Poll: The Feel-Bad Compliment

“Different? No, you look the same as ever to me! Did you change your hair?”

Phillip Galanes’ “Social Q’s” column in the Sunday Times had what I thought was a strange complaint. A woman who had a long history of yo-yo weight loss said that when she was losing weight, she found the typical compliments she received from friends and co-workers offensive:

“You look so great!” “I hardly recognized you!” I hate these remarks. I’d like to respond: “Thank God I’m not so fat and ugly and gross anymore, right?” Or: “My body is none of your business.”

She said that she was currently in a weight-losing phase and responding to the well-intentioned comments with a simple “thanks,” but asked for advice from Gallanes regarding a better response. I was astounded to find that he sympathized:

Better to ignore the comments, or change the subject, than endorse them with gratitude.

I don’t think a reasonable person would be offended, though, if you said: “I know you mean well, but your comments about my body and weight bother me. I wish you wouldn’t make them.” Or even more directly: “Let’s skip my body as a subject for conversation. It makes me uncomfortable.” You’re allowed to be straight with people, Heather. And your feelings are justified.

Now, to the scores of letter writers who will complain that my ridiculous political correctness is getting in the way of giving simple compliments: Dudes, your “compliments” are hurting people’s feelings! So, maybe, back off your impulse and consider the unintended consequences of your so-called flattering remarks.

Dude! I would write exactly that kind of letter.

I have read dozens of consultants and  advisors for those whose loved ones and friends are trying to make healthy life-style changes, and they all say, “Encourage them! Tell them how good they look, and how impressed you are with their progress!” Now a Times advice columnist is saying that complimenting someone on losing weight might be offensive, so we must add one more segment of the social balm that makes life bearable to the category of “potential political correctness minefield.”

I would tell Yo-Yo that the flatterers are being kind and ethical, and she’s being neurotic. I would suggest that she seek some counseling for her insecurities that cause her to react to “You look great!” the same way she would react to “You’re a pig!” I would tell her that hype-active offense alarms are making everyone afraid to speak about anything, and that she is part of the problem.

I would tell her that at minimum, “thank-you” is an appropriate response, because the compliments are sincere and reasonable attempts to be kind and supportive, and such conduct should be encouraged and rewarded, not treated as one more opportunity for a “gotcha!”

And don’t call me “Dude.”

22 thoughts on “Poll: The Feel-Bad Compliment

  1. You’re right.

    It reminds me of the time Miss Manners chastized a so-called feminist who complained about men who waited to hold the door for her while she struggled to reach it due to a minor, but chronic ailment that caused her to be slower than others.

    If I recall correctly, Miss Manners asked her if there was so much kindness in the world that we can afford to dispense with some of it.

  2. We might want to know if Social Q’s spouse has asked if a particular garment makes them look fat. If so, we might want to cut the writer some slack.

    In all seriousness, telling someone they look great is hardly a comparative remark.
    There are some comments that are out of bounds or at least inane. When I worked my butt off and lost 50 lbs some people felt it necessary to inquire about my health such that I might be suffering from a severe health condition that led to my weight loss. You want to say “If I was sick and wanted you to know I would have told you.” But, I don’t. Instead I smile and think what an ass.

    People working on losing weight need and want encouragement and support. If that were not the case the myriad group weight loss programs such as Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig would not exist. The key to offering a compliment is focusing on the person and not the change.

    Instead of complimenting a person on their weight loss tell them they seem more upbeat, happy or other positive vibe and ask them whats up.

    • Ding! Ding! This is a winner.

      I remember when every conversation with my mother-in-law was about my weight loss. It was the only thing she complimented me on or wanted to discuss. I ended up telling her I wasn’t trying to loose weight anymore. Actually true. I shifted my focus to being healthier. That happened to include weight loss.

      When my weight becomes the sole reason someone compliments me it’s not a positive. When it’s the only thing they see it’s not a positive.

      • This comment and marie’s both assume facts not in evidence. Of course such compliments can be snotty, condescending or relentless, but none of that was suggested in the original query. These were all, according to the inquirer, sincere compliments.

        • Actually Jack the original comment included the phrase I almost did not recognize you. That was what prompted the inquiry to Social Q. This effectively negated the original compliment which was ” you look great”. A better follow up instead of ” I almost did not recognize you” would have been ” how are you” or it’s good to see you”.

          As for facts not in evidence, I was pointing out some well meaning comments are at best inartfully made. The gist of the post did not suggest that this was the only compliment on which we were voting.

          This case was presented in a binary form: give a compliment or don’t give a compliment. While I generally agreed that compliments should be given the giver must put some thought into it.

