How to be a Good Ally to Fat People Who Appear to Have Lost Weight

Our culture normalizes talking about bodies all the time. There is especially a lot of value placed on weight gain or loss. Turn on a television and just listen to diet chatter. It’s pervasive, obnoxious and well-meaning individuals perpetuate it in our personal lives all the time.

I like to create an environment in my life that is about substance over small talk, where compliments are genuine and weight is value-neutral.

“Oh, but Bevin,” you may be saying. “I really mean it as a compliment when I notice you’ve lost weight!”

But, well-intentioned friend, just because you’re well-intentioned doesn’t mean what you say doesn’t have a harmful impact. Weight loss doesn’t mean I look good. I believe I look good at all of my weights–all bodies are good bodies. And I know your perception of me might have changed because you are socialized to believe smaller is better, but I would like to gently invite you to do something different with your nonpliments of “You look so good!” when someone has lost weight.

It’s also important to remember that the well-intentioned friends come in all shapes and sizes, fat, thin and in between.

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Photo by Amos Mac.

1. How about don’t talk about it?

I strongly subscribe to the philosophy that my body is nobody’s business but my own. If I want to talk about it with someone, I will and I do.

I completely understand the inclination to ask questions about an obvious change. I am a naturally inquisitive person. My friends call me the Queer Oprah because of my tendency to really like to get into the meat of people’s stories. As I’ve learned how to become a more sensitive and compassionate person I have had to learn that sometimes you just don’t ask and you stay in the dark. It feels kind of impossible to not be nosy about it but I do it anyway because it’s not my business.

Also, what if you’re wrong? A friend of mine just said she gets asked all the time if she lost weight when she puts her hair down!

Being nosy and being inquisitive are natural things that I am still working on curtailing. But I think it’s worth it to do the work to be sensitive because I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I want my friends to feel like they can be their most vibrant and awesome selves around me.

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Super cute picture of me and Sarah Jenny from the Yes Ma’am archives.

2. Wait for the person to bring it up.

Have you ever noticed that lots of straight people will out themselves to you within about ten minutes of conversation? Sometimes as short as two. Straight people in a heteropatriarchy are reaffirmed all the time about how great, normal and important their straightness is. Therefore, they have likely not had the experience of having to hide or code their sexuality to people. They don’t really play the “pronoun” game and affirm their heterosexuality without thinking about it.

The same is true for lots of people who have lost weight. In a diet-obsessed culture, it is super normalized that weight loss is a good thing. People who are excited about their weight-loss will probably bring it up because it is normalized to talk about people’s bodies whether that is right or wrong. So let it happen if it will organically.

People don’t stop to think about whether or not weight loss might be a sign of someone’s increased health or not. I know many people who have had cancer that lost a lot of weight rapidly. Candye Kane (an amazing blues singer) said on stage once, “I don’t recommend the cancer diet.”

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Candye Kane by XRaySPX. Buy Candye’s cds! They’re great!

Maybe just ask them what’s going on in their life and talk to them organically. The core questions you have about them may just come to light. But, again, their body is none of your business unless they bring it up.

If they do bring up their weight loss in a positive manner, you can do the work of someone working in solidarity with fat people by saying, “I think you look great at any weight, but I’m really glad you feel good in your body right now.”

3. Mention a general compliment that is more neutral.

If you really want to compliment someone because you genuinely think they look good, there are lots of things about someone’s appearance you can go for. Instead of mentioning weight loss thing, if you want to compliment someone you can go for something else. “Your hair looks great!” “I love this outfit!” There are a bunch of different ways to express positivity to someone that don’t take into account weight loss and reinforce that weight loss is the only way to look good.

I can see friends who come at me when I’ve lost weight sort of looking for a way to talk about my appearance without going down the wrong road because they know I loved myself X number of pounds ago and they don’t want to bury themselves in the wrong kind of compliment.

4. “You seem particularly present tonight. I don’t know what it is, but you just seem extra YOU today. I love it!”

If you must say something to the person, I suggest the foregoing. Kris Ford gave me this quote.

Kris Ford
Kris!
I think it’s really great! What a remarkable way to get to the essence of what your weight loss compliment is really about. When we stop to think about what we really mean when we’re talking to people we might be able to clearly communicate without hurting them.

5. Absolutely don’t ask someone what they’re doing.

Omigod, my family is so into this discussion. I zone out when I start to hear diet talk, Weight Watchers, walking the track, whatever new thing they’re doing. I truly believe in health at every size and will totally pipe into discussions of fitness, feeling good in your body and other things from an all bodies are good bodies perspective. But I have heard “What are you doing??” question so many times and I just absolutely hate it.

