Why You Shouldn't Comment on Someone's Weight -- Even If You're Complimenting Them
“Wow you look great! Have you lost weight?”
I nod and nervously smile. “Thank you,” is my automatic socialized response. That’s what I’m supposed to say, but comments on my weight make me feel anything but appreciative or thankful. They make me insecure and like I want to cry. I know it’s meant as a compliment, but I interpret it like this: If you notice when I lose weight and praise me for it – what are you thinking about when you’ve noticed I gained weight? You don’t say anything to me then. You don’t need to answer that question because I have over 1,000 negative comments I’ve come up with on my own.
I don’t “look like a person with an eating disorder” because I don’t technically have one, but I’ve battled disordered eating my entire life. (Notice I say “disordered eating” because I have never met full diagnosis for an ED. I should know, I’m a mental health professional.) And let me correct myself, I don’t look like a person with an ED because there is no specific “look.” Just as you wouldn’t know if someone had a rare blood disease, you can’t tell if someone struggles with an ED.
Losing weight can be a good sign for me, but not necessarily. It could be that I’m no longer binge eating – or it could be bad. It could mean I’m starving myself and over-exercising or back in a cycle of purging (vomiting) almost daily for a few weeks at a time before I tire myself out. On the other end, gaining weight could also be a good sign – it could mean I’ve stopped the unhealthy habits of starvation or compensatory behaviors and my body is trying to balance itself out again (like the aftermath of yo-yo dieting we talk so much about). Or gaining weight could mean I’m back on a binge-eating cycle. For me, my body and weight gain or loss could tell a million different stories. It can make your head spin, and as confused as you are right now with what I should be diagnosed with – believe me, so am I. It’s exhausting.
A few months back I hear it again, “How much weight have you lost? Good going, girl!” This time it’s one of my closest and dearest friends who is also a counselor. I somehow get the courage to say, “I know you mean well, but it really makes me uncomfortable when people comment on my weight.” She was taken aback, and I could tell by her expression visibly upset that she had hurt me. I followed up by saying (in all honesty), “The only reason I can tell you this is because I’m so close to you.”
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.
Later on I received an apologetic text from her that she really didn’t mean any harm and she was really sorry. It’s OK. Now she knows. That was the first time I spoke up for my discomfort, and it feels good that a friend understands me little bit better.
Dealing with disordered eating is unlike any other mental illness because you can’t abstain from food like you can from alcohol or drugs (abstaining would = a particular ED). I’m not saying abstaining makes diseases like substance abuse a walk in the park by any means. However, recovery for me is every single choice I make about what and how much food I put in my body. One “wrong move” could set me off on one of my cycles for weeks or months at a time. Your comment on how much I didn’t eat at lunch when the rest of you
downed your entire chicken quesadilla – not that helpful, friends. Eating half the portion served is actually a way to prevent myself from a binge or purge. Didn’t know that, did you? It’s not your fault. I never told you.
I’ve always been so ashamed of this. I’ve actually never opened up to anyone about it besides my therapist (so you see – I do take care of myself, I do seek help from a professional). The purging has been a deep dark secret I swore I would never talk about – and especially not publicly. However, part of my profession as a mental health therapist is to support those dealing with any number of mental illnesses.
I know I’m not the only person who deals with this type of thing on a daily basis. At this moment, I’m pretending I’m saying all of this on behalf of a client: I’m educating a family member as part of their support system, talking to a master’s student who wants to learn more about EDs, or maybe explaining to another mental health professional these seemingly “little” things that can railroad recovery.
It makes it a bit easier for me to write this when I think of it that way so maybe – just maybe – the next time you turn to your friend and make a comment about your own weight, their weight, how much you ate or how much they didn’t eat, be cognizant that even if they don’t deal with disordered eating there are so many more interesting things I know you are capable of talking about in conversation. I mean, you watched the season finale of “Game of Thrones” didn’t you?
Important note to readers: I am under the care of professionals for my ED symptoms. I do not take this lightly and it is extremely important you seek help from both a counselor and a medical doctor. Disordered eating at any stage can be life-threatening. If you are
struggling with an ED, please visit the NEDA website to find support near you.