how to respond to comments about weight in the office

A reader writes:

I’m the office manager at a small company. This morning, while letting important clients into the conference room for a meeting, one of them commented loudly and jovially on how much weight I’ve lost. He gave me a good solid look up and down and proclaimed how great I look. Then called over his colleague, also a client, to say “Look how much weight she’s lost! Doesn’t she look great?” To which client #2 agreed and asked me how I’d done it. I smiled, said “thank you” and something kind of non-committal like “oh, a little of this, a little of that,” then quickly asked if I could get anyone anything to drink. Our office is an open format with no real walls, so all of my coworkers and my boss heard the exchange.

It is true that I have lost a significant amount of weight in the last year, about 50 pounds. It is 100% related to a difficult healing process I’ve been engaged in around a history of sexual abuse. The weight loss is a good thing, I’m happy with it, and more importantly I am feeling much better all around than I was about a year ago. However, I have zero desire to have my weight commented on publicly and loudly in the office. It is embarrassing and triggering and it feels unsafe. I am frustrated with myself that even when I have responses to such situations prepared, I am never able to deliver them in the moment. Instead, I always say some kind of thank-you, the person thinks they paid me a compliment, and I walk away feeling distressed and powerless about the whole situation. Especially when the person is an important client.

I’ve read a post you wrote about being sensitive to the fact that not everyone in the office wants to have their weight loss commented on. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for how to professionally and effectively shut down those sorts of comments when they are directed at you by people in positions of power without alienating or offending the commenter.

Ugh, I’m sorry.

I wish I did have suggestions about how to make it clear these types of comments are unwelcome, but when they’re coming from clients, I think that unfortunately your best bet is to simply say thank-you and quickly change the subject.

If these comments were coming from your coworkers and it happened more than once or twice, you could certainly say, “I appreciate your good wishes, but I’m actually uncomfortable talking about my weight,” and then repeat as necessary.

But with clients — well, it’s different. With clients, you generally want to accommodate them to a reasonable extent and avoid making them uncomfortable … with some obvious exceptions, of course, like if they were sexually harassing you. But with something like comments on weight loss, where in general society considers it an appropriate topic for conversation and so they’re not outside the norm of what’s typically considered okay, I think you probably have to let it go.

That said, if they continue to press the issue after you’ve tried to change the subject — for instance, asking you how you did it — it’s perfectly fine to nicely say, “Oh, weight loss is so boring, tell me how you’re doing.” (You wouldn’t want to tell them that their weight loss was boring if that’s what they were talking about, of course — but when it’s yours, it’s fine to shift the topic back to them.)

It does suck that society considers it acceptable to comment on other people’s bodies in this way without their permission. But since that is the norm, and since these are clients, I’d go with simply being polite and changing the subject as quickly as possible.

{ 190 comments… read them below }

  1. Joanne*

    This is a totally different situation, so I don’t know if it’s directly applicable, but it’s a thought. One of my managers had appendicitis and had a difficult recovery, and lost 40ish pounds in the process. People commented on it all the time, and she would always say, “Thanks, I’ve been pretty sick. I do feel much better now, though”. That always shut people up. Of course, not everyone is comfortable discussing medical issues that blithely, and probably not with clients?

    1. businesslady*

      aah, this exact same thing happened to me (as in, also appendicitis–or rather, peritonitis, AKA “the disease you get when your appendix has been burst for a week because the idiot doctor you saw didn’t realize it was inflamed”).

      I’d been on a diet/exercise kick right before I got sick, so I was already on the thinner side of my usual weight range. & as a result, my lowest post-illness weight was also the lowest weight I’d been at since age 10–my mom looked up my old health records.

      I was still underweight when I was finally ready to go back to work, & it was really weird to be on the receiving ends of “oh my gosh, you’re so THIN! you look GREAT!” pseudocompliments. I mean, what do you say? “thanks, it’s this new diet where you don’t eat solid food for two weeks while a team of physicians tries to keep you from dying.” it was also a creepy reminder that society always wants women to be As Thin As Possible, & that the undernourished look has as certain glamour associated with it as a result.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        “thanks, it’s this new diet where you don’t eat solid food for two weeks while a team of physicians tries to keep you from dying.”

        I would totally say this, but I’m kind of sarcastic.

