The first time I remember thinking about weight loss, I was in primary school, sitting with friends in the playground, discussing the numbers on the scales we had discovered in our mother’s bathrooms.
I had an acute, self-conscious awareness of my body from an early age, even without the additional pressures faced by young people today, growing up online where they are bombarded with photoshopped images of unattainable female figures and being sold the latest diet pill, lollipop or ‘skinny’ tea.
Diet culture and weight loss obsession has crept its way into every aspect of our lives – both online and in our daily communication with friends, family, peers and acquaintances.
Most people think nothing of commenting on a woman’s body if they are paying them a compliment or congratulating them on losing weight, however it can be far more harmful than you might imagine.
Here’s why it’s time to stop complimenting women on weight loss:
You don’t know what the cause is
Unless you’re a close confidant or health professional of someone who has shared their weight loss plans, you have no way of knowing the reasons behind the weight loss.
They may be experiencing an illness that affects their appetite or ability to keep food down, or perhaps their appetite has been muted by depression, anxiety or grief.
They could be in the midst of a restrictive period of disordered eating, which is a painful and scary experience without people drawing further attention to it or misguidedly congratulating them on their ‘willpower’.
Most people would never intentionally make an insensitive comment to someone struggling with an eating disorder however, those same people may incorrectly assume they know what someone experiencing disordered eating looks like.
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that affect people of all ages, ethnicities, genders and sizes.
In fact, a binge eating disorder is the most common type of all eating disorders and often affects people of normal to higher weight, so it’s vital to consider the impact of your words before you turn the conversation to someone’s weight, regardless of their appearance.
It implies they looked ‘worse’ prior to the weight loss
Having struggled with body image and my relationship with food for most of my life, my weight has fluctuated a lot over the years.
The compliments and attention I receive when my weight is lower greatly outnumbers that which I receive at a higher weight, despite my health being at its best when I’m in a larger body.
Being praised for losing weight throughout my life has made it emotionally difficult to embrace periods of weight gain, as these ‘compliments’ imply my body was somehow less worthy beforehand.
These comments also reinforce my harmful internal dialogue that weight gain is not just a natural metabolic process, but a demonstration of my failure, laziness and lack of willpower, which can be enough to undo months or even years of progress on my journey to recovery and self-acceptance.
It’s a form of body shaming
Reflecting on how uncomfortable comments about my weight have made me feel, I’m concerned about the impacts on others who overhear these comments, particularly those of a higher weight than myself.
Hearing someone who is already very thin being praised for getting smaller strengthens the stigma associated with larger bodies and implies that they are inherently less valuable purely based on their size.
Weight discrimination is very real, and can impact a person’s relationships, how they are treated in healthcare settings, and even their career progression opportunities and income earning potential.
This discrimination is often disguised as ‘concern’ for someone’s health, despite increasing evidence suggesting that Body Mass Index is a poor indicator of health outcomes.
Furthermore, this type of ‘concern trolling’ seems to be directed almost exclusively at women, making these kinds of comments just another manifestation of the gender inequalities that continue to shape our world.
It can be uncomfortable
There are people in my life who notice fluctuations in my weight so quickly and consistently that I feel genuinely uncomfortable at the thought of how closely they must be observing my body.
It makes me feel self-conscious and exposed, and it hurts my feelings that close relations seem to care more about my dress size than my professional or personal achievements.
I never know how to respond to these comments or queries without discussing deeply personal struggles I’m having with my body image or eating habits, which I prefer to do only with trusted friends or healthcare professionals.
It’s enough to make me reluctant to see certain people in my life, out of fear of feeling judged or put on the spot to explain changes to my weight.
This has led to periods of increased isolation and loneliness, as I have had to distance myself from such relationships to protect my wellbeing. These well-intentioned but misguided comments about my appearance can lure me back into self-destructive habits and thinking patterns.
It reduces a woman down to her physical attributes
When we compliment weight loss, we reinforce the idea that all women are preoccupied with their weight and that they should remain so, rather than trying to be the best leader, activist, parent, friend or partner they can be.
When we reduce the entirety of a woman’s worth and identity to the number on the scale or their dress size, we strengthen the already ubiquitous messaging that thinness equates to health, happiness and success, and a lack of thinness indicates failure, misery or laziness.
We need to be more conscious of how our dialogue around weight affects those around us, particularly children in vital developmental stages who are making sense of the world and their place in it.
The sad reality is that poor body image and disordered eating is affecting young people more frequently and earlier in life, so it is up to each of us to change the narrative to one of embracing diversity, appreciating all shapes and sizes, and deconstructing the false idea that one’s worth is inextricably linked to their appearance.
Our obsession with weight loss makes a lot of money for the diet, beauty, cosmetic and media industries, but achieves little else besides distracting us from the work we could be doing to fight for gender equality, dismantle oppressive systems, and become the healthiest and happiest versions of ourselves that we can be.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or body image issues, support is available via The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.