Words are the most powerful thing in the world. They have the ability to completely uplift or utterly destroy in a single sentence. Each day, we are presented with hundreds of opportunities to affect the people around us with our words. Like it or not, each person is responsible for the words they utter every second of every day. Will we choose to embolden or dishearten the world with what we say?
By definition, a compliment is “a polite expression of praise or admiration.” But here’s the thing… sometimes, the words we think are compliments are not really compliments at all! I have been bigger than most of my friends and family my whole life. Even when I was younger and much thinner, I was tall, apple shaped, and had big boobs and giant feet. Over the years, I have had a lot of well-meaning family, friends, and even strangers offer “compliments” about what I was wearing, things I was doing, or ways I was simply existing that seemed… wrong. Instead of interpreting these words as kind, I sort of felt insulted.
It seems at times that fat people are the last group in the world that it is socially acceptable to speak to condescendingly. We’ve learned to erase the stigma surrounding many other groups of people… and rightfully so! Yet somehow, it always seems to be open season on fat people. You may not intend to sound unkind. You may even think you are being extremely complimentary. However, many of the “encouraging words” directed our way are born of an implicit bias against fat people and can be extremely harmful.
Here are some phrases that are important to avoid when speaking to a person of size…
“I wish I could pull off an outfit like that.” What exactly does that mean? It says, “Good for you, but I would never DARE wear something that bold… kooky… revealing… etc.” It says, “No one else would have the audacity to try to wear that in public, but nice try.” It says, “Really, you shouldn’t have.” Telling someone they pulled something off says a lot of things, but none of them are complimentary.
“You are so brave.” This phrase is most often used when a person of size wears something that shouldn’t be worn, according to “the rules.” Wearing a bathing suit on a public beach? How brave! Donning a sleeveless dress on a summer day? That’s courage. Going out in something super slinky and sexy. Wow, look at YOU! It is not courageous to wear something that makes you feel happy… comfortable… normal. Everyone deserves the right to feel good as hell in whatever they choose to wear.
“I wish I had your confidence.” Am I confident because I got up, got dressed, and went into public today? No. What people are really saying is, that I should actually be ashamed to look like I do. The fact that I show up and live my life like a thin, more conventionally attractive person should not be reason for surprise.
“I just want you to be happy and healthy” By saying this, you assume that I am currently neither happy nor healthy. What if I am already BOTH?! People are fat for a lot of reasons. The shape of a person’s body is not always an indicator of their overall health. A person’s happiness does not derive from how other people feel about their appearance. Don’t assume anything when you look at me.
“Good for you!” I’ve had this shouted at me from cars while walking around my neighborhood. I’ve had it said, accompanied by a high five when doing a 5K race. I heard it when I signed up for adult tap lessons. I’ve received it when ordering a lighter fare menu item, eating a healthy lunch, and drinking a glass of water. Guess what?! I am not doing any of those things to lose weight. I am not doing them to please you. I do them because I want to. Receiving your unsolicited approval is actually the opposite of encouragement.
“That makes you look so slim.” Trust me, I am not under any assumptions that an outfit is going to make me look skinny. I see myself naked every day… I know what’s what. I wear what I do as a means of self-expression, not to try and fit into a conventional view of beauty or acceptance.
“You look terrific! Have you lost weight?” Shockingly, weight changes are not always intentional or welcome. Maybe the person is having a serious health crisis. Maybe they are going through a difficult emotional storm. Pointing out a person’s weight as a matter of congratulations just reinforces that they were somehow “wrong” before and can complicate an already difficult experience.
“You wear your weight well.” So what you’re saying is, I should be gross, but somehow I manage to look ok?! By holding myself a certain way, wearing a certain thing, or sucking in at the right places, I am able to somehow camouflage the beast I really am. It’s like saying that other Plus Sized people are a frumpy mess, but somehow I manage to work a little harder.
“You have such a pretty face.” I’ve heard this one from people I don’t even know! It’s like telling someone, “Your face is your one redeeming quality. You should work harder to make the rest match.” If this is the only nice thing you can think of to say to a person… don’t bother!
“You’re not fat. You’re beautiful.” This is the most infuriating sentence of all! I seriously hear it all the time! Do you think that it’s impossible to be BOTH fat AND beautiful?! Those descriptors are not mutually exclusive, I assure you. When I call myself fat, it is not an insult. I am simply describing myself… like saying I have brown hair and brown eyes. It’s just a word, and it does NOT invalidate my beauty, or my worth. When I hear, “You’re not fat. You’re beautiful,” it seriously makes me want to roundhouse kick people in the face.
I’m sure there are a zillion more that I could include on this list… these are simply the phrases I encounter the most personally. So now that you know… DO BETTER. Think before you speak. Are your words actually kind? Are they from a deep-rooted bias and fear of looking like me? Would you feel beautiful, powerful, or valued if someone spoke those words to you?
Fat people are not attractive, happy, well-dressed, or confident in spite of our size. We are all of these things simply because we are human… we exist… we have a right to feel good about who we are.
2 thoughts on “This Is Not A Compliment”
Top 3 key points:
1. Words are powerful and can uplift or destroy in a single sentence. Each person is responsible for the words they utter.
2. “Compliments” directed towards people of size can be harmful even if unintended. Words like “brave,” “confident,” and “healthy” can be condescending and reinforce a harmful bias.
3. Speak with kindness and thoughtfulness. Fat people deserve to feel beautiful, powerful, and valued like anyone else.
Absolutely, totally, and completely.