complimenting weight loss

At the end of December, nutritionist and personal trainer Joe Wicks (The Body Coach), held the top 3 positions in The Mail On Sunday’s bestsellers list of non-fiction paperbacks with ‘Lean in 15: The Sustain Plan,’ ‘Lean In 15 – The Shape Plan’ and his original book ‘Lean in 15‘. In fact, if you look at any of the bestseller lists for January and most other months you’ll find a stack books promising to help you get fit, eat healthy and of course, lose weight. We thrive on them, consuming professional advice that would require a full time job’s worth of commitment to look like those dishing it out.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight. Maybe you’re overweight and concerned about your health and maybe you ate a bit (ok, a lot) of ice cream over summer and need to shed the extra pounds. Or maybe losing weight isn’t even your main objective but a result you’re expecting thanks to your new fitness & healthy-eating regime; there’s nothing wrong with that, health is something we should all strive towards and often a leaner shape accompanies that lifestyle.

Losing weight is not objectively a bad thing, but what are we encouraging when we are complimenting weight loss? We’ve all complimented friends for shedding a few pounds before, and when I did it, it was with the best of intentions. I wanted them to know that what they were doing was showing, that the effort they put in was visible: I wanted them to feel validated. But, when I take a step back and ask myself why I would say “wow you’ve lost weight, you look great!”, I realize it’s not such a great compliment after all. What am I encouraging by trying to validate the people I care about in this way? Is it too reductive?

For one, it reinforces the idea that “thinner is better” which we all know can be a dangerous narrative, both in terms of image and health. Simply put, being thin doesn’t equate to being healthy and being healthy doesn’t equate to being thin, and losing weight isn’t always a good thing. You don’t know why or how the person in question lost weight; it could be as a result of an eating-disorder or a physical illness, people can lose weight from stress and a whole host of unhealthy events.

Further, complimenting weight loss subversively implies that it is the better state; that not losing weight is a negative. But a person’s size is not always indicative of their health. It puts pressure on the person in question to maintain that weight or even to lose more, when doing so might be unhealthy or just unnecessary. Research shows that most of us who lose weight through dieting put it back on, if not more. The “you’ve lost weight! you look great!” compliment has a bit of a sting in the tail. It’s a reminder that you notice the other person’s weight, and as such, you’ll notice – and judge – if and when they put the pounds back on. Our size and health shouldn’t be under the scrutiny of others, and while a compliment always has the best intentions, it does put our weight in the limelight. Perhaps its trivial to say that; we live in a society that values the size of women and is rife with fat-shaming and thin-shaming and all kinds of body-shaming, a society where it feels impossible to be an ‘okay’ size as body trends shift and swerve. In a world that’s increasingly infatuated with women’s weight, we’re bombarded with images of the “ideal” body, sold to us as the image of health and sexual appeal. Remember every single Protein World advert? Perhaps the best way to remove our focus from our weight, shape and size is to dissociate flattery from how much we weigh.

Weight is one of those things that many people struggle with. Some people can look healthy while ordering takeout every night, while others can eat healthy, balanced meals, regularly exercise and lead a generally healthy lifestyle and be overweight. To me, it’s more meaningful to give compliments about things that aren’t external like their ability to be kind, generous, hard-working, loyal, humorous, sassy (I value some sass, ok?).

While we might have started to move on from very thin women being the goals, that doesn’t mean what we’re being sold is anyway more attainable. From the ideal “curvy” to perfectly defined ‘fit not thin’ woman, we’re still having images of “perfection” rammed down our throat. Except now it’s wrapped up and sold to us in the form of fitness books and DVDs or and lurks on our Instagram feeds in #transformationtuesdays and 3 minute workouts. Whether it’s a restrictive diet or the gym 24/7 – the narrative is the same. While I am all for people taking control of their health and fitness, I think we’ve reached a point where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us not to be confronted with the many ways in which our bodies are inadequate on a daily basis, and I for one don’t want to contribute to that.

Maybe it’s high time that we change our compliments; instead of praising weight-loss and thinness, we admire the people in our life for their commitment to going for a jog in the morning or thank them for sharing a new healthy recipe with us. We compliment them on positive personality traits, kindness and efforts. There are a multitude of things to pick from when you want to give a compliment; maybe we can all dig a little deeper than putting so much emphasis on how someone’s body looks?

Illustration: Mariel Abbene

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