    • My wife had the opposite problem. She had some severe digestive problems and dropped about 50 pounds quickly. People kept telling her that she looked great and to keep it up! It was a little weird because she was hungry all the time but couldn’t eat and was worried about the weight loss. She felt a little guilty that people thought she was working out and eating right and she was seeing doctors left and right. She didn’t blame the people making the comments, however.

  3. They expressed it very poorly, but relative strangers often say these compliments in a snotty, condescending tone, like they are superior deigning to notice a very painful process they will never ever need. They clearly never had to deal with that overwhelming task and think the hearer should fall on their knees to be noticed (finally) in a favorable way for their appearance. There is a huge difference in tone you can hear after the fiftieth time from near strangers. It is the very same tone you can hear from people talking about the virtue of being there for racial or gender quotas: superiority and easy virtue signaling. It may not be every person, but it is a smug majority as you struggle with a downslope.

    I’ve never been in a brawl, but hollow encouragement makes me want to punch some. It was a small consolation decades later when one of the condescending ones has to deal more closely with it themselves and backhanded compliments ceased. There are other ways to support than shallow compliments for a very unfinished process that always has steps back.

  4. I agree that complimenting someone who lost weight is not a problem, but I think I understand where the person who lost weight is coming from here. They don’t like being reminded of how gross they were just months previously. If you lived in a sewer for awhile and then moved into a clean apartment, you wouldn’t want people saying things like, “Wow, you smell so much better now” or “I can’t remember the last time I didn’t gag in your presence” or “Did you actually wash your hair today? That’s amazing. A showered you is a like a whole new YOU” or anything that reminds you of the fact that you actually lived in a sewer surrounded by rats like the Rat King for several months, foraging off waste and refuse. Drawing attention to your new situation just triggers memories of what it was like to live in a sewer.

    Also, it’s simply the wrong time to compliment them on their new situation. The right time to compliment somebody on their weight loss is actually BEFORE they lose it. I know that sounds nonsensical but allow me to explain. Imagine you’re a 400 pound chunky lunk of lard grease, and I say to you, “Wow, Richard! You look amazing! Did you lose some weight?” You’re going to start thinking, “Gee, DID I lose some weight? I didn’t think so. I’ve been hitting the chocolate ice cream and popcorn shrimp pretty hard as of late– but it’s POSSIBLE I did. Maybe I’m an ounce or two lighter this week? Is that possible? I bet it is! I can do this! I can beat back the waves of fat threatening to engulf my very existence!” You see? You’re going to inspire Janet the Planet and Hugo Humongous to lose that fat by planting a seed somewhere in the fertile creases of fat on their forehead. You can be that spark that gives me the drive to put down the 2 liter soda bottles they are two-fisting and switch to those cute little 7.5 ounce soda shooters that you have to sip whilst holding with two fingers. The next time you see some fatty– give them something to chew on and say, “You’re so much thinner I almost didn’t see you standing there! What’s your secret? Are you training for a marathon? Shutup, Sally! I know you didn’t give up the red licorice! Tell me how you lost that weight!” Don’t wait until AFTER somebody has lost the weight to compliment them– your compliments can empower them to lose weight RIGHT NOW. Complimenting them later when they’re all thin and anorexic looking is just rubbing salt in their wounds about how gross they were previously and completely unproductive. The time to rub salt in the wound is when the wound hasn’t healed yet. Everybody always says “Don’t rub salt in a wound.” But that’s all wrong. Salt water promotes HEALING.
    It pulls liquid and bacteria out of the wound. Fat shaming isn’t cruel– it’s the saline solution for weight loss.

    • “Imagine you’re a 400 pound chunky lunk of lard grease, and I say to you, “Wow, Richard! You look amazing! Did you lose some weight?” You’re going to start thinking, “Gee, DID I lose some weight?”

      This might be a parody post, but if it isn’t…no, that’s not how it works. Big people weigh themselves regularly and look in the mirror with self-loathing daily. If you’re lying to them, I suspect they’ll know it, and probably will wonder if you’re mocking them or just trying to call attention to their weight as a way to dress them down in public.

      On the other hand, being offended for genuine, sincere compliments on a weight-loss job well done is more of a bad reflection on the person being complimented. Overweight people often don’t “feel” overweight, especially if they were thin for years before becoming obese. They don’t like to acknowledge the obvious fact of their appearance, so anyone calling attention to it can make them feel shame, even if the weight is gone. However, for them to feel justified in this shows a lack of empathy. It’s obvious that if you really do lose weight, people are going to want to encourage you to keep it up, and mean well. The reasonable thing to do would be to own up to one’s past.

