Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"You Look Great!": What Do We Promote When We Compliment Weight Loss

I read a trio of articles this week that I suggest you check out if you're interested in conversations about weight loss and body image. First was the New York Times article "The Fat Trap" that looks at a (long) series of studies that show us the simple "calories in, calories out" model of weight loss isn't as accurate as we like to think. Then was Shannon Chamberlain's piece on Slate "I Once Was Obese. And now I'm not. Please don't applaud me for losing weight." Then I read the Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss' response to Chamberlain's piece, which reflects on how we should praise the work of health rather than the outcomes.

Body image

Together, these pieces have me really reflecting on the way that we think and talk about weight loss and human value. If you read the comments on the Slate piece (though, really, you probably shouldn't read the comments), you'll see plenty of people who are just aghast at the audacity of a woman who would claim to work out, eat right, and remain fat. The very existence of such a person (even though medical literature suggests not only that such a person exists but that it's probably the norm rather than the exception for many people) throws off the narrative that fat people are lazy and thus worthy of shame and blame. 

Set aside the fact that neither beauty nor health is a moral imperative (you do not have to be beautiful or healthy to be a good person), and you're still left with a very problematic cultural belief in fitness. We have set up a nearly impenetrable binary that tells us thin=hard work=healthy=good and fat=lazy=unhealthy=bad. That binary is reinforced in ways little and big everyday. Magazines, movies, fitness products, food marketing, and many of the people we are around every day have bought into this belief completely. That's why we think it's okay to shame people who are fat. After all, we're just looking out for their health. 

You Can't Tell Someone's Health Just By Looking

Despite our insistence that health and weight are exactly correlated, science and common sense both tell us that's not true. People can be healthy and overweight. People can be thin and unhealthy. Things are not as simple as they seem. 

The fact that you can't tell someone's health just by looking really resonated with me as I read these articles. Shannon Chamberlain discusses her weight loss success in the Slate article and says:
When I finally turned to the raspberries and coffee diet, I did it for less-than-stellar reasons. I was trying to flee a job I disliked for a competitive graduate school program just as it was becoming clear that a recession was a’coming. I felt out of control, and, like other anorexics, sought complete dominion over something clear and measurable. 
The woman was starving herself. She was making herself an emotional wreck. Her hair was falling out of her head because she lacked nutrients. Yet she was getting compliments. She was getting reinforcement for this behavior. She was told to "keep up the good work."

Why? Because people saw the results instead of the process, and it is the results we are taught to praise. It doesn't matter how someone gets thin, only that they are. Likewise, we praise people when they're thin without really doing anything at all. 

The only real exception to this is surgery, which we see as "cheating." Chamberlain also talks about this in her article, as it's the path she eventually chose. Her post-surgery maintenance involves frequent exercise and careful portion control, the very same hard work we praise in people who are thin without surgery, yet when that hard work comes after surgery, we tend to overlook it.  

When Erika from Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss first read Chamberlain's piece, she was mad. She was mad because she has worked very hard to lose weight and felt like Chamberlain's claim that people shouldn't praise her for losing weight downplayed all that hard work. Then she took a step back and thought about it more deeply, saying this:

I’m a recovering emotional eater. I’m a former 330lb dynamo. I’m a survivor of trauma. I get up – not always daily, but considerably often – and I make time for myself. I changed my habits. I learned how to cook. I learned myself.

All those verbs…. recover…survive…change…learn. The hard work isn’t just shedding the weight. The hard work is lifting and removing the barriers that, for many of us, are in the way. And denying the reality that they exist, they are real, they are important and they can and often do result in weight loss – while simultaneously propping up South Beach/Atkins/Grapefruit/Mashed Potato diets as the key to weight loss, or allowing them to prop themselves up unchallenged – makes it far more difficult for people who want to change their lives (or, really, need to change their lives) to get access to the real help they need.

And when people do do that work, they deserve praise. They deserve love. They deserve support.
Yes. "All those verbs" deserve praise: "recover" "survive" "lift" "run" "nourish" "cook" "try." But instead we praise the adjectives: "thin" "built" "ripped" "slender" "beautiful." 

