Nope, That’s Not a Compliment

Reality and PerceptionFat people get a lot of negative messages about our bodies every day. One way to fight this is to change the number of positive messages. Unfortunately I’ve found that some people don’t know the difference between an authentic compliment, and saying something really offensive. It’s cool though, I’m here to help.

Allow me to elucidate using personal experience from a meeting to which I wore a sleeveless shirt and a skirt (and where I typically wear pants):

“Look at you, rocking a dress!” (said positively, no hint of sarcasm).

Compliment.  Well done. (Yes, it’s technically a skirt and not a dress, but that’s not important right now.)

Oh (makes pensive face), I didn’t think you wore dresses.  I actually think pants suit you better.”

Nope, not a compliment.  Not a thing to say at all really.  Maybe should have used your inner monologue on this one.


“Wow, I don’t think I’ve seen you wear a skirt before.  You look so cute.”

Compliment.  That’s how you do it!

“I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re very brave to wear a sleeveless shirt, I always feel like my arms are too fat” (said by someone less than half my size).

Swing and a miss, I’m afraid.  Not a compliment.  I appreciate that you’ve made it clear that this is your issue and not mine, but really if your “compliment” starts with “you’re so brave” and doesn’t end with the equivalent of “for saving those kids from those wild animals”, you might consider skipping it.

An open letter to that fat person I saw and made all those assumptions about.

World of no. Galaxy of no. Universe of no. No.  These people should stick to posting facebook updates with adorable animals and keep the stereotype-ridden open letters in their diaries.

WTF are you doing

So a quick summary of indications that what you are about to say is not a compliment:

  • You would be offended if someone said it about you (“I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re very brave to wear your hair like that”)
  • You can imagine that immediately after saying it you’re going to have to follow it up with “but I meant it as a compliment!”
  • …or “Don’t be so sensitive, I was trying to be nice.”
  • You are complimenting someone for not conforming to your stereotypes about them (“You’re not like those other fat people.”)

So, it’s pretty simple:




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36 thoughts on “Nope, That’s Not a Compliment

  1. Open letter to all those fat people I see out in public:

    Hi, hope your day is going well.


    No assumptions, no problem.


    It’s annoyingly hot here (Seattle), but I am not brave enough to strip down to my underwear in public, even though I kind of want to. Especially since all of my underthings are showing their age.

    I think cooler temperatures suit me better. At least I am less cranky.

    Heat tip: Buy those popsicle maker things you pour juice into to freeze. When you are ready to eat it, instead of wasting time running the container under water to get the popsicle bit out, just stick it up against your overly warm body. Enjoy the cold until you can enjoy the popsicle.

    Also, how do I convince cats that it isn’t fun to snuggle when it is hot?

    Heat and lack of sleep is making me silly. Guess I’ll go snuggle with my cats.

    1. I like that open letter! Perfection!

      As for the cats, perhaps get a cooling gel pack, and put it in their favorite snuggle spot (Do they like to snuggle against your belly, hip, or right up at your shoulder?), and then you can be cool, while they snuggle. Just be careful they don’t knead and claw up the gel pack.

      1. Yeah, that’s my understanding too. That and, especially in places with cooler climates, many people consider sleeveless tops “inappropriate” in general, especially on women.

        I grew up in a place that’s hot all year round so it’s not unusual for everyone to wear tanks (and some women’s tanks are, in essence, very pretty bras), so I’ve never really adjusted to the idea that tank tops are “too sexy” or “inappropriate” or for one specific body type or whatever the thinking du jour of where I’m living is.

  2. You’re right! Even worse is “that outfit hides/flatters your ____” 😛 And then I always dread receiving misguided “fashion advice”, especially since being a performing artist I happen to have a taste for flashy prints, bold colors, flowy shirts – my style is not up for criticism 🙂

    1. “That outfit flatters your…” comment reminds me of a clip I saw once. Queen Latifah’s character was asking her friend, “Do these jeans make my butt look fat?”
      “Good! That’s what I was going for.”

      I can’t even remember what movie the clip was from, but I’ll always remember that clip.

      I have a book that has hints and tips to both emphasize the parts you love, and de-emphasize the parts you don’t. I changed the way I read those tips.

      For example, I like my bodacious booty, and so I took those tips about how to de-emphasize it, and turned them into things to avoid. I took the “Don’t do this; it will emphasize a big bottom,” and said, “HEY! I can do that!”