        1. lsay*

          I lost a bunch of weight over the past few years and I think soon I’m going to tell people (the ones who keep commenting about checking to make sure I’m not anorexic) that I’ve got a tapeworm.

          1. Sunday's Child*

            I think that would be funny to most people, and I’d laugh at that. But I actually know someone who got a tapeworm while on a mission in India. It took awhile to diagnose after she returned. She was already thin and looked pretty bad for awhile. She had a tough time regaining the weight and people would say weird things when they noticed her eating, on the advice of her physician, heavy meals and high calorie snacks. It’s unfortunate, but even when you fit the almost emaciated ideal, people feel some sense of obligation to comment on eating habits and appearance.
            OP, Alison’s advice to interpret the client’s remarks as an attempt at a compliment and socially accepted convention makes a lot of sense. It’s unfortunate that when we are in a tough situation emotionally, we can interpret innocuous and innocent comments as having more weight than the speaker intends. Think about the question, “How are you?” If I’ve just had a relationship end, I might think, “Oh no! How did they know?” when the speaker was only using it as a polite greeting. In the moment it may not be easy to remember, but most people think they are being kind and complimentary and you don’t need to explain about the history that got you there. I hope you feel proud of your accomplishments and I wish you success in your recovery and growing healthier both emotionally and physically.

      2. BeenThere*

        Congratulations on the healing, I have had friends in similar places and it’s such an achievement.

        Clients can be such arses! I think the statement provided is perfect because everyone loves to talk about themselves – “Oh, weight loss is so boring, tell me how you’re doing.”

        IMHO weight is something that should be off limits in the office environment. Even if you think you are making a positive comment, it may be completely the opposite.

        My weight is stable and I look like everyone else in my family (our genetics are – tall, thin, human food disposal units). People always ask me how I stay thin like it’s some life achievement when I’d really like a couple more pounds of muscle. I once had someone come up to me and say you look like you’ve lost some weight looks great… I was floored not only had my weight not changed, I didn’t have any desire to lose weight and was actively lifting weights and uping my protein to get some strength and tone. So I gave them the look and said I hadn’t lost any weight nor was I trying to and that perhaps it was my new haircut they were noticing.

        1. Jen in RO*

          I find it funny when that happens. I’m not actively trying to lose weight and I’m happy as I look right now, so I always laugh when someone tries to compliment me about my weight loss. I usually say “nope, I’m the same as usual, but glad to know I look good!”.

    2. Kou*

      Same with my mother when she had a pulmonary embolism followed by a serious infection. People would comment on how much weight she’d lost and she’d occasionally say “Yeah, I almost died earlier this year.”

      Of course the OP here wouldn’t want to do that, I’m assuming, so the best she can do is just say thank you and try to remember that people are trying to do something nice for you when they say this– however misguided that is in the whole. For me when stuff like this happens I try to think, you know, they are trying to make me happy, so even if they do it in a crummy way the fact that they are trying to reach out at all sometimes makes me feel better.

      If someone asks what you did in the future, OP, you might just say something along the lines of “Oh, I’m just starting a healthier lifestyle in general, taking care of myself.” It’s true, for one, and it will give most people exactly enough information to end the discussion naturally.

      1. Sunday's Child*

        I really like the suggestion to say, “I’m just starting a healthier lifestyle in general…” It’s so positive, and true, and it fits emotional, mental, physical, health!

  2. Andy Lester*

    “I appreciate your good wishes, but I’m actually uncomfortable talking about my weight,”

    Even expand that from “… talking about my weight” to “… talking about this sort of thing”. Don’t encourage anyone to think that other personal aspects of your life are up for conversation as well.

    The “repeat as necessary” is key. Have a single sentence and repeat it like a mantra. Do not vary. Do not answer questions, because doing so will show that you are open to conversation.

    “I just wanted to say you looked good.”

    “Thank you. I’d rather not discuss topics like this.”

    “Oh, I know, but we’re all friends here, right?”

    “Yes, and I’d rather not discuss topics like this.”

    “I’m not trying to be nosy or anything.”

    “I know. I’d rather not discuss topics like this?”

    “Why not? Was it hard to do?”