      Apart from all that, how do you claim to empathize with the overweight letter writer in one paragraph, and then type the most tone-deaf, nasty, dehumanizing word diarrhea possible about overweight people in the next? Just based on that I honestly would associate with 100 fat people before I would so much as shake hands with you.

      • You’re qualifying your distaste for me as more distasteful than pressing hands with 100 fat people? Why not 1,000? Surely, 1,000 fat people is not intolerable. Nah, you’re right. You gotta draw the line somewhere. I’m glad you drew it instead of me though– I would have been afraid of offending fat people to draw a line in the sand around how many I was willing to associate with.

  5. The key to the woman’s question is that she had a long history of yo-yo weight loss.
    Not only had this woman a long history of yo-yo weight loss … she herself is very aware, very conscious that she has this long history of yo-yo weight loss.
    if you don’t have this long history of yo-yo weight loss than every compliment about your weight loss adds to your good feelings about yourself. Great.
    But there is no such thing as a (value) free compliment. Giving a compliment is also implicit stating an expectation. Something like, “Yo woman, we value your weightloss and you better keep that weight off.”
    However, if you do have a long history of yo-yo weight loss then every compliment you get when losing weight sets you up for a bigger disappointment when gaining weight. So you start to resent the positive compliments.

  6. I thought a simple “You look fantastic!” and moving on was the coded way to compliment someone’s weight loss without drawing attention to it. Am I wrong?

  7. Best bet is to just keep quiet, and that goes double for the workplace. That said, I’m coming from the standpoint of someone who people don’t want to notice and who they don’t want to notice them. Growing up girls did not want me to say ANYTHING to them, because it meant they’d attracted my attention and they didn’t want it. I tried to explain myself once, and a classmate said firmly, “look here, Steve, it’s ok if Jim compliments me. He’s a good looking guy and I want him to notice me. You are short, ugly, out of shape, weird, you don’t fit in, and you look like you have two Coke bottles stuck to your face. I don’t want you to compliment me. I don’t want you to notice me. I don’t want you to look at me. I want you to stay FAR away from me. The South Pole would be great, but I’ll settle for anywhere I’m not. We clear?” Then she flounced off, leaving my ego in about 1,000 pieces. Of course I eventually became an attorney and the last I heard she was cutting hair, had three kids by three different dads with one more on the way by a fourth guy, and only got as far as one semester of college. You lose.

  8. I took Social Q’s response as meaning “Be thoughtful of the recipient’s circumstances when giving complements, rather than automatically saying the first thing that comes to mind” and “If something bothers you and you would prefer not to talk about it, politely say so, rather than quietly resenting it”. There is a middle road between being neurotically “PC” and being oblivious to other people’s discomfort.

    Everyone has topics that they would rather not discuss. For the woman writing, it was her constant battles with the weight. For others, it may be their job, their education, their marriage(s), their family, their military experiences, or a host of other things. Anytime a complement comes with an implicit criticism, it has to be offered with great sensitivity.

    • Again, you’re adding to the facts. The inquirer did not suggest there was any reason for a friendly acquaintance to assume there was something inappropriate about a compliment. If there wasn’t, then the compliment-giver is free of blame, and should not be admonished.

  9. I seems obvious that Yo-yo is aware of her weight and tries to address it, even if sporadically. She either does it for vanity reasons or medical reasons, and one would think that, within reason, a thinner Yo-yo is a happier/healthier Yo-yo. If she had turned into a walking scarecrow, withholding comment until she mentioned her issues would be a good idea,however.

    Having to evaluate every spoken word for how someone might misconstrue it before uttering it is not a good place to be. Maybe more people should take Dennis Miller’s advice: “Toughen up; wear a cup.”

  10. Like roses after a beating.. took me years to love roses again but I sure do now — but that was my struggle and no reason to be mad if someone gave me roses. I have also struggled with weight loss and gain, and I’ve been flattered and also felt the critical undertone of certain people’s compliments. As someone who is quite attractive when I’m thin, the biggest irritant to me is when I’m heavier for awhile and get used to not getting the appreciative glances, then lose weight and those same people give the glances, try to hug me, etc.. that is irritating. Compliment away — the weight gain is usually from other unresolved issues we need to resolve. I’m happy to say thank you but also realize that some people are so shallow that only those ‘improvements’ make you worthy of being in their presence.

  11. In the photos Jack posts here, that weight-loss champion on the right is too thin. If she asked me what I thought of her “new her,” I would tell her so directly – regardless of whether I knew how fat she used to be.

    I’m just not going to apologize when someone says they’re offended by a compliment I just paid them. Because I’ll be offended by their being offended, so the score will be even.

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