You’ve Lost Weight: You Look Great!

scale

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.

Think any of these responses might work for you? Any others to add?

Image courtesy Jørgen Schyberg. This is a revived and refreshed post from the Already Pretty archive.

Originally posted 2014-12-03 06:26:54.

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  • suzanne

    Honestly if someone takes the time to even notice something like that on me has changed I think I would be thrilled. Most people are so wrapped up in themselves they don’t notice. Noticing and complimenting means they are paying attention. The same compliment could easily be given to a man and I wonder if he would have the same reservations about the compliment as a woman.

    bisous
    Suzanne
    http://www.suzannecarillo.com

    • Jenny Nunemacher

      My husband has been exercising more and that has resulted in some modest weight loss. He does receive the same compliment, typically from friends who see him in an athletic context, and it makes him uncomfortable, actually. Although he is pleased that the side effect of his changes include weight loss, he actually feels more strongly about how being in better condition makes him feel and perform better — even if he hadn’t lost the additional weight. He would rather people say that they notice he’s in better condition, able to run faster and longer. It’s complicated. So… he says thank you and ends the conversation.

  • Rebekah Jaunty

    When I was a bank teller, I saw this compliment/insult backfire dramatically: a woman walked into the bank with her two small children. Another teller said “wow, you look great— you’ve lost so much weight!” The woman answered loudly, saying something like ‘SINCE MY HUSBAND LEFT ME FOR A YOUNGER WOMAN, I’VE BEEN PRETTY STRESSED.” I felt like the whole room froze.

    Never assume weight loss equals happy-fun-times, or that ANYONE wants your unsolicited opinion of their body.

    • PolarSamovar

      So much this. I lost 20 lbs while my husband was dying of cancer. I was grateful to my friends for not mentioning it. I consider the fact that I’ve regained the weight to be a sign that I am doing OK — I can eat again! Hurrah!

      It bothers me that our society assumes every woman wants to be thinner than she is. Not all of us do.

      • Jennifer

        My mother lost 60 while my dad died of cancer. She had it to lose, but it was a shock because they were living away at a hospital. Every time I went to see her she looked smaller. She liked the weight loss, but gained it back when she started really eating again. I was relieved ~ I was worried she was on her way to an eating disorder.

  • Cloggie

    I have often been told, “You look great! Have you lost weight?” by family and acquaintances whom I don’t see on a regular basis. I have some guesses as to why they use this particular phrase in particular but I still don’t like it for the reasons you mentioned. If you’re complimenting someone’s general appearance, keep it simple because (like when declining an invitation) adding details can get you in trouble. A “You look fantastic!” gives that compliment without implying it is attached to weight loss or that normally, the person looks scraggly.

    The one exception I would make is for persons who are very publically trying to lose weight. Not the off-hand “I really ought to eat better” but I am thinking of a friend who had gastric bypass or another who is posting his weight loss online to see if he can get to a set weight on a set date. Still, telling someone they look great and not going further can be very encouraging.

  • This is one situation that I struggle with regularly. I agree that equating a person’s beauty with size is incredibly damaging. I have lived it myself. But there are folks I know that are working really hard to lose weight and I struggle with trying to find the right thing to say when their hard work is noticeably paying off. It’s all so relative. I find that I often praise a person’s hard work if I know for a fact that they are working hard and their goal is to lose weight. But most of the time, I’m at a loss as to what to say, if anything,

    • Nebraskim

      Maybe in this instance saying, “Your hard work is paying off. Good job.”

      • Jenny Nunemacher

        But that assumes there is hard work being done.

        • Nebraskim

          She said in the post “if I know for a fact they are working hard and their goal is to lose weight.” Thus no assumption there. I hate compliments, personally, but oddly I dole them out regularly in comments like “that is a pretty dress,” or “that color is lovely.” I should probably just shut up.

  • Danielle

    Jeez, it’s hard to do anything right these days! I’d be thrilled to have anyone notice and comment that I had improved anything. No, I don’t think everyone (anyone!) should be model slim, but range of normal simply looks better and is healthier. When I see all these blogs with fat women dressed stylishly, well, they’re still looking good for being fat, not something to aspire to. Confident, yes, in whatever skin you’re in, but aspire to be fat?

    It’s very difficult for some of us to manage weight, and if someone provides positive feedback with benevolent intent, it makes my day. I’ve struggled to lose 23 pounds over the last year, plan to lose another 50 and I sure as hell hope lots of people notice! Compliments always accepted gratefully!

