It is a wonderful and beautiful thing to compliment someone else; we absolutely should encourage and empower each other. However, complimenting someone else’s body, no matter how well intended, can be dangerous. When it comes to body positivity I can only speak from my own perspective as a white, average weight, cis woman. I do – as do the vast majority of people – struggle with body image.
There is a lot of discussion and a wonderful movement that encourages body positivity. Whilst we focus on not shaming others or ourselves – which is of immense importance and should be encouraged – we may forget that sometimes complimenting can be dangerous too. I would like to open the discussion by suggesting that we should all be warier of complimenting another’s body, as any form of physical commentary can (unintentionally) increase self-consciousness. I particularly want to warn against the use of the word “healthy”, as I feel that “healthy” can be said with the absolute best of intentions but can actually be the most dangerous of all.
For example, over my gap year, as is often the case for people travelling, I gained some weight, and when I returned was told I looked “nice and healthy” by a family friend. More recently, over Christmas, I had a stomach bug which made me very sick and unable to eat for days, causing me to lose weight. On returning home, another person commented on how “fit and healthy” I was looking. In neither of these instances was I in fact my most healthy, and it occurred to me that sometimes people will look healthy when their behaviours may be the exact opposite (either mentally or physically). Such compliments could potentially encourage someone to continue certain unhealthy behaviours.
The problem is that when I am my thinnest people are the most complimentary. Whilst compliments are – I am sure – intended only to make me feel good, they can have negative consequences. Sometimes these compliments serve as evidence that my body is being judged, and that people didn’t like it before, and that therefore I need to maintain the shape I am when I get the most validation. This becomes very stressful. I do not mean to suggest that we shouldn’t compliment one another, but I think that we do need to be careful of what we are commenting on and why.
An amazing outfit chosen by someone should definitely get a compliment, and something unchangeable like the beautiful colour of someone’s eyes should too! Even more wonderful perhaps would be to compliment an achievement (that is not physical!) or their intelligence or humour. The thing with complimenting someone’s body – if you don’t know them very intimately – is that you don’t know what they have undergone to get to that particular shape; or how much their weight fluctuates; or if that compliment might actually make them feel that they are of more value than they were when they looked different.
I think celebrating other bodies as well as our own is immensely important, but the way we do this has to be with the upmost care. If you know that someone will be able to take the “compliment” in a way that serves them and helps them then by all means say it. However, with people you are less close to I suggest you leave the topic of their body alone. There are lots of other things you can comment on or compliment them for! Give your body a lot of love and appreciation for keeping you alive. Give a lot of compliments to yourself and to other people. Just be careful of telling people they look “healthy” because they might only look it.
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf