A couple of weeks ago, I was on the receiving end of this formulaic and extremely common compliment:
“You’ve lost weight! You look great!”
The giver was a friend I’ve had since age five and one of the most cerebral men I’ve ever known, so I felt perfectly comfortable pushing back. I pointed out that equating lost weight with improved looks is both insulting and assumptive. What if I’d been ill and lost weight because I was too sick to eat? Was he implying that I looked like a horse’s ass when I was heavier? Did he realize that following “you’ve lost weight” with “you look great” is a fantastic way to reinforce the idea that only thin women look good to the observing world?
There ensued a long and vigorous debate that I will not share with you here, but suffice to say that he stands by his compliment as an evolutionarily valid one that has never insulted anyone but me, and I stand by my rebuttal that telling women they’re beautiful only after weight loss is damaging. But we had a good time hashing out our opinions picking each others’ brains.
This debate was over e-mail. It was also with a very old and very dear friend. But it got me thinking about how I would’ve reacted had the compliment come in person and/or from a casual acquaintance. Because I’m perfectly comfortable with a certain level of hypocrisy in my own behavior, but swallowing a weight-loss-contingent compliment is too much. Yet I also believe that being courteous and respectful is EXTREMELY important, and throwing a compliment back at someone is neither courteous nor respectful. Especially when most folks view this particular compliment as utterly innocuous.
So here are some responses I concocted that I think might work:
- “Ahhh, but I looked amazing before, too!” It’ll sound tongue-in-cheek, but it’ll also push the complimenter off balance a bit without being confrontational. This response is all about YOU, not about any assumptions the other person might have made.
- “Thanks! I feel great about my body … but then, I always have.” Again, keeps the focus on you and your feelings about yourself. Hopefully, this response will leave the complimenter thinking about body image in a more general sense.
- “I’m a big proponent of the ‘size doesn’t matter’ philosophy!” Say it with a grin and a laugh, maybe even a wink. Humor is a fantastic way to defuse socially difficult situations, and throwing a little double entendre in the mix can help a ton.
Remember, these replies are meant to make the complimenter feel pensive, not affronted. They’re designed to be playful and subtle, offering some friendly resistance without being overtly negative.
Now, if you’ve purposely lost weight through lifestyle changes, feel better with it off, and want to revel in any associated compliments, by all means DO IT! Weight loss can be positive and important, and I have no intention of implying that you should shun praise under all circumstances. But if you feel uncomfortable with formulaic compliments that link beauty and thinness – as I do – don’t be afraid to push back. Gently.
Image courtesy the incredibly talented Christi Nielsen.