Monday, September 23, 2019

Stop Praising People for Weight Loss

It's a predictable refrain every time I go to a public gathering with my mom: "Wow, your mom looks so amazing and healthy! She's so thin!"

My mom has dementia.

She is thin because her brain is slowly killing her body.

She is wasting away.

She is not healthy, but in a society that conflates thin with health and health with virtue, a woman who is dying can expect compliments on the very thing that is killing her.

Please stop complimenting people on weight loss. Please stop assuming everyone you see wants to lose weight.

Worshiping at the altar of thinness

My mom was always thin. She never had any medical reason to lose weight, which makes it particularly troubling that people would compliment her on her weight loss. They do it because we think thinner is better--even to the point of a person dying of dementia or an eating disorder. Sacrifice it all on the altar of thinness. Worship that beauty myth god.

When I push back against people who compliment my mom on her thinness, the response is always the same: "At least she still looks good."

Oh yes, what a blessing. She has lost everything that ever mattered to her, but GOD FORBID she lose the thing that makes her attractive to other people. We're all just so grateful that her prettiness has been preserved. After all, everyone knows that what really matters is the way a woman looks.

People aggressively and repeatedly tell my daughter she is pretty. They then expect her to perform the culturally appropriate script of gratitude and humility. When she doesn't, people get angry. The same is true with my mother. If I'm not grateful on her behalf when someone compliments her on her obviously unhealthy weight, then I'm the bad guy. They were just being nice. Because in a thin-obsessed society, it's nice to discount a person's entire being, entire history, and extensive suffering and instead only pay attention to their appearance.

The lesson is clear, whether you're my toddler daughter or my elderly mother: From the cradle to the grave, from health to infirmity, what matters most is being pretty. And pretty means thin.

My mother has devoted seven decades of her life to activism and music, to learning and traveling, to carving out a niche in the world and doing her best to make that niche a little more just, beautiful, and kind. Now she can't do any of those things. All that remains is her appearance. And her appearance has erased her legacy.

At her funeral, people will talk about how gorgeous my mother was--and how thin. Will they talk about how she revolutionized the child welfare system in my state? Will they talk about the legislator she cornered and threatened because of the way he treated immigrants? Will they list all the instruments she could play and all the lives she touched? I don't know. Because my mom is a beautiful woman. And when you're beautiful, that's often all anyone can see.

Why you shouldn't compliment people on weight loss 

Some people want to lose weight. Some people want to be complimented on their weight loss. And we should praise people for their achievements. There's nothing inherently wrong with complimenting a person on a healthier diet, more exercise, and a renewed commitment to their own well-being. The problem is when we assume that weight loss is a good thing, and that all people want to be praised for weight loss, we do more harm than good. 

Consider some of the many reasons a person might lose weight: cancer, depression, a recent miscarriage, an eating disorder, a thyroid condition. Weight loss is not even a sign of health. And even when it is, are you sure that the person you hope to compliment wants to hear it? Are you really sure? Because when you notice a person's weight loss, too often what you're really saying is, "I notice your old body was not socially acceptable. Congratulations on becoming more acceptable!" You make clear that you were always judging them. 

Even when someone's weight loss is hard-won, it's important to be careful when you point it out. There may be children listening--children who are growing up in a culture that teaches them that their primary value is to be found in their appearance. When they hear you praise weight loss, what message does that send to them about their own bodies? 

You will never harm someone by not commenting on their weight loss. If your goal in life is to minimize harm to others--and it should be--then it's time to stop equating thinness with health and stop effusively praising people solely because they lose weight. 


  1. My mother lost over a hundred pounds when she had cancer. She went from a size 18 to a size 2. It is called "failure to thrive" on the death certificate. The cancer takes all the nutrition and the body gets nothing.

  2. I have always hated people commenting on my weight, and anyone else, especially children! It is completely unnecessary to ever have to comment about how big or small someone is, even if they think it is a compliment. It is irrelevant to who a person is. End of story.


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