Bodies change a great deal over time, and sometimes those transformations are dramatic. When you see a friend who suddenly looks different, there’s a strong impulse to remark on it. Sometimes that kind of comment will be extremely welcome — even expected — and sometimes it will be unappreciated and downright hurtful.
In the subreddit /r/LifeProTips, Redditor u/kermit2014 shared a story about how they keep receiving compliments for their weight loss — and they hate it. They’re not thin because they’ve been dieting or working out, they’re thinner because they’ve been ill:
I don’t look good. I look sick. I want to look like I did before.
How can I fend off these “compliments” without being rude or unleashing a rant unfitting of someone who was just trying to be kind? Is it something I just have to keep letting slide?
Besides the annoyance, I also have food issues in the past. I’m worried how the compliments might affect my mentality when I attempt to regain weight. I’m worried if I keep accepting the attention, I’ll become attached and lose my motivation to gain even if I know it’s what is healthiest for me.
This is a fraught situation; not only is u/kermit2014 not happy with people remarking on their weight, they’re afraid of what these compliments are reinforcing in terms of their relationship to eating and their body. That’s why, in general, I’d advise never remarking on someone’s body! It’s not your business.
BUT, there is a big but. We do live in a culture where how people look and the validation they receive for it makes up a part of their identity. Someone who has been working really hard to lose weight, gain weight, build muscle, or any other visible change may want people to acknowledge it. It can be a huge bummer when you feel like you’re busting your arse to do something and it seems like no one has noticed. These are some basic guidelines for how to navigate these tensions in a respectful way.
Take cues from social media
Absolutely, the easiest way to know if someone wants a comment is actually listening to and observing them, especially on social media. People tend to talk about their journeys pretty publicly these days. If they’re not talking about something you’re noticing, that probably means they don’t want it brought up, at least not directly. If someone is depressed for instance, and weight loss or gain is related to that, what they actually need is a friend to talk to, not a comment on their dress size.
When a friend is trying to open up to you about their depression, anxiety, or other mental health issue, it can be hard to know how to respond. We’ve come a long way, but there is still considerable stigma to admitting that you’re coping with mental health issues. If your friend is talking to you at all, they’re taking a huge step.
If they are posting a lot about going to the gym, however, note the language they use about it. If it’s all focused on strength, repairing an injury, or building stamina, use the same language when you comment on it. Congratulate them on their hard work and showing up for themselves. That kind of encouragement is probably wanted and appreciated.
Stay away from judgmental phrases
If you do decide to comment on someone’s body because it seems like they might want to chat about it, start with a neutral phrase, like, “You look like you’ve been working out” or “Those pants look great on you.” The former is an observation that isn’t saying anything good or bad, the latter is a compliment on how good they look that isn’t saying they looked better or worse before. That’s important.
Even if you’re very deliberately working hard to make a physical transformation, you don’t want anyone to imply you looked bad before you started making it. You just looked different. Giving someone space to talk about what they’re trying for and why by starting neutrally allows them to do a bit of bragging without suggesting they needed to change.
Ask about something related
I’m personally pretty interested in nutrition and exercise, even outside of weight loss or having an incredibly toned butt. It’s remarkable how what you eat and how you move changes the clarity or your mind, your energy levels, even your skin. Do I always have the time or focus to eat my best and work out every day? No! Which means my physique fluctuates, just like everyone’s does over time.
But I’ve found that discussing things like recipes and workouts is a pretty easy segue for understanding how people are feeling about their bodies. Often, asking something simple, like, “Do you enjoy cooking at home?” will open things up pretty quick. If they don’t take the conversation to dieting or weight loss, it probably means they don’t want to talk about it. So, don’t: but get that stew recipe.
Just shut up
When in doubt, err on the side of discretion. For every story about someone who was disappointed no one noticed their weight loss, there’s another story of someone who feels like crap because they keep getting called skinny, but they just had a stomach flu. There are a million ways to compliment someone without bringing their body into it — and everyone loves a compliment.