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Praise for Unhealthy Weight Loss Isn’t Just Painful, It’s Dangerous

The most harrowing thing about losing lots of weight due to disordered eating, stress or physical illness? The positive reinforcement you get

Amanda, a 44-year-old music teacher in New York, struggled terribly with anorexia in her mid-20s, engaging in highly restrictive eating, punishing exercise and laxative abuse. “All of my waking energy went into adding and subtracting calories, and I was just kind of a robot serving my addiction,” she says. “There’s one pic from that period of me smiling and snuggling my dog, and you can see that my face is starting to fall apart, and my cheeks are sinking in. I look like a jaundiced skeleton.”

Despite this, she was roundly complimented by family members and strangers on how good she looked. “A relative said that I looked great and had done well on Weight Watchers, and I went to an all-women’s gym where I got a lot of comments from middle-aged women like, ‘How do you do it?’ — even in the weeks before I had to go into in-patient treatment,” she continues. “I got more praise for getting skinnier than I did for either of my Master’s degrees.”

This is an experience typical for people with eating disorders, and others who have lost weight due to grief, stress and other serious illnesses: So automatic is the assumption that weight loss is desirable and healthy that even extreme, unhealthy weight loss is complimented. “Our society has normalized this practice, so it’s something we hear and see often,” says Claire Mysko, the CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). “We’ve seen this even more during quarantine, with people spending more time on social media where harmful jokes about gaining the ‘quarantine 15’ have caused an influx of sharing diet plans and extreme exercise programs.” 

A recent public example can be seen in the case of the singer Adele, whose extreme weight loss during her divorce from Simon Konecki was complimented as “stunning” and a “glow up,” and her much thinner stature praised as a “revenge body.” “Complimenting someone on weight loss, even with good intentions, reinforces the incorrect assumption that people in lower weight bodies are more valued,” Mysko explains. “The misconception that ‘thin’ equals ‘healthy’ has been plaguing our society for generations, particularly in the medical field.”

Lisa, a 22-year-old student in Amsterdam, experienced this firsthand when the very same psychiatrist who diagnosed her with EDNOS also complimented her weight loss. “My psychiatrist and care coordinator both knew going into our meeting that I had issues with eating and compulsive exercise, but they both started the session by complimenting me and saying how great I looked now that I’d lost weight,” she explains. “My psychiatrist even quoted a weird study at me about how people with slimmer faces are more successful because they look more professional or determined, or something along those lines. It was so bizarre.”

These compliments seem to persist no matter how otherwise unhealthy a person looks. Lidia, a 23-year-old graduate student from North Carolina, suffered from anorexia in her late teens. “I was exhausted all the time,” she explains. “Walking to class and getting out of bed became a struggle, and even if I wore no other makeup, I’d always wear concealer because the bags under my eyes were so dark. My grades slipped a lot because I couldn’t focus in class and hated being there, and my hair was constantly breaking or falling out.” Nonetheless, her weight loss was praised. “A lot of the compliments were about how ‘healthy’ I looked,” she says. “People would ask how much better I felt since I’d lost weight.”

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These sorts of comments can be particularly relentless for people with eating disorders who aren’t thin, a group for whom weight loss is even more automatically assumed to be a good thing. “Eating disorders don’t have a ‘look,’ and they impact people of all shapes and sizes,” Mysko says. “People who fit societal size and beauty standards aren’t inherently healthy, just like people in higher weight bodies aren’t inherently unhealthy. This assumption can keep people who are experiencing eating disorders from life-saving treatment.”

Some of the people on the receiving end of these compliments resent them, like Marcel, a 29-year-old writer from New Zealand, who was told he looked “great” after significant weight loss following an operation, which meant he couldn’t eat solids for three months, an experience he found “irritating.” “At the start, I’d respond like, ‘Oh thank you!’ but then I started being upfront, like ‘No, it’s because I’m sick. I haven’t done anything,’” he explains. “As a gay man who moves in theater, film and media circles, there’s an expectation that you be fit and skinny. So it felt like people were congratulating me for looking like an ideal that was never really mine.”

Others, though, are fueled by the praise for their weight loss, and for people with eating disorders in particular, that can be really dangerous. “Complimenting people on their smaller body size can potentially encourage them to continue practices like restrictive eating, excessive workouts and the use of harmful supplements like laxatives and ‘detox teas’ that can lead to more harmful effects down the line,” Mysko explains. “People complimenting others on weight loss don’t see the potentially harmful efforts that the person went through to change the way their body looks.”

Receiving these compliments from friends and family is usually more painful than hearing them from a stranger, too. Samantha, a 22-year-old from Philadelphia, remembers feeling let down by her friends in high school, who complimented her extreme weight loss caused by anxiety. “The weight loss should have been a physical indicator that something was wrong with me, besides other indicators like me withdrawing socially and having mood swings, but because weight loss is so revered, the focus was more on, ‘You look so good!’” she says. “It’s hard because we were only 17 with a lot of stuff going on, but I remember being so surprised about the lack of caring.”

What she really needed was not to be told that she looked good, but for someone to take a genuine interest in her mental and physical wellbeing, something almost everyone being complimented for unhealthy weight loss can relate to. “I desperately wanted someone to ask me if I was okay,” she says, “and I never really got that.” 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text “NEDA” to 741-741 or click here to chat