Someone sent me a friend request on Facebook and I went to her profile page to see whether we have any common friends. I saw that we don’t, and I scrolled through some of her photos to get some idea of why she is sending me a friend request. I’m kind of old school about Facebook (and pretty much everything else), and I only send requests to people who I actually know in real life. Yep, I’m an anomaly, but I don’t randomly friend total strangers unless there is a reason.
I saw a few photos of the person who had made the friend request, and she didn’t look familiar. I was glancing at the comments on one of her posted photos and someone had written, “OMG how do you stay so thin??”
Pretty much without exception, strangers who friend me on Facebook do so because of my work in the eating disorders field. In all probability, the comment of “OMG how do you stay so thin” was directed toward a person with an eating disorder. And in all probability, it did damage. You may be thinking, “Yes, but it wasn’t intentional, the person was trying to be nice.” And my response to that is that good intentions don’t lessen negative impact.
A few years ago, someone came up to a friend of mine who had been struggling with a serious health issue and said, “Wow, you lost weight, you look great!” The weight loss was the result of a physical illness and was not intended; in fact, my friend looked gaunt, pale, and sickly. But the person giving the “compliment” assumed that the weight loss was intended, and that it was a nice thing to say, because who wouldn’t want to lose weight? My friend was somewhat at a loss on how to answer and settled on “thank you” just to be polite but was very disturbed and upset that someone would think that an illness looks good on them because it led to a thinner body.
I’m not getting into the misguided absolute correlation between thinness and health. This is strictly about damage control. If you see everything and everyone through the lens of weight, then so be it. But please, keep your “compliments” to yourself.
Don’t comment about other people’s weight. What you think is a compliment can send someone into a mental health tailspin. It can poke the eating disorder beast. It can cause damage to a person’s health and psyche. And just because you meant to do the opposite doesn’t negate the fallout from a few innocuous seeming words that land on the wrong person.
You don’t know who has an eating disorder. You don’t know who is suffering with an illness. You don’t know who will be damaged by a comment about their weight, even if it’s positive.
If you don’t want to do damage, even unintentionally, then just don’t comment on other people’s bodies. For some of you out there, I know that this is really hard to do, and I understand that. We live in a society that associates beauty with thinness, many times in the name of health. We worship the deity of thinness. Part of the worship is the focus not only on a person’s own body, but on the bodies of others, and it leads to comments like, “OMG how do you stay so thin??” And really, you don’t want to ask a question like that, because the answer can be really ugly, like starvation, vomiting, or laxative abuse. Not all weight loss is positive.
I don’t know the person whose profile page I was looking at on Facebook, but it’s reasonable to assume based on the strangers who request to be my Facebook friend that she either has an active eating disorder or has recovered from one. Maybe her child has one. Or maybe I’m totally off base; I can’t say for sure. But what I can say is that I cringed when I read the intended compliment, because it had the potential to be very damaging.
Comments about weight don’t cause eating disorders per se, but I think they contribute to the weight loss and restriction that leads to them. For someone who has an eating disorder, or is at risk for developing one, intended compliments about weight loss can be catastrophic.
So please, keep your compliments away from weight. Don’t comment on anyone else’s body, period. Find something else to compliment, or just don’t comment at all. Whether on social media or at a social function, consider your compliments before you say them, and assume that despite your best intentions, they have the potential to do damage if they are focused on weight. Shift your focus away from weight and toward something else, anything else. It’s amazing what a difference that can make.