    “I’d rather not discuss topics like this.”

    etc etc etc

    1. Amouse*

      If you can stick to your guns, definitely do this. For me, I would struggle with thinking I was being a jerk if i kept responding in this way robotically. But that’s my issues, not yours. After the second time, I would probably just look at them and not respond I think.

      1. Lily*

        In the past I would have also felt rude not answering, but I’m now leaning towards feeling they are a jerk for persisting, whether I give in and answer or not.

        I love the bean dip (below)

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think this is great for coworkers, but I’d be wary of using it with clients — since they really do mean well and aren’t outside the boundaries of what’s normally considered acceptable things to say. Clients are a different category than coworkers, and if you can leave them still feeling warm about the encounter, that’s preferable, in my opinion.

      1. Amouse*

        That’s definitely a good distinction. I agree. I just realized I answered in the context of it being said to a co-worker.

      2. Andy Lester*

        Agreed that clients aren’t coworkers, as you said in your original post, and that’s why I used your example of what to say to co-worker.

        My point is an expansion on “repeat as necessary”. The nosy will try to get into conversation with you anyway, and that any variance from your polite but firm response only invites more conversation.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Bean dip.

          On Etiquette Hell, that refers to a polite but abrupt change of subject, as in “Thank you. Have some of Eleanor’s bean dip. I think she adds extra pepper. Isn’t it just great?”

          Bean dip the HELL out of them.

    3. FreeThinkerTX*

      I’ve always called them out after I’ve repeated myself just once: “Really? I just said I didn’t want to discuss it. Who are you, Betty the Badger?” Mind you, this is said laughingly and with a genuine smile; because I find it funny when people who are my equal don’t respect a clearly delineated boundary. I’m not a girly-girl or the slightest bit ditzy, so “Betty the Badger” is waaaay outside my normal repertoire and I use it for effect.

      I have never had one single person continue to pester me after that, and yet managed to keep everything light-hearted and friendly.

  3. Karyn*

    If you want to play it off, Alison’s suggestion of switching the topic back to them is a great one. People LOOOOOVE to be asked about themselves, and most will snatch up a chance to do it. I’ve employed this strategy before about my own weight loss – when asked the “How did you do it” question, the REAL answer at that time was, “I have a crazy job and school schedule which causes me to forget to eat, plus stress on top of that!” But of course, that’s not what I could say – so I instead said, “Oh, this, that, the other – hey, how’s your kid?” or whatever. The MINUTE you take it back to them, they will forget all about what they asked you and start in on themselves. :)

    Also, as an aside, MAJOR kudos to you for beginning the healing process from sexual abuse. I am on that path as well, and it is long and hard but SO worth it.

  4. Allison*

    With the clients you should just say. “thank you” and keep it moving. If you are going to tell your co-workers that you don’t want to talk about your weight then you should say it as nicely as you possibly can. You lost weight and people believe they are being complimentary when they acknowledge that. They don’t mean any harm or feel that they are being intrusive.

    I personally would just say thank you to everyone and leave it at that. If they ask how, I would just say I changed your eating habits. That’s all. Eventually they will get used to your weight loss and no one will ask anymore.

    Whatever you do just remember that your co-workers don’t know what you are going through and believe they are paying you a genuine compliment.

  5. fposte*

    Sometimes you can use an aspect to bridge back to a no-longer-too-personal conversation. “Yeah, I’ve really discovered the wonders of the farmer’s market now–do you go?” “I’ve been making a lot of use of the park system–have you seen the new bike paths?” “Yeah, it’s the dog-walking. Do you have a dog?”

    1. KarenT*

      I love fposte’s suggestion.

      You could also try to find a way to talk about weightloss in a way you can disassociate from, or that shifts the focus from you and your body to a more general conversation. Don’t focus on you and your activities, but you could mention a great diet book you’ve read, how fun Zumba is, or how healthy eating gives you energy.

      1. Jamie*

        Is that cat wearing a crown? If so you win for best avitar! And that cat looks just like one of mine so I can’t stop smiling.

        1. KarenT*

          Yes, it’s a gold crown. A digital gold crown, but a crown nonetheless. I will one day change my avatar to my other cat wearing sunglasses and a tie.

          Sooo…now you all know I’m crazy!

    2. W W*

      Thanks fposte. I’m the one who asked the question. This is helpful. And definitely more accessible in the moment than trying to conjure up self defense.

