Compliment Minefield

complimentEvery time I see someone being complimented for “looking so great” after their recent weight loss, I cringe a little.  People who undertake weight loss attempts are often encouraged to motivate themselves by hating their current bodies.  When they are successful at short term weight loss, they are encouraged to look back at their “old body” with shame, scorn, and hatred.  And that’s a big problem.

Not just because at some point the person will probably start to think “if everyone is talking about how great I look now, how did they think I looked before?” but also because the vast majority of people gain back their weight in two to five years.  Then they are living in a body that they taught themselves to hate and be ashamed of, remembering all of those compliments. Yikes.

I’ve also had friends and blog readers who’ve lost weight because they were sick, or stressed, or in some other unintentional way, who’ve said that this kind of compliment was horrible  It made them wonder what these people thought of their bodies before, it created friction when they regained the weight, and it created an incredibly awkward situation when the person said “You look great, what’s your weight loss secret?” and their answer was “chemotherapy.”

So compliments can be a minefield.  But they can also be awesome.  Here are some guidelines that might help.  Of course, your mileage may vary and these are just suggestions:

Avoid Body Comparisons

Bodies are beautiful all the time.  People’s body size changes over their lives, sometimes on purpose, sometimes through extraneous, even undesired, circumstances.  Either way, it’s impossible to tell people that they look better without telling them that they looked worse, and that’s no good.  So, maybe don’t do it. Try this:

  • You’ve always been beautiful and I’m glad that you are happy.
  • You are beautiful at every size

No backhanded compliments

Some of these might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised. A compliment should probably never include:

  • “For a” as in “You’re really pretty for a fat girl”
  • “I guess”  as in “If you like that dress I guess I like it”
  • “such…but” as in “You have such a pretty face, but you need to do something about your weight.”
  • “brave” as in “You’re so brave to wear a sleeveless shirt”.

Drop the “for a” and “I guess”. Drop “such”, “but” and everything after, consider adding an adjective.

  • You look very pretty.
  • I like that dress too.

Any mention of “brave” that is not followed by “for fighting off those wild animals” is a bad call.  Try “You look great in that shirt.”

Complimenting the clothes

  • Those jeans make your butt look great.
  • That dress is very flattering.
  • That shirt is so cute.

Compliment the person not the clothes

  • Your butt makes those jeans look great (maybe save this for people who are not co-workers and are close friends)
  • That dress really compliments your rocking body
  • You have fantastic taste in clothes

Ah, that’s better.

No putting yourself down as part of a compliment

  • You look great, I wish I had legs like that
  • Wow, great job, I could never press that much weight
  • I love your hair, I could never pull off that look

It tends to ruin the compliment the person feels like they have to make you feel better at the end of it. This fix is easy, just drop the part about you:

  • You look great.
  • Wow, great job.
  • I love your hair.

Easy peasy.

So go forth and compliment fearlessly!

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The Abundia Conference is coming up November 1-3rd in the Chicago area.  There will be amazing women, lots of fun and fatty fellowship, plus I’m the speaker this year and we’ll be talking about everything from being our own medical advocate, to improving our relationships with our bodies, food, and movement, and of course we can dance if we want to (which is to say that we will have an optional dance workshop!)  They have a sliding scale, lots of options, and an empowerment fund to help with finances.  You can get info and register here!

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45 thoughts on “Compliment Minefield

  1. Two years after my cancer recovery, this topic continues to enrage me.

    Recently, the child of a colleague was diagnosed with leukaemia and someone else comforted her by saying, “look at Chloe – not only did she recover from cancer, but she looks better than ever”, by which he meant I looked thinner than ever. Get that? Apparently cancer did me so much good that it can be offered as a consolation to a mother whose kid has a life threatening illness. Yeah, he’s got leukaemia, but he might come out better looking! Fingers crossed!

    1. Oh wow, I’m really sorry to hear the crazy thoughtless stuff that comes out of peoples’ mouths. Congrats on your recovery though and good luck with future lame ass commenters

    2. Yes, comments like that are shocking. I know other people who had similar experiences. Goes to show how crazy this society is about thinness. Very sorry for your colleague; I hope her son will recover soon.

