Beauty Redefined Blog

When “You Look So Skinny!” Does More Harm Than Good

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POP QUIZ: If you know a girl or woman who has lost weight but you don’t know how or why she did it, what do you do?

A: Compliment, compliment, compliment! The more praise about her hot new bod, the better.

B: Don’t say anything in person, but next time you see her on Instagram or Facebook, throw down a little “You look so skinny!” on a couple pics to let her know you noticed.

C: Talk about anything else besides her looks. How much fun she is. The weather. Her job. Your lunch. That dog walking by. Anything else.

This might feel like a trick question because looks-based compliments are good, right? I mean, we live in a world where the vast majority of girls and women feel terribly about their bodies, so hearing nice things about their looks has to help, right? It turns out that is not always the case. Answers “A” and “B” might actually do more harm than good, and we just got an email from an awesome Beauty Redefined fan that is the perfect case study to help us teach why “C” is the best answer of them all:

highfive“Last year, four months after giving birth, I began focusing on getting healthy, eating right, and exercising. Over the course of the next six months I lost a significant amount of weight and I felt good — better than I had in years and years — so I was happy. Here’s what I was not happy about: the fact that everyone I had ever met all of a sudden felt it was appropriate to comment on my physical appearance.

Casual acquaintances felt like it was perfectly reasonable to start asking me about my weight and size. Family members would tell me how good I looked now, and I couldn’t help but feel bad for me from a year ago, who I had loved, but apparently everyone else was thinking could be a lot better. I have never felt so uncomfortable in my own skin in my life. I — a woman who has always felt infinitely more defined by my thoughts and humor than by a number on a scale — suddenly felt very self-conscious about everything. All of this new attention found me wanting to be sure to hide my flabby arms (because losing lots of weight leaves a lot of skin) and saggy boobs (because I’d been either pregnant and/or nursing for the last five years). And no matter how wrong I knew it was I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘If people think I look good now, they’ll really think I look good if I lose 20 more pounds.’ This sudden (undeserved) praise from others has really wreaked havoc on all of my previously held ideas of positive body image and female empowerment. I have no answers.”

But we have some answers! Let’s start with why it’s so important to STOP talking about each others’ bodies – even in what we assume are nice ways – and then we’ll get to what we can do if we’re falling into a deep pit of appearance obsession that often comes from constant focus on our bodies.

First, you have learned firsthand that it is time to stop body policing. None of us have the responsibility to comment on the look of someone else’s body – not even the “nice” sounding stuff. Not in front of their faces or behind their backs. So often we turn to appearance-based conversation first as a default, and we must reconsider this automatic small talk. This is especially true for girls and women, who grow up hearing from all sides that they are things to be looked at above all else.

girlsinmirrorToo many females suffer the debilitating consequences of eating disorders, appearance obsession, body anxiety and depression, all in the name of trying to meet unattainable beauty ideals. Did you know hospitalizations for little girls with eating disorders is up 100 percent in the last decade? Help little girls recognize they are more than their bodies by choosing to avoid discussing the look of another woman’s body in media or real life. Did you know cosmetic surgery increased 446 percent in the last decade, with 92 percent of those voluntary procedures (mostly liposuction and breast enhancement) performed on females? Help ease the ever-more-powerful temptation for painful and expensive cosmetic surgery by never talking negatively about the look of another woman’s body in media or in real life. Did you know self-objectification is leaving even the youngest of girls and the oldest of women with fewer cognitive resources available for mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning, spatial skills, and athletic performance?* Help stop this downward spiral of appearance obsession by changing the conversation from the look of another women’s body in media or real life to anything else. 

We must make sure our dialogue reflects what we know to be true: We are not bodies to be looked at, judged, and constantly in need of fixing. We are capable of so much more than being looked at. We owe it to our sisters to shout that truth from every rooftop.

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 3.18.55 PMSo friends, if you know someone who has lost weight and they aren’t publicly speaking about how they did it, don’t feel the need to talk about it. Don’t automatically praise them. Don’t publicly comment on their photos with “You look so skinny!” Just don’t. Because you don’t know if they are working out and eating healthfully or depressed and struggling, or suffering with an eating disorder or resorting to other unhealthy extremes to fit an unhealthy ideal. You just don’t know. And too often, those body-policing compliments of “Oh you look so AMAZING!” are exactly the motivation someone needs to continue down an unhealthy pathway of unsafe diet pills or over-exercising or disordered eating. Even just seeing those body-based comments on someone else’s pictures online over and over again can send someone else down that dangerous pathway. Other times, a disease or other illness could be causing your friend to lose weight beyond their control and “Did you lose weight?!” is the exact wrong type of compliment they want at the moment. We can do so much better than the constant body policing.