  6. J.B.*

    I have a personal struggle with the conversation about do you want more kids and do one of two things. 1) change the subject fast but nicely or 2) say “it’s not easy.” 2 is often like a Rosarch test, people go into talking about whatever from their own lives.

    And so sorry you’re dealing with this. My situation is much milder but dealing with something that is otherwise considered to be a friendly topic is hard.

  7. Marie*

    I have had good luck responding to, “You look great!” with “I always looked great.” If I need something a bit snottier, I might say, “I always looked great. Now I’m just thinner.”

    I’ve also always responded to, “How did you do it?” with “Genetics,” and any further “No but REALLY” gets a shrug and, “Just the genetic lottery, I guess.”

    1. jmkenrick*

      Lol, I have had a simliar response.

      “You look fantastic.”
      “Why thank you, I am fantastic.”

      Of course, this really only works in certain crowds.

    2. fposte*

      “You look great” seems pretty innocuous to me absent a specific comment about weight–is this in a situation where there’s more going on, or perhaps a tone of utter shock?

        1. Amouse*

          Oh sure it is. But some people like being complimented and so they will compliment because to them it is a normal, socially acceptable nice thing to do. So the question is then, how do you respond or not respond, because it’s going to happen.

          1. fposte*

            Right. And I can totally see situations where it’d be used in a way that occasions the response Marie mentions (and her subsequent discussion seems to indicate that she’s thinking of those situations), but it’s also practically a traditional greeting at, say, conferences when you’re seeing people you only see once a year. In those cases, it’s more analogous to “How are you” as a pleasantry rather than a literal query or assessment, and “So do you!” is the commonest response. In a situation like that, a more overt deflection would be a little off-key.

        2. Jen in RO*

          It wouldn’t be inappropriate at all in my office. I wouldn’t think twice before complimenting a closer coworker about her hair/clothes/makeup/whatever looks good about her. Likewise, it would feel normal to me if they complimented something about myself.

          I don’t know if it’s a cultural (i.e. different countries) thing or an office culture thing.

      1. Marie*

        To clarify, these are responses I use when something about the context indicates it’s a comment about weight rather than something else (new dress, new haircut, etc.).

    3. Anonymouse*

      “I’ve always looked great. Now I’m just thinner” = gold. Love that! That is: when the “you look great” compliment is given directly linked with a comment about a recent weight loss (or any other noticeable change, for that matter). I like it because if it’s delivered with a light and playful attitude it’s not overly snotty or defensive when in fact in certain cases you might have every right to react snottily or defensively. Because sometimes —even without bad intentions— the “you lost weight, you look great” compliment can be kind of a backhanded one because a) it suggests you didn’t look “great” before you lost the weight or made whatever change (and by extension that you would look less great in the future if you “slipped” and gained the weight back); b) it suggests that everyone, regardless of any & all considerations, looks more “great” with less weight, which isn’t always true; and c) if in mixed company it can be a backhanded compliment in that the complimenter is pointing out in front of others that it has apparently taken a lot of extra effort for you to look so “great” and thus it may or may not “stick”. In general it suggests a level of body monitoring that some people appreciate but may make others feel uncomfortable to the point of paranoia. And sometimes there isn’t a trace of harm intended in these types of compliments (sometimes I’ve been so impressed by a change someone has made in their appearance that I’m tempted to gush on and on about it), but I think people should be especially careful about these compliments in work-related situations and especially if it involves someone’s BODY.

  8. saro*

    I’ve also found complimenting them in return stops them. “Oh thank you. You look very nice yourself, did you do something new with your hair/Did you lose weight too?” – I only do this with women (I’m a woman).

    Alternatively, “Thanks, been running more. Though I didn’t yesterday b/c of that crazy rain. Did you get caught in it the other day? Yuck!”

    I’ve usually found this sort of deflection to be the best tactic.

    I’m sorry that OP has to go through this though.

    1. Anonymouse*

      I like “did you lose weight, too?”. It’s a way to either return a compliment (if the compliment was well-intended, they would take it as a compliment themselves) or to make the person aware of the mixed bag of possible reactions one can have to that kind of compliment if they were not aware of it already.

  9. Amouse*

    I have been through both environments. I have worked in an environment where it seemed like if I dropped so much as a pound some woman would notice and say something – every day. I now work in an environment where it was possible to lose almost thirty pounds and have only one or two people say something.
    That was like heaven.

