Why we need to rethink the way we compliment each other

·6-min read

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Fatphobia can be perpetuated unknowingly through our language (Image via Getty Images)
Fatphobia can be perpetuated unknowingly through our language (Image via Getty Images)

I’m not sure I would have survived the early days of the pandemic without reality television. My roommates and I have spent countless hours shamelessly binging reality dating shows over the last year and a half, leaning into the escapism of the genre and preoccupying our minds with petty drama in an effort to forget about the dark, dystopian outside world.

What’s great about reality TV, besides the mindlessness of it, is that it becomes a social experience when you watch with friends. It’s inherently better when you discuss every comical relationship and interaction unfolding on screen. But lately I’ve noticed an unsettling trend when it comes to the reality TV talk that routinely takes place in my apartment: it almost always turns into a conversation about bodies.

“I want her body,” one of my roommates comments as we fire up a new episode of the mindless but entertaining series "Temptation Island."

 “Her body is sick,” remarks the other as we binge every episode of "Too Hot To Handle" way too quickly. 

“How does a human body even look like that?” I catch myself saying during the newest episode of "Love Island U.S. "

We're all guilty of it; and by it, I mean making comments with fatphobic undertones. The kinds of comments that overemphasize the importance of physical appearance and place a ridiculous amount of value on a specific body type—one that's unattainable for the majority of people.

The language we use to compliment people may be unintentionally enabling unhealthy behaviours (Image via Getty Images).
The language we use to compliment people may be unintentionally enabling unhealthy behaviours (Image via Getty Images).

And who could blame us? We live in a society that values thinness over most if not all attributes, a society that teaches us and women in particular, that if we want to have full lives, find love and be happy, we had better be thin. We are spoon-fed these messages from early childhood with the beauty industry, popular culture and even our closest loved ones constantly reinforcing the idea that if we want to have value in this world, we must look a certain way.

Fortunately, things are slowly changing for the better. People are waking up to the disordered beauty standards and daring to love themselves despite incessant messaging that their body is unlovable. Fashion brands are facing more pressure than ever to include models of all shapes and sizes in their campaigns, fatphobic remarks about pandemic-related weight gain are being heavily criticized online while the body positivity/acceptance movement continues to gain momentum.

Still, it seems our language is lagging behind. Although many of us (myself and the majority of my friends and family included) talk a big game about the importance of self-love and self-acceptance, the words we frequently use to compliment others—celebrities, close friends and romantic interests alike—say otherwise.

It would be downright impossible to count the number of times I’ve heard someone say that someone has “such a good body” or refer to a clothing item as “flattering” (translation: slimming). We mean well, but it seems as though many of us are utterly unaware of the potentially harmful impacts of our words—even when we mean them as a compliment.

“I think when it comes to compliments, the intention is always good, but a lot of them can be fatphobic in the way that they're delivered,” says Kailin Sarrah, a body acceptance content creator, in an interview with Yahoo Canada. Sarrah recently became an eating disorder recovery coach after recovering from several eating disorders of her own.

Complimenting people on their body can reinforce unhealthy behaviour (Image via Getty Images).
Complimenting people on their body can reinforce unhealthy behaviour (Image via Getty Images).

According to Sarrah, the best way to compliment someone is to focus on attributes unrelated to someone's physical appearance. 

 "Somebody saying, ‘Oh, you're so confident for wearing that,’ has a negative connotation of saying you shouldn't be confident wearing that," she explains.

I’ve received my fair share of such well-intended, non-compliments in my lifetime. “You’ve lost weight!” is the main one that comes to mind. It would make me feel terrible, mostly because their cheerful tone implied that I needed to lose weight and that my unintentionally dropping a few pounds is cause for celebration.

Sarrah knows the feeling. Her Instagram account, Heal With Kailin, has become a resource for her more than 50,000 followers to help them cope with issues related to food and body image—but it wasn’t always that way. She initially created her page to hold herself accountable while she suffered from orthorexia, a restrictive eating disorder that involves the fixation on healthy eating, rather than losing weight. 

The fitness-themed content resulted in plenty of positive feedback from followers that was detrimental to her mental and physical health. 

“I would get so much praise when my body was the main focus of any shot,” Sarrah says. “I kind of tied my value and people liking me to my body looking a certain way.”

When she began her recovery process and began advocating for body acceptance, Sarrah says she lost close to 30,000 followers. 

Complimenting someone for the way they look can perpetuate fatphobia. (Image via Getty Images)
Complimenting someone for the way they look can perpetuate fatphobia. (Image via Getty Images)

“I was like, ‘OK, so now that I've gained weight, people don't like me anymore, they don't think that what I have to say is important,’” she says.

According to Sarrah, people fail to realize that when we compliment someone’s body, there’s always a chance we're encouraging and enabling unhealthy behaviours.

“We could be complimenting mental illness, right?” she says. “We can be complimenting a miscarriage, depression or an eating disorder.”

In addition to the impact on the person receiving the compliments, our words also take a toll on bystanders. People within earshot of these remarks can be left feeling inadequate because their body is not being validated in the same way as those around them.

“If somebody else's body is always complimented, and yours isn't, I think a lot of people can internalize those thoughts as though something's inherently wrong with you because nobody is mentioning your body," she explains. "We're all kind of looking for validation from other people.”

By calling one type of body “good” we're also implying the existence of a “bad body,” which Sarrah says is both fatphobic and ableist.

“Is a disabled body a bad body, or is a fat body a bad body?" she asks. "What makes a good body? I think a lot of the time we don't actually know what we're complimenting.”

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