“You look so skinny,” my friends all said to me. It was the end of summer in 2010 after I had spent nearly three months running five miles each morning and obsessively counting calories. I was still throwing up on occasion, but I was also attempting to lose weight “healthily” though there was obviously nothing healthy about my behavior. After just 10 weeks, I had managed to go from 150 pounds to 120, reducing my size from a 10/12 to a 6 (or 4, depending on the store). At 5’7″, 120 is just on the “normal” side of the medical spectrum, but I did not look like my normal self.
My hip bones stuck out, my face was a bit gaunt and my breasts, typically around a 34D, were now a 34B. Still, though, people said I looked great and acquaintances whom I hadn’t seen in several months regularly asked me what my “end goal” was, assuming I was not already at it. While I was thrilled people had noticed that I lost weight, the compliments only confirmed what I had already internalized: I looked better thin, and I needed to keep going.
Herein lies the problem with complimenting your friends’ weights: it tells them that it is better to be one weight or shape than another. I, too, am guilty of asking, “Do I look fat in this?” but I have desperately attempted to stop that over the past couple of years because I’ve come to realize that “looking fat” doesn’t need to be some sort of repulsive horror that I need to avoid, and that “looking skinny” is not the only end goal for appearance-based compliments. I am the weight that I am, sans Spanx or padding.
While I fully understand that people who lose a great deal of weight or gain weight after being medically unhealthy in their weight loss deserve recognition of their feat, it is better to say things like, “I’m so proud of you for being so healthy” or “It’s amazing that you were able to achieve your goals” rather than focus on their appearance.
Sometimes, it’s best to simply not recognize the weight loss or gain at all. Allie, one of our readers who commented on my piece “Dear Men: Please Stop Telling Me You’d Like A Girl With ‘Some Meat On Her Bones’” wrote the following:
I’m tall and skinny. That’s just my shape. When I had cancer, I gained about 20lbs and although I knew that I still wasn’t “fat,” I was fat FOR ME. I felt wrong, and like everything that was wrong with my health was reflected outside, too.
And the shittiest thing about that already shitty situation was the response I got from people at large. Suddenly all these casual acquaintances/party friends–who didn’t know what was going on with my health–were telling me how AMAZING I looked now that I wasn’t so BONY, how SKINNY BITCHES are GROSS, and how GREAT it was to have CURVES because REAL WOMEN are CURVY. Eventually I got so sick of people being all up in my body-related business that I just started saying “Yeah, it’s because I have cancer. Don’t I look awesome with my cancer weight?” That shut them up pretty quickly.
As soon as I got better, the weight peeled off and I went back to my normal size and shape. But I can’t really forget all the people who told me that I looked better when I was unhealthy, and who let me know in no uncertain terms that my normal body was gross.
This is a perfect example of when you should not discuss a person’s weight. She was sick and, rather than focusing on her feelings or health, people opted to high five her on something that was the result of her being incredibly sick. Though this was not a weight or body shape she felt comfortable at because it was not her normal one, people still saw it as something to not only vocally note, but also to compliment and insinuate (or outright state) that being curvier was somehow better.
“You look skinny” is the phrase I always hoped to hear so very much from the people around me. Throughout the near decade I had an eating disorder, I craved “you look skinny” more than I desired calories or nice teeth or happy relationships. I just wanted to feel like people thought I had that sort of self control, the kind that comes with keeping track of everything you eat and, when necessary, regulating it to a drastic extent.
When you compliment a person on his or her weight or body shape, it may seem innocent, but it still ingrains that same hierarchy: Shape 1 > Shape 2. Telling somebody they look great is one thing; telling somebody they look curvy or thin or whatever other shape descriptors you can think of as a compliment implies that that one is somehow better than the contrary.
While compliments on weight do occur towards men, in my experience, it’s rare that they are directed towards men who are not actively trying to lose weight. I have seldom witnessed males get ready for a party, put on a fancy outfit and seem to feel great, only to get a sad look while staring at the mirror, then turn to his friends and say, “Do I look skinny enough?” But women’s bodies are often more scrutinized: whether it’s by the diet industry, the media, fashion or just plain people we know, our figures are poked at and prodded, and when we are given a compliment on being shaped a certain way, we have been told to eagerly eat that up and give onlookers more and more of the same to admire.
I’m not saying you need to go ahead and be ultra-sensitive not to use particular words; just being mindful is important. In particular, if you have a friend who has been trying to lose or gain weight, or has body image issues, it’s best to stay clear of weight comments altogether. Even if it seems like those words will make her (or him) happy in that moment, chances are, that pleasure from the compliment will be short-lived and ill-internalized. Simply being aware of your word choice can help avoid this, and could help reduce the chances of your friend being increasingly aware (and disdainful) of her body.
Photo: West Side Story