It’s time to value the women and girls in our lives for more than their looks. Dig deep next time you want to give a compliment. If you give a looks-based compliment, pair it with a character-based compliment. Say something nice about who they are, what they do, and how much you care about them outside of how they look. When we minimize other females to just their bodies, we forget to remind them of their beautiful talents, characters, and gifts. And we can unknowingly be giving them motivation to stay in unhealthy patterns so they keep “qualifying” for looks-based compliments. We are more than bodies, so let’s make sure to remind each other of that powerful truth.

But what if, like our friend’s example, you are at the receiving end of lots of looks-based compliments? What if you’ve lost weight recently and all that body policing about how “much better you look” is keeping you focused on yourself as a body to be looked at above all else? So often, those looks-based compliments just perpetuate the belief that looks are most important in your life. Once you’re riding the high of all those compliments, you have to continuously work harder to impress people in your life to give you more compliments. If they stop complimenting you, you start to feel like you just need to work a little bit harder to earn their praise. What a worthless and selfish cycle to be stuck in! You are so much more than a body to be looked at! (Sick of us telling you that yet?) Here are three surefire strategies to use the moment you feel yourself getting sucked into the worthless pit of looks-based obsession:

Change the Conversation.

Next time the dialogue starts to revolve around your looks and you get uncomfortable, take the opportunity to teach a little lesson in a kind and thoughtful way: “There are lots more interesting things to talk about than my body! Did you know I recently went on vacation?” or “BORING! Let’s talk about you. How is work going?” or throw in some honest vulnerability: “Thanks, but I’m more comfortable talking about lots of other stuff besides my body. How was your weekend?” or “To be totally honest, I have made a resolution to compliment women for stuff other than their looks because I feel like we get stuck talking about shallow stuff like physical appearance way too often!” or tell them you just read an awesome blog post about changing the conversation on looks-based compliments and you’ve vowed to do it (then send them this link, of course!)

swimmerSet a fitness goal.

Regardless of what you look like, or what you think you look like, you can feel good about yourself, because you are not your appearance. Your weight, size, and measurements are just numbers. Positive body image is the cornerstone of our work, and it is founded in the life-changing understanding that your body is an instrument to be used and not just an object to be adorned. Prove it to yourself by setting a fitness goal that will absolutely reinforce the truth that your body is powerful and capable and you are not just a decoration for the world to look at. Run a certain distance. Swim 10 laps faster than ever. Do a certain number of crunches, push-ups, pull-ups – any fitness achievement measured in actions. You will get the reward of endorphins released into your body to boost your mood, the empowerment of accomplishing a goal, and the satisfaction of proving you are more than a pretty face. It’ll snap you out of your self-objectifying rut in no time.

Throw away your scale.

Tracy Moore at Jezebel put this so well: “Ask yourself, ‘What exactly is going to happen when I reach magical X pounds?’ Force yourself to imagine the perfect life you think the perfect weight will bring you. What does it look like? You never argue with your husband? That guy you like at work will ask you out? The beauty of working toward real confidence by actually liking yourself is that it doesn’t disappear the moment you gain weight, it is always there, and anyone worthwhile is drawn to you because of that aura, not the fact that you’re at some specific number… Plus, numbers are misleading. There is no magic number for anyone. Paying attention to some perfect goal weight, at which point you imagine yourself to no longer have problems or somehow transcend the issues you faced with 20 more pounds is a complete and utter illusion. And a waste of time. And probably really about something else.

Need more strategies to develop body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment in three steps: Step 1: Recognize, Step 2: Redefine, and Step 3: Resist.

 

  1. Melinda
    Melinda02-04-2014

    I have a question in regards to something someone said to me when I was trying to discuss the importance of focusing on the things we can do and be, rather than on our appearance.

    This person replied back that ‘people work hard to play an instrument beautifully, people work hard to paint the best masterpiece they can, people want to show beauty in one form or another through art and music by working hard, so why not do the best we can to also make ourselves be as beautiful as we can be?’

    I have to admit this thought stumped me just a little. The only thing I have thought was that the beauty is in the creation of the music though, not the actual instrument. Still, I would love to hear your thoughts on this comment?

