I believe most people have good intentions when they congratulate someone on their weight loss; after all, society convinces us weight loss equals health gains. Not only that, weight loss is absurdly associated with words such as willpower, success, achievement, and strength. Whilst weight gain is considered to be the opposite. These associations are not only incorrect, but incredibly unhelpful.
My biggest reason for not commenting on someone’s weight is because I don’t know how how they came to be the weight they are. The list of reasons and ways people lose weight is long. Some are healthy, others are fair from it.
There are so many weight loss challenges and programs at the moment which are unhealthy (usually through restriction of certain food groups or calories) and unsustainable. I don’t want to encourage someone to continue partaking in these programs by congratulating them on (unhealthy) weight loss.
What if the individual is stressed/grieving/depressed and is struggling to eat due to being emotionally/mentally unwell? What if the person is physically sick? Cancer and many other diseases can cause weight loss. Saying congratulations to them on weight loss is akin to saying ‘Hey, being emotionally/physically unwell is really doing good things for your appearance’. Not cool.
Finally, that person might be suffering from a potentially fatal eating disorder, which is fuelled by encouraging and positive comments surrounding their weight loss. You can’t tell whether someone has an eating disorder by how they look, so commenting on someone’s weight loss, regardless of their starting weight, is potentially triggering, dangerous, and very unhelpful.
All of the above reasons can be also be applied to why someone might be gaining weight. Emotional issues, physical sickness, and eating disorders can all lead to weight gain. If you’re genuinely concerned, instead of commenting on the changes in their body shape, try asking a genuine ‘how are you?’
Lastly consider, what if that person has gained weight to gain health? If we consider the above hypothetical situations, someone might be gaining weight as they recover from an eating disorder or from cancer. Someone might just be returning to their original healthy weight after dropping to an unhealthy (although apparently society pleasing) weight because of emotional stress. Maybe that individual realised the weight loss challenge there were undertaking was unsustainable and their body has naturally fought to re-gain the lost weight (and maybe more)? Imagine how that person might feel when someone makes a negative comment about their weight gain, when they are in actual fact working hard to improve their health.
And you know what, in the end, it’s really none of our business what someone weighs. I don’t think we can hide our judgements about someone’s weight behind a mask of concern for their health. If it’s a stranger you can’t possibly know their health status from looking at their weight. If it’s someone you know, make your concerns genuinely above their health based on what behaviours you see, not based on their weight. If you know someone has experienced changes in weight due to healthy behaviours, congratulate them on the achievement of those healthy behaviours, rather than on the changes in their weight.
Beyond all, people are people. We are our personalities, our thoughts, our actions, our behaviours. We are not our weight. There are many other things we can congratulate some on. So before you comment think about whether you know HOW and WHY they lost weight, or ideally just don’t comment at all.
EDIT: I had a discussion with a wonderful friend who felt that by not speaking up we may be ‘losing our responsibility to look out for each other.’ He raises a great point and one that I agree with. However, I feel this can also be done without needing to directly comment on someone’s weight – rather, it might be that you notice the weight changes and instigate a general discussion around how the person is. I also have a Facebook commenter mention that someone asked her whether her weight loss was intentional before commenting further, which is another option to allow greater awareness around why the person has lost weight. Ultimately, I feel (and everyone is allowed to feel differently) that it’s never helpful to criticise someone’s weight changes. Congratulating someone on their weight loss can be difficult as I would personally rather congratulate them on undertaking healthy behaviours. But if you are concerned about someone’s weight changes and you feel it might be an appropriate starting point for a deeper conversation than I encourage you to treat them with empathy, compassion, and support, and continue to consider the deeper issues that may be affecting this person, rather than the weight itself.