Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Weighing In: Should You EVER Comment On Someone’s Weight?

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Does praising someone’s weight loss mean you’re linking their weight to their worth? Does it implicitly criticise people who have gained weight? And what about commenting on weight gain? Sarah Lang weighs in.

Weight “doesn’t need to be a conversation”. That’s what Jessica Simpson said last week while speaking with Kit Hoover from Access Hollywood at PetSafe’s Unleashed event to celebrate International Dog Day. Jessica, who loves dogs, is an ambassador for PetSafe, which supplies items including pet fences and behavioural-training products.

The takeaway here: Jessica was asked her body even when she was meant to be talking about pets. When she was attending an event with her daughter and the family dog. Can you imagine having to always anticipate this question? On this occasion, the interviewer did a neat little segue by saying “let’s have a fashion flashback”, passing Jessica photos of her in various dresses, then saying “you were under a lot of scrutiny about any evolution of your body… how did you navigate that?”. But by asking about scrutiny of Jessica’s body, surely Kit must have known she was inviting scrutiny of Jessica’s body.

Jessica didn’t seem annoyed, but she did say: “We need to focus on our mentality about even talking about weight. I think it just doesn’t need to be a conversation.”

“My kids see me being still scrutinized,” she added, “and it’s very confusing to them because they’re like, ‘I don’t even understand this’… I’m like, ‘Honey, I wish I could explain it’.”

Headlines based on what Jessica said to Access Hollywood were splashed across numerous publications. One commenter on The Daily Mail’s website said: ‘She’s talked about her weight herself so how does she expect it not to be a conversation?’. To which I’d say, does her being open about her fluctuating weight – and having briefly been an ambassador for Weight Watchers 10 years ago – mean that people are justified in asking or making comments about her weight for years afterwards? Thankfully another commenter said ‘[it’s] sad that so many made her feel so inadequate. People just love to tear others down.”

I agree with Jessica – weight doesn’t need to be a conversation. That’s been something I’ve been practising, not just preaching, this year. On New Year’s Day, when some friends and I gathered at a beach, I said to my friend Ally that a friend who was swimming ‘still has a model’s body’. I said it enviously. Ally then said to me – in a thoughtful, not a critical way – that she no longer comments on people’s bodies or weight at all, because if you praise weight loss and thinness, aren’t you sorta implicitly criticising people for gaining weight or for not being thin? This insight struck me. Perhaps the person you compliment for losing weight will associate their weight with their self-worth. Perhaps someone who isn’t as thin might overhear the compliment and feel stink.

Since Ally said that, I haven’t commented on anyone’s weight loss even if I sense they’d like to be complimented. And I’ve never in my life mentioned someone’s weight gain to them. But unfortunately, some people do.

I’ve gained a little weight recently. A friend (not a close one, or not of late) said ‘Oh you’ve gained weight, how come? Is it winter weight?’ and I said ‘No, I’m just lazy’. She shut up in a hurry. And with that bit of sarcasm, I wasn’t suggesting that overweight people are lazy. Reasons for weight gain can include stressful life events, menopause, health issues, anxiety, depression, sleep issues, an eating disorder, the exhaustion of having children, etc. No one should have to explain it, including me. What my friend said upset me. It simply didn’t need to be said. Did she think I hadn’t noticed and it needed to be brought to my attention?

Dr Jennifer Rollin, an eating-disorder therapist who promotes self-compassion, wrote a story called ‘3 Reasons Why You Should Never Comment On Someone’s Weight’ for The Huffington Post. As she writes, “we live in a society where often weight loss is perceived as ‘good’ and weight gain is seen as ‘bad’. This fundamental assumption is inherently flawed.”

“Weight loss and gain,” she adds, “tells you nothing about a person’s health, happiness, habits, or life circumstances. The person that you are praising for their weight loss could be suffering from a life-threatening eating disorder, cancer, depression, grief, the diet-binge cycle, intense self-hatred, or numerous other issues. The person that you are judging for their weight gain may be happy, healthy, in recovery from an eating disorder, finally letting go of the diet mentality, etc.”

She also notes that comments about weight “shift focus away from things that are actually important. What if instead you asked them about their passions, their relationships, and how they are doing in general?”. She adds: “Diet-culture and a fixation on thinness actually rose in prominence around the time that women began to gain more political rights in our society. Ultimately, body policing of women is a social-justice issue.”

Here are her suggestions for something you could say if someone comments on you losing weight:

  • I choose not to focus on my weight. There are many more interesting things about me.
  • No clue. I don’t weigh myself.
  • I feel great and that’s all that matters.
  • I don’t really find that question appropriate.

And if someone notes that you’ve gained weight:

  • I’m happy and healthy, thanks for noticing.
  • I don’t tie my self-worth to a number on a scale.
  • I’m trying not to focus on my weight, so I’d rather you not comment on it.
  • My body is nobody else’s business.

Look, maybe’s there’s irony in the fact that I’m writing a story that talks about weight, at the same time as suggesting we don’t talk about weight. But what I feel I’m really writing about is treating people kindly – and thinking about the weight that words have.

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