    3. I remember reading somewhere about a man who’s wife was fading away due to cancer and he was so angry over the multiple compliments on her weight. It is just so sad and really does show where our mindset is as a society. It has become thin is “healthy” at all costs–even when its not. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard women WISH for a disease that they know would cause them to lose weight. Even my own great aunt who is currently 86 pounds–has lupus and not so long ago broke her hip–said she is happy because it is better than being fat. That’s right, she is happy for her struggles with illness because then at least she isn’t fat. 😦

  2. I disagree slightly with the opening statement, that people who undertake weight loss are doing it because they hate their bodies. I gained weight this summer by accident because we had 4 weeks of thunderstorms, and I couldn’t get into our neighbourhood pool to do my laps….which lead to back pain…which lead to non-movement…which lead to depression and bad eating (those always go together for me). You know the cycle.

    I HAVE to keep moving, or else the osteo that is aggressively taking over my body will cripple me so badly I can’t get out of bed. I also fight against PCOS, hypothryroidism, PTSD, and anxiety/depression that ranges from background noise to speed metal concert volumes.

    So I gained. These last three weeks I’ve been focusing on changing my unhealthy diet to a healthy one for me and exercising more. I wasn’t listening to or taking care of my health. I am now. THAT was my focus, not body-hatred. When my body’s healthy, everything else falls in line…even The Horrible Thoughts stay at bay. I’ve lost weight and inches as a by-product, but it was never my intent. Yeah, it’s great I don’t need new clothes now (because money is really tight), but it’s greater that I can bounce out of bed and not head for the painkillers first thing.

    1. But your focus was entirely how you felt, not how you looked. And your intent was to become healthier, not to specifically lose weight. You changed your diet (small d) to be better suited to give you the energy you needed to do the exercises that keep you as strong and flexible as you can be. You happened to lose weight as a side-effect, not as an aesthetic choice. You didn’t care whether the actions you took made you larger, smaller, or the exact same size as when you started.

      Most people who diet do say it’s about health, but then they deliberately engage in unhealthy actions in order to specifically create a smaller body. They cut out entire food groups that are perfectly healthful for them to eat, they exercise to an extent their bodies cannot handle over the long term, they take drugs with disturbing and even life-threatening side-effects, and they ignore their bodies’ cues of hunger and exhaustion. That isn’t something you do to take good care of something you love. That’s what you do to punish something you hate or fear.

      See the difference?

    2. Hi Yorkie,

      I think you misread the opening sentence, I may not have been clear. I said that “People who undertake weight loss attempts are often encouraged to motivate themselves by hating their current bodies.” I wasn’t trying to get at the reason that they were trying to lose weight in the first place, I was commenting on the fact that no matter what reason people have to want to lose weight, many (though of course not all) of them are encouraged by others to motivate themselves by seeing their fat body as “wrong or bad”

      Of course I believe that people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies, including pursuing weight loss. I personally focus on healthy habits and let my weight settle where it will, which it sounds like is what you were doing as well, but either way I completely defend your right to do what you want with your body and I never intended to guess at the motivations.



      1. Thanks, R! I wasn’t wearing my computer glasses (good Lord, am I old enough for those!?) and reversed the word order. I absolutely love how you support anyone in their pursuit of equilibrium.

        This should make you and your followers happy–at my last doctor’s visit, I told him about HAES, and he was really interested, even wrote it down in his “little book” which, as he explained, is where he writes things he needs to look up and learn more about. He also told me he believes BMI is complete BS and told me, “You’re a healthy, strong 42 yo…you’re fine…” and that he’d be happy to write a note on my behalf if there was any reason I would be denied anything based purely on BMI.

        When I told him I’d recently lost weight as a default, he just nodded and said, “As long as you stay healthy and active, the arthritis will be in check. That’s your main concern.” LOVE the man, truly.

