“Synchronizing mind and body is not a concept or a random technique someone thought up for self-improvement. Rather it is a basic principle of how to be a human and how to use your sense perceptions, your mind, and your body together.”
— Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
Medical doctors agree to do no harm. Does this responsibility end with them? We are all potential helpers and healers. In every interaction and conversation with family, friends, partners, and strangers, we can either increase light or cast shadows. Yet, sometimes we are unaware of the impact of our actions, especially when cultural norms unintentionally lead us to do harm. We have settled into a destructive normalcy around conversations comparing bodies, weight, shape, and size. Complimenting someone’s weight may seem kind and supportive, but it is not. It objectifies the body. It reduces embodiment. I believe that we usually mean well and that many of our errors come from not knowing. I hope you will take a few minutes and get curious about how weight loss compliments can be harmful. You can probably come up with your own musings, but here are mine.
I am a psychologist and have spent a good portion of the last 20 years of my professional life helping adults, adolescents, and children recover from eating disorders which have among the highest mortality rate of all the mental illnesses we treat. Doing no harm for this group, therefore, is extremely important and cannot be left only to doctors’ offices. We all have a responsibility for how we talk about health, weight, bodies, and food. Our cultural norm is not normal. It is not your fault you may not understand the negative impact of weight compliments. Now you can get a window into the problem.
Let’s say you see a friend who has tried and succeeded in losing weight. You want to be supportive, but how? If your friend is genetically vulnerable to an eating disorder, complementing that person may collude with the invisible biological vulnerability. If your friend already has an eating disorder, complimenting him or her may increase the normal, expected fears of recovery. (Trust me, I have heard this many times and it is heartbreaking!) If you compliment your friend and he or she is not vulnerable to an eating disorder but someone around is, your compliment may increase the bystander’s drive toward dieting or a restrict-binge eating cycle. Furthermore, if you compliment your friend about her or his weight today, but then next time you don’t, the absence of a compliment may be experienced as criticism.
It is easy to be discouraged by the tenacity of eating disorders, but we can all make a difference by creating a culture that focuses interactions and conversations away from body weight, shape, and size. What would you want to talk about instead? What kinds of compliments?
We are better than this emphasis on weight. We can change this cultural norm. We are the culture. We have the ability to set a new norm. I believe most of us want to do no harm. We can all change our conversations. Commit to not talking about your own weight gains or losses. Commit to not commenting on or complimenting others’ weight. Commit to not treating health and thinness as synonymous. The eating disorder research is clear that our cultural emphasis on dieting and thinness are contributors to eating disorder onset and the science is clear that health comes in all shapes and sizes. Let’s all agree to do no harm.
Mann, T., Tomiyama, A., Westling, E., Lew, A., Samuels, B., Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer; American Psychologist.
Peat, C, Von Holle, A, Watson, H., Huang, L., Thornton, L., Zhang, B., Du, A., Kleinman, S., & Bulik, C. (2015). The Association between Internet and Television Access and Disordered Eating in a Chinese Sample, International Journal of Eating Disorders.
Becker, A., Burwell, R., Gilman, S., Herzog, D. & Hamburg, P. (2002). Eating behaviors and attitudes following prolonged exposure among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls, British Journal of Psychiatry.
Berge, J., MacLehose, R., Loth, K., Eisenberg, M., Bucchianeri, M., Neumark-Sztainer, D., (2013). Parent Conversations about Healthful Eating and Weight: Associations with Adolescent Disordered Eating Behaviors; Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics.
Robison, J. (2005). Health at Every Size: Toward a New Paradigm of Weight and Health; Med Gen Med.All Blogs