      1. I totally do that!! 😀 I remember being very bored once and reading a fashion magazine – there was a list of do’s and dont’s to “make you look slimmer”, and I made a mental checklist to do the opposite of those things 🙂 I now have the hairstyle which makes one’s face look rounder (I think it looks cute that way!) and wear the outfits that make me “look fat” because, practicing FA, I have no need to hide and I don’t consider fat an insult! 😀
        And there is a character I like as well, a strong woman who loves her body. Her name is Rasputia, but it’s horrible how she is treated throughout the movie. Not only do the other characters put her down for her size, but the tone of the movie puts her in a negative light and makes her the target of jokes which she does not deserve 😦

          1. It’s called “Norbit”. It’s too bad because Rasputia is a confident and cool character and I like her, but I wouldn’t recommend the movie because of the way she is treated. I was actually crying by the end of it, just like I did during the one and only time someone convinced me to watch “The Biggest Loser”. Never again, I say. 😦

        1. While I wholly agree it isn’t my business how anyone chooses to dress or style their hair, I do often personally think that people look better and more themselves when they aren’t dressing according to “rules” about how fat people should dress–largely because those “rules” are all about fat-shaming and saying to the world, “Please don’t hate me, I know I’m fat and I’m doing my best to hide it, can’t you see that?” instead of, “I know I’m fat, and I ROCK!”

  3. Next time anybody says “you’re so brave to wear (whatever thing)” I am totally going to reply with “Thanks! And you’re so brave to wear your hair like that!” Just to see what happens.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this because sometimes compliments can trigger people and I think not giving any looks-related opinion is also part of the underpants rule. It’s like when people say that you look good now you’re thinner which makes some people think that they looked very very fat before… I personally dislike receiving compliments because it makes me extremely self-conscious. And I have a policy of not saying anything about people’s looks.. I never know what they’re going through. For example, what if someone has a terrible disease that’s making them lose weight and I go all: You look great! Tell me your secret?
    Ummmm, no.

    1. I mean, not me, I’d never say that… Also, I’m sorry for implying that being very very fat is bad. i know it’s not. I was just trying to make a point. 🙂

      1. “I’m sorry for implying that being very very fat is bad.”

        I’m glad you added that. While reading your original post I was like – “Uh …no”. lol

        I agree with the rest of your post though. I only try to compliment on non-looks things when I can. I think our society is just too hung up on looks – at the rate we are going, we’re just a few decades from just voting on our celebrities, politicians, etc not by what they do, but only by what they look like.

        If I have to compliment on looks, I’ll say something along the lines of “Wow, you look particularly radiant today!” or something to that effect. I’d much rather find something non-looks based to give someone a compliment about. 🙂

        1. Non-looks compliments are by far the best. Those are the ones that people feel best about, because it’s about their character, their behavior, or their accomplishments, and they feel they EARNED it.

    2. That’s probably why Miss Manners said to avoid compliments about people’s appearance, except perhaps to say, “You look well today.”

      Of course, if a person is sick, and obviously so, “well,” could mean “well put-together,” or “well-dressed,” so it still works.

      In Jane Austen’s books, one of her heroine HATES being complimented in any fashion, even on her behavior. Another book clearly states that complimenting is bad manners. “I mustn’t compliment, I know, but…” :proceeds to compliment, anyway:

      And yet, at another time, a character says, “Now I must look at you and tell you how I like you.” pause “I like you very much. What are you wearing?”
      “The dress my uncle gave me at my cousin’s marriage.”
      “I like these glossy bits.”

      So, I believe that the rule about complimenting isn’t so much “Don’t do it, ever,” but more to be careful, both knowing your audience, and complimenting something that they feel to be worth complimenting. And always avoid false flattery.

      Complimenting people for their size, big or small, is likely to be problematic. Complimenting people for their choice in fashion, however, is generally considered OK, even if they are sick, lost a lot of weight, or what-have-you. “Oh, nice top!” gives them the compliment that they have good taste, because they chose to wear the nice top, while also implying that they look good in it.

  5. I do like compliments, which is why I guess I tend to compliment people, but unless it’s someone I know very, very, very well I keep my remarks off their body and try to keep it light and casual. I might say, “that’s a beautiful shirt” or “what a great bracelet!” or “you’re always so nicely dressed!”

    I’ll confess I particularly compliment fat people; that air of “having nothing nice to say so not saying anything” annoys me.

      1. I’m taking a trip home soon, and I’m certain that well-meaning relatives are going to say “you look great, have you lost weight!” My response is going to be, “Actually, I gained 25 pounds and an IDGAF attitude, so it’s probably the confidence you’re noticing!”

