Why "You Look Skinny" Doesn't Feel Like a Compliment

Updated 12/10/18

I know the intentions are pure. I know it's meant to be a compliment. But "you look skinny" feels more like invasive commentary than anything meant to elicit elation and gratitude. Let me explain.

Over a decade ago, when I suffered from disordered thoughts and began restricting my food intake, those three simple words were indulgent. They practically sparkled, glowing in my mind like lightning bugs trapped in a mason jar. "Skinny" was always the goal, and the more others adulated my frame, the more victorious I felt. I'd beam at the utterance of the word, finally feeling like my physically damaging and mentally exhausting plan was working. I wanted to look pretty, I wanted to be skinny—and adolescence painstakingly coached that one did not exist without the other. I went through treatment and therapy and came out permanently altered on the other side.

Still, the struggle, though decidedly quieter and less frequent, remained omnipresent despite my distance from it. 

comments on weight loss

The years that followed were difficult as I vacillated from healing to darkness and back again. I was caught in a wrestling match with no referee, holding on to progress with a white-knuckle grip, petrified of what might happen if I let go. And then things shifted. I did mend myself and move on, finally eating what I wanted and allowing food to nourish my life. I learned to adore my curves. Only, as I neared 30, my body began to respond negatively to my diet, a collection of comfort foods I consumed daily as a big "fuck-you" to my eating disorder.

That was when I cut out gluten and noticed tangible, positive changes in the way I felt every single day. And naturally, I lost weight.

I can honestly say this is the first time in my life I've stayed entirely on the straight-and-narrow—choosing healthy, feel-good foods over my usual favorites as a way to foster a real lifestyle change. I have never once considered succumbing to old habits this time around. Realizing that—that I was able to alter my diet without falling off the wagon—duplicated that same sparkly, lightning-bug-laden pleasure I used to feel when someone spoke of my then-lithy figure. I think that's why, now that I've lost some weight, the phrase is so triggering. I am endlessly proud of myself for taking charge of my life in a positive way, yet the implications behind a remark like "you look skinny" inherently sound soaked in concern.


comments on weight loss: skinny

It's not complimentary to scrutinize my body without warning, especially in a public setting. It feels invasive and uncomfortable, almost accusatory, creating this space where I'm not sure how to respond. Sure, social cues lead me quickly to thank you, put a smile on, and pretend I'm not silently wondering if there's judgment behind your words. But more often than not I'm left feeling uneasy and off-balance, like when a train passes and you're standing a bit too close to the edge. A rush of wind and it's gone, but you still feel its presence moments later.


Here's the bottom line: You never know what someone else is going through—whether they've lost weight as a result of illness, diet, stress, or anything else. You don't know if they want to look skinny. I'm not even sure why so many of us are steadfast in the idea that "skinny" has a purely positive connotation. It's a word like any other, with varied meaning and significance to every person who hears it. My particular aversion to the word, of course, has a lot to do with my past. But that doesn't make it any less polarizing when you're speaking to someone who hasn't acquired my specific baggage.

Instead, when you think someone looks particularly good, tell them just that: "You look so great." Complimenting your friends, loved ones, and co-workers without bringing their bodies into the conversation is always going to be a happier, healthier way to interact. If the person with whom your speaking wants to bring up their weight-loss, they can. Let's leave this one in the past and move on, yeah? We'll all feel better for it. 

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