We cannot control the adjectives. For one, we can't guarantee that the work will result in thinness and, secondly, we can't guarantee that the public perception of those results will be favorable regardless of whether we're thin. Beauty is a collective perception that's beyond our power. Work is not. 

What Are You Praising?

Have you ever told someone you noticed was losing weight that they were looking good and should keep up the good work? I know that I have. I do it because I notice their effort and want to encourage them (not because I think they have to be thin but because I want people to succeed in things that are important to them). I do it because it seems like a nice thing to do. 

But is it?

What if what I'm praising isn't really a nice thing at all. 

What if I say "Have you lost weight? You're looking great!" to someone who has been starving himself for weeks. Now I've reinforced that behavior. 

What if I tell someone she looks great when she's actually suffering weight loss as a side effect from a deadly disease (as happened to this woman's friend who was suffering from Lupus). 

We don't know what we're praising if we're only praising a result. If our goal is to encourage people to take care of themselves and to be healthy, then shouldn't we make sure that we're actually encouraging people to, you know, take care of themselves and be healthy?

If someone gets up an hour early and went for a run, we should praise that. That's hard work. 

If someone cooked healthy meals all week long for themselves and their family, we should praise that. That's hard work. 

If someone tries a new gym even though they were intimidated by it, we should praise that. That's hard work.

If someone seeks help to mend their emotional damages in order to live a healthier, happier life, we should praise that. That's hard work, too. 

Simply being thin does not demonstrate hard work and it does not mean that someone is making healthy choices. We should know what we're reinforcing if we truly care about the people we are encouraging.

Finally, we shouldn't be afraid to tell someone that they look beautiful. Period. Someone who is thin can be beautiful. Someone who is fat can be beautiful. Someone who just came into work after a long night with bags under their eyes and messy hair can be beautiful. We don't have to wait for the cultural standards to all click into place to give a compliment. 

If we rethink the way that we give praise, we can begin to restructure our norms. If we praise hard work instead of outcomes and acknowledge beauty wherever we see it and the people who are doing that hard work don't get any thinner, we're still reinforcing positive, healthy changes. Isn't that what we really want to value as a culture?

Photo: quinn.anya


  1. i really enjoyed this post - and generally i'm really enjoying your blog as well!

    My own eating disorder days helped me break the association between thin and healthy. I told people all the time when the atkins diet came out that a diet can make you thin because it's making you sick. not a good thing. as for the compliments, that's tough. i love the idea to compliment process, but what if you don't know the process? people who are working hard to be healthier and who lose weight in the process, want to be acknowledged. if we notice weight loss, it's possible we have no idea what the process behind that weight loss is. it can be so tricky if you discover a negative process in conversation. this has happened to me before. once i complimented someone's weight loss only to discover they were eating nothing but tunafish everyday. i was horrified, but didn't feel it was appropriate to express that. perhaps as a culture, we need to stop expecting people to notice when we lose weight, unless we invite the conversation by sharing our process and goals. if we want our fat to be unremarkable, then perhaps our thinness, or a change in weight, should be as well. if we feel slighted that no one noticed our weight loss, perhaps that's just a symptom of the problem: that we overvalue thinness. just thinking out loud.

    1. Great points about how the cultural expectation that people notice weight loss is another symptom of the overall problem.

      I agree with you that the compliment thing is tricky. I do think we should compliment people. It is a nice thing to do, and it makes the world a brighter place. I think a simple "You look great!" goes a lot further than statements couched in loaded language like "Have you been losing weight? Keep up the good work!" or "You look great . . . for someone who just had a baby." Of course, even a "You look great!" could still serve as reinforcement for an unhealthy process, but at least it's something based on who they are and what they look like at that moment instead of tying their worth to some future state of beauty they may or may not ever attain. What do you think? Does that make it better?

