We mean well, we really do. We have the best intentions to be kind and loving towards one another. A well-timed affirmation can be quite the pick-me-up.
1 Thessalonians 5:11 says,
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
We all have a role to play in building one another up. But are we doing it well?
I’ve come to realize that there’s an art to encouraging one another, and compliments and affirmations need to be chosen wisely, especially given the battle that rages in our culture surrounding dieting, weight concerns and eating disorders.
If you really want to be encouraging to your brothers and sisters-in-Christ, here’s the one phrase to eliminate from your vocabulary:
“Have you lost weight? You look great!”
It sounds innocent enough, I know. Here me out on this one. Where do I even start? First, I’ll start with a confession. I’ve spoken these words before, and chances are good that you’ve spoken them too. We spoke these words before we knew better. We thought in speaking these words we were being encouraging. And in many instances, I bet those words were received with a smile, a sparkle in the eye and maybe even a, “thank you!”
You may be wondering how then these words can be so dangerous.
Here are five reasons to avoid this seemingly innocent encourager:
By telling someone that losing weight is a way to “look better” you are furthering the notion that body weight, shape, or size determines beauty. As a culture, we have allowed the media to shape what we view as beauty. We are bombarded by images in the media 24/7 that tell us thin = beautiful. Don’t believe me? Just turn on the TV! Thin people abound!
We can make a choice, to remove body weight from that definition, with some intention and mindfulness. The truth is that God doesn’t care about outward appearances, only the heart (I Samuel 16:7).
By encouraging someone in their weight loss efforts, we promote weight bias. We are basically saying fat is bad so it’s good that you are less fat. And the truth is that fat isn’t bad. Some bodies were made, genetically, to have fat. It’s how some ancestors survived famine and cold winters.
We’ve also been led to believe that you can determine a person’s status based on appearances. It’s not true. I bet you can name at least one thin person in your life who isn’t in good health or one who has no interest in health-supporting behaviors. And there are loads of larger folks who are in good health and enjoy health-supporting behaviors. See what I mean? So thin does not = beautiful and thin does not = healthy…unless you allow thinness to have those meanings.
The person you just “complimented” for getting smaller may be suffering from an illness – possibly even a life-threatening illness – that resulted in weight loss. This friend of yours may actually feel horrible, or even fearful. You just never know.
The person on the receiving end of this so called “compliment” may immediately think, “I wonder what led her to say that. What was I wearing last time we hung out?” We do this, don’t we? Over-analyze what we hear? It might seem ridiculous, but totally human. You never know where the mind might travel after a comment about body size.
You just never know what internal battle the person on the receiving end might be fighting. A seemingly innocent statement about a person’s weight can easily send that person spiraling into a deadly eating disorder. I know I’m sounding overly dramatic, but it’s true. Most eating disorders started with an innocent diet. And many of those diets were triggered by a comment from a friend, relative, or even health care professional. And eating disorders are the deadliest mental health condition.
Changes in body weight are very public, and it’s really no one’s business how a person’s body might change over time. If the person you are attempting to compliment is dieting to lose weight, chances are very good (about a 90% chance, in fact) that the individual will regain the weight within 5 years. Therefore, that same individual will have to regain the weight publicly, and may experience feelings of shame or embarrassment (even though the weight regain is no fault of their own – it’s our body’s natural mechanisms at work).
Now you know better and together, we can do better. From here on out, what do you say we avoid making any comments about each other’s bodies? Therapists all agree that the very best compliments or words of affirmation are those spoken about personal characteristics. Encourage and honor others by noticing character strengths. Compassion, selflessness, kindness, resilience, joyfulness – these are the qualities worth noting in one another.
Dawn is an Associate Professor of Nutrition and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is a wife and a mother to an amazing 11-year old boy. Dawn enjoys finding creative ways to spread the word that God’s unconditional love can bring healing to every broken relationship, including one with food.