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined02-04-2014

      Interesting thought. Thanks for asking for our input! I’d say that for girls and women, our definition and perception of “beautiful” is too often distorted and narrowed by profit-driven beauty ideals. For females, “beauty” doesn’t feel like an all-encompassing, attainable thing. It feels like something we have to work our whole lives toward and never attain. If we can expand our definitions of beauty to encompass more of who we are and what we do and what we say, then “beauty” would be a healthier, happier thing to work toward. That is why we fight to redefine beauty out of its narrow, profit-driven place. Until then, the pursuit of beauty is an unfulfilling, incredibly self-conscious, self-centered approach to our physical appearances that gets girls and women no closer to happiness, health, and self-love.

      • Melinda
        Melinda02-04-2014

        Thank you so much, that reply was just perfect!

        I love the concept of seeing ourselves as an all encompassing whole that can be beautiful in so many ways beyond the ‘profit driven beauty ideals’. A beauty that we can acheive and be proud of because it is what we already are and can continue to develop in all we do. To be a beautiful person, we need to see ourselves as that all encompassing whole and exemplify what we feel beauty to be through who we are and what we do. I hadn’t thought of it in that way. I like that. I guess it is exactly what you are sharing with the world. Beauty is so much more than being something to look at. Beauty is loving and being.

        Well said and thank you again!

        • Bethany West
          Bethany West02-04-2014

          I can’t say it any better, but I just got the visual of our culture objectifying music by, say, Justin Bieber as the only beautiful music out there. That’s great, if you’re Justin Bieber, but Norah Jones and Bach and Elvis just got thrown overboard… THAT is a tragedy!

          • Ruth
            Ruth02-11-2014

            I like that visual.

    • Idea List
      Idea List02-25-2014

      Did you know that apples, raspberries and strawberries all belong to the rose family? It is okay to admire the beauty of the rose, but don’t devalue the apple because it’s not as beautiful.

  2. Estelle
    Estelle02-04-2014

    When someone gives me a looks based compliment, I will use a modified version of ‘change the conversation.’ For example, if someone does make a compliment about my weight, I’ll tell them about how I’ve been climbing stairs, carrying heavy bags, walking up steep hills, etc. to basically get the focus off what I look like and onto what I can do, which is much more satisfactory to me. Or if it’s something that doesn’t change but the person who complimented me has just met me, I will tell a story about a family member who shared the same trait (e.g. I get lots of compliments on my hair color and my grandmother on my mom’s side had the same color). Usually that gets us off on the subject of family (especially if the other person has a family member who has the same trait) and voila! Also, the only time I comment on another person’s looks is when something they’re either wearing or carrying looks handmade, and then I ask if they made it and bring up my own crafting hobby.

  3. Kat
    Kat02-04-2014

    I hugely agree with this. I was always confident in my body, raised to value my intelligence and personality over my physical appearance. I was also an athlete and complete foodie. It wasn’t until I lost 20 pounds following a bad breakup (at 5’3″, this brought me down to a dangerous 90 pounds) that I began to understand the body insecurities that other girls my age dealt with. If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me “Oh you look so skinny!” I would have paid off my student loans by now. Having other girls tell me I “looked like a model!” or that they were “omg sooo jealous!” made me feel like my body before the weight loss was less attractive. I felt this urge to keep the weight off even though I felt like shit and was completely unhealthy. It just goes to show how even someone with good self-esteem and body image can be brought down by “innocent” comments.

  4. Lauren
    Lauren02-05-2014

    When I was a child out with my mother and people would compliment my sister and I for our appearance (“Oh, your daughters are so cute!”) my mom would always reply with, “Yes, and they are clever and insightful as well.” She did this as far back as I can remember, and it was one of those things I remembered as I grew up. I am posting this because I am sure this is a situation mothers with daughters encounter all the time, and I really think my mom’s reply made a big difference for me. She said it even when I was too young to really comprehend it, but it stuck in my head because I heard it so often. And as funky as it sounds, I still think of it almost reflectively when I receive a compliment on my appearance. Thanks, Mom :)

  5. Jen
    Jen02-07-2014

    I had lost a significant amount of weight. People would tell me that I “am a new person”. Ah, no. I am still the same person. Have the same basic likes. It would drive me crazy inside even though, for the most part, they meant the best.

  6. Becky
    Becky02-07-2014

    I once heard someone tell a woman that she looking wonderful – she had lost so much weight.

