Episode #84: Negative Effects of Body Compliments

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By Caitlin Ball. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Last week I announced some really fun personal news on Instagram – we’re expecting! I actually found out the very first day of quarantine, which was interesting. In some ways, it was a really great way of easing into a period of extra rest and a slower time at home. (Although it also meant being the only one caring for Cooper for the bulk of the day, which was exhausting in it’s own way!) It’s also meant I haven’t had to deal with body compliments of any kind (for some reason, people love to dole out compliments and advice for pregnant bodies), which has been kind of nice too.

(Also, send your pregnancy + intuitive questions my way, because I’ll be doing an episode on that soon!)

The Harmfulness of Body Compliments

First things first: Don’t assume anything about anyone else. You might think that someone is super confident in their body, and that your comments about their body wouldn’t impact them. However, that’s simply not true.

Everyone has their own experience with their body. They have hurts, hangups, and experiences you don’t know anything about. And just because you meant something as a compliment doesn’t mean it will be received as one. (Remember too that lots of women won’t tell you if you’re comment hurt them. They’ll nod, smile, and go home to grieve it alone.) Size and confidence are not related!

Ultimately, you can’t know what impact your comment on someone else’s body will have, so it’s better to simply refrain from making them in them in the first place. Here are a few examples that illustrate what I’m talking about:

Let’s say someone you know has lost weight.

You notice, and immediately respond with phrases like, “Wow! You’re looking so great!”, or “You’ve lost weight! How did you do it?”. This can bring up all sorts of feelings.

They may feel really happy and proud of themselves, since our society has really ingrained in us that losing weight is important. On the other hand, however, these comments can be upsetting. Someone might immediately realize that just as you notice their slimmer body, you also noticed their larger body. And your attention and compliments now drive home that you were noticing (and not complimenting) before. That can feel disheartening and upsetting!

I had a client who naturally lost some weight after she started intuitive eating. Simply changing some habits based on what felt good for her body created some weight loss.

Soon after, she started getting a lot of compliments. She was proud and happy; the validation felt great! Not long after, she started overeating again. When we dissected what was happening, we realized the compliments had put her into overdrive. Instead of the great habits she had been implementing to feel good in her day-to-day life, the body compliments made her start restricting and striving to lose more.

All of the attention on her body made it hard for her to enjoy eating for her overall wellbeing; they brought her back to the dieting mentality of making choices that were really about weight loss.

Think of someone you know that’s gained weight.

You may know someone that you think is too thin, and that you think should gain some weight. And if you notice that they do gain weight, it can be tempting to offer body compliments. Things like, “You’re looking so healthy!”, which we of course mean as a way to make them feel good.

When you make comments about someone looking “better” when they have more weight, it’s not helpful. It draws attention to their weight gain, which may be something that is really internally hard for that person to deal with. Too many body compliments about weight gain can also be discouraging; it highlights how much people notice and pay attention to your body and its size.

In addition to having to get used to a new body size and the different way that clothes fit, now this person has to deal with your opinions and noticing also.

Finally, let’s address compliments having anything to do with body size/shape and clothing.

It’s so easy to someone looking great and start offering comments like, “That skirt is so slimming!”.

That sort of compliment implies that the other person looks best when they are making an effort to slim themselves down. Wearing Spanx, or only wearing a certain style or cut of clothing, becomes a norm because they feel that it’s the only way they can look good. You would never want your friends to feel they “have” to limit themselves to wearing “slimming” clothing….but constantly commenting on the clothing that does diminish their size instills in them that they DO need to do that.

Another back handed compliment is, “You’re so brave for wearing a bikini!”. The suggestion there is that someone doesn’t really look like the type of person usually seen in a bikini…and they are brave for being willing to reveal their less-than-perfect body. No one needs a compliment like that!

At the end of the day, comments about other people’s bodies aren’t a great idea. Whether you’re directing it to them, or making the comment to someone else, no one is served by the constant attention on body size and shape. The best thing to do is to just NOT do it!

A Personal, *Embarrasing*, Revelation

Early in college, a friend of mine from high school sent me a picture of her and her roommate. Her roommate happened to be a model. I said out loud to MY roommate….

“Wow! I’m glad she’s not my roommate!”

When I saw her, I had been thinking about how I would feel insecure if I was constantly beside someone who was so gorgeous. I was glad that I didn’t have that kind of pressure. My roommate was really hurt though, because I was implying that she wasn’t that beautiful. Later, I found out she even cried later. I felt terrible!

In my mind, my roommate was beautiful, and I would have never believed that she had insecurities about that. But as I stated in the beginning…

You don’t know what people struggle with when it comes to their bodies.

My off the cuff comment that I didn’t even think of was extremely hurtful to someone I cared about. (Someone that I believed to beautiful….but made to feel less-than in a split second.)

Responding to Body-Based Compliments

Awareness + Change is the key here. Once you know better, you can do better!

If you’re the one receiving the comments, I recommend acknowledging and pivoting. For example:

“Thanks.” and move on. Or even, “Yes, I did lose weight.” and then immediately pivot. You can make it clear you’re not wanting to discuss your body or it’s changes.

A more direct route?

“Thanks, but my body is the least important thing about me, and I’d rather not talk about it.”

If you’re asked for details about HOW you lost weight, you can share things like: “I’m focused on taking care of myself in ALL ways. And in doing so, I naturally lost/gained some weight.”

You can talk about intuitive eating the way you talked about Paleo or MyFitness Pal the first time. Share what it’s all about, or why it’s working so well for you.

Alternates to Body Compliments

Try complimenting body energy/outlook/mindset.

Notice someone’s positivity and confidence.

Call out something specific someone did that was kind or caring.

Notice someone’s dedication to their job, their family, or their hobbies.

Compliment someone’s habits that seem to make their lives better.

Notice someone’s sense of style and creativity, rather than the fit of their clothes.

Call out someone for handling something really well.

When we compliment people for who they are and what they’ve done (rather than how they look), we can shift the focus to something that really, truly matters. How powerful is that? Body compliments don’t give us that chance — so let’s STOP using them once and for all!

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