    • Jennifer

      I work very hard on my appearance, even as a fat woman. It takes twice as much effort (and often more money) to find good clothes, a flattering haircut, comfortable but stylish shoes. I’m not sure why there’s an attitude that people should be punished for looking put-together and being fat, but hell, yeah, I’ll push against it when I see it. People (usually women) notice my appearance, and I appreciate any compliments that are not body-size related. It’s difficult to lose weight, and even more difficult to keep it off. I hope the people who are complimenting you now are just as nice if you regain weight. I’ve found from experience they are not.
      I usually respond to “you’ve lost weight” by something like, “Nope, I like the size I am, all my clothes fit” or similar.

  • I get your point, I really do. And I agree with you up to the pushback part. When one receives a well-meaning compliment, is that the appropriate time/place to pushback? Maybe so, but I don’t feel like I could pull off these responses without sounding passive aggressive. (The point really is, why is it ok to analyze and comment on each others bodies?)
    Thanks for the thought provoking post:) Wasn’t prepared to think this hard at 6:49 am.

  • As someone whose weight fluctuates a lot and has since high school, I get this “compliment” often. I’ve learned to reply with, “I think you’re noticing my new haircut/fabulous sweater/how I’ve been getting more sleep” and bring attention to something else physical. People mean well with such a compliment, they’re showing they notice, they care, and they see what they believe to be a positive change in you. I feel that changing the direction of the compliment shows you appreciate them, but are gently teaching them to notice and comment on other aspects. And with some folks (like older relatives) there’s no use in changing their outlook, I just smile, move on, and teach my daughter and her generation a better way to offer compliments.

  • San

    I have two thoughts about this:
    It is often talked about weight loss, but where does it begin and where does it stop? I thought the above compliment about a colleague recently, but I kept it for myself and admired her input in a meeting instead (she is a senior person here).
    Weight loss can be connected to health, say, a diet improvement with less sugar etc. If that is the case, I think we still have more access to the concept of weight loss rather than better skin, better mood etc. Replying as you suggest can make people aware and maybe find other things to compliment about.

  • Natalie

    I like my weight and size; I’m not model-thin, but I’m very athletic and happy with my body’s strength. I had no intention of dieting before my recent wedding. Then, two weeks before my wedding, I came down with whooping cough. I was coughing so much I was gagging and nauseated, and ate very little for over a week. I lost 7 pounds and an inch off my waist in the 2 weeks before my wedding. People kept telling me how great I looked, and a few linked that to weight loss. I would reply, “being so sick that I can’t eat or sleep seems to agree with me!” I think that made some of them rethink their beauty standards.

    • loubeelou

      Love this.

  • Valerie M

    My partner lost 20 pounds this year and she looks better, no way around it, I find her physically more attractive. I don’t love her any more or any less. Why is it wrong to admit that some people look better at a certain weight?

    • Jennifer

      My thoughts are, if you are intimate with that person, you might MIGHT have a say. (Although the situation is still likely to be fraught with potential landmines.) That’s why I’m clear in dating situations about my size. I understand preferences for size/weight like my preference for a man with a beard. If they don’t like my body or size, I’ll move on. Like Sal has said, we aren’t brains in a jar. Our body is a part of us. But otherwise, it’s not your body, your health, or your right to decide what weight someone should be.

  • Ginger

    I take all compliments with a smile and murmur, “thank-you.”

    Someone who has taken the trouble the trouble to say something kind should be encouraged, not grilled.

    • Totally agree. Someone’s trying to be nice in a way that’s barely more personal than someone saying “Have a nice day.” There are bigger issues to be upset about than trying to micromanage how other people compliment you.

  • crtfly

    I’m not sure what to do about this. What if that ‘compliment’ is delivered to a person who is terribly ill or even, dying? In that situation, it would seem horribly cruel and sarcastic. On the other hand, when I’m working on losing weight and someone notices, I appreciate it.

    So, I don’t know what to say or even if I should say anything. I like to offer sincere compliments but often hold back because I don’t know how it will be taken. I’m afraid to say anything about hair color, hair style, although I appreciate the change. Maybe the person is going thru chemo and the new hairstyle is really a good wig?

    I have to say that I feel sorry for men. Few of them have any idea of what is OK to say to women they know only casually. Offering a mild complement to a co-worker may land them in the middle of a sexual harassment mess.