    I think the most important thing to remember is that most often when people compliment or comment, it is reflective of their own issues. It’s really about them, not you.

    That won’t take away all of the annoyance it causes you, but it can help you shift your focus and magically you will just notice the way that others look at you and the comments that they make less. When nothing else works to dissuade persistent people, controlling what you can in the situation – your own focus – can really help you to take your focus off of external triggers and on to your healing. Which is why you’re doing this in the first place – ultimately, for you.

    1. EJ*

      This is a good point. Others might want / expect someone to comment if they lot tons of weight, so they comment on yours.

      I have one of those faces that looks drastically when my hair is down vs. up and people often comment because it surprises them. It makes me uncomfortable but it’s not malicious. My sensitivity to receiving such comments comes from within, so avoiding a big deal is more beneficial than trying to explain. Granted your issues here are not your fault, but having a canned polite or mildly cheeky response (like others have suggested) might help avoid saving to actually process their comments?

      1. Amouse*

        Exactly. In well-intentioned cases they’re usually responding to how they would want others to respond. In cases where they are commenting in a non-friendly way, usually they have issues of their own and what they are saying is reflective of how they feel about themselves. So much crap to wade through. I don’t know about you, but i have enough crap in my head to work through without trying to sort through everyone else’ pathology. So when they compliment or comment you, if you can look at it as “This is really about them” and move on to focusing on you, it can make it easier to deal with.

  10. RB*

    I congratulate the reader for making positive progress from an ugly past. Not an easy thing, by any means.

    I lost a significant amount of weight when my mother died. I have a rather high profile position in the community so I was always running into people who would gush about my weight loss. Every time it would get me all verklempt because it was a result of the huge loss I had suffered.

    I had to learn to step in that other person’s shoes. They were truly coming from a nice place. Had they known of the reason they would be crushed, so I would deflect the conversation and it worked. I, also, had to learn to let it go and not give it the power make me uncomfortable.

    I hope the reader can find some peace with it and continue on her healing path.

    1. AF*

      Love this comment. I fully appreciate how much it can trigger very painful issues, but as long as you understand where they’re coming from, perhaps it can even be more healing to work on accepting those comments. But if it continues to bother you, and they or other clients continue to make comments, perhaps you could mention something to your boss or someone who has regular contact with the clients, just so they have a heads-up and can help change the subject in those situations.

      And, of course, if it continues in a harrassing kind of way, get advice from HR. When you’re triggered, it’s only a matter of time before you might lose your temper, which could be disastrous for your well-being and job. Best wishes and continue to take care of YOU!

    2. Not So NewReader*

      This. Had the person known they would have been crushed. Not to put more on your shoulders, OP, no-no-no. People don’t look at you and see someone who suffered abuse…. although it feels like everyone can see that with in five seconds of meeting. They honestly don’t see it.

      I lost a lot of weight, too. Although my story is no where near as challenging as yours, I found that a lot of folks asked me how I did it. Actually it was no one particular diet- I tried several that were popular and the last one got me to my goal. You see this story gets involved. So people would say “how did you do it?” I would tell them something in current time. “I am currently working on increasing my water intake and that seems to be helping.” I would use this answer with the good people who were around me every day and watching the changes. Other people got less information- along the line of what others have written here.

      I found that weight loss seems to involve dealing with old emotions- so I could get emotional sometimes. Like you are saying- I had to have answers prepared in advance. For me, it was important to try to remember that people want to know what diets are working so they themselves can use the diet. I simply said “Do not attempt a big weight loss with out having a doctor watch you.” And that ended the convo pretty FAST.

      The questions do stop- I found once my weight leveled off- the questions stopped also.

  11. Ashley*

    This brought up another related issue for me, which is the unwanted attention one gets when losing weight. I’m naturally shy and introverted, and I don’t like being the center of attention. When I lost 80+ lbs, EVERYONE starting noticing me at work, commenting on it, etc. And while they mean well, it was very unwanted attention. Unfortunately, I’ve gained a lot of it back and I think subconsciously, one of the reasons I’m reluctant to really get back on track is because I don’t want that kind of attention again. Just something to think about…if someone doesn’t advertise their weight loss/exercise regime/diet plan, maybe just stick with “You look good” as the compliment, instead of “OMG YOU LOOK AMAZING HOW DID YOU DO IT?!?!” It’s overwhelming and can actually be a unmotivating sometimes.

