discussed this with several other people and have found that there are some commonalities across the board. Like people whispering to you and begging to know what your “secret” is, as if I lost all the weight overnight. In reality, it was a very un-enjoyable 6 + months. Asking something like this somewhat minimized the hard work that I did, and still do, to this day. It’s hard for someone to have to repeatedly re-iterate that there *is no secret*. Losing weight is a ton of work. I cannot emphasize this enough. I can’t lie to you and tell you that you might not be hungry, at times, or exhausted, and need to push yourself to exercise a little more than you’d like to. It involves a complete, permanent lifestyle change, and re-working your physical and psychological relationship with food (as an aside, I would highly recommend that anyone who is serious about it consult a mental health professional for support. Trust me, it will save you a lot of time and frustration).

A friend of a friend recently lost a significant amount of weight and had a similar experience. She is bombarded with questions and comments, both good and bad — people wanting to know her tips and tricks, or what specific diet plan she was following. Even worse, one woman somehow felt she had the right to tell her that she had lost “enough” weight now, and that it was time to stop. It is exhausting for her to constantly have to re-iterate that she is simply making healthier choices, and that she slowly shed the pounds the right way — taking nearly a year to get there. People don’t like hearing the truth. They want to hear that there is a quick fix. Like some magic smoothie that you can eat for breakfast, a great natural appetite suppressant, or that there is some weird loophole where you can diet between 8 AM and noon, but eat all you want after that.

All this goes without mentioning that there are also people out there who actually do have a secret. I know several people who have had weight loss surgery, for example. Some are more than happy to talk about it, others treated it as something incredibly private (which is understandable, like any other health issue). There are others (like the afore-mentioned Mercer) who are struggling with an eating disorder, while there are others who aren’t even trying to lose weight intentionally. Some people might drop a few pounds when they are stressed out, or going through a rough patch. Or what if the person was battling a serious illness? This was the case with Lena Dunham, who, incidentally, also notes that she received more compliments when she was slimmer. I love how she notes that now, at 162 pounds, she is happy and complimented “by the people that matter, for the reasons that matter”. Regardless of the situation, raising the issue of weight might put someone on the spot, and quickly steer the conversation in a direction you may regret.

Enough time has passed now that people don’t routinely bring up my weight as much anymore. But, it still happens. And every time it brings back a flood of memories of what it was like at the time. Despite how much time has past, my heavier days never cease to haunt me, and my anxiety surrounding food still strong. It’s my job to work on this. It’s not fair, or accurate, to blame everyone else for this anxiety — rectifying that is going to come from within. But, I am begging people to consider changing the conversation, at least a little bit. Can we figuratively take food “off the table”, just sometimes? The focus on a woman’s weight, and her appearance in general for that matter, can be incredibly damaging, and reinforces that our self-worth is tied to these external, superficial (and often uncontrollable) factors. To quote Kelsey McEwen We can (and should) be better than this. She challenges us to “Catch yourself before you go to compliment a woman about their appearance, and talk to them about something different…I imagine there will be much more interesting conversations, because we are so much more interesting than how we look”.

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