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Why Weight Loss Compliments Are Dangerous for Eating Disorders

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“You look great, did you lose some weight?”

“You’re so thin! How do you do it?”

“You’ve really slimmed down.”

These are all statements that I’ve heard in regards to my appearance. But there was a catch — when I received these compliments, I was in the midst of my eating disorder (ED). While the people who made these comments were most likely well-intentioned, they actually positively reinforced my eating disorder behaviors.

This past semester, I took a social psychology course and we learned a great deal about positive reinforcement. When it came time for our final term paper, I decided to write about weight loss related comments serving as positive reinforcement for eating disorder behaviors. I knew that I had valuable lived experience surrounding this topic, but I also wanted to see what research was out there.

A study by Geraldine Budd titled, “Disordered Eating: Young Women’s Search for Control and Connection,” digs deeper into how weight loss related compliments positively reinforce dangerous behaviors in people struggling with eating disorders.

An excerpt from the study states, “Positive reinforcement was an important aspect in the eating behavior of the participants. One informant relocated with her family just prior to her senior year in high school… ‘I was playing varsity basketball, working 20 hours a week and keeping my grades up so I could get my scholarships. I was going crazy. I really didn’t have time to eat. Then, all my clothes started fitting looser, and like everyone was, ‘Oh, you look like you’re losing weight, you look very nice.’ You know, these people were noticing me for the first time, it was positive reinforcement, so it became kind of a game.”

In the case of this person, receiving a weight loss compliment served as fuel for her eating disorder. It gave her more motivation to continue engaging in the dangerous behaviors because not only was she feeling better about herself personally, but she was receiving external validation as well.

Another resource that does an excellent job supporting this idea is the SAGE Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods. An excerpt of the encyclopedia states, “If individuals with eating disorders perceive compliments as a form of positive reinforcement to risky behavior, then positive reinforcement is feeding the mental illness… external sources must be careful when complimenting… a person’s weight loss… even though many positive aspects of compliments exist, compliments may be detrimental to the receiver. By providing positive reinforcement to someone with an eating disorder, the sender is almost, in a sense, enabling the [eating disorder] behavior.”

Choosing to compliment weight loss is a very slippery slope. While the compliment may come from a sincere place of kindness, it can lead to validation, reassurance and encouragement for someone’s mental illness. This can possibly have serious implications in the progression of a person’s eating disorder, and the issue needs to be addressed in the hopes of reducing the number of people struggling.

By choosing to make compliments based on weight, I think people perpetuate the myth that thinness is an indicator of health and worth. If we were to discuss the implications of weight loss compliments in eating disorders as frequently and openly as we discuss and glorify weight loss in today’s society, I think these types of statements would be far less prevalent. Many people have positive intentions when making these types of compliments and have no idea that they could be feeding into someone’s mental illness, simply because our society idolizes thinness and is greatly misinformed about the topic of “health.” Our society has difficulty acknowledging that being thin doesn’t necessarily indicate being healthy, just like being overweight doesn’t necessarily indicate being unhealthy.

Weight loss related compliments are unnecessary and dangerous. Our bodies are only a small part of who we are and they shouldn’t be the focus of what receives compliments. Instead of commenting on someone’s weight, try complimenting their compassionate heart. Instead of commenting on someone’s shape, try complimenting their strong work ethic. Instead of commenting on someone’s body type, try complimenting their radiant smile. Instead of positively reinforcing potentially dangerous, disordered behaviors, choose to reinforce the idea that we are so much more than our bodies. We are worth more than our physical appearance, and it’s time that our actions reflect that.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via AnkiHoglund

Originally published: September 14, 2017
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