    1. Amouse*

      I realte to this so much! For me, therapy really helped because my self-consciousness was rooted in -you guessed it-childhood issues. People’s reactions to my weight-loss would be part of what derailed me because I was so focused on how others perceived me so it was a vicious circle. I still haven’t mastered it all by any means, but I do understand it.

      For you it might be completely different and just be a personality trait of being shy. I just thought I would share my experience because no one else should have the power to control how you take care of your body. We live in a tough, tough world for this. Hang in there.

      1. Ashley*

        Thank you for the encouragement! I’m slowly trying to change things, but less focusing on numbers this time…I have a tendency to go overboard and get a little obsessive, and then really burnt out quickly. It really is a vicious cycle! Good luck to you too!

  12. COT*

    OP, it sounds like you are benefiting from the services of a good counselor. I’d take some of the suggestions here to your next session. Your counselor can help you brainstorm ways to respond in a way that’s authentic to your personality, and then help you role-play until you feel comfortable giving these responses. A good friend could help you do the same.

    1. W W*

      Thank you COT, yes, I will do that. And even though this situation was massively uncomfortable, I do appreciate that a year ago in the same situation I would have had a complete meltdown on the spot. So, moving in the right direction.

  13. Kristoff*

    A couple of years back I lost a lot of weight (about 80 pounds). Unfortunately this was due to a fairly serious illness over about 3 months time. I was overweight at the time so overall the loss was not unwelcome but it happened because I couldn’t keep solid food down not because I did any healthy lifestyle change.

    Everyone I knew felt the urge to comment on how good I was looking and how much weight I had lost. Most of the people that said this I was comfortable enough with to say something along the lines of “I was sick for several months and let me tell you it’s not a diet I would recommend.” Ussually that would stop any comments but with people I didn’t know well it was sometimes awkward.

    1. Yup*

      I had a similar situation in which I lost 20 lbs in 6 weeks due complications from a medication reaction. I was cranky because I really hungry and exhausted, so people commenting “Wow, you’ve lost so much weight!” often ended with me replying “Thanks, but I’m starving!”. I tried to keep in mind that people were probably trying to be nice, but it did tax my patience sometimes.

      Miss Manners had a great riposte, something like: When asked “have you lost weight?”, look alarmed and reply “Why, do you think I need to??”

          1. Marie*

            Oh man, I’ve got to use that response next time! My weight has been constant for the last, like, 10 years since I stopped growing, but people are always asking if I’ve lost weight. In varsity, I even got regular questions as to whether I’d GAINED weight! This being Africa, though, I had to take it as an intended compliment, even if it didn’t feel that way (“You’re looking good – have you gained some weight?” spoken by African males is genuinely sincere).

            1. Lanya*

              Marie, I get the same thing. My weight has been constant for at least 3 years now, and I always get “have you lost weight?” from the same few people. I usually respond “Uhh, probably not?” with a confused impression on my face to try to reinforce the idea that I’m so unconcerned with the scale myself that they shouldn’t be concerned either…

  14. Ann*

    I can completely understand that. I work with people from a particular foreign country, and it is not taboo to discuss certain things we would find either insulting or too personal in their culture. I’ve started losing weight, and my boss makes comments on it. But rather than nice comments like you look great, he makes “helpful” comments. Like, “Oh, it’s good that you’re losing weight. You shouldn’t eat that or you won’t be able to continue” or “Your lunch looks healthy today, but you shouldn’t eat apples in the afternoon”. “You should do XYZ exercises, walking your dog is not exercise” (His advice is mostly cultural in nature) For what it’s worth I have never talked about exercise, diets or trying to lose weight in the office. My usual response is to smile and say nothing at all.

    1. Ann*

      Please note, I’m not saying that comments on your weight are nice. I meant to say “nice”. I believe comments on weight, whether your over, under, loosing or gaining should be taboo unless you are close friends or family (and sometimes not then either)

  15. W W*

    Thanks to everyone for all the helpful and supportive comments. I asked the question. I’m a little embarrassed to say I’ve never figured out what OP stands for, but I guess that would be me. Opinionated Person maybe? Or Optimal Penpal?

