Last weekend, I was at a party and I got into a discussion/debate/argument with someone about whether it’s okay to comment on the way a person’s body looks when they lose weight. I’m of the position that you really should never comment on the way people’s bodies look because you’re just supporting the idea that everyone should look a certain way and (especially women) should fit into a patriarchal ideal. She said that maybe you could just congratulate the person on working hard toward a goal. I was defensive about my position, but wine is not a thinking-woman’s beverage, so I couldn’t eloquently explain why I felt the way I do. And then the discussion/debate/argument devolved into a debate of the very tenants of the body-positive, health-at-every-size movement, which was equally unproductive.
So now, in the dim light of dawn, I want to consider why her argument that it’s okay to comment on someone’s “hard work to reach their weight-loss goal” still doesn’t sit right with me. Because taken at face value, shouldn’t I want to congratulate someone on reaching a goal? On working hard?
You really don’t know if someone’s hard work to lose weight was done in a healthful way. Plenty of people lose weight unintentionally when they’re ill or stressed. (You know what’s super metabolic? Cancer.) Even more people lose weight by intentionally following extreme diets. As such, you can’t assume that weight loss supports health. It could be creating disordered or destructive thoughts and habits around food. When you validate the weight loss, you’re validating the path the weight loss participant took to get there, whether that’s taking up smoking, an all-juice diet, or anorexia. You just don’t know.
Commenting on weight loss, whether intentionally or not, supports the idea that all people need to be small to be healthy, happy, and beautiful. The tag-line at Fitness for Feminists is “Get Strong (Not Small),” so I think you all know where I stand on this. Unfortunately, the dominant culture says that in order to be attractive, women must be a size 2. (Or is that too big? I can’t keep up.) When you tell someone they look good after losing 10 pounds, all you’re doing is congratulating them on their ability to fit into the current societal standard of beauty. You’re not complimenting their body’s ability to do anything other than be a particular shape. It’s aesthetics, not health, and it makes plenty of people unhealthy (see # 1). It reinforces the damaging idea that only certain bodies — small bodies — are worthy of praise.
Since most people who lose weight are unable to keep it off, you’re setting people up for a cycle of losing and gaining weight, which evidence has shown to have worse health outcomes than simply being overweight. When people get so much validation from weight loss, which disappears when weight regain occurs, they are automatically primed to want to get back to a place of validation. Who wouldn’t be? Everyone wants to be loved and accepted. But when love and acceptance get wrapped up in the size of our bodies, it primes us to get caught up in yo-yo dieting, fad diets, and unhealthy relationships with food. Like I said, all of this is actually worse for you than just staying the size you are. These sorts of “compliments” can do real harm to people in the long term.
I’m the perfect example of how people with unhealthy habits and thinking can “look better” than when they have healthier habits and thinking. Here’s a picture of me from my early-30s, before I entered the fitness industry.
I was probably at my lowest adult weight, but I was unhappy. I didn’t like my job. I just had a really bad break up that left me sleepless and depressed. I was drinking too much booze to cope with my sadness. I was smoking cigarettes! Gross! But, I’d recently starved myself on a 1200-calorie-a-day diet recommended to me by one of the fitness websites I used, and I was still anxious about any food I put in my mouth. So I was thin, but I was absolutely not healthy in mind or body.
Now I’m at my highest adult weight, but I eat lots of fruits and vegetables. I drink less alcohol (though clearly not at that party where I wanted to talk about this stuff). I don’t smoke, I sleep at night, and I love my job. I just got married! I eat — get this — without guilt or shame! Things are coming up Shannon! I’m a healthier and happier person than I was when I was at a lower weight, but if people looked at those two Shannons, side-by-side, they would assume the opposite. That’s what body bias does: it tells you that you can tell who’s healthy and who’s not by sight alone.
I think if you know that someone is making healthy changes to their habits, you should absolutely congratulate them on the healthy changes they’ve made. "Julia! I’m so proud of you for getting 8 hours of sleep at night! That’s so amazing for your physical and mental health!" "Delia! Congratulations on adding more vegetables into your daily meals! Cheers to micronutrients!" "Thalia! A+ work on starting and sticking to a strength regimen! Your bones will thank you!"
But don’t comment on the way their bodies look. It’s not the point. It reinforces some pretty gross beliefs about bodies (especially women’s bodies) and their value. It sets people up for less healthy outcomes. And do you really want to be in the awkward position of complimenting someone who has cancer (or anxiety or an eating disorder) on their “awesome weight loss?"
Because bodies are awesome. Let’s spend more time celebrating what they can do, and less time fixating on how tiny we can make them. Strong, my friends — not small.