We’ve been living amid a pandemic for over a year. For most of us, that has meant a pretty extreme change in daily routine. It’s also meant that we’ve gone without seeing many of the people we used to interact with regularly.
As we slowly and safely start socializing again, there are many things to keep in mind — masks, hand-washing and distance are still important. But beyond the standard safety precautions, there’s another thing you can do to support the health and happiness of those around you: Stop complimenting pandemic weight loss.
It’s both frustrating and telling that, through this incredibly traumatic year filled with so much disease and violence, weight is still such a high-priority topic for media outlets, public health agencies and people in general. We very obviously have bigger problems. And yet, pandemic weight gain and weight loss stories abound.
Given this cultural obsession with weight — specifically, with losing it and/or not gaining it — it might feel natural, even instinctive, to compliment someone who looks smaller than they were the last time you saw them. But, experts agree that such a “compliment” can actually cause real harm. Here’s why:
You don’t know what’s going on behind the apparent weight loss.
First, you don’t know just by looking at someone how or why they lost weight. Maybe it’s the result of a chronic illness. Perhaps it’s because of an ongoing eating disorder that has seriously worsened the person’s quality of life.
“One of the most challenging things for my clients with eating disorders is knowing that they were showered with compliments on weight loss when engaging in destructive eating disorder behaviors,” said Rachael Hartley, a dietitian based in Columbia, South Carolina, and the author of “Gentle Nutrition.” “Those compliments reinforced their eating disorder, as people were literally complimenting them for engaging in behaviors that were putting their life at risk.”
Shira Rosenbluth, a licensed clinical social worker and body-positive fashion blogger in New York City, said that at the height of her eating disorder, she was being praised for her weight loss. “I was dying and being complimented every step of the way,” she said.
To be clear: Eating disorders affect people of all sizes. As the National Eating Disorders Collaboration explains, eating disorders occur in people at all weights (although people in larger bodies who engage in dangerous eating disorder behaviors may never actually receive a diagnosis because of their weight). Most people would stop short of complimenting someone who has lost weight and looks extremely thin, because we assume that it’s likely the result of an eating disorder. As Hartley points out, we should apply this same caution to people in all bodies.
“I was dying and being complimented every step of the way.”
Weight loss isn’t inherently good, just as weight gain isn’t inherently bad.
“We live in a culture that’s quite fatphobic, and weight gain is often viewed negatively, as a sign of ‘letting yourself go,’” Hartley said. “Meanwhile weight loss is assumed to be the result of ‘hard work’ or ‘dedication.’ Of course, neither of those assumptions are true.”
There are so many factors that determine our weight and how it might change throughout our lives, many of which are out of our control ― genetics, environment and chronic illness among them. And even factors that are (at least somewhat) within our control, like the way we eat and move, don’t affect weight in the black-and-white way that people too often assume. Someone who has been restricting food and overexercising for a long time might gain weight when they start to adopt healthier behaviors (i.e., allowing themselves adequate nourishment and rest).
Complimenting weight loss upholds the false idea that thin bodies are better than fat bodies.
When you compliment someone for weight loss, you’re implying that their body is better now than it was before.
“You’re saying this person’s previous body was not worthy as [it was],” said Toni Wilson, a social worker and fat acceptance activist. “You’re connecting beauty and worthiness to skinniness, you are saying fatness is less-than and something to get rid of.”
While you may not mean it this way, a weight loss compliment is kind of like saying, “Thank goodness your old body was just a ‘before’ picture!”
Fat bodies are just as deserving of respect as thinner ones. And, claiming that a weight loss compliment has anything to do with a person’s health — “I’m so glad you decided to get healthier!”— is totally disrespectful and misguided. Weight isn’t indicative of health. Many people in larger bodies are perfectly healthy, just as many people in smaller bodies are not. And, as mentioned before, it’s possible that someone may have resorted to unhealthy behaviors in order to lose weight.
It’s also essential to realize that the vast majority of people who lose weight will gain it back within a year or so. Although many diets promise lasting weight loss, the evidence consistently paints a different picture.
Countless studies back this up. A 2007 review in American Psychology found that between one-third and two-thirds of participants in weight loss studies end up gaining more weight than they lost. A 2020 review in the BMJ looked at 121 weight loss clinical trials with nearly 22,000 total participants, and found that while most participants lost weight in the first six months, virtually none of them were able to sustain significant weight loss at the one-year mark.
Remembering weight loss compliments can make people feel bad about regaining weight in the future, even though weight regain is actually the natural, expected outcome.
“We’d all be better off if people had the opportunity to feel safe in their bodies regardless of the changes that occur throughout their lives.”
You have no right to comment on someone else’s body without their consent.
Above all else, weight loss compliments are inappropriate and boundary-crossing. You should never make any comments about a person’s body without their explicit consent, Martin said. You’re likely making them uncomfortable by thrusting their body into the spotlight, even if they aren’t outright offended by what you have to say.
“Bodies change throughout our lifespan, whether it’s menopause, puberty, a pandemic, or a thousand other reasons,” Rosenbluth said. “We’d all be better off if people had the opportunity to feel safe in their bodies regardless of the changes that occur throughout their lives.”
Although it might feel instinctive to compliment someone on weight loss, given the way our culture praises thinness, the best thing to do is not say anything at all. Weight changes are normal, but they have a lot of complex reasons behind them.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.