        To be honest, most of his clientele comes from the nursing home next door, so I think he’s probably happy to deal with someone like me, even if I tell really bad jokes and sing opera in the exam room as I wait for him.

  3. Ah yes the good ol bitch slap complement!

    The only time someone said “You’re so brave for…” was when I was fighting pancritisis and gallbladder problem. The reason I was brave was because I shoulda died, but didn’t.

    Other then that I get bitch slap complements all the time, I bought a new dress, I look good, it shows me off and I have never worn something skin tight before. I post a picture on Facebook (feeling great and all) and got.
    “You look good, but you would look better if you lost weight!”
    “Pretty dress! But should someone your size be wearing something that tight?”, etc and then there was the full out “Because I hate my body, you should too” bs.

    “For someone who is so overweight you shouldn’t be showing so much skin!”
    “Please, I would look so much better then you!”
    “Who do you think you are wearing something like that?! You should be ashamed!”

    The only thought I had before I blocked them all was “My middle finger salutes you.”

    As for the cancer comments, oh do they piss me off. My grandma got those types of comments and she was tiny (as in short and fine boned) to begin with! I remember someone saying to one jackass “Oh yes she looks wonderful fighting stage four inoperable cancer!”

    1. You know, somewhere there is a Fat Appreciator just looking for pictures like the ones you posted. And that is OK, because we all have different tastes.

      I have had “you’re so brave” comments, and the thing is, they usually followed me doing something that did not frighten me one bit. “You’re so brave for traveling alone.” Meh. Tell me I’m brave for jumping off the high dive, please. That scares me silly, but I do it, from time to time, just to remind myself that I CAN.

      As for “You’re so brave to wear that” stuff? That’s a bunch of malarky, unless you actually WERE afraid to wear it, but have conquered that fear. And if those people knew you were afraid to wear it (probably because of idiots telling you that you don’t deserve to wear something eye-catching, or else that you couldn’t possibly wear it well, or even that you are just wrong in everything, just because you are fat), and they knew that you conquered your fear of those other people and their hateful comments and wore the dress, then the compliments make sense. But without them knowing that background, then, it’s another ARGH! moment.

      I think you ARE brave to wear a dress that makes you look and feel great, and post those pictures up where idiots can make their comments about it. I’m still working up to that, myself.

      1. Thank you.. I am not going to lie the possiblity of dying from the infection actually scared me quite a bit but I over came it.

        My Facebook profile isn’t public so the people commenting were so called friends, and I realized after the comments I didn’t need them in my life if they were gonna be that way, so I blocked them and it was one of those ARGH! Moments where they just decided to be mean because they have nothing better to do.

        Thank you again. I know Inlook good in the dess, I know I feel good in the dess and if I want to show it off on Facebook or where ever, I know I can. Hateful comments be damned.

        I know you will find something like my dress that you will feel great in and rock it just as well as the next person! 🙂

  4. This is a story of a compliment that I thought was actually very nice. Someone I hadn’t seen in over a year came to me, quietly, during an event, and said “You seem to have lost a great deal of weight. Am I correct?” When I said that he was, he said “before I say anything, and if it’s too personal please tell me, but did you lost it on purpose?” When I said that I had, he then said he was happy for me and that he always thought I was gorgeous. It turns out that his wife had lost a great deal of weight, because of breast cancer (she’s cancer-free now, thank goodness), and he was now educated in a personal way about the dangers of running up to someone and saying “wow! You’ve lost weight; what’s your secret!?” He’s a good man, a loving man, and someone I adore; he just didn’t know any better, and now he does.

    When someone I love loses a great deal of weight and shares his or her progress with me, I am sure to stress that I’ve *always* loved them and *always* found them beautiful (which is true). Especially when I see “Before and after” photos, my go-to compliment is a variation of “beautiful then; beautiful now.” My husband has recently lost more than 50 lbs. which was the right thing for him to do for a number of his own personal reasons. I’m glad he’s in much less pain and he’s feeling better healthwise. I was just as crazy about him 50 lbs ago, though, and I make sure he knows that, whatever issues he feels he has to deal with for himself, he should never undertake something because he thinks I want him to because (a) that’s a fool’s errand, and (b) I love him as he was, is and ever shall be.