  6. I have a compliment rule which is that I will compliment someone’s choice of adornment – like clothing, maybe hairstyle – but not their actual physical attributes. We can’t do anything about our fixed attributes, but what we choose to wear is that person’s self-expression, so I will tell them I like it if I do (but I would never tell someone I didn’t like something if I didn’t). I loved the dress of a woman in the grocery store the other day and I just blurted out “Pretty dress!” and she seemed genuinely happy to have a compliment about it.

    I have a (thin) friend who will see me in certain outfits and say “It’s very flattering.” I’m trying to train her to not use that phrase. The idea that thin is better is so ingrained in some people they can see deep down enough to see that it’s actually very insulting. Because, as Ragen would say, fuck flattering.

  7. Reblogged this on mickiallen and commented:
    As I tell my children, “THINK before you speak. Is what you’re about to say True? Helpful? Inspirational? Is it Necessary? And, is it Kind? If not, keep your pie-hole shut.”

  8. Instead of “You’re so brave to wear your hair like that,” how about “I like your hair.” If you can’t honestly say “I like your hair,” then comments about the hair are NOT going to be complimentary, no matter how you say them.

    My favorite? “You make that ____ look good!”

  9. Also, never qualify a compliment. It is unnecessary, and serves only to turn a compliment into Not A Compliment.

    “You’ve got great [insert-attribute-here]!” = compliment, albeit the appropriateness may vary depending on your relationship with the person and what attribute you are focusing on.

    “You’ve got great [insert-attribute-here] for a [insert race/size/gender presentation/disability/religion/whatever]!” = Not a Compliment.

    “You’ve got great [attribute]! I mean, I’m not normally attracted to [insert race/size/etc] but-” = Nope. Not a Compliment. Stop.

    Also Not a Compliment:

    “You know, if you just [lost weight/got lighter skin/got a different haircut/added make-up/took away make-up/did a surgery thing/changed clothes/etc] you’d look really nice!”

    1. “If you’d just X, you’d look really nice.”

      Yeah. Pbtbtbtt!

      Years ago, I overheard some fellows at my church talking, and I caught my name. “Michelle? Yeah, she’s great. She’s smart, funny, talented, spiritual, kind, generous, lots of fun to be with. If she’s just lose weight, I’d date her.” The other guys in the group agreed.

      I responded in typical fashion, by saying to myself, “I’ll show THEM!” and going on yet another diet, and every time I wanted to eat more, I’d think about this guy. And then I got ANGRY. How dare he put the ONE flaw above all those good qualities? And after about two weeks of dieting, I remember I was desperately scraping my pre-measured yogurt cup, because I wanted every last bit of that I could get, because I was HUNGRY, and I had figured the amount of calories in that cup, and I wanted every single one of them. I was miserable.

      And I thought about that guy, and what he said, and thought, “Waitaminute. He’s a jerk! I don’t want him, anyway! Why am I suffering to change myself to suit a man I don’t even like?” It was true, actually. I’d never had any romantic inclination toward the guy before I overheard his statement. It was just that he was a man who had noticed all those good qualities about me, and so had the other men who had been speaking with him, and they agreed with him on all points, good qualities and HUGE FLAWWWW! And I hadn’t had a crush on any of them, because I was still carrying a torch for “the one that got away” several years before.

      So why was I torturing myself, to change myself to suit them? These guys who thought that I was so great and wonderful in so many ways, but I still wasn’t worth the price of a movie ticket?

      That was the first time I decided to just stop dieting. It has taken several tries, but I think I’m finally at a point, now, where I can accept myself, and not be tempted to “Show them!” by going back on the diet treadmill.

      I don’t need to “just X.” I look really nice now. The thing is, there is the Hollywood mold, which I will never fit. But beauty is a personal and subjective thing, and I don’t need to fit the mold to make the majority of men want me. I just need to find that one special man who’s personal subjective ideal of beauty happens to fit my own appearance.

  10. BRAVA, Michelle!!! This is exactly what I went through when dealing with certain family members who go on and on about their diets and gym routines and drop hints like bricks that I should do the same. I used to want to “show them,” but now it slides off. I am blessed with a wonderful man who truly cares about my health, but not about my weight. The diet talkers claim to be concerned about health. But considering what some of them have done to get thin, they have to know that it’s all about looks. The world says actual health doesn’t count, as long as you look the way you should.

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