Why is "you look skinny" considered a compliment? Why do we all fear gaining weight like it's a death sentence? The stigma around weight in our culture needs to change. We need to stop praising thin.

The Diet Industry

Think about your daily life for a second. When has a day gone by where you weren't bombarded with news of exercise programs, detoxes, and fad diets? When was the last time you didn't feel pressured to change your body? 

It's unfortunately likely that you don't know the answer. Living in the modern world, we are targeted by an industry that profits off of telling us lies about all the parts of ourselves we need to "fix." Everyone is constantly trying to restrict their food intake or increase their exercise, but, this makes no sense. Think about it—why would the diet industry still exist if any of it actually worked?

The world we live in is hyper-focused on outlandish beauty ideals. We praise weight loss like it's the be-all and end-all of humanity. Yet, there's a paradox: when a privileged American drops substantial weight, we are envious and quick to offer compliments, but when we see the same on a chronically ill or impoverished person, we express sadness. It's been pounded into our heads since the time we could understand all these words and messages. Thin is good, fat is bad. This message is everywhere. This is the root of so much harm and hurt in our society.

Complimenting Weight Loss is Dangerous

As someone who was plagued by a restrictive eating disorder, I can attest to just how dangerous complimenting weight loss and thinness is. I could not tell you how many positive compliments I received as I lost weight, especially when I really dropped into the danger zone. “You’re so skinny!” “You lost weight–you look so good!” I heard these phrases time and time again, intended as compliments. And I took them as such, because that is what society has always told me. 

So, it was clear everyone thought I looked better than I did before losing weight. Never mind that my eyes looked dead and sunken in. Never mind that my skin was yellowing. Never mind that I was losing hair and waking up with Charley horses every night. I was thinner, and that was all that mattered to people. No one cares how you get to that point; they just care that you're smaller.

This is unfortunately a common occurrence for those affected by eating disorders (though, of course, you cannot always tell if someone is suffering by their weight or appearance. There is no prerequisite look–it is a mental illness). It feeds the demon inside; it tells you to keep going, you can’t go back now, people think you’re beautiful, they finally accept you. In a way, our diet-focused culture encourages disordered eating and exercise patterns.

What it Means for Those in Recovery from Chronic Dieting/Eating Disorders

Now that I’m regaining my life, including muscle and fat and weight along with it, I'm terrified. I fear people will begin to think negatively of me, be disgusted by me. How awful is our society that I'm scared to live in a healthy, nourished body? Receiving those compliments for my sick body makes recovering into a healthy one that much harder.

Think about how wrong that is.

I only receive praise when I feel like I'm dying. When my heart is slowing down and my organs can’t work right. When I can never leave my home and go out with friends because I'm too anxious about food and exhausted. But in the body where I am bright again, walking with purpose, have energy to be active, want to spend time with others, I won't be as appealing anymore. My healthier body will not be viewed the same as the sick one.

We see smaller bodies as GOOD no matter what, and larger bodies as BAD no matter what. But this is so the opposite of the truth! There is so much you cannot physically see. Weight should be neutral, but it has become so stigmatized in our society. Of course I’m scared to take up more space. It’s been ingrained into my head since I was a child that bigger is definitely not better, weight loss is always the goal, thin is the ideal. And it’s been ingrained into everyone else, too. So they’re going to always view any type of weight gain as bad and gross, but it’s not. And sometimes, it can save your life. I am living proof that weight loss is not synonymous with positive, and weight gain is not synonymous with negative.

How to Change the Norms

This is why I urge you to stop praising thin. Realize the toxic diet culture you’re contributing to if you compliment thinness or weight loss. We need to change the narrative and the idea that constant dieting and pursuit of weight loss is the only way to live. Because, in fact, this is the polar opposite of truly living.

Next time you want to pay someone a compliment, don’t say, “you look skinny”–try “you are glowing today," “you are so strong and intelligent," or “you have a kind soul," or anything that speaks to their character and not their looks.

Remember, the words we speak and how we speak them have a tremendous impact on what we do and how we act. We are the society we create. We must make the change ourselves individually if we want to see the change in society. Stigma will only dissipate if we stop contributing to it. Diet culture will only cease if we combat it. Recognize when it’s creeping its way into your life, and cut it off at its roots. 

Reading about the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, intuitive eating, and other anti-diet culture material has been very helpful for me and my recovery. I also fill my Instagram feed with individuals who share these views, such as Kylie Mitchell, MPH, RDN, LD (@immaeatthat), Dr. Colleen Reichmann (@drcolleenreichmann), and Kristen Murray, RDN, LD (@kristenmurrayrd). Podcasts like Nut Butter Radio and Food Psych are also helpful resources. Take some time to learn about these topics, including the scientific evidence behind it, to make your way towards ditching the diets for good and living freely.