As children we constantly observe the adults in our lives and learn from their modeled behavior. These observations provide us with information about a variety of life topics including how to act in social situations. When I was young, I learned the social rule of always mentioning someone’s weight loss, so every time I’d see someone looking a little slimmer, I’d smile and say, “You’ve lost weight!” This social rule wasn’t limited to compliments about weight. It extended to other areas of appearance as well. When I think about it though, these aren’t genuine compliments. Sure, people mean well, but is it really a good thing to offer such high praise for outward appearance?
When I was complimented on my weight loss, it made me want to keep dropping pounds because the compliments were addicting. People would gush over my weight loss and my self-esteem would artificially inflate. Then my new weight became my new normal and I wanted to lose more weight to keep the compliments coming. This was my attempt to garner more praise to boost my confidence, but all it did was bring me dangerously close to an eating disorder.
Unfortunately, my self-esteem was wrapped up in my looks. Once I started to build my self-esteem around traits unrelated to my appearance, the changes in my body that naturally come with time grew tolerable. I began to see my few grey hairs as strands of wisdom rather than loss of youth; my wrinkles became symbols of times of laughter and fun. I believe that it’s better to approach the changes in my body with a positive spin because it’s going to happen no matter how hard I try to avoid it. Now when people compliment my appearance, I see it as a comment filled with good intentions and something unrelated to my self-esteem.
But as I look back at some of the compliments I gave, received, or witnessed, I realize that some really weren’t complimentary or should not have even been said at all. Here’s what I’m talking about:
- The Caveat Compliment. It always cracks me up when someone throws a compliment my way…with a condition. I remember working with a personal trainer many years ago and he told me I was strong for a girl. No, I’m strong. Period. The other one I hear is “You look amazing for your age!” Why “for my age”? Can’t I just look amazing?
- The Comparison Compliment. People sometimes make comments like “You look nice today!” I know these are meant to make me feel good. But when I think about it, aren’t they suggesting that I normally look like crap? I am aware that that is so far removed from what they mean, but the implication still gives me pause.
- The I-Put-My-Foot-In-My-Mouth Compliment. There can be many reasons for someone to lose weight.1 Sure, it can be intentional, but it could also be due to a stressor like an illness, a death in the family, or an eating disorder. If I don’t know the cause of the weight loss, I should keep my mouth shut because I’d feel like an ass if I complimented someone on losing weight when it was due to one of those situations.
- The Inappropriate Timing Compliment. This one is pretty self-explanatory. People are just so focused on weight loss that they will bring it up at the most inappropriate times. I was at my father‘s memorial and my cousin asked me how I had lost so much weight. Really?! We are at my father’s memorial! I don’t care about my weight or your weight or anyone else’s weight. My dad just died. Go away.
- The Different Perspective Compliment. Saying someone is skinny in our society is a positive, but words can have different connotations for different people. When I was dieting, I actually felt put off when someone told me I was skinny.2 To me, skinny meant “unhealthy” and I believed that I was dieting in the pursuit of health. I don’t fault anyone for this. Again, they meant well, but now I’m at least more aware of how people can interpret things differently.
I hate that my go-to was to compliment someone on their weight loss because that is what everyone else did.3 It just perpetuates the idea that only thinness is acceptable. “Did you lose weight?” is very different than “It’s wonderful to see you!” The former reinforces the idea that appearance is most important while the latter indicates that inner worth is valued. Though I am not perfect, I now am making an effort to pause for a moment and think of non-superficial things to say because I want people to know that they have worth beyond what they look like.4
Please share any experiences you have had with “compliments” in the comment section below.
1The same is true for weight gain.
2I preferred euphemisms like “trim”, “slim”, or “lithe”. Honestly, I think I was oversensitive because I could see the disordered path ahead of me and it was far from healthy. Hearing myself being described as “skinny” supported that which scared me.
3This reminds me of my mother saying “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” That was from my teen years. I am happy to say that I am now a more independent thinker.
4One of the best compliments I have ever heard was in As Good As It Gets:
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