(CNN) — If your friend has recently lost weight, you may want to tell her how great she looks. You might also tell her that you wish she had her body or her self-control or ask her how she managed it. Perhaps you have received such a “compliment” in the past.
These comments, while well-intentioned, can have unintended negative consequences.
“In that case, we are unintentionally exacerbating or affirming the ideal of thinness that our society tends to emphasize and idolize,” says Alvin Tran, an associate professor of public health at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, who researches eating disorders and body image. “We have to be very cautious when approaching conversations around someone’s physical appearance, especially her weight.”
This is especially important when talking to people with eating disorders or serious body image issues, as such comments can make your situation worse. Compliments about a person’s weight loss or thinness perpetuate society’s ingrained dieting culture, according to Tran, and the idea that thinness is inherently good.
“We tend to act [como si] we could somehow look at people and, based on their body size, determine if they’re healthy,” said Tamara Pryor, senior fellow and director of Research at ED Care, an eating disorder treatment center in Denver. “We have plus-sized people who are undernourished, as well as extremely short people who are undernourished, and people of standard size, but who are still severely affected by an eating disorder. People can’t look at them and notice.”
But if you’re pleased or amazed at someone’s appearance, shouldn’t you give them a compliment? What is okay and what is not okay to say? CNN turned to Pryor and Joann Hendelman, clinical director of the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, for advice.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
CNN: What makes giving a compliment about someone’s weight loss or thinness problematic?
Tamara Pryor: It is indiscreet. Who has the right to make that judgment, especially by expressing it verbally? We can look at people and judge them, but we have to keep it to ourselves. I come from the second wave of the feminist movement, where it was “my body, my business.” That is still the case.
CNN: How can the people receiving it feel?
Pryor: If someone said to me, “My God, you look great. You’re losing weight,” I’d ask, “What did you think of me before? Wasn’t that okay?” I can imagine the pressure the recipient of the “compliment” would then feel to maintain that weight or lose more weight in order to receive more praise or be accepted. They might think, “What’s wrong with me and the essence of who I am as a human being?” There are physical consequences and important psychological consequences that are perpetuated.
Joann Hendelman: If you don’t get that compliment, then it becomes, “There’s something wrong with me. I’m not good enough.”
CNN: What should people keep in mind when they want to compliment someone’s slim appearance?
Pryor: Any question related to appearance tends to be a trigger, and it’s more of a trigger for people with eating disorders, because they have a higher sensitivity about how they’re being judged based on body shape and size.
My patient and her mother went to a clothing store. She is extremely underweight and anorexic, and she had just started treatment. Inside the dressing room, her mother is shocked to see her daughter trying on clothes and realizing how extreme her weight loss was. An employee walks in, hearing her mother say, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. I had no idea your weight had dropped so much. I’m so thankful you’re in treatment now.”
The clerk says, “Are you kidding me? I would die to be so skinny. How did you do it?” So the patient gets this mixed and conflicting response: she can sense her mother’s real concern for her, but on the other hand, she’s getting a compliment.
Hendelmann: I have met and worked with people who had cancer or another reason their bodies were thin. For them, the compliments are very uncomfortable because they know they have this horrible disease and yet people compliment them on that weight loss they would give anything not to have.
CNN: What can people say instead?
Pryor: Find ways to relate that don’t include comments about their bodies.
If someone needs to lose weight for health reasons, congratulating them on their tenacity in achieving that goal is not the best thing to do. Because then it’s like, “Oh, what if I fail or I gain the weight back?” That seems like a lot of pressure. Instead, if someone mentions recent weight loss, ask them how they feel about the weight they lost or what prompted them to do so, instead of judging them yourself.
Hendelmann: Compliment her on what she’s wearing, or say something like, “Your eyes are so bright today,” that kind of thing. If a friend is still so attached to thinness to get compliments, and I tell him how great he is, I’m supporting his focus on his body size and I’m really not doing him a favor.
CNN: How can people stop perceiving weight loss or being thin as something ideal and inherently good?
Pryor: Think about what it means to be healthy and what your body can do for you, like getting the nutrients you need or gaining strength.
Hendelmann: If we could all accept that our bodies take us from one position to another, and that it’s not about what they look like, but what’s inside, it’s amazing how much our bodies can give us.
It is important to accept who we are and our uniqueness. We have to accept our genetics. The more we accept our body, the healthier we will be. It is believing that our body knows what it is doing.