  5. I often wonder how many people duck out of life when they’ve lost a noriceable amount of weight and then gain it back. As if there wasn’t enough shame in being fat, then one loses and regains… now even more shame for being an “even bigger failure.”

    It would be interesting to see not only some stats and real research on the ill effect of weight cycling on physical health but also on “social health,” i.e., after regaining weight (from intentional weight loss as 95% of people do), how many duck out of social life, reunions, etc.? How many hide at home as much as possible? How many dread the gossip at work or in families? And as for physical health, how many avoid going to the doctor even more when they’ve regained? What is the incidence of guilt, depression and anxiety (*stress*) after regain (because we are supposed to blame ourselves for “our failure” as opposed to the hollow promises of weight loss programs)?

    This would be interesting information for the public (and doctors) to know.

    1. I agree with you totally! It does take a toll emotionally. I felt bad about my weight my whole life as a child due to family shaming me about it. Finally lost it through drugs/startvation etc…never knowing or thinking it would come back. Once it did, every time, it was like a tidal wave and I felt I had no control over it and let it take it’s course. The feedback from “friends/family” was devastating and made me feel a million times worse than I ever had before attempting dieting. I struggled with those issues for 50 years of my life and ended up with two weight loss surgeries and many other diet/drugs attempts prior to those to be “that” thin again but now I’m at a weight where I feel I would have been if I never had dieted and am working on my self esteem to this day!

      Sometimes I wonder also how much the “oh you look wonderfuls” fed into my weight loss as I never felt I could do anything else to gain approval from others.

    2. It would be interesting if someone could quantify the “harm” of the social stigma that goes with fat shame. I just read an article that Julia Robert’s own half sister suffered shame from her a-list sibling. The article is pretty terrible, and IS labeled “gossip.” I’m hoping it’s not a true account…

      **trigger warning for the article** discussions of weight shaming, weight loss surgery.

      Probably the saddest part of the article for me is that the half sibling hopes that her recent weight loss will help her repair her relationship with Roberts.

      1. Wow what an article! Makes me not “heart” Julia Roberts for sure!!!! It is sad what we’ll do to fit in with society but I’ve always felt the family rejection is the worst rejection of all as you see by that article. She “hopes” things will get better now that she’s had the surgery is something I hope one day she’ll understand is only hurting herself in the long run. I’ve always had thin siblings who were very successful and some criticized me for my weight or did it by “worry/concern” but the ones that accepted me as I was were always the ones I knew were my faves and had no problem cutting out the others in my life as it was not healthy and hopefully she’ll know the difference too!

        1. Those who are closest to us can do the most harm. There’s a reason I rarely talk to my mother.
          I just wanted to weep for the girl! Sure, there could be more going on than what was outlined in the article, but she did hide out in her mother’s basement for a long while.
          It’s so sad, for I think she was lovely in all the pictures, even when she was unhappy. I wish her the best.

  6. Music to my ears!!!! These things need to be said over and over…and OVER and OVER *again*, because some people are just plain stupid and won’t give up bullying (and shitty compliments are nothing but such!).

    People NEED to get familiar with the idea that no one has the right to put people down because of their body size. EVER.


    I’m amazed how people simply LOVE sharing shitty compliments (even if they are *well* meaning). And they even expect you to thank them for that piece of their shitty passive agressive mind!

    I’ve had some of those and I always felt chided, cut down, and paralized. But I’m starting to gather some pretty smart come back phrases. It’s clear now that I don’t need to put up with anyone’s shit, or anyone’s idea of what I should look like. I DON’T owe it to them. So, once more, girl, THANKS!

    Don’t you ever forget that you are an inspiration to a lot of people out there. And that you’re touching hearts far and wide.

    Sending you a hug all the way from Mexico City!

