As a Registered Dietitian, I have been seeing people struggling with weight and eating disorders for over 14 years. I have seen first-hand how one comment about a person’s body or weight can have such a negative impact (sometimes for the rest of their life). I’ve seen single comments reinforce damaging dieting cycles, disordered eating, eating disorders, feelings of worthlessness and poor self-esteem.
More recently in the media, we have seen terms such as “fat-shaming”, “thin-shaming”, and even women being mocked for their post-pregnancy bodies. I remember being teased in elementary school, called “flat as a board” for having no breasts. No one seems immune. I’m always left wondering, why do we feel the need to comment on a person’s body?
Most people are so unaware how their comments affect others. Sometimes the comment is innocent or even intended to be a compliment. Other times people think they are being helpful or some intend to be hurtful. Some people just don’t think before they speak. But because I work with people on the aftermath of repairing their relationship with food and body image, I see a great need to work on awareness and prevention.
Reasons not to comment on a person’s body:
1. We don’t know their situation. A friend of mine went through a difficult time with her Dad slowly dying of cancer in the hospital. He couldn’t eat and was basically wasting away. As she was grieving, she had a hard time eating, ended up unintentionally losing a significant amount of weight and was not healthy. A few years later she ran into someone she did a yoga class with during that difficult time. The woman said to her “Are you not doing yoga anymore? Because you looked so good when we were doing that class.”
My friend’s first reaction was a mix of emotions from anger to hurt to grief. She herself knew she was much healthier now but the comments left a sting. Then it was like a flood of old disordered eating, body image, and dieting thoughts came over her.
We need to think about how our comments can really affect people’s well-being.
2. You can’t judge a person’s health by their size. Our world needs to prioritize and value health over weight. People come in all shapes and sizes. Thinness does not equal health. Overweight and obese people can be healthier than thin people. Also, just because someone is skinny doesn’t mean they have an eating disorder and not all people with eating disorders look extremely thin.
For people with eating disorders, negative behaviors (ie. Restricting, binging and purging, etc.) can be reinforced by random people that tell them they are “looking good” when in reality they are extremely ill mentally and physically.
An eating disorder client that I was seeing who was severely malnourished, finally had reached a turning point and seemed motivated for recovery. A few days later, they bumped into an old friend they had not seen in a while, who to my horror said “Wow! You look amazing!” This client was left feeling so confused and frustrated – it took a long time before they could get back on track with recovery.
3. Respect others: Be a good example. Commenting on a stranger’s body can affect others as well. Whether it’s discretely talking about a passerby or making comments while watching TV.
I had a client share with me how affected she is personally when her husband comments on other women’s bodies. “Look how big her butt is!” It makes her feel really self-conscious about her own body and feeds her body-dissatisfaction.
This is important for children as well. I was shocked to hear a 7 year old girl calling herself “fat”! Where is this learned at such a young age? Listening to a parent’s conversation is a common way children are misinformed and learn that weight and body image equal self-worth. Parents are the biggest role models and have to be aware of what they are saying about others and themselves.
4. It’s none of our business. On a personal note, I have had some struggles with body image post-pregnancy. My stomach muscles never fused back together after gaining a fair amount of pregnancy weight and having 3 C-sections. So although I am a healthy weight, my flat stomach never returned and still bulges out 7 years later. I try to find flattering clothes to hide it but every once in a while I have an unpleasant reminder that it still exists…
In the middle of an exercise class our fitness instructor started showing the alternative way of doing exercises if you were pregnant- I didn’t think too much of it but after class to my horror she asked me outright in front of others “are you expecting?”. I muttered a polite “no” trying to pretend I wasn’t offended. But I was devastated and humiliated- just when I thought I was starting to accept my body!
Another time, I had a colleague ask me “Did you lose weight? You look great!” I told her no- I was actually trying to work on my strength and build muscle. It was an awkward conversation. I felt good about being a little more assertive but wouldn’t most people be left wondering, “did she think I needed to lose weight?”
5. Long-term Damage. Sometimes all it takes is one person or one comment that is never forgotten.
I met a woman who has been struggling with anorexia for 20 years because of a family member teasing her as a child about being chubby. For one lady it only took a single comment from a parent that she would look prettier if she lost a little weight…she has never forgotten. She has battled with poor self-esteem and self-worth, yo-yoing in weight with endless cycles of dieting. Another young man is now suffering from bulimia. He told me it all started as a teenager when his competitive sport’s coach said he would perform better if he lost 10lbs (even though he was already at a healthy weight).
On occasion, I also hear about health professionals that comment on people’s size or weight in an insensitive manner. Sometimes talking to parents about their children’s weight concerns in front of the child (children are listening). Or one lady tells me of a Dr.’s appointment where she was labelled as “obese” according to the BMI scale. She has been struggling with weight for several years and the classification did not help her. Instead of getting help and support, she went home and cried.
What should we say?
Here are a few tips to making positive comments:
1. Anyone: Even if you think someone has lost weight, don’t comment on it. You don’t know their circumstances. There’s other more meaningful ways to compliment someone (and build self-worth):
Friend: Thank them for always cheering you up or making you laugh.
Old acquaintance: Tell them you miss hanging out or just a simple- “it’s great to see you!”
Colleague: Tell them how much you enjoy working with them.
2. Parents: Focus on your children’s internal qualities. For example, compliment them on their kindness, generosity, etc. Help build their sense of self-worth outside of their external appearance. Even if your child is overweight, focus on being a good role model and celebrating your child’s healthy behaviours. Never single out one child or make comments on your child’s body or weight. Also, do not encourage dieting of any sort.
3. Coaches: Have a health professional provide education for your entire group of athletes (ie. Registered Dietitian who specializes in sports). Focus on healthy eating for performance and recovery but also positive body image. Do not comment on an individual athlete’s body or need to lose weight.
4. Medical/health professionals: Be sensitive to the fact that weight does not equal calories in vs. calories out. Weight is multifactorial. Also, eating disorders affect people of every body size and shape. Have information and supports available if your patient needs help. Seek out continuing education on eating disorders, healthy weight management and sensitivity training. (NEDIC and The Canadian Obesity Network are great resources).
5. Personally: Be aware of your own boundaries and be assertive if someone comments on your size/body or someone else’s. Tell them it’s inappropriate!