Again, often folks will offer it if they want to. But in general the “what you’re doing” question is such a standard thing people think is okay to ask but it’s actually really personal! I have a super close friend I asked this question of because I genuinely had no idea how she had lost weight and wondered. But I’m close enough to her that when she dropped that it was an eating disorder it was a safe(r) space to talk about it. I also learned from that moment to tread even a little more lightly with that stuff, to open those kinds of conversations with gentle warnings or open slowly. Because people who are just hanging out or going about their life maybe don’t want to just talk about their traumas out of the blue because you want to comment on their bodies.

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Another picture of Kris because I couldn’t choose. Hot fatkini!!

I struggle with what to say to people when they comment about changes to my weight. True fact about me–I tend to be an emotional non-eater. If I am going through a rough time I will likely lose some weight. I lost sixty pounds when my fiance left me and every time someone commented on my weight I would say, “Bad break-up.” I would kind of grumpily respond to a nonpliment with snark.

I don’t always want to do that, but I really leave it up to how I am feeling in that moment. Sometimes I go with, “I think I look great at any size.” Often, especially if it is a friend or loved one, I go with a very long explanation of what lead to my recent weight loss so that they understand what I’m going through, that it’s been a real struggle and that the weight loss is a byproduct of a larger initiative to resolve a chronic condition I have.

Sometimes, I just respond to weight loss nonpliments graciously because it’s not worth the fight. I learned to respond to compliments I didn’t agree with back when I was still self-hating. I would do things like respond to compliments with, “Oh, I don’t look good I still have x,y,z wrong with me.” And I replaced that with a simple, “Thank you,” until I was ready to really hear and absorb good things about myself.

A friend told me once, “Hi skinny,” in response to weight loss. My response was, “Um, I don’t identify as skinny.” Because anytime I’ve ever lost weight in my life (as someone who has a lifetime of fat experience) I have always been fat.

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Miss Mary Wanna dressed as a pizza. Photo by Gizelle Peters.

And, in the case of my beloved Grandmother, I accept her compliments graciously and deeply appreciate when my mom pipes in with, “But we love you at any size.” Because sometimes it’s not worth the fight. But it is amazing to have my mom acting in solidarity with my politics and values around all bodies being good bodies at any size. This was not always the case, but working with her in love, respect and compassion through the last twelve years of my participation in body liberation activism, has actually been really rewarding.

I’ve also blogged about being a good ally to your fat lover as part of my Fat Sex Week series.

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Comments

  1. Amazing post! Funny that your friend gets asked that when she leaves her hair down!
    I hate people talking about others bodies/weights unless it’s brought up. I’m friends with a group of guys, and one of them has said to me a few times “I think you could do with putting more weight on”. It’s so so rude! It hurts my feelings ‘cos I’ve always been fine with how I look, what right do others have to tell someone they need to gain/lose weight?! Except a Dr in the case of health risks! xo

  2. Kris rocks that bikini! Where is it from, do you know? I’d love it for myself.

  3. Thanks for this. I actually had someone yell down the hallway at work, “Oh my God! You’ve lost so much weight!” And then there’s the admin assistant who won’t even take my hints to shut up: “You’ve lost weight.” “Not really.” “Yes, you have.” “No, I haven’t.” “Really, you have,” etc. My biggest struggle has been learning to take ownership of my own body, and so to have people try to shove me into someone else’s narrative of what a good body looks like pushes all my old buttons.

  4. This is a very important conversation. My step daughter has battled with weight issues for as long as I’ve known her. In the last year she has lost quite a lot of weight. She talks a lot about her diet and fitness routine etc. Reading through this made me wonder about how much of that is in response to our “nonpliments” that are actually well intentioned. Up to now I really believed that we were being supportive of something she was trying to do for herself. This article has made me think about assumptions and perspectives that I wasn’t conscious of before. Thank you.
    Just to give you a different perspective on skinny people in exchange. I agree that society’s obsession with weight issues is ridiculous and I hate to add to it by even having this discussion but I have to point out that it works both ways. My best friend has always been overweight and I that doesn’t really matter to me. I love her for who she is. We hadn’t seen each other for a while because we lived in different cities for many years. I had lost a bit of weight and found the confidence to dress differently. A short while after we reconnected she said something along the lines of ” I you had been this sexy when we first met it would have taken me a lot longer to become your friend”
    Another fat person that I know (who was admittedly quite drunk at the time) said,”Some skinny people are nice, look at (another skinny person at the party)” to my face. I was too shocked to ask if being skinny made me a not nice person.
    Those are just 2 examples but lots of people feel completely okay with making stupid jokes about skinny people like, “Turn sideways and I won’t be able to hit you” (playing paintball).
    I would never make assumptions about anybody based on their size, because I have been both fat and skinny and neither has changed who I am as a person. It just pisses me off that people feel comfortable saying stupid stuff and making assumptions about personality based on size, regardless of what that size is.

