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“No, praising a woman for losing weight is not a compliment”

It may feel like flattery, but is applauding a friend’s weight loss just as unhealthy as body-shaming itself?

We’ve still got a long way to go before making a negative comment about someone else’s body is seen as properly, thoroughly, socially unacceptable.

But we are getting there. It’s a step in the right direction every time a Jameela Jamil or a Demi Lovato reminds their thousands of fans that their value is not measured by stones and pounds displayed on a scale. There’s a growing movement against fat-shaming, and positivity to be found on social media, a whisper of a world in which it’s generally considered bad form to mention someone’s weight.

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But we’re dealing with something of a one-way street, especially when it comes to real life interactions. Putting aside the wider societal problems of celebrity diet culture and online trolls for the moment, it’s probably quite unlikely that someone in your circle of friends or a family member (blunt great aunts and their ilk notwithstanding) would remark, face-to-face, that you’ve put on weight. And if they did, it would be a big deal. But if you’ve lost a few pounds? Well, then it suddenly becomes acceptable to bring it up.

It’s faintly ridiculous that this feels like a controversial to say, but here goes: praising a woman for losing weight is not a compliment.

measuring tape wrapped around fork
“As women, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the way our body looks is one of the most important and defining things about us”

Sure, it feels like a compliment, and it’s usually meant as such. But surely, in this somewhat enlightened day and age, we can see that congratulating someone for losing weight can be just as unhealthy as shaming them for not. The reason it feels like a compliment is because, as women, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the way our body looks is one of the most important and defining things about us.

Obviously, I’m not aiming this at people who actually do wish to talk about their weight. I’m also not dismissing those who are proud of weight loss or gain for health reasons, say, or claiming that genuine concerns cannot be raised between loved ones. I’m also, by the by, not saying you shouldn’t be proud of your body whatever it looks like. You absolutely should.

Instead, I am specifically talking about what that casual ‘You look great, so slim!’ comment-as-a-compliment reveals; that no matter the age or person or context, women’s bodies are still up for discussion by friends and strangers alike.

In my first year of high school, who gave a fellow 12-year-old the idea he could – should – tell me in the middle of an art class that every male student in the room thought I was getting shorter and fatter by the day? 

At A-level college, why did a guy I barely knew think it was appropriate to tell my boyfriend he was lucky because I was slim but still had boobs? 

When I was pregnant, what made an in-law tell me – self-importantly, with her hand on my arm – that it was really good I wasn’t putting on much weight because it would be easier to lose it afterwards? And all the other times that many a person, man or woman, friend or foe, relative or stranger, has seen fit to discuss my own body with me, without permission – what makes anyone think that’s OK?

pregnant woman
Pregnancy: “My baby weight will be observed by those around me, whether it goes up or down”

For me personally, I noticed a striking increase in comments on my weight post-pregnancy, and I was regularly surprised by where they came from. Friends and relatives I would never have thought would bring up my figure with me were just going for broke. 

For various reasons, I weigh less than I did before I got pregnant, and because this is seen as a good thing the opinions have rolled in unfettered from all quarters – from compliment to almost annoyance from one total stranger (whom, while in a lift at a train station, asked where my baby weight was, enquired whether I was breastfeeding, then smirked that it would all pile back on when I stopped).

This weight-loss commentary betrays the fact that as a society, we cannot help but make a mental note of a woman’s figure, whether we believe we’re being positive or not. It betrays the fact that my baby weight will be observed by those around me, whether it goes up or down. It betrays that inherent judgment, a perpetuation of damaging ideas of the so-called ‘perfect’ body.

These bodies must be slim, but with boobs. They must not sag or wrinkle, but also not exhibit any obvious work to that end. They must fit a narrow ideal to be seen on screen, but will almost certainly be underpaid for the trouble. They must be flawless from adolescence, though of course if the faintest outline of them can be seen, they must also be accountable for the reactions they provoke.

So our bodies are not ours, but they are our responsibility.

By the age of 12, that classmate already knew that women’s bodies were public property. They’re objects to the point that we forget the real people behind the true crime documentaries, and have an insatiable appetite for TV shows that graphically detail their mutilation.

Of course, those who give the compliment are rarely intending to objectify, but their actions undeniably reinforce the fact that the way a woman’s body looks is constantly noticed. This is bad enough, without even considering the fact that there could be a context the commenter isn’t aware of, such as a trauma or a previous eating disorder. This can turn an apparently harmless remark into something truly painful or damaging (a point that TV presenter Holly Willoughby has referenced when explaining why she refuses to discuss how she ‘stays in shape’).

woman weight
Weight loss: “Stop mentioning a woman’s weight, even if you think it’s a good thing, even if it surprises you, even if you want to compliment her” 

It’s ingrained in us, this appraisal of looks, of weight. I cannot blame the friends and family who think they’re making me feel good (though I’d happily tell the lift woman to piss off should I meet her again) and it’s partly why I’m not writing under my real name: I find myself unable to make loved ones feel bad when I still struggle with the issue myself.

However, I’m also staying anonymous because of the other ‘must’ when it comes to women’s bodies: we must be perfect, yet perfectly modest, and in our messed-up society, referencing my weight loss would be seen as bragging. For oh, what a problem to have, alongside my wallet being too full and my diamond shoes too tight, the weight just fell off m’lud. No, my weight loss is not a problem, but it does highlight one, and given I have the same internalised issues as many other women, I’m frankly not strong enough to handle the trolling.

So please, stop doing it. Stop mentioning a woman’s weight, even if you think it’s a good thing, even if it surprises you, even if you want to compliment her. The best approach when it comes to discussing baby weight, post-trauma weight, any weight at all? Just zip it.

Images: Getty / Gesina KunkelUnsplash

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