It’s just not your business. Okay?
I mean, we could leave it there. Enough said. Just stop.
But what if you’d meant for your comment to empower that person? To make them feel beautiful? To give them a much-needed boost? Well, this is also part of the problem. Presumption. And when it comes to our bodies, nobody should presume a single thing. Our bodies are incredibly personal. As is the journey they are on.
A few years ago, one of my best friends was going through hell. Her life - and her heart - had been ripped apart and she was struggling with the most enormous emotional pain. But hey, she was told, look on the positive side… you’ve lost loads of weight! Even she would crack a small, cynical laugh and agree, yeah, at least I’m skinnier now. Really, it’s appalling seeing this anecdote written down. How can any good come from weight-loss due to struggling with mental health and completely losing your appetite? How can the word positive be associated with harming your physical health? Why should clothes feeling loose give a hurting human being reason to smile? My friend looks back on that difficult period and knows that people were just trying to make her feel better. But she told me that whenever somebody said, “Well, you look amazing,” it had the opposite effect, causing her to feel wretched and sad, and overall, worse.
Chelsea Kronengold, communications lead at the National Eating Disorders Association, explains that while we can understand negative comments being hurtful, praise can also be harmful, saying, “It validates or emphasises that our worth is tied to our appearance, and that's not true.”
As a society, we have been programmed to believe that smaller is better. During our lifetime, we have witnessed the media ridiculing celebrities for being too fat, too busty, circling their cellulite and pointing out natural skin folds as bad and shameful. We have had weight-loss transformation stories shoved into our faces and cheered on new mothers for bouncing back weeks after giving birth, squeezing into their pre-pregnancy skinny jeans. It’s been instilled into us that taking up space is bad. Shrink. Respect.
In the past, whenever I’ve experienced weight-loss through faddy dieting, I’ve also felt more popular. Of course, this is popularity boldly upon surface level and it’s short-lived. But seriously, you lose weight, you walk into a party and bingo! Stunning! Beauty! Sexy! Oh, look at you!! At the age of 23, I auditioned for Mamma Mia! I got through a few rounds, but that was it. The following year, almost 10kg lighter, I auditioned again and got the part. It could be argued that I’d sung better the second time around, or that my acting had matured. But after enduring professional dance training where the teachers constantly told us that we wouldn’t work if we didn’t shift our weight, their point became valid. Sure, I had talent. But being physically smaller made me more employable.
When we comment on a person’s body, we have no idea what is happening in their life to make them whatever size they are, and yet, we grant ourselves a front row seat to get involved. From eating disorders, to fertility problems, to pregnancy, to cancer, to simply wanting to be that size… the list of reasons is endless, and more importantly, private. Actor and star of Yellowjackets, Melanie Lynskey has tweeted about how people can’t understand why she’s not thin and also not trying to lose weight. “Most egregious are the ‘I care about her health!!’ people… you don’t see me on my Peleton! You don’t see me running through the park with my child. Skinny does not always equal healthy.”
And it’s not only women who suffer from being commented on left, right and centre. According to the National Eating Disorders Association’s website, males represent 25% of individuals with anorexia nervosa and are at a higher risk of dying, often feeling as though it’s not masculine enough to speak out about it. Recently, actor Jonah Hill made a plea for people to stop commenting on his body, saying, “…good or bad I want to politely let you know it's not helpful and doesn't feel good.”
Dr. Elizabeth Wassenaar, regional medical director at the Eating Recovery Center, says, “Commenting on someone's body size and shape and appearance in the world reinforces the message that people are only as much as their body, and that they are being judged by how they appear in the world.”
There are so many avenues to avoid going down when it comes to commenting on how somebody looks. Let’s take pregnancy for example. With both of my pregnancies, I couldn’t get through the day without somebody telling me that a) “Wow, you’re huge; it’s gonna be a bruiser,” and b) “Ah, look! Your bump is so tiny, you’d hardly think you were due.” Your comment might have been light-hearted and well-meaning, but the impact it’s likely to make on the receiver is complex. How to make an anxious pregnant woman more anxious? Tell her in a roundabout way that her baby is on the big or small side. So, zip it. Ask her how she’s feeling, if you must ask anything!
Oh, and another unwanted observation that needs to go in the bin, is commenting on women being taller than their male partners. I mean, come on! Why, oh why, oh why, is that of anybody’s concern, ever? I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime seeing brides taller than their grooms on their wedding days to be met with sneers and eye rolls because she’s “towering” over him. Think about how ridiculous this is, that people are judging an entire partnership filled with love and respect and kindness, on a few centimetres.
Finally; Scars. Don’t ask somebody how they got that scar. A scar is a wound, and although that wound might looked closed over to your eyes, it might be linked to an emotional wound that hasn’t - or might not ever - heal. A person might choose to tell you about their scar, so allow them this. Let them own their story.
For generations, common small-talk has focused on appearance. General compliments have focused on appearance. The go-to urge to make a person feel better about themselves has always focused on appearance. However times will, and always must, change. And now it’s truly time to change the narrative of how we talk to one another by creating a society that values one another for the people we are, not what we look like.
So, let’s make the effort to normalise compliments. Real compliments. Add to the list…
You always light up the room!
I love asking for your advice!
You’re so kind!
We have the best memories together!
You make me feel safe!
You have such a calming presence!
I’ve learnt a lot from you!
You’re a wonderful parent!
I love how creative your mind is!
You’re the best!