  2. I feel weird writing this but I'm going to anyway. This really resonated with me: "Likewise, we praise people when they're thin without really doing anything at all." I have a high metabolism and have my whole life, and I'd like to think that I also eat pretty well. I don't starve myself or skip meals, I try to eat when I'm hungry, etc. I'm grateful that I have been blessed with that ability. What I don't like is when people (mostly in the office I work at) say things like "I don't know how she eats all that and stays so thin! She's so lucky" and I'm standing right there. It's almost not a compliment. Even if they address it to me... what am I supposed to say? How about we don't comment at all on how people look, unless they are a relatively good friend, in which case we might be able to assume we know what's going on in their personal lives? I think it is on par with acquaintances/strangers commenting on pregnancy. In that you shouldn't do it! You should never ask a woman if she's pregnant. I had a miscarriage in July 2009, and I was working at a grocery store that fall when an older man asked me if I was pregnant. I couldn't even answer him because I started tearing up, and he felt really bad, but I was shaken for the rest of the day.

    People think it is within public domain to comment on how other people look. Let's say that it isn't and go from there.

    1. I knew someone who used to get teased a lot for being skinny. She was thin naturally, and people called her names like "Olive Oil" (from the Popeye cartoons) and teased her about blowing over when the wind blew and things like that. She felt like she couldn't really complain about this bullying because it was just something she had to take for having the type of body we say we all want. But it was bullying. Plain and simple. It was mean, and no one should have to put up with people mocking the way they look.

      I hope that comment from the post didn't come across as me saying that I think people should be shamed for being thin when they don't try to be. I just meant that, for people who say their shaming is justified because it promotes health, there's a cultural blind spot because we too often equate thin with healthy without connecting the other dots.

      I agree that people's individual bodies really shouldn't be up for public debate, but I have a really hard time imagining that happening when we're so focused as a culture on physicality.

      I'm really sorry to hear about your miscarriage, and I think that really points to how much we don't know about people's lives when we make comments (even well-meaning ones) to strangers.

    2. Your comment didn't come across that way at all :) I really liked that put that there, and I really enjoy reading your blog.

      I totally agree, I can't imagine it happening, but it's nice to hope for it :)

    3. I was super skinny all through childhood too, could eat anything I wanted and never gain an ounce, and I definitely got a lot of middle and high school girl slams - "You're so skinny, I hate you!" Such a terrible "compliment".

      Great post!

  3. Thanks for posting this! I had missed these articles.

    I went through a time of unhealthy dieting (which I am really just now coming to terms with) and it was so hard because while I knew what I was doing was unhealthy, all I heard was "You look great!" "Keep up the great work!" etc. It was hard, too, because it made me feel like I had looked terrible before, like everybody had secretly thought I was overweight. That positive reinforcement really turned something that would have probably lasted a week into something that lasted for months.

    Also, I'm a huge fan of complimenting people for doing healthy things and not just for being thin. I know several people who are so proud that they're thin, but they have very unhealthy eating habits (no meals and lots of unhealthy snacks) and never exercise. One even told me recently, and quite proudly, how she worked very hard not to gain any weight during her pregnancy and that everyone called her "skeleton woman" the whole time she was pregnant because she was so thin. It is so hard because I know she is seeking positive reinforcement for her thinness, but I don't want to reinforce it.

  4. I enjoyed this post, too. Not to be THAT writing teacher, but it reminds me of the ways we de-value the writing process and only emphasize the final product. In the same ways that we need to see more than the 5-paragraph essay as "good writing," we need to see all kinds of bodies as beautiful, just as you say.

    I remember dealing with weight loss after giving birth. It was always put in terms of getting my body "back" and getting back to "normal," which makes pregnancy sound like something that ruined you, rather than simply changing you into a new normal. We talk so much of "getting rid of" what life does to our bodies. We definitely need to include mom bodies in the new normal/beautiful.

    1. I love the writing analogy! So often my students tell me that they have to break a paragraph or a sentence because it "looks too long" or that a sentence needs something added to it because it "looks short." I know those are small things, but it seems like it stems from a valuing of writing that focuses on, as you say, the end result. If we look more at the process, we learn that those choices about writing have value beyond whether they fit the "standard" or not.

      And with the mom body and "getting back" what you had before, I completely agree. The way that we do that to celebrities is particularly frustrating. The "good" pregnancy is one where you're all belly and rock a bikini home from the hospital, as if growing, carrying, and birthing a child isn't supposed to cause some physical changes.

