Written by Isabel Armiento .
Art by Larisa Wade & Emily Morley.
In the fall of 2018, I developed an eating disorder. Over the course of the next several months I lost about 25% of my body weight, and as I shifted from my normal, smallish size to clinically underweight, I noticed that I was getting a lot more compliments on my body. For the record, prior to my eating disorder, people rarely complimented my body. If I looked particularly good that day, I might score a compliment on my eyeliner or shoes, but definitely not my figure. Yet as I shrank, my body seemed to become my most remarkable quality.
Even in professional settings, people compulsively commented on my body
I debuted my ultra-thin body at a Christmas party, where one friend commented approvingly on my weight loss and another enviously asked after my workout routine. A male friend texted me afterward to tell me that I had looked fit and slim, like “a goddess.” Even in professional settings, people compulsively commented on my body: a female coworker around my age admired my diminishing waistline and a male coworker two decades older than me commented on my lack of body fat (when I looked uncomfortable, he assured me it was a compliment).
Even though I was dimly aware that these compliments were problematic, I couldn’t help but feel flattered. I had never before considered thin bodies to be “better” or more desirable, but once the compliments started rolling in, I noticed thinner-is-better rhetoric everywhere: in fashion, in media, in my friends’ disparaging comments about their own bodies. The omnipresence of this rhetoric made it easy for me to believe it was valid, even true.
They gave my self-starvation an elegant, beauty-is-pain legitimacy.
These compliments served as positive reinforcement for my eating disorder, allowing me to feel good about the harm I was inflicting upon my body. They gave my self-starvation an elegant, beauty-is-pain legitimacy. It became easier to think of my eating not as disordered but rather as successful.
To be clear, I’m not saying that every time you’ve complimented someone’s body you were reinforcing an eating disorder. But these seemingly innocuous compliments may be more dangerous than you think. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that at least 60 million Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. Many more practice unsafe dieting techniques, such as intermittent fasting or fad diets, that can serve as gateways to eating disorders. So while your words of congratulations over someone’s weight loss may seem benign, there is a very real chance they are actually harmful, encouraging that person’s unhealthy eating habits or even self-starvation.
I understand that the people who complimented my starved body meant well. They assumed that because I took up less space, I had become healthier; that I had lost weight healthily, by exercising and eating a lot of salads. In reality, my lifestyle was anything but healthy (and probably didn’t include a single salad). This goes for everyone, no matter what their starting weight: if someone loses a drastic amount of weight very quickly, it is almost never the result of healthy lifestyle choices.
And yet the media continues to treat thinness as a signifier of health, reproducing a false association between weight loss and wellness. Thin celebrities publicize their workout routines and allegedly healthy diets, yet many of them have worryingly low BMIs. Conversely, healthy celebrities often become the subject of concern trolls’ public harassment and body shaming. It’s no wonder that after a lifetime of consuming media that idolizes thinness while policing non-thin bodies, so many of us assume it’s appropriate to compliment our peers’ weight loss.
Not only do we falsely conflate thinness with health, we also falsely conflate it with beauty. We tend to internalize the narratives about beautiful women given to us by mainstream film and television, which tend to be wildly fatphobic (in addition to white supremecist, heteronormative, and capitalist). The women we tend to notice and call beautiful resemble models and actresses—meaning they are ultra-thin, even unhealthily so. What we’re really complimenting is not beauty, but thinness.
My recommendation is this: the next time you see a woman with a gorgeous hourglass shape, compliment her flattering outfit, not her body. If your friend loses a lot of weight over a short period of time, express concern, not congratulations. It won’t be easy at first—my beliefs about weight and self-worth are deeply held and hard to exorcise, and yours may be, too. I admit that I still sometimes catch myself complimenting a friend’s thin body. But I recognize that by doing so, I’m perpetuating a harmful cultural belief that thinner is necessarily better. Not only that, but I’m encouraging my friend to continue dieting, potentially dangerously, toward a mythical “good” body.
So, please don’t compliment me, or any other woman, on her body. You may think you’re being kind, but you are almost certainly not. Even now, a year after recovering from my eating disorder, I feel uncomfortable when someone compliments my body. I worry that their respect for me is contingent upon my size, and I feel pressured to maintain my current thinness. Their praise confirms my greatest fear: that my body is more valuable when it is thin.
About the Author
Isabel is an MA student of English Literature at the University of Toronto, where she co-founded Mnerva Literary Journal and works as the Graduate Bureau Chief at The Varsity newspaper. Her work has been published in Oyster River Pages, Lines + Stars, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere.