Typically narcissistic blogging.

You Look Like You Lost Weight!

“You look like you lost weight!” I don’t know why people think this (or any variation on this) is an acceptable compliment. I really, really don’t.

I had a girlfriend once who had me in the gym between 3 and 5 days a week, eating flavorless shit and being generally worried about everything I put in my body. I looked good, but to be honest, I was pretty miserable.

“Don’t worry,” she’d say, “I’ll want you no matter how you look.” But she only really praised the way I looked when I was at my thinnest, and would make comments specific to the weight I had lost. Relatedly, the number of times I have expressed interest in a woman and heard, “Oh, she’s looking for somebody…um…athletic,” or something to that effect, which is just like saying, “You’re too pudgy for this one, move on,” is officially too many.

Perhaps most scarring, the only compliment my mother has ever given me on my appearance, since childhood, has been about my weight (or, when I’ve just gotten it cut, my hair). Growing up, my entire understanding of my physical attractiveness was based on my weight, and my perspective is not unique.

Now, I know that we live in a world where “thin” is somehow synonymous with “attractive,” and that fat is considered unattractive, gross, unhealthy, etc. There are lots of blog posts and articles about that, and lots of people much more willing to have the argument about how fat doesn’t automatically mean unhealthy, unattractive, or gross, so I don’t really intend to delve into that discussion. Rather, I am going to discuss this so-called compliment.

“You look like you lost weight!” and “Have you lost weight? You look great!” and “Are you on a diet? Because you look fantastic!” are all, despite whatever encouragement and good feeling are behind them, backhanded compliments.

1. It unnecessarily enforces the “thinner is better” idea.
2. It suggests that the person was insufficiently attractive before the weight was lost.
3. It suggests that the person is only attractive because the weight was lost.
4. If no weight was actually lost, it suggests that the person only looks good to you at the moment because they happen to look a little thinner.

Before you accuse me of being oversensitive, consider just how stigmatized even a little extra weight is. Look at television, magazines, the requirement that men be perfectly cut bodies, the transition of Angelina Jolie from gorgeous curvy vixen to bony, underfed Hollywood victim. Look at fashion—not just the models, but the way that clothes are designed for the thin. Look at how fat people are portrayed in movies and television, as either evil or comic relief.

Now think about this supposed compliment. Why couldn’t you just say, “You look amazing/beautiful/gorgeous!” or, “How handsome are you, is that a new shirt?” or, “Hot damn!” Why would you mitigate a compliment with the suggestion that an individual looks that way because of his or her weight? Even if it’s true. Regardless of whether you think that fat is ugly, and regardless of whether you actually think that this person only looks good because he or she has lost weight, why not just compliment him or her? Why not remember that part of what makes this peson attractive is personality, smile, eyes, hair, dimples, and so on, and so forth? Why not forget which size jeans this person wears for the seconds it takes to compliment him or her?

You don’t need to put your assumptions about beauty and health on your friend’s plate—believe it or not, we overweight types don’t want to eat everything that is put in front of us. Reconsider your choice of words. Compliment the person, not the size.

23 responses

  1. Someone once relayed to me a story… they had a co-worker that they hadn’t seen for a few weeks, and they were back in the office. She complimented him on his weight loss, and made it a point to tell him how good he looked. He gave her an awkward thank you, without being able to really meet her eyes, and she went back to her desk.

    7 months later, he succumbed to AIDS.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    • Ouch.

      I guess that’s another facet to this issue: don’t assume the weight was lost on purpose.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm

  2. Whats funny, every time I have gotten this “compliment”, it has been when I have gained weight. Weight that gave me more curves, a la, more shape.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    • Yeah, that’s people completely conflating “thin” and “attractive” without even realizing it.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:21 pm

  3. My grandmother was the opposite: every time she told someone they were looking well, it was because they’d put on weight. Like many of her generation she’d been very very poor, and was delighted to see her family looking well fed. Her goal was to raise a dynasty of folk who had ‘meat on their bones’.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:56 am

    • A culture of excess and plenty thinks beauty = looking like you have nothing. A culture of poverty and struggle thinks beauty = looking like you have something.

      Interesting how beauty is the opposite of what you are, culturally.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm

  4. Kande

    I lost weight, it was a side product from working out and eating well. I went from feeling good about feeling healthy to paranoid about my previous appearance as people just kept telling me how good I looked, asking me over and over if I had lost weight, one person who hadn’t seen me in a year said “Wow, you look so good! Not like you know … before … “, I was asked “Did you lose weight on purpose?” i.e. was I sick or too emotionally distraught to eat or too stressed. There is something to be said for people who go from morbidly obese to healthy range. Yes weight alone does not determine health, but when people take care of themselves they do look better not just from weight loss but overall. And even still I agree is so much more reasonable to say You look great! No mention of weight required. In my case, weight loss was side effect of getting healthy via exercise, but that was the point people keep harping on. So what was my jaw dropping transforming weight loss? 10-15lbs. Period. And I am still at high BMI normal range even though I fit into size small. And I can’t get lower without starving myself. And though I intellectually know I look and feel great, because the compliments are tied to weight loss only, I feel emotional stress about how I am still relatively high on the weight judging scale …. yeah. People’s views are soooo skewed! Thank goodness I have better perspective when raising my daughters!

    January 11, 2012 at 5:53 am

    • Exactly. People really focus on the weight, and not on the part where you look great (and perhaps even more importantly, feel great). Which makes the individual focus on the weight and not the health.