  7. I am going out of state this week to see family, and am loving these comments, and blog. Will be taking all of you with me. –Jen

  8. Great post and much needed! I have lovely coworkers with great fashion sense and find myself frequently complimenting their clothing ensembles and then second-guessing myself and feeling bad for remarking on their appearance instead of their stunning personalities, because I know better by now.

    I’m glad for your suggestion: You have fantastic taste in clothes. Just last week I said to a coworker, “L—-, you have the best wardrobe. You gotta teach me how to shop sometime.” And when a private moment was available, I took advantage of the opportunity to say to another, “You know, O—-, I’m trying to be more aware of appearance-based compliments, and even though I frequently comment on your awesome clothes, I want to say I think you’re an awesome person, too, with such a fantastic and warm personality. I really like you and am glad when we get to hang out and chat a bit.”

    So while I’m practicing good habits, thank you, Ragen, for what you do, for being so outspoken and well-spoken and fighting the good fight. Way to be an awesome person.

  9. This past January I was expressing concern that my father lost 30 lbs in 21 days while hospitalized for pneumonia when one of my co-worker’s said, “I wish I could do that.” After being introduced to your blog, I wish I had said, “You want to be hospitalized for 21 days with multi-drug resistant pneumonia and almost die?” Instead, I stood there with a blank, confused face.

    People need to read and follow your advice. Thank you for being a strong voice.

  10. Oh my goodness. I love, “Your butt makes those jeans look great.”

    And right on about weight loss. A couple of days ago, I blogged about how much I hate before/after weight loss pictures. When people show them to me, not knowing my activism, I respond the way you suggested: “You are beautiful before AND after.”

  11. I’ve been told that something looked “flattering” on me before. That’s not much of compliment IMO because it implies that my body looks less attractive *without* that specific article of clothing, or it NEEDS to be flattered somehow. I wish everyone could read these suggestions and then take them to heart.

  12. Oy, I’m confused. I understand not putting yourself down while complimenting someone but do you still tell a person “you look great” or “great job” after they’ve lost weight via surgery?

    1. I have a friend who had WLS and I don’t actually compliment her on losing weight, but I do tell her she was beautiful then, and she is beautiful now, and she always will be, no matter what.

    2. Being that I’m familiar with WLS having had two and one removal I’ve noticed myself that when I see the before and after pictures of people in those types of arenas or forums how much healthier they look prior to the surgery. It really bothers me that we’re telling people who look gaunt, losing their hair and just wiped out that they look great now that they’ve lost so much weight. Plus the average age of a woman who has wls is 50 and skin does not spring back at all at that age which adds another dimension to the problem.

  13. I have Crohn’s disease and before I got it under control through diet (turns out it is triggered by yeast), I lost 80 lbs in a very short time because I was taking in no nutrients and therefore starving to death.
    My boss greeted me in the school’s hallway one morning at work and told me how wonderful my weight loss looked. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Thanks, I am actually dying but I’m glad you think it makes me look good…”

  14. I used to have a “friend” who always told me to lose some weight, motivated me for doing sports with her, and then even started trying to talk me into gastric surgery… when i told her i won´t do that, she even tried to convince other friends to tell my i should do it… i already started backing away from her, when finally i was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and the first thing she said when i told her was “oh now the chemo will make you lose a lot of weight huh?” (luckily enough i didn´t need chemo at all)… that moment i decided that she can kiss my fat ass if she wants.. i don´t need someone like that in my life… she´s a bit chubby herself and always so unhappy, she just didn´t manage to understand how i can live my life and be who i am without worrying about my weight every single minute….

  15. This is an absolutely wonderful article and it’s high time it’s written! The sad part is, in some degree or another, you are ‘preaching to the choir’, BUT it was still good to read because it just makes me more aware of all those people out there, me included at times, who are really congratulated on losing weight. Whenever I see someone post that kind of comment, I try to respond by saying ‘good for you, but then, I’ve always loved you, no matter what’! Don’t know if that is really OK, but I have gotten so it’s just hard for me to read about a friend or relative who is losing weight to ‘look better’, etc. I’ve done that a dozen times and every single time I’ve regained the weight with in two years! YOUR blog is the first one I’ve ever read that lets me accept ME just as I am. Sure, I might have more energy, feel better, fit into my clothes better, yada, yada, yada . . . BUT, the truth is that at 69 I’ve decided I’m going to live my life as I am and be happy with it. I love sweet foods and to forgo them to weigh less just doesn’t do it for me anymore. SO! That is my long-winded – and usual – way of saying thank you and please keep it up!! Blessings!