    Chris

  • Rosann Clark

    I happen to have a particularly “catty” sister-in-law, who equates EVERYTHING to appearance and/or money…I dread seeing her and usually spend the next few days thinking of snappy comebacks I might have used. One time, I had gained weight and was particularly apprehensive about what she would say. She did her usual up and down assessment of me and said in a sickeningly sweet tone, “Oh, my…you look great! Have you lost weight?” Her response caught me a bit off guard, but I managed to smile and say, “No, not at all…I’m just not as fat as you remember me.” Bazinga!!! I felt so much better!

    • Genevieve

      AUGGH WHAT A MONSTER. You just made me really dislike this stranger (I would say “hate” but I know that’s a little strong for some people). Good for you for the comeback.

  • Andrea

    I can’t help but feel that while change can (and should) certainly come from discussion like this, I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable chastising someone (gently or otherwise) in the moment after a well-meaning compliment. Kinda reminds me of the people who get all angry when someone wishes them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” (or vice versa). (I’m not a believer in anything myself, but I would never lecture someone on being wished “Merry Christmas” — I just smile and say it back or “same to you”.) I think change *does* need to happen when it comes to awareness about body image issues, but on a much broader scale — we just all need to have an understanding that you never, ever fully know what’s going on in someone’s life. I just feel, too, that if I were chastised post-well-meaning-compliment, I would be very wary of ever giving anyone a compliment ever again.

  • Jennifer

    I’m one of those people who don’t know how to accept a compliment gracefully. Like, I’m always caught off guard by it, and don’t know how to respond, so I tend to be a bit of a doofus in these situations.

    I’ve recently seen some people I haven’t seen in a few months, and one of them immediately asked me if I’ve been running again because she can tell I’ve lost weight and look good. After standing there awkwardly for a few beats, I just said “yeah, thanks.” At first I was a little defensive because I felt like it was none of her business, and she certainly didn’t need to ambush me as soon as I walked through the door, but then I thought I was making too big of a deal about it and kept my mouth shut. The thing is, I know she was just trying to be nice. She has all sorts of body image issues but we’re on opposite sides of the spectrum on that stuff and we know each other’s opinions and respectfully agree to disagree. I value other aspects of our relationship too much to let this one minor thing get in the way so I choose to ignore it. If she were to harp on it or bring it up constantly I’d let her know.

  • what not

    I know a lot of chronically ill people, and this is understood to be a no-go “compliment”.

    Being physically ill is a fascinating reminder that women’s bodies are about so much more than pleasing others. I know female Bell’s Palsy sufferers whose faces are half paralyzed, women pale and confined to wheelchairs, women who’ve gained 50 lbs over the course of months and can’t seem to change it. They want nothing more than to be healthy again, and they’re more than aware that they’ve careened far from the expected standard of beauty. Those who’ve become thinner and thus “more attractive” are no more grateful for the cause–just ask them, and they’ll tell you.

    When someone I know has lost weight, and I want to comment on it, I always ask “Oh hey, is this good?” If they say “Yes! I’ve been working so hard and I’m excited!”, then I celebrate with them. Assuming positivity would make the conversation easier for me, but sometimes much harder for the person it’s actually supposed to be about.

  • Where do you get a bathroom scale that only goes up to 120?

    • Kate Townsend

      It’s probably in kilograms.

  • Jenny Nunemacher

    Sometimes there is discomfort in raising people’s awareness about their own privilege and the fact that one’s weight whether less or more should not be valued over their other characteristics and contributions.

    I think with any interaction, you have to judge the value of the relationship you have with the person who offends you. If you have a good, strong relationship, then you can provide the feedback, as you have done with your friend. Gives them something to think about without irreparably harming the relationship. If you have no relationship (personal or professional), then you can also be frank, at the risk of being rude. But being too rude will probably just result in your feedback being dismissed as rudeness and nothing more. And if you have a professional relationship or another relationship that you need to preserve, then politeness is probably required.

    I would probably say something to the effect of “Oh, I hadn’t noticed.” Even if that’s a lie, it diffuses the value of weight loss as a measure of goodness and demonstrate that I am not looking for that particular kind of compliment.

  • loubeelou

    It’s all about context I think. I used to actively try to lose weight and would have welcomed anybody noticing my “results” and commenting positively on them. Now, my health-related pursuits ebb and flow and sometimes my weight goes down. If people comment on that, I’m still generally fine with it, but I do tend to de-emphasize it – like “Oh thanks! I guess maybe I have lost some weight.” or “Gosh, I suppose maybe I have.” My most recent noticeable weight loss was tied to a significant relationship ending though, and it is a little weird getting those compliments when it isn’t an intentional pursuit. I did have one notoriously blunt colleague say to me, “Have you lost, like, a ton of weight or something?”. I’m pretty body-image neutral, but I would still advise against using the word “ton” in formulating a weight-related compliment. Lol.

