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26 February 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:36pm

“You’ve lost weight!”: why complimenting each other on our bodies is wrong

Having had an eating disorder, I know the danger of assuming that being thinner is generally A Good Thing.

By Gwendolyn Smith

I’m always telling people they look thinner. It tends to slip out in those first few stutters of conversation with someone I haven’t seen in a while, right before regular brain function –  and the knowledge that a swift compliment won’t make up for that snubbed birthday party invitation – kicks in.

Yes, for years I’ve been happily crying “You’ve lost weight!” (variants include “You look well”, accompanied by a coy sidelong glance, and the marginally more direct, “Oh my god, have you got, like, tapeworm or something?”) at passing friends bearing even the slightest hint of the slimmer about them.

And I’m clearly not the only person so afflicted. My mum says it; my friends say it; if my dad were less immune to common social practices, he’d say it. Fortunately for him appearances are only one of two things: smart (my mum when she’s put lipstick on and is evidently hankering after a different adjective) or scruffy (men with facial hair who don’t wear suits to church and work).

Still, the rest of us point out weight loss as if it’s as kind and straightforward a compliment as “That’s a lovely jumper”. Which it’s not, unfortunately, because you can’t praise a change in someone’s body shape without suggesting – obliquely but nonetheless suggesting – that there was something wrong with what it was like before.

While my own voice is by no means exempt from this chorus, I’ve come to dislike the practice of sizing people up as if in the throes of making a great big human hotpot and needing to know portion allowances sharpish.

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My past experience of an eating disorder has contributed to this, although perhaps not in the most obvious way. On the sadly common occasion when a certain family friend chooses to stare pointedly at my stomach before saying something thoughtful, such as “Nearly there!”, I don’t regress to the small, sad time when I was unable to eat a bowl of porridge without weighing it first.

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Eating disorders, after all, are about far more than just worrying about being too fat, despite what popular myth suggests.

Instead, I find it bewildering when I am applauded for losing weight. While I’ve found that congratulation is generally overtaken by concern when it dawns that you’ve “gone too far”, it’s still disconcerting to be praised for something that once led to me being bruised by my own bones when sitting in the bath. Something that came hand-in-hand with throwing slices of birthday cake in the bin when friends’ backs were turned and berating my mum for buying “overly large” pears. Something that, in case those last few sentences didn’t quite hammer it home, was a blatant symptom of a mental health problem.

“You’ve lost weight” is only the compliment it’s usually intended to be as long as we all agree that getting lighter is generally A Good Thing. The myopia of such a belief is apparent whether you’ve experienced an eating disorder or not, but it was the process of rejecting all of that lovely celebration sponge, and later learning how to welcome it back with an open mouth, which conclusively brought it home to me.

You see, when the punitive inner voice that had me burning off more calories than I ate each day finally departed, a softer but kinder one crept into its place. It reminds me, at times such as when realising that the charming little skirt I’d tried on in Topshop would make a better charming little snood, that being thinner isn’t inherently positive.

It’s not the panacea for all of life’s ills that Instagram shots showing beaming clean eaters doing complex yoga poses while oceans lap attractively around their feet might suggest. It doesn’t necessarily make you more fulfilled or more energetic or have better sex – and it definitely doesn’t necessarily make you happier.

Indeed, once you’ve got over the idea that bodies are beautiful only if they resemble the ones on The OC, weight loss is just a physical change; positives and negatives don’t come into play until you find out what’s behind it.

And there are myriad possibilities here: bereavement, walking 20 minutes to a Tube stop every day because you don’t want to pay the fare from zone three, being so moonily in love that croissants seem less important (unlikely, but still). Anxiety. Illness.

For me, six years ago, it involved bailing on parties, spitting out chocolate, and – one time – ramming my fingers down my throat over the toilet, only to realise I was being watched, wide-eyed, by the child I was supposed to be babysitting. Shrinking not just my body, but my mind and my ambitions too.

And when it’s as complex as that, I’d rather we all just said something nice about each other’s jumpers.