  5. I’ve learned so much about the dynamics of body policing and building positive relationships with our own bodies from read blogs like yours and some others I visit. I really appreciate that you take the time to write things like this. I have a lot of trouble accepting my own body, and although it stems from different issues than my weight, there are a lot of similarities.

    Given what I’ve learned, I do not say things like “you’ve lost weight!” – which is I guess what I learned to say growing up. I think “you look great!” can say everything that needs to be said without putting too much emphasis on any one aspect of someone’s appearance. The way people present is a whole package anyway, and the latter does a better job of addressing the whole person.

    Anyway, thank you so much for this!

  6. Thanks for this! I generally try not to comment if someone looks like they’ve lost weight, for all the reasons you mentioned here. Still slip up I’m sure. I love the reminder about all the great compliments you can give people that have *nothing to do* with weight!

  7. Thank you for this. It explains the concept PERFECTLY. I am currently in treatment for binge eating disorder and one of the things I recently told my therapist is, “Learning to love yourself isn’t hard on it’s own. It’s learning to love yourself when everyone around you thinks it’s acceptable to hate themselves that is truly difficult.” These narratives of thin=good and fat=bad are so deeply entrenched, and waking up from that can feel so lonely. It’s nice to know someone else out there gets it.

  8. Ugh. Yes. And I would expand this to ‘anyone who appears to have lost weight’ – whatever weight they happened to be to begin with! I struggled with anorexia in my early 20s, and the one thing I still can’t get my head around a decade later is the constant barrage of ‘compliments’ I got from the moment I began to lose weight. All from other women. ‘You look so good’. I did NOT look good. I was ill. I was so underweight my reproductive system had ceased to function. I was dizzy and exhausted 90% of the time. But all those compliments were pretty convenient re-inforcement to keep telling myself I was doing the right thing. Or my favourite (yes, this happens, regularly): compliment+alienatinginsult+fauxconcern. “You look great. You skinny bitch. Are you eating?’. I’m not blaming anyone else for my illness, but jeez people, if someone’s already screwed up enough to be starving themselves… how about you not add to the voices in their head?! Or better yet, how about we ALL just stop commenting on other people’s bodies, full stop?! Gah.

  9. I was walking my dog in tears this past weekend thinking why at 36 years old I can’t shake this awful focus I have on numbers. Numbers on a scale, numbers on on a tag, numbers as a per centage. I hate that I can’t shake this obsession for more than a couple of days at a time. I hide my softness in my clothing and yet see the soft beauty in others but can’t reflect it back in myself. When clients give me a goal of weightloss I tell them it’s not something I can support them in if it’s not for a deliberate health reason becuase if it’s just because you don’t like the number you are loading with value you will set yourself up to fail. You need goals that keep you engaged and make you want more but just a smaller number on a scale. What you say and what you can live with are so different. Thank you for sharing this post. I appreciate it on so many levels. Bodylove for anybody is key, but how do you get there?

  10. I’m glad to know I’m not just odd thinking this way. I lost 30 pounds years ago. At first, the comments were validating, but then I started feeling like Is this all that’s remarkabke about me? And was I so horrid before?

  11. Doesn’t using the phrase “You seem particularly present tonight. I don’t know what it is, but you just seem extra YOU today. I love it!” as a euphemism for “Have you lost weight?” just call up the old familiar stereotype that all fat people have a thin person inside of them waiting to get out? Doesn’t it suggest that, in losing weight, the person in question has managed to dig their true, thin self out of their fat body? I don’t think that’s a safe comment at all. I think it actually risks doing just as much damage as complimenting someone for weight loss.

  12. I like ‘You look like you’re feeling awesome.’

  13. I’m so glad to hear someone articulate what frustrates me. Last year I dropped two dress sizes – unintentionally – when I came off the medication I’d been taking for 5 years. Although the compliments of how great I looked were nice, I’m getting fed up now with the constant implication that I look so much better now. ~My Mum in particular, really wants me to feel good about the way I look – but like most people, thinks that “looking good” is tied to weight and dress size. Every time we look at photos from a couple of years back, she comments on how much weight I’ve lost, and while I know she’s trying to be nice, I resent the implication that I look better now – as if I looked bad before. I only became aware of the way I looked when I was at university, at my “biggest” (i.e. still pretty small), and all the way through during and since then I have loved the way I looked. But to hear people, you would think that being over 8 stone makes a woman look hideous – not what you want to hear when you’re looking at a photograph you’ve always loved!

