“You look so skinny!”
For more than a decade, I longed to hear those words.
Although I have never been fat (I’ve 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. I desperately wanted them to be thinner, 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 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. Here’s why:
1. “You Look So Skinny” Is A Backhanded Compliment
Isn’t “you look so skinny!” one of the best compliment you can give someone?
Nope. It’s actually an insult. What you’re 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 you weren’t taught that fat = bad and skinny = good, you wouldn’t pay someone that “compliment” in the first place, would you?
2. “You Look So Skinny” Judges More Than Looks
When you tell someone “You look so skinny!”, you’re not just judging their looks. You’re also judging 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 you could, why should you? A number on a scale, a small jeans size, or bones showing underneath your skin do NOT equal health. They don’t make you better than everyone else.
It’s your character, your personality, your accomplishments, and the way you treat others that determines the kind of person you are. Easy to 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.
It’s only natural then, that when you talk to your friends, our bodies often come up in the conversation. And we rarely have something nice to say about them.
When you see a stranger walking down the street, you make comments about their appearance. Sometimes, you may 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. How fucked up is that?!
Related: Why I’ve Stopped Reading Women’s Magazines
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 (you know exercising + healthy 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 You Say Instead?
Talking about our bodies is automatic for us. It shouldn’t.
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”? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
We are all built differently, and all body types are beautiful. Obesity really is a problem, but that’s not what you are talking about at all, and I know that. I agree with you a thousand per cent and I’m glad you have come to a place of acceptance with your natural self.
I have been told the skinny remark many times, but I’m a runty 5’0. I’m at a normal healthy weight now but I grew up being underweight.
When giving a compliment I just tell people they look good, or their clothes, makeup, hair etc looks really nice.
Jessica, thank you for your comment. I’m glad you are now a normal weight too. I like how you give compliments. Those things are harmless and make people feel good.
I agree that we should start appreciating every body type, rather than glorifying just one.
I much prefer the “how’ve you been?” type comments. “What have you been up to?” or something is much better than something looks-based if I don’t know a person well, and even then, I’d rather ask about some new clothing item picked out. There’s so much cool stuff in stores right now that I’d love, had I the money for a wardrobe. >D In the meantime, the only clothing I can really focus on is the costume I’m making my sister… and I’ve never made clothing before, much less costuming. x.x I’m making this from the pattern, up! Augh! Wish me luck. And if it looks great, I hope people compliment her on that rather than on how skinny she is in it. ::laughs::
Bebetaian, I agree. Asking someone how they’ve been is much better than commenting on their appearance. It shows them you really care about them and what they do.
Good luck with the costume! I think it’s great that you’re making it for your sister, and I’m sure it’ll turn out great.
It turned out alright! She loves it. There were so many things I had to learn last-minute, like having to redo a waistband because I realised that the original fabric for one side was too stiff, but the other option was too thin to hold the weight of the skirt layers… so an extra hour to iron and cut new fabric and sew it together. So many things to learn, but I really had to have it done by Friday morning when she came over… I finished it at 6am. >D It needs a few adjustments, but I can do that when she’s ready.
Well done! I knew you’d do a wonderful job. We learn a lot faster when we’re motivated by our desire to do something nice for our loved ones, don’t we? I’m sure your sister really appreciates it.
I got lucky with my friends because this was rarely something I heard until recently. But even now, I think I’m lucky because even though some comments between the young women I know are focused on appearance, we try to keep it focused on health. For example, a friend is working out a lot and someone would say ” you look so skinny! How’s that yoga going, do you feel good?” Then we get to talk about exercise, how it makes us feel, not just how it makes us look. Even if sometimes the answer is, it makes me feel tired! haha
Amy, haha! You are so lucky to have such smart friends. We would all be healthier and happier if we all focused on health and not on looks.
It’s so not how it is!!! Yes if you have clinical eating disorder , that words might be a problem. But for the rest of us it’s so great to hear that we look skinny! Especially if we really take a lot of work, exercises to look like this!! And yes being in normal weight ( not really skinny) is good for your health . Obesity is a real problem. So I believe that if someone is fighting with it it’s ok to tell him something nice about their body.
Joan, thank you for your comment.
Why do you think that telling someone is skinny is paying them a compliment? Why does it feel so good for you to hear it? Because you value skinny, and if skinny is so valued, doesn’t that mean that all other types of bodies are somehow wrong or at the very least inferior? Can you see the problem now?
You think skinny is good because you grew up in a society that valued this particular body type above all others, hence all your hard efforts to conform your body to this standard. But not all body types can be skinny. Lots of women are naturally curvy. Are they supposed to diet and exercise their way into a skinny body to be told they’re pretty or be valued by society? That’s a road that only leads to unhappiness, depression, and eating disorders.
Yes, obesity is a real problem. But do you know that the latest research is showing that it’s NOT the extra fat that causes the diseases associated with obesity but the unhealthy lifestyle these people have and the stigma they have to put up with on a daily basis? Treating these people with compassion and love rather than telling them their bodies are wrong would help them solve their problems more easily.
I agree with you totally Gio. I have been struggling the last 6 months (maybe even year) with extremely negative thoughts about how I look. I hated the fact that I had gained weight during my final year of high school, often eating late and copious amounts to distract from the stress. Coming into university into a course (medicine) where all the girls are slim and secretly pride themselves on their svelte figures during physical examination practices made me feel really insecure. I have never been overweight even at my heaviest but I was so obsessed with losing weight that I counted calories (1200 max) for over 3 months and lost hardly any weight.
I was so devastated the weight wasn’t budging. Then summer holidays came and I took things a step too far: exercising at least an hour everyday, skipping breakfast, having maybe a yoghurt for lunch and then the most miniscule portion for dinner. On top of this, I was constantly on my feet. I succeeded. I lost 15kg. I became underweight (BMI17). And to compliment my new figure, I lost my period and bundles of hair.
Now I am terrified to eat normally again, to gain weight. In all honesty, I don’t now what normal eating is. And what makes it worse is that my girlfriends compliment my weight loss. “dang girl, you look so hot! what did you do during the holidays to lose so much weight!” or “OMG tell me how you got so skinny!” those are the comments I got. Now I am truly terrified to return to a healthy weight. I am terrified if I do, I won’t be considered “hot” anymore.
It’s crazy what the words “you look so skinny” can do to someone’s mind. Those words are truly torturous.
Kithmini, *hugs* My heart goes out to you. The way our society treats body weight is a form of torture indeed and, unfortunately, too many innocent people like you are suffering its consequences. Please, please, please, seek professional help. You don’t have to tell anyone you are doing it, if it makes you feel uncomfortable. But you need to talk to someone about this. It’s not a fight you can win on your own. Not because you’re not strong enough but because no one can deal with this on their own. If you’re not ready for professional help, talk to your mom or a trusted friend. But, please, don’t carry this burden alone. It will destroy you. You can be a normal weight, eat normally and be hot. These things aren’t mutually exclusive. So, please, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone, anyone.