I was recently talking to a friend (male, which is of some relevance), about diets and all things body image, from which it became apparent that we have fairly polarised opinions. The conversation went in a few different directions from ‘is it healthy to intentionally skip meals’, to ‘saving’ your calories, and then to ‘should you compliment someone’s weight loss?’
His response to the last point really surprised me and made me realise that a lot of people might disagree with how I perceive the ‘right’ way to navigate certain situations.
Firstly I’ll state that, in my experience, I will always avoid commenting on someone’s weight regardless of if it’s gaining or losing. I got told, scathingly, that of course I would think like this because ‘girls are more sensitive’.
I kind of hate that part of me sees where the ‘overly sensitive’ comment is coming from. No, you shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around someone and avoid all types of compliments just in case they get offended. However, I had just assumed that weight was a no-go, unsolicited comment? (As for ‘girls’ are more sensitive…are we really going to go there?)
Unsolicited comments are amongst some of the most useless, unwarranted, and usually unintentionally offensive pieces of information you’ll receive. For example, I recently told a friend that I had a sandwich for lunch and his response was that “rice is better because bread will make you gain more weight.” Um? Did I ask?
The guy in question is trying to lose weight so I understand that this may have been more trivia than advice.
But comments such as these can be really triggering for more people than you may think; the eating disorder charity, BEAT, have estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK have eating disorders with 25% of them being male. While anorexia is the most well-known, the term also covers, but is not limited to, ARFID, binge eating and bulimia.
The conversation then expanded to attaching positive connotations to weight-loss. You see someone that you haven’t seen in a while, and they are visibly slimmer, leaner or whatever term you prefer to use. And you tell them that ‘you look good’ (in relation to this). Here, I can understand both perspectives.
For someone who has been working hard on their physique, eating ‘healthily’ and taking care of their body, this would be a compliment well received. Their dedication is obviously paying off and people are noticing, what a confidence boost!
On the flip side, saying this to someone silently struggling with an eating disorder can cause them to spiral and reduce ‘good’ down to ‘slim’, which is a dangerous parallel to make. Alternatively, if they have been increasing their daily intake to reach a healthier weight, pointing out this gain can be one of the worst things that you can do as it feeds back into their disorder. Agreed, it’s sometimes difficult to know a person’s mental state, and you’re not responsible for their reactions, but is this not even more reason to not make the comment?
The baseline is that you never know what someone is going through. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, first and foremost, and you might not always be able to visibly see what someone is going through.
To find out more about the harmful stereotyping of anorexia, have a look at this article by someone who has experienced the detrimental effects of it.
Unhealthy weight loss isn’t always even related to eating disorders. Certain illnesses can cause dramatic weight loss whether this be down to the disease or the medication. To then be unaware of this and compliment someone would not just cause offence but upset, and justifiably so.
Basically, unless you’re sure that physique-related comments are necessary and will be well-received, be aware that making them might have certain effects. No one is saying to never compliment someone, but weight comments are just ones to be careful with.
If you, or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, visit the BEAT helpline for professional guidance.