      Glad you are able to take that experience and hopefully make the perspective on health and weight a little more healthy overall for your daughters.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:46 am

  5. My weight has always fluctuated. During the thin times I could not believe how many people gushed about how great I looked and even told me how much better I looked than when I was bigger. It really hurt and made me quite angry at the same time. Now that my thyroid is asleep on the job, I no longer lose weight when I am more active or eat less, and it’s kind of a relief not to have to deal with all of those “compliments”.

    I am a big supporter of the Health At Every Size philosophy and Fat Positive movement, and even though my close friends all know about this, they still compliment people’s weight loss right in front of me, frequently. It drives me crazy.

    January 11, 2012 at 8:08 am

    • Seems like your friends are adding an extra layer of insensitivity to what I am talking about, which must burn. I’m sorry to hear that, it’s so unnecessary.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:49 am

  6. Brilliant post. The world has gone appearance-mad, and we become unhappy because we don’t look the way we think we should. No more backhanded compliments. End of.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:40 am

    • Thanks. I really think we need to spend more time focusing on the people in front of us, and thinking about what we are saying and how we say it before we open our mouths. Myself included (a lot).

      January 11, 2012 at 11:51 am

  7. I think I have complimented people a few times on looking like they’ve been working out, or something to that effect, but not specifically weight. (On at least one occasion, I believe such an observation led almost directly to getting laid, b/c the girl in question was so taken with how I’d put it. Not that I can remember the exact phrasing. LONG time ago, that one…)

    It is certainly true that for some people — many, even — getting in shape in general will mean losing some weight; if I were still exercising as much as I did when I was unemployed, I’d probably weigh 5-10 pounds less. (But on the other hand, I have a dear friend who is just naturally a waif, who when she stops working out, loses weight because she swaps some lean tissue for non-lean without adding any volume. I believe she’s about 110 lbs when she’s in shape, and closer to 100 when not.) In any case, it does seem to me that it’s much more important — both in terms of being happy in your own body, and having a general aura of attractiveness — that one be healthy and capable of physical activity, rather than being a particular shape.

    Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, though, I just cannot get down with the really radical versions of rejecting “size-ism”. There is such a thing as morbid obesity. It is both unhealthy and, to the vast majority of people, unattractive. It also is extremely difficult to reverse, so I don’t exactly blame people for their condition; but I dislike being told there’s something wrong with me for not finding a person who’s 5’0 and 350 lbs unattractive. Beyond a certain point, we’re no longer talking about the variation of normal, healthy human bodies.

    But overall, still, I agree with the thrust of your argument. Some people clearly LIKE to hear that others have noticed their weight loss, but that’s arguably just victims reinforcing the conditions of their victimization, just like women in many patriarchal cultures inflict awful things on their daughters, because that’s what’s “proper”, and having an improper daughter would be a fate worse than death.

    January 11, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    • As I say in the body of the post: I’m not getting into the size v. health argument. At all. And I am not going to criticize people for finding slender people attractive. At all.

      I just think that making compliments on how people appear based on how much weight you think they have lost is really problematic. Especially when people often look good because they feel better and more confident and more healthy, not just because an inch was lost here or there.

      January 11, 2012 at 5:22 pm

  8. I HATE that. Don’t acknowledge that you’re noticing my weight at ALL thank you very much. “Hey, I heard you in the bathroom this morning. Sounds like you had some healthy bowel movements.” Oh wait, it’s not polite to comment on that part of your body? Then don’t comment on weight, either!!

    Obvi, it’s diff if you rave about your diet and weight loss plan or whatever. But in general, I don’t, and I hate hearing comments about my body.

    January 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    • Yeah, that’s just it. It shouldn’t be a part of the convo at all unless the individual in question brings it up. Otherwise it’s both rude and presumptuous, and just extends the conflation of “thin” and “attractive” in a way that is just generally unhealthy.

      January 14, 2012 at 12:34 am

  9. Rachel

    My friends who I’m close to and confide in and know that I’m regularly battling weight notice and comment when I’m losing it-and I appreciate it, because they know it’s my goal, they know I work hard, and are acknowledging the work that I’ve done. Interestingly enough, when friends who are not in my everyday scope and no little of that part of my life see me once a year or so, they tend to tell me how great I look, and it’s usually at my bigger sizes. I like both compliments, and will take them, mostly because even though I’m more physically comfortable and have more energy and like my wardrobe choices more when pudgy, I like how I look all of the time. Basically, I just like it when you say I’m pretty. Tell me I’m pretty.

    January 15, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    • Rachel

      When skinnier, not pudgy. whoops.

      January 15, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    • You’re pretty.

      January 15, 2012 at 8:23 pm

  10. Pingback: “Oh, But We Didn’t Mean *You*.” « The Adventures of the Terminally Snarky

  11. I’m going to forward this to my husband. He actually is working on losing weight. As a perpetually skinny person myself, I’m not sure how I should respond. I can tell he’s losing weight without asking him; it’s obvious when I hug him, like hugging a much-loved teddy bear. Mostly, I let him tell me what he wants to tell me about it because I don’t want to badger him or create any unwarranted negative emotions. It’s his goal to lose weight for himself. I really will love him either way and have.

    March 18, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    • Yeah, it’s a difficult line to walk. Being supportive without giving him the idea that it’s only impending thinning that you support is tricky, but can totally be done. Letting him know that you are thrilled that he feels better about himself, healthier, what-have-you, is an excellent start. 🙂

      March 18, 2012 at 7:43 pm

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