Stop praising weight loss

Weight loss is a hard thing to achieve. Period. So when you see someone who’s transformed their body I understand there’s a pull there to say, “Wow, you look great, that’s amazing that you’ve lost 10 kilos!” But I think we’re dangerously missing the mark by praising weight loss.

I personally know of a couple people who have been through stages where they have struggled a lot in their relationship with food and their bodies. They’re weren’t underweight, they were either a ‘normal’ weight or ‘overweight’. And they were brave enough to front up to the doctor’s office, biting their fingernails and talking themselves into admitting that they may be on their way to an eating disorder, or perhaps they were already there… And when they nervously tried to tell their doctor or nurse what was going on, their train of thought was derailed by praise for their weight loss. One was actually told, “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up!” So of course they stopped in their tracks right then and there, and didn’t go on to say they had only lost that weight because they starved themselves, or exercised obsessively, or purged…

It’s not an uncommon occurrence and it’s not just at the doctor’s office, either. We tend to praise our family members and friends for weight loss without delving into how they achieved that weight loss. It’s an innocent thing but we don’t realise that we might be adding fuel to the fire by validating really unhealthy behaviours. Plus, we might just be pressing a nerve. Are we saying they didn’t look good before? Are we equating their worth with the number on the scale? Beyond that, their weight loss might not even be intentional, so we shouldn’t assume.

Here’s a personal example: my first baby was born quite prematurely. I’m naturally slim to begin with and I didn’t get much of a third trimester to pack on the pounds in preparation for breastfeeding. As a result, I was one of those mothers who looked “back to normal” immediately after giving birth. Friends, colleagues, even strangers all said to me, “You don’t even look like you’ve had a baby!” in a way that was meant to be compliment, but their well-meaning words just made me sad. Whenever I looked at my belly, all soft and flat, I had to hold back the tears because I was grieving the loss of the last part of my pregnancy. We need to remember that weight loss can happen in times of great stress, grief, or there may have medical issues we aren’t aware of.

So, what do you say? Instead of talking about what bodies look like (including our own bodies), we should talk about what they can do. Starting right when our little ones are babies themselves, we can talk about how they can roll over, crawl, walk, run, jump, climb! And how our bodies are amazing that we can feed our babies as mothers, that we can run after toddlers as grandparents, that we can wrestle with our children as fathers, etc.

When it comes to someone else’s weight loss, we should never assume that it’s a good thing for them. If they want to talk about it, be careful to only praise healthy behaviours, not the weight loss itself. “That’s fantastic that you started cooking dinner every night instead of getting takeaways. What an amazing achievement! Tell me how you did it.” Emphasize how they feel. Are they sleeping better? Do they feel more energized? And if you happen to uncover that they’re not doing so well, that their weight loss has come at a heavy price, listen to their struggles and gently suggest they talk to their general practice team about it.

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