  16. As someone who has lost a lot of weight, about forty pounds, I find it awkward that people still compliment me on my weight loss even months later. First off, I wasn’t fat. My highest weight was around 28 BMI. My current BMI is around 20.

    I didn’t intentionally lose the weight. It was a combination of stress and change in habits. I have to leave my boyfriend of near 13 years since he found a new girlfriend. I found a new place to live. I have a man that cares about me. I’m trying to find out why I have GI issues and have been experimenting with diet to find things that help.

    Still, I rather not gain the weight back. I understand I have little control over it. I like the attention that I get for being smaller. I know that is a bit narcissist.

  17. I’m not trying to lose weight because I hate my body or hate the way it looks. I’m losing weight to keep my chances of heart disease, diabetes and stroke down with my BMI lower. I just want to continue to improve my running times and fitness level. I love myself just the way I am. There is always east to go with my fitness and running. I just want you to know there are people out there not trying to fix their low self esteem by being in the thin basket. I don’t care about thin or fat. Just being the healthiest person I can be.

  18. I’ve been slowly dropping weight since getting some of my thyroid hormones replaced and have been getting the ‘You’ve lost weight! You’re looking great!’ compliment here and there with people I know. I’ve actually stopped acknowledging they’ve even said it and move on to ‘how have you been?’ or ‘what’s new with you’ conversation.

    I’ve always enjoyed walking and eating well. I haven’t changed a darn thing in my routine (other than not spending the majority of my waking hours wishing I was back in bed) so it’s a bit bothersome for people to look at me now and assume I’m now “more focused” or I’m “getting off my lazy butt”. I’m still the same person I was before my thyroidectimy, I’m just now able to keep going… and have a lot less migraines.

    I am definitely going to take some of these things to heart. I love to stop random people and compliment something about them if I notice it. (Basically just voicing the things that jump out at me.) I saw a mom with 2 girls, one older than the other, in matching dresses and they looked so cute. I should have said “Your girls look absolutely adorable in those dresses” instead of “Those dresses are so adorable!” I did mean the former. I just needed the reminder of a better way to say it. Thanks, Ragen!

  19. According to an etiquette book I read, we’re not supposed to compliment, in general, primarily because of minefields like this. Basically, you can compliment in a direct manner, if you are good friends with the person, already. And by direct manner, I mean purely positive statements.

    Miss Manners recommends saying, “You look very well today.” Even if the person is sick, they LOOK well, and that can actually apply to their outfit, make-up, hair, etc.

    As for the such…but conundrum, I think you can safely say, “You have such a pretty face but…” if you follow it with “I can’t see your face behind that heavy veil. What’s up?”

    My sister once pointed out to me that saying “You look good in that dress,” makes a person feel that they look good ONLY because of the dress. Therefore, it’s better to say, “You look good. Nice dress.” Or even “You make that dress look good.” Or if that sounds too conceited, maybe “You wear that dress well.”

    As you said, when it comes to clothes, it is better to compliment the wearer, without mention of the clothes, or else compliment the taste in clothes, rather than the person wearing the clothes. “You look great!” as opposed to “You look great in those jeans.” “You have such great taste in clothes. Would you go shopping with me, sometime?” is a good compliment.

    If an article of clothing really emphasizes a good part of the anatomy, and you want to say something about it (“Ooooh, bootylicious!”) please be careful, and remember that some people may have different ideas about what parts of their body they like. (“What? Noooo! I want to MINIMIZE my butt!”) So, even if you really like that part of the body, don’t mention it specifically. General comments are much better.

    So, when in doubt, “You look well today,” is always an acceptable compliment.

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