    2. Like your other readers, this resonated with me for a number of reasons. Way back in high school, I had a friend whose body was curvier than most of the rest of our group. Some time in the middle of high school, she began to noticeably slim down, and I made a point of telling her how great she looked during one afternoon French class. Skip ahead about 5 years, when I'm back in my hometown during summer break: I'm working out at the local gym, trying hard not to stare at a skeletal figure trying to fight her way through an aerobics class, only to realize after 10 minutes that she's that same friend from high school. I will never forget the way her teeth and eyes seemed to protrude from her head, and how I literally did not recognize her as a result of all the damage her body had sustained.
      Seeing her that day was a huge wake up call for myself as well (I battled anorexia and bulimia through most of high school and my early years at university). It made me examine more closely the ways in which I myself was complicit in reinforcing the patriarchal status quo with myself and other women. I had this feeling that as long as I was aware of what I doing, and was otherwise an intelligent and feminist-thinking woman, that becoming as thin as I possibly could was somehow ok. It took me years to develop a positive relationship with food, and to stop confusing control and denial with health, not to mention to stop judging other women for what I perceived as their willful lack of control. Thank you for writing an article that continues to explore this incredibly relevant topic!

  5. A dear friend of mine has been battling cancer for the past 4 years. Every time the cancer comes back, and they up the chemo, she loses weight. And every time people tell her she looks fabulous... when she is at her sickest and her quality of life is at it's lowest. It not only hurts her, but it hurts the people who love her.

    I am a very fat woman. Until a few years ago, I tried almost everything to lose weight (I stopped short at gastric mutilation, ie weight loss surgery) I had a raging starvation and purging eating disorder, I was abusing as many diet products as I could and I was so bitterly unhappy that I was regularly suicidal.

    In the down drops of the yo-yos of my weight loss attempts, when I initially lost some weight, people kept telling me over and over how fabulous I was, how amazing I was, how inspirational I was. It wasn't until one day I thought "Am I only fabulous, amazing and inspirational when there is less of me and I'm pushing myself to death?" It was the first step to realising that the problem of my life wasn't my weight, it was the way the world treated me because of my weight. I haven't dieted for 5 years and I have never been stronger or happier.

    1. "It was the first step to realising that the problem of my life wasn't my weight, it was the way the world treated me because of my weight."

      Absolutely. The pressure to meet other people's expectations (on a whole host of issues) is so strong that it can be really hard to figure out where their wants stop and our own wants (and needs) begin. I'm glad to hear that you are in a place you can feel strong and happy, and I hope your friend is able to win her battle. Four years in and out of remission sounds heart-breaking.

  6. After my mother died I physically couldn't eat. My body shut down in grief. I lost a lot of weight & received so many 'compliments' about how great I looked and how thin I was. I was in immense emotional pain but no one seemed to notice that. They only noticed the drop in weight and saw it as a good thing rather than what it really was - I was not coping well with my mother's loss.

    This article really struck a chord because after that experience I realised what an unhealthy obsession people have with weight loss! One friend in particular hounded me every time I saw her with 'oh you're so skinny, it's not fair'. So many times I've wanted to say, but haven't had the guts, 'Want to know the secret to weight loss just have your mum die and you'll lose weight like I did!'

    I'm sick of hearing and reading people say 'I'm so fat', comments about how much weight is lost or gained - sometimes a tiny amount gained which could be a daily fluctuation rather than actual weight gain. I want to scream at people to stop weighing themselves. To stop focussing on fat and weight loss. And instead to focus on health and feeling good about yourself. I stopped weighing myself years ago. Threw out the scales and couldn't be happier not knowing how much I weigh. What does it matter anyway? As long as I'm healthy and happy that should be all that matters. And I wasn't happy when my mother died. I was in intense emotional pain and no one saw it at all. All they saw is that I lost weight and in today's world that is seen as an achievement and something to be proud of, rather than what it actually was, which was a cry for help.

  7. On a side note, I hate when people ask if I've lost weight when I haven't. In fact, I might have put on several pounds. At that point, “have you lost weight?“ basically means “you're not as fat as I remembered you“. Gee thanks?

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  9. Really nice post which is focusing us on weight loss. What if we don't get relief from it, should we go for weight loss surgeries?