Health & Fitness

10 Things to Say Instead

Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping will be exploring how we think about weight, the way we eat, and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. While GH also publishes weight loss content and endeavors to do so in a responsible, science-backed way, we think it’s important to present a broad perspective that allows for a fuller understanding of the complex thinking about health and body weight. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, eat, or live — nor is to to pass judgment on how you choose to nourish your body — but rather to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact, and how we might challenge the messages we are given about what makes us attractive, successful and healthy.

I was 13 when I started my first diet and lost 16 pounds. One day, a close friend greeted me by asking if I’d lost weight. I grinned, happy that someone noticed I was getting smaller after months of miserable calorie-counting and turning down candy at sleepovers. Then she pointed to a picture of me, pre-weight loss. “I was worried about you there,” she said. “You were getting fat.”

My initial swell of confidence immediately came crashing down: Her comment made me wonder, What had she thought of me before? The realization that she had been taking note of (and judging) my size surprised and hurt me. Even now, 20 years later, being asked about my weight still sends me on an emotional rollercoaster.

Many of us think — either consciously or not — that “have you lost weight?” is a compliment, and the recipient may even experience it as such in the moment. But the truth is, even a well-meaning question around weight can trigger a multitude of short-term and long-lasting effects, from negative body image to disordered eating.

Why do we think it’s okay to comment on each others’ bodies in the first place?

Growing up, I bonded with friends over complaining about our bodies and comparing ourselves to each other. I’d make self-disparaging comments like, “Ugh, you’re so skinny, I wish my stomach looked like yours.” That’s because the way we talk about our bodies is a big part of how we’re socialized. Research shows that engaging in this kind of conversation makes women feel like they have something in common with each other, because society places so much value on our appearance, says Phillippa Diedrichs, a psychology professor at the University of Western England Bristol’s Centre for Appearance Research.

This is thanks in part to diet culture, which tells us that thinness is the ultimate goal when it comes to beauty, success and happiness, a concept that is consistently supported by almost every societal pillar. This way of thinking promises that there is a skinny person inside of all of us just clawing to get out. Yet studies show that conversations about either exercise or weight loss made women more likely to focus on how their bodies looked rather than what their bodies could do, which led to lower body appreciation. It’s no wonder the vast majority of us have complicated relationships with our bodies at best, constantly assessing and critiquing our own (and each others’) bodies.

There’s something so presumptuous about the idea that I would want to be something different than I am.

Commenting on someone else’s appearance doesn’t always have negative implications, of course. You can compliment someone’s outfit or hairstyle, for example, but telling someone “You look great, have you lost weight?” ultimately translates to, “You look good because you’re smaller and thinner.” We start to internalize the idea that other people are monitoring our bodies, which perpetuates societal pressure to be thin, says Diedrichs.

Even though someone may see “have you lost weight?” as an entry point for friendship, for many people, it’s actually a very invasive question, says author and activist Virgie Tovar. “A lot of people have no clue that it’s triggering, offensive and discriminatory,” she says. Not only is a person’s body extremely intimate and personal, but, says Tovar, “There’s something so presumptuous about the idea that I would want to be something different than I am.”

Why this “compliment” can be even more problematic than you think

If you know your friend is on a diet, it may seem rational to praise them for something they see as an achievement. But ultimately, this can confirm their thinking that they should indeed be trying to lose weight — which can end up reinforcing any body insecurities, being validating and damaging all at once. “Beyond that moment, it doesn’t do anything positive for the person in question,” says Jes Baker, international speaker and author of Landwhale: On Turning Insults Into Nicknames, Why Body Image Is Hard, and How Diets Can Kiss My Ass, as any person trying to change their body may be motivated by self-hatred or fear.

