The relationship people have with their bodies is more complex than just good or bad. And when it comes to giving compliments about the body, flattering someone may not be helpful. Especially when you don’t personally know them.
When we’re looking at a person’s life online, we’re only seeing one very small part of what’s happening in their life. So consider this extreme but empathetic idea when typing up your comment: Avoid saying anything about someone’s appearance. Just say nothing.
In an article for SELF, Alana Massey wrote: “There are no truly ‘safe’ words to use to describe another person’s body without knowing their relationship to these words.” A comment that you assume is perfectly harmless could reaffirm a more harmful comment made by someone else. For example, saying “Wow, you look much healthier now!” to a friend you haven’t seen in a while could send the wrong message because it implies that you didn’t consider them healthy before.
After all, there are a lot of factors — from chronic conditions to drastic life changes — that make it impossible for someone to have total control over their figure. So maybe it’s time to rethink the kinds of compliments we give, to really elevate people for their inner beauty rather than their looks, weight, or body type.
In the medical world, healthy means “free of disease.” But online “healthy” has more shallow connotations. It often refers to “skinny” or “fit” — or looking skinnier and fitter. An Instagram search of #healthybody gives results of mostly one body type.
Comments like “You look so photogenic!” or “You look so curvy!” may seem like better alternatives, but they’re also fixating on appearance. These words can cause harm and reinforce the wrong message because you never know how much time someone took deliberately posing or altering their body for compliments.
The same goes for words like “slimming” or “flattering.” Certain descriptive words, while well-intentioned, actually imply that the natural body is a problem — and clothes are the solution.
In an essay for Racked, Arianna Rebolini wrote about a salesperson telling her that she’d be the best dressed person at the event… then they assured her in a lowered voice that the dress she bought was slimming. She goes on to say that “the core of [compliments] is the same message: Your body is bad.”
ARIANNA REBOLINI, “HEADS UP, ‘SLIMMING’ IS NOT A COMPLIMENT”
These compliments are weapons in disguise, language which, regardless of the speaker’s intent, keeps the person receiving them fixed firmly in the belief that their body, on its own, is not enough, that any beauty they have requires a qualification.
So the next time your friend, or a celebrity — because they’re people too — or whoever, posts a picture of themselves, take a second to think about what you’re really trying to say.
What you should say instead
If you’re unsure if your comment is objectifying, ask yourself if your compliment still holds if the body isn’t involved. If it doesn’t, then the comment is probably objectifying the person.
Instead, focus on qualities about them. Comment on their sense of style or their smile (as long as you’re not telling them to smile more). But make sure whatever you say, you’re being sincere.
Or maybe just like the photo and keep scrolling.
Everyone’s got a body, and everyone has some private (or maybe not so private) hang ups about it. We don’t need to add to those hang ups.
Comments like “You’re so brave” often come with an unspoken reminder that if someone else with a different body type had posted the same photo, it might’ve been considered “normal” and not brave.
About 69 percent of Americans are active on social media, putting their lives and bodies on constant display. This often opens up the stage for commentary on certain types of bodies — and each person is aware of how little or much society accepts or views their body type.
Activist and writer Rachel Cargle dissected this unintentional shaming with the reminder that the body is not a battleground. A person’s physical body should hold no value in determining what’s right and wrong, what has value and what doesn’t.
A statement doesn’t become invalid just because a speaker looks different. And mocking them for that difference doesn’t help anyone. Attacking or praising the body turns the body into a casualty, when it was never meant to be a weapon.
What you should say instead
Is your friend wearing a bikini even though they’re not a carbon copy of the model who wore it online? Please: Don’t tell them they’re brave. They might not have even had any hesitations about it in the first place — but they might after hearing you say you think it’s brave for them to live in their body that way.
If you want to still compliment them, keep it to their clothing choice. “I love your bikini! You always know where to get the best clothes” or “You look so warm in yellow! Seeing you makes me happy!” Comments about their choices elevates the person for their personality, rather than their body.
People on a fitness journey often show off their progress online. And when you scroll past a before-and-after picture that your friend or acquaintance posted, you may be tempted to write something about how great they look. But often the message they receive is how much their “new” body is better than their “old” body.
Weight and size shouldn’t be the way we decide if someone is healthy. Focusing only on a person’s physical appearance puts total emphasis on the results and can ignore everything they did to get there. It also adds to the belief that it’s the results — and less so the effort — that’s worthy of praise. Worse, it could reinforce the wrong priorities to the other person, or anyone else reading the comments.
In fact, “fitspiration” posts on social media are especially damaging to the people who scroll past them. A study that surveyed women ages 18 to 25 found that those who used Instagram (and especially women that follow fitspiration accounts and hashtags) are more likely to objectify themselves and have body image concerns. However, studies show that approaching health in a way that
When it comes to complimenting someone’s progress, stay away from making comparisons, like “now” or “than before.” Avoid dropping “-er” words like better, prettier, healthier, and skinnier.
What to say instead
Adopting and maintaining healthy habits is hard work. It’s not a one-step solution but a balancing act between routinely going to the gym, cooking at home to avoid eating takeout, planning ahead of time, taking care of a family, and everything else that goes into a day.
Instead, celebrate the efforts and time they’re putting into taking care of themselves because how they feel inside is also worth the praise.
Taking the stance that body comments are unnecessary sounds extreme. But avoiding weight- and appearance-based language can pave the way for more genuine comments while promoting a more diverse understanding and image of health. This way, our happiness or vision of success isn’t based on uncontrollable, ever-changing factors.
Expanding how we define and view health through language is also a way to change social norms and attitudes toward different body types. After all, how we take care of our minds — and each other’s — affects how we care for our bodies.
You don’t have any control over anyone’s body. But kind, supportive words can help their mind. (And there’s evidence that mental health impacts our physical health.) A good place to start is to avoid making comments on other’s bodies — even your friends’.
Of course, there’s a difference between what you say in private and public. After all, there’s no harm in expressing how much body-adoration you have for your partner. Just keep in mind that public comments about their body could create an atmosphere of discomfort.
This doesn’t mean you should stop complimenting the people you love. It just means asking yourself: Who is listening? Do they need to hear it? Will the compliment still stand if their body changes?
IS IT A SERIOUS CHANGE?
If you are noticing drastic changes in a friend’s appearance, like they look tired or they seem to be gaining weight, it could be a sign of something more serious going on. So, instead of asking them about their weight — which will only add to the negativity they could be feeling — ask them how they’re doing. And be prepared to really listen.
Welcome to “How to Be Human,” a series on empathy and how to put people first. Differences shouldn’t be crutches, no matter what box society has drawn for us. Come learn about the power of words and celebrate people’s experiences, no matter their age, ethnicity, gender, or state of being. Let’s elevate our fellow humans through respect.