Complimenting People On Their Body Can Be Detrimental—Here's Why You Should Stop
"My value has nothing to do with my body."
Approximately 68% of women in America are considered plus size, but there's a clear lack of industry representation and shopping options for this majority. In Plus-Size Diaries, columnist Olivia Muenter dives into all things plus-size, from sharing her personal experiences to speaking out about plus-size culture at large.
In high school, I thought no compliment could be better than someone complimenting me on how "tiny" I looked. I was six feet tall by the time I was 12, and I was obsessed with seeming (or feeling) like anything other than the tallest person (boy or girl) in class. In my mind, there was nothing worse than this—tall was synonymous with huge, and huge, thanks to my own internalized fatphobia, was synonymous with "less than." I, like many teenage girls, tracked every new stretch mark and every extra pound with horror for years and attempted to fix them by counting calories. I craved someone else noticing this, too.
If someone told me a shirt looked flattering, I viewed it as a win. If someone said I looked like I had lost weight, I felt victorious. If someone gave me another type of compliment, I felt as if I had done something wrong. Was I not small enough? Did the cut of the dress I was wearing make me look bigger than usual? I had conditioned myself to believe that unless people were complimenting me on my body or my weight that I was doing something wrong.
What I didn't realize until I began to learn about body positivity, fatphobia, and my own body image pitfalls, though, was that these types of comments had other effects, too. They made me paranoid. I craved the momentary elation they brought me, but there was always a moment when I thought about the "compliment" later and it dawned on me that this meant that I wasn't the only one preoccupied with the size of my body—it was other people, too. I began to tell myself that every comment about how small I looked was simply acknowledging that I had looked bigger before.
This, of course, is not true. Body size does not correlate with beauty, confidence, or attractiveness. However, once the thought was in my mind, it felt impossible to let go of. As much as I still craved the high of someone commenting on just how "small" I had gotten, I began to fear it, too. I couldn't stand the idea that everyone was thinking the same things about my body as I was—so many of which were often toxic and painful.
It wasn't just me tracking every pound; it was others, too. This, in a nutshell, is the problem with commenting on other people's bodies or weights—even if you think it's what they want to hear, or even if it is what they want to hear. Ultimately, it will always be more damaging than beneficial. In addition to triggering someone who may struggle with body image, disordered eating, or eating disorders, you also run the risk of complimenting someone on weight loss who wasn't trying to lose weight at all.
Though we've all been conditioned to view compliments on smaller body size as positive, there are ways to nip the habit in the bud.
Say, you think someone looks healthier than they have in years and you want to compliment them on this. First, ask yourself what exactly it is about them that you think looks healthier, and then acknowledge that if it's because they seem thinner that that's actually not an indication of health. If what you're noticing is something else, though, considering specifically commenting on that.
Does someone's skin seem brighter than usual? Say that! Do they seem to have boundless energy? You can comment on that too! The same goes for if you think someone looks beautiful in a particular outfit. First, ask yourself if you think this specifically because of their body size, and then try to explore why that is. Do you only associate thinness with beauty? If the answer is no and there's something else about the outfit that you love—focus on that instead. Then, give a genuine compliment—one that has nothing to do with body size at all. Things like, "that dress is so you," or "I think this is my favorite thing you've ever worn," can have a big impact on people.
Now, I am particularly thoughtful about how I react to comments about my body. I ask myself how the comment made me feel, and then I explore why. Often, I'll still experience the same momentary elation followed by a sense of dread. But now I also immediately follow those thoughts by reminding myself that my value doesn't come from my size, weight, or other people's perception. My value is decided by me and me alone, and it has absolutely nothing to do with my body.