    In all seriousness, I really appreciate the feedback. It’s great to remember that many other people also do not want their weight commented on, and that I don’t have to somehow hold evil forces at bay when it happens (that’s definitely coming from my history), that there are ways to quickly move on.

  16. Anonymous*

    What does the OP say to someone in her circles who’s lost 50 or more pounds? Nothing? How about a family member? Also nothing? That’s strange. I hate it when co-workers comment on my body and would cringe at clients doing so, but I’d always say something to someone around me who’s lost weight, even a small amount, and 50 pounds for sure.

    I wonder whether the OP (the sexual abuse issue aside, if possible) is more unnerved, not by their noticing and making positive remarks about the weight loss, but the realization that on the flipside, they might’ve noticed the 50 pounds she was carrying and made negative remarks at least to themselves? I know that’s what I’d be thinking.

    1. the gold digger*

      I ahve gained and lost weight over my adult life. Whenever anyone raves about a weight loss to me, my first thought is, “Wow. Did I really look that bad before?”

      I don’t comment on how people look unless it’s to compliment something they’ve obviously chosen, like a great outfit.

      1. Anonymous*

        Yes, this is what I think as well, but I still say something if I notice someone has lost weight.

        1. JT*

          I’m not certain what that means in this context. The OP is lighter. That’s something they are. But he/she lost weight. That’s something done.

          1. KellyK*

            But “lose weight” isn’t an action–it’s a result of other actions, possibly in combination with other events/illnesses, etc.. When you compliment weight loss, the action you’re complimenting might be anything from “eat healthier and walk the dog every day” to “leave an abusive relationship” to “eat a starvation level of calories and spend 3 hours on a treadmill every day” to “get treatment for hypothyroid” to any number of other things. It might also not be an action at all, but a metabolic change, an illness, or a reaction to stress (either new stress or stress going away).

            Complimenting weight loss assumes that it’s 1) a thing the person actually did rather than something that happened to them and 2) a *good* thing the person did.

            1. Nichole*

              It does seem like “I know you’re busy, how do you find time for Zumba every week?” makes fewer assumptions and focuses more on positive behavior rather than meeting social standardsof beauty than “OMG, you look awesome now that you lost 20 lbs.” Is that the gist of the ‘is vs. do’ concept?

    2. Amouse*

      I’ve always thought compliments exchanged with family and friends very different than with co-workers as well.

      1. Amouse*

        A good rule I’ve found is if the person mentions it themselves at some point, they are usually comfortable discussing it. If they have lost 50 pounds and said nothing throughout the whole process, they probably don’t want to talk about it.

        1. KellyK*

          I think that’s a good rule to follow with pretty much any potentially personal topic (weight, relationships, kids, etc.). If people are comfortable talking about it, smart money says they’ll bring it up.

        2. Anonymouse*

          Agreed– that’s a good rule of thumb. If they bring it up, then I feel the nice thing to do IS to compliment them.

      2. Rana*

        Yes. With family and friends you’re more likely to know their personal situation and what sorts of things they do and don’t like to hear. With more formal acquaintances, there are all kinds of potential hidden minefields.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I had a close friend with a history of sexual abuse, and for her, because of that history, it could be profoundly unsettling to feel that people were appraising her body. That’s something you might not always think of if you don’t have that history yourself.

    4. W W*

      I’m the OP, I almost always avoid commenting on weight loss with family and friends. Instead I’ll ask how they’re feeling. If they say something like “I’ve lost weight, I’m so happy!” I’ll say how great that is, how great they look, etc. But I won’t bring it up first.

      In response to your question about what part of it is unnerving, it’s definitely all about my history. Overwhelming experience of shame and humiliation and not much room for coherent thought.

      1. TL*

        Even for family I wouldn’t reinforce the weight loss is always good norm. I just say something like “You look really fit” or “You seem to be glowing with health” if they’re doing the lifestyle change or “You look different!” if I don’t have any information on how they lost it.

    5. Elise*

      Why would you comment on someone’s weight without knowing their history? To me, that is strange. Along the same lines as asking or commenting on someone’s age. Maybe okay with close friends and family who you know will be happy to share–but completely unheard of with casual acquaintances or co-workers.

