It's really the most natural reaction. We see a friend, colleague, family member or acquaintance who has visibly lost weight and we say to them, "You've lost weight! You look great!"
These statements are usually made with the best of intentions. We are genuinely happy for that person, we want to show them that their hard work and sacrifices are being noticed and deserve to be acknowledged. But I want to say something that may seem controversial: We should all think twice before acknowledging or praising someone's visible weight loss.
First, we don't always know how or why that person lost the weight for which we are commending them. For example, my friend Anna has Lupus, and at one point, she rapidly lost 30 pounds in a couple of months. She was constantly getting positive affirmations about how great she looked and urged to keep up the good work. For a number of reasons, Anna chose to keep her diagnosis confidential (to most people). So she was caught between two worlds: one in which she had to reveal why she was losing weight and another where she just had to grin and bear it.
Anna said, "Every time I heard those words, it was like a punch in the stomach. It not only made me feel disgusted about my body, but it also put me in a position where I wanted to share my diagnosis with people, just to shut them up."
My cousin's professor faced a similar dilemma when she returned to the university from summer break after losing a visible amount of weight. She was greeted with the same seemingly positive affirmations. What no one realized was that her mother had died a few weeks before. Her weight loss was a result of stress.
The smiles and effusive praise offered to these two women were in direct opposition to the pain that caused the weight loss to begin with.
And even when someone isn't dealing with an uncontrollable circumstance like a death in the family or a terminal disease, we don't know how someone arrives at his/her weight loss.
Sometimes -- and perhaps more often than we realize -- weight loss indicates an eating disorder and/or an unhealthy body image. Complimenting someone whose weight loss results from one of these diseases only adds fuel to the fire. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, ten million women and one million men are living with anorexia and/or bulimia. And it is likely that millions more are living with one of these disorders in secret, since illnesses related to food, especially bulimia, lend themselves to very secretive behavior.
So when we actively and publicly praise someone for his or her weight loss (especially young women/girls), are we praising someone for a healthy and balanced approach to living or someone who is facing a critical, mental health crisis? Are we mistakenly encouraging someone to continue a process that has allowed them to lose weight, a process that will, if gone unchecked, lead to their death?
But I'm not just talking about someone with a clinical diagnosis. Women are constantly confronted with a barrage of incredibly unhealthy body images in the media, so even if someone isn't going as far as binging, purging and starving themselves, that doesn't mean they don't require the same restraint from us when it comes to their weight loss.
And even when we think we are fully aware (although we are never truly fully aware) that someone we know has been approaching their weight loss efforts in a healthy, balanced way, the way in which we praise them can inflict further pain on what is already a painful process.
We almost think it rude if we don't say something about someone's weight loss -- as if we aren't acknowledging his or her hard work. And along with the pounds that someone has shed, we also think that person has shed the pain of the past -- an often mistaken assumption.
My friend Jane, 35, decided to lose weight because she has a family history of heart disease. She eventually lost 65 pounds over eight months. She was shocked at how people responded to her weight loss.
One good friend (a man), kept remarking how attractive she looked. "You're so beautiful," he would say, in an animated tone.
"I had never heard these words from him before, ever. Was I just a disgusting pig before? Now I'm worthy of validation?"
Others were effusive in their praise in a way that came across as decidedly condescending. Jane would often hear statements like, "You're doing so great! Good for you!" She would often hear this while the person was looking directly at her stomach and smiling.
"It makes me feel like shit, and I know their intentions are good, but it's like I was some sort of child before. Oh, look you can control yourself now; you're an adult! Good for you."
My friend Ally, who lost 100 pounds after two years of consistent workouts and a shift in diet, faced comments from family members like, "Oooooh, now you gotta go out and find yourself a hot boyfriend."
How could Ally not think that her weight loss was tied to acceptance by the people who are suppose to love her and think she's worthy, no matter what?
I'm not suggesting that we should never compliment someone on being attractive -- I am not in a position to say what people definitively need or don't need. And some people who have undergone weight loss really thrive from positive verbal support and attention. But we have to evaluate whether we're making statements to someone that they've never heard from us before, statements that suggest the weight loss suddenly makes them a better, more legitimate person.
Again, it's related to the idea that we have now made them worthy, we have given them permission to be normal or we have accepted them as normal. We think people who have lost weight have literally shed the mental and emotional baggage along with the weight. Usually, they haven't.
Ally was also faced with attention she did not want. She went to her aunt's birthday party and one family friend yelled from across the room, "Oh my god, look at you!"
Immediately, everyone turned and looked at her. Ally, who had for years (and still has) struggled with major insecurity, who felt deep pain and shame about her body and her weight, was suddenly made to feel like a circus freak.
"I just want to move on with my life, not be reminded about how gross I was to people," she told me."
This approach, the idea that we should evaluate what and how we are praising someone's weight loss before we actually say anything, runs counter to what we are taught.
I'm not saying that many people don't want the attention and encouragement. What I'm suggesting is that it's dangerous for us to apply this strategy, the praise that we are taught to give, across the board. Weight loss is not one-size-fits-all and our reactions shouldn't be, either. We don't really know what's going on behind that weight loss... and we may never truly know.
We have to ask ourselves a question: Has this person invited us into this private moment, have they engaged us in a discussion about this? Usually, the answer is "no."
And when we do say things like, "You're so beautiful," when we have never said those words to that person before, what happens if they relapse, as so many people do, and they gain weight back? When we attach the word "beautiful" to their new physical form, how are they not supposed to think that with their relapse, they will be unattractive in your mind? Are they the opposite of beautiful when they no longer have that thinner body?
My friend Victoria recently lost a significant amount of weight through diet and exercise. When I saw her after a few months of not meeting, I was taken aback at her physical change. My initial reaction was to praise and congratulate her while examining her body. But I didn't. I gave her a hug and told her I loved her. It actually felt really awkward for me to not say anything about her weight loss, but I wanted to respect the possibility that she wanted to move on and not make a big deal about it... the thinner Victoria isn't any different from the woman I have always loved.
And I wasn't about to make her feel like she is.