We’re all guilty of getting this wrong sometimes. You think you’re being nice by acknowledging someone’s weight loss, only to receive an awkward response of “I’m still the same as before, but thanks anyway.” Worse, you’re accused of pointing out just how fat the person used to be before slimming down.
“What’s problematic is that everyone views it differently, and it’s hard to figure out which people want compliments,” explains Irene Rubaum-Keller, Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and author of Foodaholic: The Seven Stages to Permanent Weight Loss, who has worked with patients who’ve lost significant amounts of weight over the last 20 years. Some people crave recognition of their hard work, yet others see your “Way to go!” as a source of pressure. “For people who aren’t sure they can keep the weight off, all that attention is anxiety-provoking because they worry what people will think if they slip up,” she says.
Not sure whether to gush or not? Here are nine tips on how to artfully deliver a compliment without offending (almost) anyone.
Weight Loss Real Talk: What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Say
1. Leave out the word “weight.”
The word “weight” is so loaded with negative meanings, you’re always safe using the more generic “You look great,” says Rubaum-Keller. “It can be a double-edged sword. People might hear ‘You’ve lost weight’ as ‘You used to be fat,’” she says.
That includes other weight-related words, such as ‘skinny.’ The adjective made 40-year-old Ilyssa Israel cringe after she lost 50 pounds last year. “It implies being sickly and not taking care of yourself,” says Israel, who recently started her own personal assistant business in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I eat healthier now than ever before.”
2. Give them a chance to brag.
For Hilary Russo, a Daily Burn 365 participant who recently lost 20 pounds, the perfect compliment is: “‘You look amazing! Tell me what you’ve been doing.’ This gives the person a chance to open up and say what’s positive for them,” says Russo, 43, on-camera talent for QVC and communications professor in New York City. “It gives me the floor to share what I’m proud of, like getting in the best shape of my life before my wedding in October and feeling physically and mentally stronger.”
3. Compliment big picture goals.
Israel never tires of being told she looks fabulous, but what really makes her glow is when people acknowledge why she did the hard work to shed 50 pounds. “I didn’t just lose weight to look good in clothes. I did it for my health,” says Israel, mother to a 4-year-old. “I knew that if I didn’t lose it, I would set myself up for health problems later.”
4. Save them for people you know well.
Jeff Stein, a Daily Burn 365 member, got a lesson in the perils of compliment-giving when he exclaimed to a co-worker upon her return from vacation: “You look great! You must have lost weight.” Even though the recipient seemed flattered, a colleague later told him it wasn’t appropriate to comment on another person’s looks. “I’ve been more selective about who I give compliments to,” says Stein, 46, a freelance writer from Astoria, Queens, who’s now lost 20 pounds himself.
5. Share your own experience.
You won’t steal another person’s thunder if you offer up a little empathy in the form of “I lost 20 pounds last year, and I know what a big deal that is.” In fact, you’ll improve your chances of connecting with someone on a very personal topic. However, Rubaum-Keller issues this warning: Do not talk about your challenges in keeping off the weight unless you’re sharing a strategy that worked for you. “You want to appear like a friend who understands and is trying to be helpful,” she says.
6. Keep them coming.
Worried you might be complimenting someone too much? There is no such thing as overkill to people who enjoy being praised. “Don’t worry if you sound like a broken record,” says Rubaum-Keller. In fact, suddenly stopping your raves can be upsetting to those who have gotten used to regular ego boosts.
To make his compliments go the distance, Stein focuses on acknowledging whether someone looks “fit and healthy.” “I don’t want to assign too much value to being thin or fat, especially if they gain back a few pounds,” he says.
7. Ditch the disbelief.
Perhaps you really can’t believe your friend shed 20 pounds. Still, temper your enthusiasm. “Don’t say, ‘I can’t believe how good you look!’” says Rubaum-Keller. “Think about what you’re saying: ‘I can’t believe you did this!’” That’s not exactly empowering now, is it?
8. Don’t remind them how far they’ve come.
For Stein, the worst compliment is hearing: “You’ve lost soooo much weight! You look so much better!” Even if it’s true, he says, “I don’t want to think that I was walking around for a long time looking like hell.”
Don’t disguise it as concern, either. Israel was offended when a few people said: “I didn’t want to say anything, but …” “I interpreted it as though I’d gotten too heavy for my own good. I knew I was that fat, but I don’t want to hear about it,” she says.
9. Be a good role model.
You can’t expect someone to receive a compliment graciously if you can’t take one yourself. Create your own mutual admiration society by looking your commenter directly in the eye and saying “thank you” like you mean it. “Be thankful that you have people offering you the gift of kindness and positivity,” says Russo. “Bask in the moment. Thank them for caring enough about your efforts to change your life for good.” Then gush away!
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