“You look so skinny!”
For more than a decade, I longed to hear those words. The only one who said them to me was my grannie, but it wasn’t a compliment. To her, if you don’t have a lot of meat on your bones, you’re not well. But, to everyone else, I was never skinny enough.
Although I have never been fat (I always oscillated between UK sizes 8-12), my curves never made me look skinny. No one ever had a problem with my big breasts, but my hips, thighs, and bum were all deemed too fat. They needed to be thinner. I wanted them to, so that people would finally find me pretty enough and worthy of their love.
That never happened. Instead, I learned to embrace my body and accept it for the wonderful instrument it is, and all the amazing things it allows me to do. I stopped craving to be thinner but, until not too long ago, I still fell into the skinny trap and complimented my friends on their weight loss. “You look so skinny!,” I’d tell them with a smile.
Now, I cringe. I did it because it was the done thing. Isn’t complimenting women on their weight loss what we’ve all been taught to do? Isn’t that the right thing to do? That’s what our looks obsessed society may tell us, but the “You look so skinny!” compliment is no compliment at all. And often does more harm than good to those who hear it. Why? Mm, where do I start?
1. “You Look So Skinny” Is A Backhanded Compliment
We may think that, when we tell someone how thin or skinny they now look, we’re paying them a wonderful compliment. But we’re actually insulting them. What we are really saying is: “You used to be so fat and disgusting. Your body was unacceptable. But look at you now! You finally look good and normal!”.
I know that’s probably not what you meant to say, especially to a close friend. You just wanted to be nice. But if we weren’t taught that fat=bad and skinny=good, we wouldn’t pay someone that “compliment” in the first place, would we? It’d have no value.
2. “You Look So Skinny” Judges More Than Looks
When we tell someone “You look so skinny!”, we’re not just judging their physical appearance, but also their personality and their intrinsic worth as a human being. If skinny is the ideal to achieve, then all those who strive to reach it are virtuous.
That means that if you’re not skinny, you’re lazy. Flawed. You have no willpower and resilience. You should just be ashamed of yourself and go hide somewhere until you decide to sort yourself out.
This is wrong on so many levels. Not everyone can achieve the skinny ideal. But even if we could, why should we? A number on a scale, a small jeans size, or bones showing do not equal health. They don’t make you better than everyone else.
It’s our character, our personality, our accomplishments, and the way we treat others that determine the kind of person we are. But we forget that when we focus only on our looks.
3. “You Look So Skinny” Reinforces Body Policing
As women, we are used to having our bodies monitored and scrutinized. Magazines are always dissecting this or that celebrities’ body, letting us know how that singer has achieved such incredible weight loss or that actress has let herself go and piled on the pounds.
When we talk to our friends, our bodies often come up in the conversation. And we rarely have something nice to say about them.
When we see a stranger walking down the street, we make comments, whether good or bad, about their appearance. Sometimes, we even feel entitled to utter those comments. To their faces. Even when we don’t know the person well. “You look so skinny! What’s your secret?”
This incessant body talk creates a negative environment that puts pressure on women to look a certain way. Because anyone, at any time, can say something about our body we feel the need to make it look as acceptable as possible. All. The. Time.
That is exhausting, and forces us to use our cognitive resources and mental space towards looking a certain way, rather than working hard to achieve our dreams, getting involved in volunteering work, and just becoming active members of society and the best people we can possibly be.
4. “You Look So Skinny” Can Reinforce Bad Behaviours
We love judging others. But, too often, we do so without knowing the whole story. If one of your close friends is trying to lose weight for health reasons, and is doing so the proper way, by exercising and following a healthier diet, of course you should be supportive. Just don’t comment on their looks. Say something about how their new habits are improving their health.
But, not everyone loses weight healthily. Some women are literally starving themselves and are in the throes of an eating disorder. Or are dealing with depression. Or have cancer. Or any other illness, mental or physical.
By telling them how skinny they look you may be reinforcing an unattainable ideal of beauty they have and helping them justify the dangerous lengths they go to achieve it. Or you may just remind them of the bad situation they are now in. So, unless you know how someone has lost the weight, don’t comment on it.
So, What Should We Say Instead?
Talking about our bodies is automatic for us. It shouldn’t be. No one has the right to judge how other people look, not even if we like what we see. It’s time we reframe the conversation, and focus about what’s really important.
So, next time you feel like saying “You look so skinny!” (or any other looks-based compliment), don’t. Instead, ask your friend or acquaintance what’s new in her life, how a project she’s working on is going, or what her plans for the weekend are. Ask her something that matters to her and makes her feel like you really care about her.
You could start the conversation with a simple, “It’s great to see you! How have you been?”. And, if you really want to comment on someone’s weight loss or looks, follow up the statement with a character-based compliment. Tell them how caring, generous, and smart they are. Make them feel like they are more than just a body to look at.
But what if you’re on the receiving end of this backhanded compliment? Change the tone of the conversation, letting your friend or acquaintance gently know they shouldn’t care about looks so much.
So, when someone tells you “You look so skinny!”, reply with “That’s boring! There are much more interesting things to talk about than my body.” And then ask them something about them, like “What did you do last weekend?” or, “How is work going?”. If you stop talking about your body, slowly but surely, your friends will follow your lead.
The Bottom Line
There’s nothing wrong with being skinny. Lots of people are naturally skin, and that’s ok. What’s not ok is promoting one body type over all others. That’s what you’re doing when you tell someone “You look so skinny”. And it’s time we stop that.
How do you feel when someone tells you “You look so skinny”? Have you ever said it to others?