    If I absolutely know someone is actively trying to change their shape and it’s becoming noticeable, I might say something, but I will still probably enter that conversation by asking them how it’s been going overall, if they’re feeling good, etc and go from there. In fact, I had this very conversation with a male coworker today who I have had previous extensive conversations with about health-related goals and he was thrilled to know that his efforts are yielding visible results. But even after saying it I quickly added, “I hope it’s OK with you that I said that! I know that’s not everyone’s goal.” (and that’s even knowing that it is one of his goals).

    TLDR – I think it’s fair to put this weight loss comments in the same vein as asking someone about their supposed pregnancy. Tread carefully and just don’t go there unless you already know with utter certainty how they’ll take it.

  • livi

    I agree wholeheartedly. My husband recently had intestinal surgery and lost nearly 20 lbs, but since he was thin to begin with, people didn’t comment on his loss as making him look good. But I wonder if it would have been different if he hadn’t been thin.

    Specifically, I think this goes back to the fact that most of the time, we don’t need to comment on any person’s body or weight. A simple “you look good” will work in almost any situation.

  • Splashing In Puddles

    As someone who has struggled with my weight and eating issues since my teens, this compliment is really hard for me. When someone says it looks like I’ve lost weight, I’m thrilled and I actually reflect back on it all day. On the other hand, it also gives me anxiety about gaining weight. The worst is when they want to know how much I’ve lost. I don’t weigh myself at all but people cant seem to accept that. Sometimes they’ll start guessing! I think if you’ve experienced disordered eating this compliment can really be a painful trigger. I’m never snarky because I know the people mean well but it can be hard to deal with

  • Melanie

    I’ve lost weight?! Don’t just stand there – help me find it!!! (I’ve never tried this, but depending on the circumstance I might add at the end, let’s go have some cake)

  • liz

    funny thing: my dad had 12 hr surgery and 3 months of radiation which after 2 years still causes him a lot of pain and is unable to eat properly or gain back the 50 lbs he lost in treatment. His friend, who had exactly the same thing happen to him, said to him the other day “geez, you’ve lost weight – you look like hell!” and my dad said “have you looked in the mirror lately pal?”
    they both know the other had/has cancer, and somehow these comments didn’t bother either of them. Maybe it’s easier if your a man. Or if you don’t take yourself so seriously.

    • crtfly

      I think in your Dad and his friend’s case, the comments were backhanded expressions of support.Sometimes that rough kind of humor can diffuse the tension of a difficult situation.

      When a boyfriend and I were in a motorcycle accident in which we both were seriously injured, he asked me when we were in the ER, “Next time you have a job you don’t like, could you please just quit?”

      The nurses were horrified, but I actually enjoyed the dark humor. For a few minutes I forgot the pain, fear, and stress.

  • Anamarie

    I’m conflicted on this issue. On one hand, I generally think that out-of-the-blue comments about someone’s body are rude. However, if a colleague I know well is talking about her workout routine, that seems to open up the door to “hey, I noticed you are looking very fit/muscular” and that seems OK to me. Likewise, I have been working out and have lost significant weight the last few months. I don’t mind the comments that I look fit – but telling me, “wow, you’ve lost a lot of weight!!” feel like backhanded compliments and are not welcome. I don’t talk about my workouts unless asked, and I don’t make a big deal about what I eat or don’t eat, so I’m not inviting comments about how my body has changed.

  • claira

    Just to offer a different opinion, my best friend has been working really, really hard to lose weight and get fit, and she has found it really disheartening that nobody seems to have noticed that she’s dropped 20kg or that she’s standing taller and stronger. There are people out there who do like acknowledgement of achieving their goals, and wouldn’t be offended by it.

    TBH, all of those push-backs comments seem very passive-aggressive to me. Maybe Aussies are just far more laid-back about this. 🙂

    • Ginger

      Is your friend seriously overweight? Sometimes if someone has got a lot of weight to lose, it’s hard to tell when they’ve lost weight, even if they’ve lost 20kg (about 40 lbs.).

      • claira

        Overweight, but not morbidly so. I know people have noticed, as a lot of people have commented to “me*, and have added a “I would say something but I’m not sure how to make it a compliment so please let her know I think she’s looking great if you think she wants to hear that” statement in some form.