We’ve all been on the receiving end of a comment about our bodies at one point or another, and most of us have doled them out, too. That September when you came back from summer break and more noticeably filled out a bra? You probably heard something about it. That time you trained diligently for a half marathon and absolutely crushed it? Well-meaning friends and family members most likely told you just how great you looked.
If you’re lucky, the comments you’ve received about your body have leaned positive. For example, “You’re looking so fit and toned these days!” is common, though, "You look great, have you lost weight?" is even more so. While it’s hard to believe any of these comments are coming from a bad place, they're also not always helpful. Our senior editor wrote an essay about why a comment like "you look skinny" doesn't make her feel good. She writes, "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 meanings and significance to every person who hears it." Moreover, A 2011 survey found that a staggering 97% of women have at least one negative thought about their bodies every day. So, yes, it's complicated.
In other words, even if the comment is positive, it could still send the person on the receiving end into a self-conscious spiral. And if the comment is negative, that’s a whole lot worse. But when someone undergoes a noticeable physical change—from losing weight or toning up to becoming pregnant—is there a right way to acknowledge the change without it feeling invasive?
Clinical psychologist Jessica Zucker, Ph.D., says it’s important to be mindful when commenting on anyone’s body, even if you’re simply trying to pay them a compliment. “We can't be sure of anyone’s feelings about their body, body image, or their perception of the recent changes,” she explains. “For a woman who has lost a significant amount of weight, for example, one might wrongly assume that she'd relish being showered in compliments about her new size and shape. But how do we really know if these words will land with a thud or yield pride? We don't.”
The truth is, we have no idea what someone is going through when their body changes and those are murky waters to navigate. Maybe that weight loss is due to someone struggling with an illness, or the gym time responsible for those super-toned arms on your coworker has been a coping mechanism for the while they grieve a loss. “We can't know anything for sure unless we know the person well, so in many cases, it might be best to say nothing at all,” Zucker advises.
This is especially tricky in the case of pregnancy. For example, you may be inclined to comment on that “cute bump” you see popping out when a friend wears a tight dress, but you have no idea what the person toting it is actually dealing with—and there’s always a chance they’re not pregnant at all. “Some women prefer to wait to publicly share their pregnancy news when they enter the second trimester, and may not want to discuss it yet,” Zucker says. “Or, what if she just had a miscarriage or is undergoing fertility treatments and has loads of emotion about her body changes? All sensitive topics, so I’d steer clear of saying anything until she shares the news with you.”
The best thing you can ever say, according to Zucker, is actually pretty simple: “When we are tempted to say something about someone's looks, it could be best to stay broad. Say, ‘you look beautiful’ instead of ‘You look so much thinner. You look beautiful.’” And if you’re on the receiving end of these types of comments, hang in there. Know that the person giving them likely isn’t coming from a bad place, and do your best to redirect the conversation. “Veer the conversation away from more talk of the body,” suggests Zucker. “In terms of processing triggering exchanges, seeking therapy, a trusted friend, or a support group might prove helpful as a safe place to delve into percolating feelings. Our bodies hold so much history and meaning, and it can be worthwhile to uncover our triggers and explore their roots in a safe environment.”
The big takeaway? When it comes to commenting on what someone looks like, for the most part, it’s usually best to not say anything at all. And if you really feel the need to, keep it simple, broad, and positive.