The dieter may not even realize this. Any time I dieted I told myself that I was doing it out of self-love. In reality, diet culture had me convinced that a better life was waiting for a skinnier version of myself. When well-intentioned friends used to tell me I looked smaller, I was delighted — until I started to feel the pressure to keep losing weight. Until I discovered the body positivity community, I didn’t know that a) that better life was already available to me, regardless of my size and b) commenting on others’ bodies can be harmful, even when we have the best intentions. And it was the double whammy of feeling intensely good and then intensely stressed that makes this “compliment” so hard to digest.

Plus, Baker points out that diets don’t work, so if someone loses weight and has the red carpet rolled out for them only to have the compliments stop when they gain the weight back (which at least 80% will) their self-esteem plummets. “Having the rug pulled out from under you feels really crappy when you’re already dealing with body changes and trying to exist in the world,” says Baker.

Beyond the effects it can have on our confidence and self-worth, being asked about your body can be traumatic and triggering. “You never know what people are going through. Just imagine if that person hasn’t eaten for days,” says plus model, fat fashion influencer and fat activist Saucye West. who has struggled with bulimia. That seemingly innocuous question could send them down a spiral of wanting to continue that harmful behavior. Demi Lovato also recently made a plea for folks to stop commenting on others’ bodies, adding “Does it feel great? Yeah, sometimes. But only to the loud ass eating disorder voice inside my head that says ‘See, people like a thinner you’ or ‘if you eat less you’ll lose even more weight.'”

anti diet special report

Eating disorders aside, Diedrichs points out that weight loss can be caused by any number of horrible or life-altering events. If someone’s weight has dramatically changed, they might be:

  • Suffering from anxiety and/or depression
  • Struggling with disordered eating
  • Receiving treatment for an illness
  • Experiencing grief over the death of a loved one
  • Going through a divorce or another major traumatic life change

    Assuming that a smaller body purposeful (or even desired) can be reductive and all said, weight loss, whether it’s intentional or not, likely has a painful or sensitive root cause.

    How should you respond to being asked about your weight?

    You should respond in a way that’s going to leave you feeling like you respected your values and took good care of yourself, says Tovar. If the question doesn’t feel good, you could take a direct approach to the question or deflect, but remember, “you don’t need to educate someone if you don’t have the capacity or if you don’t feel safe,” she says. It’s fine to disengage entirely if you want to.

    Preparing a script in advance can also be helpful if you know you’re going to see someone who regularly discusses bodies. Here’s what else you can say in response:

    • I’m not comfortable discussing my weight. Can we talk about something else?
    • Let’s talk about something more interesting. What did you watch on TV last night?
    • I’m not invested in weight loss. My body fluctuates and I’m OK with that.
    • That’s a sensitive topic for me that I’d prefer not to discuss.
    • I’m actually going through a stressful time right now and not doing well. Can we talk about that?
    • I’m making an effort to focus less on body talk right now. Do you want to join me?
    • I don’t know and that’s really not important to me.
    • I don’t have the capacity to talk about that right now.
    • Did you see Demi Lovato’s post on Instagram about this question? It really enlightened me.
    • Shrug and change the subject.

      How can we bond with each other without discussing our weight?

      I get it: Old habits die hard. But trust me, it can be really liberating to take weight out of the equation when you’re trying to relate to someone. Here are 10 ways to make a friend feel good about themselves or start a meaningful conversation:

      • What do you like to do with your free time?
      • You seem so happy. What made you smile today?
      • I love your bag/shoes/headband. Where did you get it?
      • You’re glowing — what’s going on that’s making you happy?
      • Have you learned anything new recently?
      • I love hanging out with you!
      • You have such great taste in music. What are you listening to right now?
      • Your tattoo is so cool. What’s the story behind it?
      • What was the best part of your weekend?
      • Thank you for spending time with me today.

        “There are so many other things we can talk about that offer meaningful, genuine connection,” says Baker. “I can get to know so much more about you, and we skip the body talk altogether.”

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Scoop Sky is a blog with all the enjoyable information on many subjects, including fitness and health, technology, fashion, entertainment, dating and relationships, beauty and make-up, sports and many more.

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