    She was losing weight because she had terminal cancer.

    Thin =/= good.

  7. Paula
    Paula02-08-2014

    Over a period of almost two years I’ve lost a significant amount of weight (because of exercise and healthy eating), and I feel much healthier and fitter. I receive all kinds of compliments: the you look sooo good now (which makes me doubt the way I looked before); just the nice compliment on looking good and having succeeded at losing weight; some people ask me first if I lost the weight on purpose and then compliment me; and some people are worried about me getting too skinny (again I feel healthy: I take care to never feel hungry and I feel fit – and I notice right now that I’m defending myself)
    Though I’m flattered by the compliments I always feel distracted when someone starts this conversation with me, there are indeed better things to talk about.
    What I appreciate most is that rare human being that never comments about my looks but is just there, not seeming to care what I look like, but being appreciative non the less.
    Thanks for the article and the strategies

  8. Bonnie
    Bonnie02-08-2014

    I’ve been told that I looked like a person who had lost weight, but I’ve also been told that I looked “really healthy” and “happy.” The latter ones were more my aims.

  9. Ruth
    Ruth02-11-2014

    “You’ve lost weight” or “You look so skinny” should be banished from our compliment list. I agree. The flip side of the message is “you were fat” or “you looked fat”.
    I lost weight a few years ago when I had my children and was nursing them. When I weaned my daughter, I started gaining the weight back and I haven’t lost it. People who complimented me on how much better I looked and on how maternity suited me meant it well, I`m sure, but I’ve just realized that I`m a bit afraid of those people seeing me now, with the weight back on. What will they think?
    It doesn’t help that I’m not happy with my current size.

    I don`t want my daughter (or my sons) to feel about their bodies the way I`ve felt about my body for so long.

    • Maria
      Maria03-10-2014

      I am going thru this right now.. I dont weigh myself because it makes me obsess over numbers but everyone has been telling me lately its so great ive lost weight… and I feel awful.. i just keep thinking if I really looked so fat before… its an awful pressure and now all i think is I must keep the weight off…and its driving me crazy… and sad…

  10. Rachel
    Rachel02-20-2014

    I remember last summer I attended a family gathering. It was on my dad’s side of the family and my stepmother went ON and ON about how good I looked. She literally would change the subject back every time I tried to change the subject to something other than my looks. Now, granted, I had lost weight since I had seen her last (a side effect of having a job that keeps me physically active and carrying heavy stuff) and she is a nurse so she probably believes in BMI as an indicator of health, but there was NO REASON for her to keep mentioning it. I was annoyed at the time and, as you can probably tell, I still am.

  11. Katie
    Katie02-20-2014

    So here’s a situation that used to happen to me all the time when I was able to work/have a social life:

    I put on a sweater because I am cold. Someone gives the unsolicited advice, “you just need more meat on your bones, no wonder you’re so cold”

    No shit. I have no idea that I’m underweight!! Thanks for that brilliant little nugget of advice!

    • Katie
      Katie02-20-2014

      Now it turns out I have anorexia. Get to hear the ” why don’t you just eat more?” comments now :-(

  12. Holly
    Holly02-20-2014

    Yes, yes, yes. A few years ago I lost a baby in the middle of my second trimester. I became depressed and must’ve lost weight, because over the next few months several people commented approvingly on how thin I looked. The irony of being complimented on my thinness during a time when I should have been full and round with the new life growing inside of me was almost too bitter to bear and more than once brought me to tears. I never felt very comfortable commenting on people’s weight before, but this experience really cemented it for me.

  13. Ann
    Ann02-20-2014

    I stopped making looks-based comments. It really is a powerful change to make. I noticed I actually see women and girls differently now. When you can’t go for that easy compliment or criticism, you have to look closer at the person’s qualities and actions. It makes me sad to realize how much I was focusing on the presentation and missing the person.

