Opinion | The importance of being compliment conscious

By Nina Santucci, Staff Columnist

Warning: This column contains content relating to eating disorders, which some readers may not be comfortable with. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, consider contacting the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 800-931-2237 or visiting the NEDA website.

This summer, I mustered the courage to attend a swim party with a body that I, and everyone I knew, was not used to. I walk in, confident in a bathing suit that actually fits, and the first comment I receive is from a mother who says, “You look better than your sister and mom, now.” I didn’t say I’m struggling with an eating disorder — I said thanks.

I didn’t want to thank her. I wanted to tell her there was so much wrong with what she had said. How could I tell someone who was proud in my weight loss that I was not proud — that she shouldn’t compliment me this way.

It shouldn’t have to be said that no one has a right to comment on others’ appearance, weight, size or anything physical they cannot — or prefer not to — change. But for some reason, this notion tends to stop when it comes to weight loss, skinniness or what society would deem as the “ideal” body type. Becoming externally smaller is automatically perceived as becoming internally better. This is not always the case.

According to licensed psychotherapist Shira Rosenbluth, weight loss can be attributed to many things, including sickness, severe stress or an eating disorder. Complimenting weight loss reinforces the false idea that being smaller is to be better or more beautiful. With eating disorders, being told things such as “you look better,” “you’re starting to look great” or “you look amazing now” has a reverse effect. Compliments such as these could translate to “you looked bad before,” “you can look better” and “you’re more valued because you’re smaller.”

If the mother who told me “You look better now” had really taken a look at me, she’d have seen that my skin was dull, my eyes were sunken, my energy was low — she would have seen that I was unhealthy. Some assume that if they are perceiving and commenting in a positive light, then whoever they’re saying it to must be interpreting them positively. This is toxic positivity — the overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.

Compliments and comments can come off the wrong way when someone is trying to imply something instead of explicitly saying it. It’s not rude or intrusive to pull someone you genuinely care about aside to ask them if they’re struggling — in most cases it’s helpful. Alternatively, to try to get someone to “admit” they’re struggling by prying, asking rhetorical questions or joking about their body can make their situation much worse. There’s many effective ways to approach talking to someone about a potential eating disorder without being nonchalant, accusatory or pressuring. Just because a topic is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to be made humorous or insignificant — usually the discomfort is a signifier that something is genuinely wrong. Those with disorders do not tend to be open about them, especially if they have to begin the talking. When someone is given a secure space and an understanding, caring face who detects it may be necessary to start the conversation first, then the result can be healing.

Even if someone is trying to lose weight and posts on their Instagram “20 pounds down!” then it can be okay to make supportive and uplifting comments, but still not on weight. Keep in mind no one loses or gains weight for anyone but themselves — they do not care if you think they look great. So, taking it upon yourself to give your personal opinion of how someone else looks takes away the power they have in feeling that for themself. Losing weight is not a search for approval, so do not assume you need to approve of someone else’s body.

Rachael Hartley, a registered dietician, wrote that appearance-based compliments aren’t as kind as they may seem.

“Sure, it’s nice to tell someone they have great style. Or to tell someone they look nice when you think they look nice. But when one’s appearance, especially their body, is the only thing they get compliments on, it’s hard for that not to get wrapped up in their self identity,” Hartley wrote. “When their body changes, as it does, how are they supposed to grapple with losing that part of their identity? How do you deal with losing the one thing that’s seemingly valued by others?” 

Since I was eight years old, I’ve been told I would never look as good as my sister, and that I wouldn’t be liked unless I did. My body never seemed enough for anyone, but I forgot who it was most important to be good enough for — myself. I let societal standards and the opinions of others dictate how deserving I was of self-love. I’ve realized the backhanded compliments are actually a reflection of the person giving them, not a true reflection of me.

People will say and see what they want, but understanding there is more to someone than their physical appearance is how to truly see beauty within others, and within yourself.

I’m not suggesting compliments should never be made, and no one should be told they look great — but when those compliments are made, they should never be about weight or body. No one wants to be defined by size, and determining someone’s worth for a compliment solely on how their body looks can be extremely damaging —  even when intended to be positive

Nina likes to write about things that aren’t talked about enough. Follow Nina on Instagram and Twitter @ninaboebeana or email her at [email protected].