    Sorry for the ramble, but it’s so nice to be able to articulate these things with people who say “You’re being over-sensitive” (or worse: “Stop grouching, you’re tiny, I’d give anything to be as skinny as you”! – HINT: having tourettes makes you tiny, not dieting – I’d willingly swap my small frame for being able to sit without twitching!)

  14. Thanks, this is great. I’m into keeping my damn mouth shut about people’s weight changes in any direction. It’s their body and their business.

    And I think I want that bathing suit Kris is in. She looks fantastic in it and it’s a beautiful suit!

  15. NONPLIMENTS! :-D <3

  16. I usually say something like “Gorgeous! as always.” Thank you for posting this. As someone who has ranged from a size 20-22 to a size 4 (and who was, frankly, far healthier at size 20-22), I *hated* how people fawned and freaked out over me when I was smaller. It is NOT A COMPLIMENT when you so overly desperately compliment someone that the subtext is “Jesus you were SO FAT before, thank GOD you lost weight WHEW!” Sorry, but I was hot before, and way more sane because I am not naturally slender and at a smaller size I was starving myself and it was making me crazy. But glad you didn’t notice when you were so pleased with “how well I was doing” that I was in a dark place and eating nothing and living on cigarettes and black coffee, thanks for that, anything to fit your fascist beauty ideals.

  17. This article really spoke to me Bevin. I am also an emotional non-eater and tend to lose weight when going through bad breakups and they “You look great, you lost so much weight, what are you *doinng* !! ” Comments kill me every time!

  18. I am small but when I quickly lost 10 pounds, everyone rushed to say how great I looked (I didn’t). I had an untreated overactive thyroid and was in fact very sick. When I got back to my normal weight, nobody mentioned it. :(

  19. Have recently lost just over 90lbs over the last year, this entire post seriously resonates with me. It was a definite choice for me, and I believe it was the right choice, but I find the “compliments” and questions about what I did and statements about how much better I look to be horribly dismissive of me 90lbs ago. I always had confidence in myself, I always believed I looked good at whatever size. I’m happy with my choice to have lost weight, but I wish people would stop commenting on it and leave me be. I’m still the same person whatever size clothes I might be wearing. I have lots of far more interesting things to talk about with people besides how I lost weight. Sigh.

  20. “Have you ever noticed that lots of straight people will out themselves to you within about ten minutes of conversation? Sometimes as short as two. Straight people in a heteropatriarchy are reaffirmed all the time about how great, normal and important their straightness is. Therefore, they have likely not had the experience of having to hide or code their sexuality to people. They don’t really play the “pronoun” game and affirm their heterosexuality without thinking about it.”

    Yes! Thank you for putting this feeling so concisely into words.

  21. Thank you for articulating what has been in my head for SO LONG! I remember my mother struggling with her weight throughout my youth… She was forever on a diet and very physically active, but rarely lost weight. It wasn’t until she was diagnosed with a terminal illness that the weight came off. The “nonpliments” (favorite new word!) were unbearable! It was so difficult to hear people telling my mother how wonderful she looked when we knew she was horribly, horribly ill!

    Now, I’m 39, and I am about at the same weight my mother struggled with all her life. I watched my mother starve herself to no avail, and have vowed not to follow in her footsteps. I’m healthy. I’m active. I’m me… Regardless of my size. I am so much more than my size, but when someone compliments me on perceived weight loss, or gives me unsolicited advice about weight loss, I can’t help but feel that what they’re saying is that all I am is my size. A lifetime of socialization (that is ongoing) can be difficult to overcome… I can do without the judgements, thanks!

  22. I had an alarming number of friends and acquaintances develop cancer last year. I seem to have reached the age where sudden weight loss in anyone dear to me, strikes me with fear. Definitely complimenting hair or clothing is good advice – it’s always nice to have friends with good taste :)

  23. I struggle with keeping my mouth shut whenever someone compliments someone’s weight loss. I have a friend that I think (but I would never ask because it’s none of my business) had gastric bypass. She lost a lot of weight very quickly and has some telltale signs (loose skin, etc). A mutual friend was like, doesn’t she look great? And I was almost like, Actually I think she was beautiful 90 lbs ago. Now she just looks…weird. Obviously all that matters is how this friend feels in her own skin but I just shake my head at a culture that would rather have smaller people with tons of loose skin than (gasp!) fat people.

  24. BlueMoon Baby says:

    thank you for this!

  25. This is really really wonderful and helpful. I sometimes get caught in societal normatives in this arena and these alternatives are so great. Thank you.

  26. That bikini picture of Kris is hella-hot ‘just sayin.

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