  14. Maria
    Maria03-01-2014

    Thank you for bringing this up… I have tried to change conversation topics but there´s a lways a part of me that keeps thinking,… “”wow, was i so bad before??” when someone compliments I look skinny… I have suffered EDs and body disorder for a long time and sometimes I just want to scold people and say.. yeah Im skinnier, cuz Im sick… I just hope there comes a moment when we are free from judgement based on our body and valued for who we are…

    • AJ
      AJ04-23-2014

      I’ve suffered from eating disorders for decades and my weight has fluctuated wildly. People are all ga ga when I am thinner and are praising my “dedication” and saying how great I look and suddenly they are interested in me, where they weren’t before. Like I said in the facebook post, I’m kind of bemused at this, how our culture collectively treats us as a whole based on approval/disapproval of physical appearance. Suddenly I am “interesting” and can order what I like without the “are you sure?” insinuations. I know it’s the politically correct response to say, “Oh thank you!” smile sweetly and move on, and I do that, but people don’t know that in reality they’re bringing up a painful, private part of my every day life. I just force myself to realize they mean well and are trying to be complimentary and then if it really bothers me, well, I talk to my husband in private to get it out of my system.

  15. Erica
    Erica04-25-2014

    This is an interesting point of view that I was at first baffled to r ead. But ion rewarding the comments here I’m definitely feeling more receptive. I’ve been over 200lbs for most odd my life and was an acne-ridden teenager who didn’t know how to dress herself or apply makeup. I’m fully aware that I was NOT a cute teenager. I love compliments lol Does that make me shallow? Now that I dress better, my skin is more clear and I carry myself with confidence, I love hearing, “You look fantastic! You’re so pretty! I wish I had the confidence to wear whatever I like, like you do!” I like compliments on my wit, intelligence, and humor as well and their not diminished by compliments on my physical appearance. I don’t dress myself in wit, humor, or intelligence. BUT I will be more aware that not everyone likes physical compliments, I guess.

  16. AH
    AH05-09-2014

    I was an active child, but it didn’t stop my DNA for making me short (5’2″) and naturally thickset. My mother always emphasized my intelligence and abilities as a small child, but as soon as I hit puberty it was like I was a different person to her and she started picking at my “flaws” out of “concern” for me. “You need to watch what you eat. You’re starting to get a gut.” I was so confused but I didn’t know what I could do differently since I always enjoyed eating healthy foods and I was active and loved the outdoors. I managed to stay confident in my body throughout high school. My freshman year of college was one of the happiest years of my life, and was also a time when I was at my heaviest. I do not believe that I was unhealthy, and truth be told, I never even considered myself to be “fat” or “chubby” or overweight at all. I was just me, in my natural body. A year or so later I fell into some bad habits and began to hang around people who encouraged me in them, and fell into a depression. When I am going through a depressive period in my life, I have no appetite. Food repulses me. At first I tried to eat; I was managing one very tiny meal a day just to keep me going. Even a grilled cheese sandwich and a couple french fries made me ill. So clearly, I began to lose weight.

    And then it began. First my mother: “I wish I could lose weight as easily as you!” Friends: “You look so good!” Even a friend’s mom: “How much weight have you lost? What have you been doing?”

    These comments embarrassed me and made me feel like I must have been disgusting to them before. When they asked what I was doing I tried to say “I didn’t lose weight on purpose” because I wanted them to know that it wasn’t a decision I made, but they didn’t hear what I was trying to say. They were just “jealous” that I was losing weight. I lost over 40 lbs (probably more than 50, but I have never regularly weighed myself so I don’t know exact numbers!) in a matter of a few months, and I felt sick and weak all the time. I usually ate once a day, a very small meal when I got so hungry that I felt like I was going to faint. Something like chips or a sandwich or a bowl of cereal. I didn’t even have the presence of mind to realize that I wasn’t eating enough. I didn’t really feel *hungry* all that often, just weak and tired. And all anyone could do was compliment me about how I looked.

    Thankfully, with the help of a really great friend (now boyfriend) I started seeing just what I was doing to myself and began the long process of recovery. I refuse to feel guilty for putting food into my body. I refuse to feel guilty for spending money on a BASIC NECESSITY. And I refuse to place my worth in a pants size. It felt great to be a size 6 for the first time since junior high. But all I could think of was “How can I go down one more size?” Now, I’m back up to a 12-14 and I am not just okay with it, I am happy – I realize that my body is not naturally one that is going to be thin. There are girls and women who will be thin throughout life, and there are those of us who will not (without severe health risks).

    Going through this all, while the process was painful and not without damage to my health, was an eye opening experience for me. Before, I never would have thought about the damage that “complimenting” someone on weight loss could do. But now I have gone a step farther from not commenting on weight. I don’t give appearance based compliments anymore. There’s just too much focus on this world on the things about women that we can’t change without starving or over-exercising or surgery, and it is time for this to STOP. Compliment women on their accomplishments, their kindness, their perseverance, their strength, their creativity – not their body.

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