How To Compliment Women On Their Bodies Without Fat-Shaming
I was around 27 or 28, the age at which I was pretty clueless about which direction my love life was taking, when one day, during a casual discussion at work about forming meaningful, adult relationships, a junior colleague piped up: “but you’re fat”, attempting to take the sting out of the repugnant comment with a smile.
He was making a point, I think, about the right of the overweight in seeking relationships outside the ‘fat community’.
I remember vividly that I froze. My face felt hot, hands started to shake and I desperately tried to say something that would be witty and self-deprecating without being defensive or aggressive. I remember being so enraged that I cried inside a stall at the office washroom, refusing to come out for an hour. For the rest of the day, I tried to shrink my body as much as possible to attain invisibility.
I imagined hushed laughter where there were none. Looking back, I know I would have handled that situation differently had I the wisdom of 10 more years of living in an uncomfortable body and the self-awareness to understand that my fat identity did not define who I am.
Soon after that incident, I started spending close to two hours at the gym every day and over the next eight months lost around 20 kilos to get back to my ideal body weight. I looked fabulous at my wedding. I gained it all back in the next nine years and the process left me exhausted.
All my life I have struggled with weight. I’m at least 10-15 kilos overweight for my height at any given time and have embarked on innumerable diets that I have abandoned to hunger pangs and time management.
Ask those who battle weight and they will tell you how complex body politics can overwhelm almost every aspect of our lives. All my life I have struggled with weight. I’m at least 10-15 kilos overweight for my height at any given time and have embarked on innumerable diets that I have abandoned to hunger pangs and time management. I have a constant battle with finding the right fit in clothes and underwear and setting aside time to prepare diet food after a tiring day at work. I’ve had nutritionists re-write diet plans because I will inevitably abandon the ones that involve “lightly grilling a fillet of fish” and “freshly-made tomato juice.” I don’t have full-time help and exactly 20 minutes every morning before I rush to the office after packing my five-year-old son to school. I have lauki in the fridge. Tell me what I can do with lauki and raw tomatoes without waking up the entire household running a juicer early in the morning.
I have patiently listened to the size medium exclaim they “look obese” and the size XXXL complaining about the audacious hypocrisy of the XLs whining about being fat. I’ve met fat women who are so ebullient and full of positivity that they give you hope, until they berate the thin as pretentious without truly understanding the exhausting weight loss culture.
I guiltily ignored the toxic message that compliment was sending by equating thin with beautiful. I worked really hard to get here and I would not let my conscience ruin a compliment.
After My Great Summer Of Weight Loss of 2009, when I met friends, they would gasp at how different I looked. “You’re so thin and gorgeous!” I guiltily ignored the toxic message that compliment was sending by equating thin with beautiful. I worked really hard to get here and I would not let my conscience ruin a compliment. I lit up with smug pride at parties when the host said exasperatedly, “You eat like a bird.” It was a balm for my soul. The years of eating a large pizza by myself were wiped clean. I had finally entered the secret sorority of the thin and the beautiful. Ours is a culture that takes pride in invalidating experiences of those who do not conform to our worldview and thinness, we have decided, is the yardstick with which to measure the morals of the fat—“How difficult is it to lose weight if you set your sight on it? You must want to do it”.
Relatives think nothing of gently reminding you that you have put on a few kilos. Shopkeepers curtly tell you that your size is not available. Well-meaning friends think they are reinforcing body positivity—“you are beautiful the way you are— by patronising your struggle to drop a size in a society hostile to large women. All our popular imagery of celluloid icons are steeped in the thinness of razor-cut celery. We’ve descended to the abyss of hell where even sexual assault victims suffer the scrutiny of fat-shamers on social media in order to prove their violation.
A recent conversation on Twitter among a group of feminists of various ages, discussing whether to compliment women on their looks upon meeting them, gripped me. As a blunt, rushed society, we are yet to explore and evolve the complex art of compliment giving, especially to women.
To me, the comment dehumanizes the overweight, reinforcing the thin stereotype as the standard of beauty. It implies that her body was inadequate before the weight loss.
“Have you lost weight,” is a comment that seemingly means to encourage and uplift. A friend responded on the thread about the need to hear this after days of working out. To her, the comment is a positive affirmation of the toil that goes into the weight loss process. To me, the comment dehumanizes the overweight, reinforcing the thin stereotype as the standard of beauty. It implies that her body was inadequate before the weight loss. If you do not know an acquaintance’s weight loss history—whether due to illness or working out—it’s best not to make a direct comment about their appearance on meeting them.
Compliments about looks always come masked in misogyny. Even with the best intent, comments on weight loss uphold the thin bias.
Fat contempt is a real thing in a universe where people refuse to fly next to the overweight, struggle to pay them sincere compliments—“you have a great personality”—and judge their resolve of self-care. I cringe every time I hear someone declare that “real” women come with curves. There’s no one body type that is ideal, just as there is no one single definition of beauty. Compliments about looks always come masked in misogyny. Even with the best intent, comments on weight loss uphold the thin bias. While we struggle with size acceptance, the comments of strangers and acquaintances can make or break that journey.
The moment I gain weight I’m asked, often by complete lay folks, to try a diet.
I’ve found “I’m really glad to see you” is a compliment that fits all sizes and age. If you are complimenting women, try to stick to neutral topics and things that are under their control. If they bring up the subject of weight loss, then and only then, ask about their daily routine, and compliment them on their resolve, which is something I personally struggle with. Genuine interest in someone’s daily life is a bigger compliment than a fly-by comment on how they are looking on a particular day. Overweight people are lectured constantly about worrying about their health—a regular reminder from near strangers that they are unable to judge the state of their own bodies. The moment I gain weight I’m asked, often by complete lay folks, to try a diet.
When I pick an outfit, it’s with the worry that my breasts are now bigger and my arms are fleshier than they used to be a year ago. My stomach rolls out of the waistband of jeans when I sit down and I surreptitiously hunch down in my chair so that it’s tucked under the table, out of the sight of the people walking past.
There’s a lot we negotiate — no matter what our size. We crave to go from small to medium, from XXXL to XL, large to small. We crave to be seen in a sea of toned people running half marathons. I feel wistful whenever I see someone’s collarbone popping out over the neckline of a blouse or a shirt—seasoned weight watchers know that’s the first sign of any weight loss. It doesn’t hurt to step out of the exhausting cycle of worrying about weight. As we gain assurance from the confidence of others, we decide it would be lovely not to sit hunched down, pull our shoulders back and spread out.
I leave you with this guttural passage from the essay—‘A letter from the fat person on your flight’—by an anonymous feminist blogger ‘Your Fat Friend’ about being put through the humiliating process of a seat change on a plane because her co-passenger would not sit next to her.
“As we began our descent, I planned my route from the gate to the bathroom, where I could cry until the humiliation had drained me. I just had to get there. When passengers filtered into the aisle to retrieve their bags, my former seat mate looked at me for the second time.
“You know, I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker,” he said.
“What?” I struggled to find my words. I hadn’t expected to talk to him. I hadn’t expected to talk to anyone. “I wouldn’t do this to a person with a walker, or a pregnant woman,” he repeated.
“I know,” I said. “That’s what makes this terrible.”
Rituparna Chatterjee is a feminist journalist and writes on gender parity, women’s rights and social inequality. She started her career with The Statesman newspaper in Delhi and has worked in digital and print media for the last 15 years.
Views expressed are author’s own.
Picture Credit: Samuel Zeller, Unsplash