      The sexual abuse issue can’t be set aside on this, since it can be very influential. As the OP wrote, the attention she is getting “feels unsafe.” Fat is a shield. You can hide behind fat. And, since thinness is so desired in our society, you can feel that the fat makes you less desirable — and therefore less likely to be a target of sexual abuse. It’s not quite true and people of all weights can be targeted, but the perception is there.

      The more weight you lose, the more your body attracts sexual attention, and the more likely you can feel to be attacked again.

      It’s not necessarily “they must have thought I was huge before” as it is “I remember when I could go through a work day without being leered at by strangers”. The larger figure is perceived as a protection against the danger.

      OP, it’s amazing that you are doing so well with the treatment. Stick with it! Your counselor might have some good advise too on this to deal with your specific situation.

      For myself, I would do as most of the others here suggest: Say “thank you” and change the subject with clients and tell co-workers that you don’t wish to discuss the issue.

      1. IronMaiden*

        Exactly this. Many people with a history of sexual abuse, especially in childhood have issues with their weight. Not only is it protection against being leered at, it can also serve to hide and protect the injured child inside. Of course, others often have the opposite reaction and diet to extremes in order to prevent their body achieving sexual maturity.

        I’m glad the OP has a counsellor who is helping to work through the issues, because they can arise out of nowhere sometimes, making seemingly innocuous situations scary or uncomfortable.

        All the best with you healing, OP.

    6. Joanne*

      My mother is a huge fan of saying, “you’re positively glowing!” whenever something obvious has changed but it is uncouth to remark on it directly. Seems to be well recieved, I might have to start using that myself.

  17. MLE*

    I’ve always felt very uncomfortable with people paying attention to my body. This is a tricky situation, and I wish you the best of luck OP!

    Last year I was trying to eat healthier and ended up losing a fair amount of weight. I actually didn’t even notice the change until people started to point out how great and skinny I looked. Within a few months I’d gained all the weight back, and started thinking a lot of negative things about my body (even though I’d been happy with my size before I lost the weight). I think I’d internalized the fact that everyone thought I looked great skinnier, and started to believe this meant I looked much worse at my normal weight. I’m only just beginning to be comfortable in my body again. I never realized how dangerous comments about one’s weight can be until I noticed that people’s reactions made me feel the need to weigh myself every morning. I hope this has taught me to be conscientious about similar “positive” or “innocuous” comments I make.

    1. Ashley*

      This! You explained this feeling so well. I was very comfortable with myself before losing weight, but after losing it (and then gaining it back), I feel terrible about myself! I always thought I looked fine before until people starting telling me how great I looked thin.

      1. MLE*

        I hope you can start liking your body again! It took me awhile, but I’ve finally stopped most of my negative thoughts, and I’m learning to be grateful for all the amazing things my body does for me :) I think taking dance classes again has really been helping with this!

  18. bluefish*

    I unforunately do not have any good advice, but I certainly know how you feel. I am a fairly petite person and people are CONSTANTLY commenting on my weight, my appearance, my eating habits, what I’m currently eating, offering me food, questioning why I won’t eat that sticky bun the size of my head at 7:00 in the moring that someone else thinks I should eat, and on, and on. I am a perfectly healthy weight, so there is no reason for people to think I am starving myself. It is BEYOND obnoxious, and I get to the point where I just don’t respond to anyone anymore when these things are said. I will never understand why a lot of people find it appropriate to talk about this stuff anywhere, let a lone at the office. It feels quite humiliating for some reason, though I can never figure out why. I think I just don’t like to be scrutinized in front of a group of people.

    1. twentymilehike*

      bluefish, I feel you. I have weighed within ten pounds of the same weight I’ve been since I hit puberty … and people always feel the need to make the comment, “Have you lost weight!? You’re So Thin!” No, sorry, I’m the same weight I’ve always been and I’m perfectly healthy, so can we please stop talking about how I look now? You don’t hear me reminding you of what you look like … I know you own a mirror. At the very least, these comments are annoying, and to some they very well could be damaging.

      Our society has this weird thing about complimenting people on “losing weight” … oddly, even when they haven’t lost any weight. It’s become a social norm, apparently, and OP, I wish I could apologize for all of society’s obnoxiousness! Mad props for being strong through your healing process … don’t let them get under your skin :)

      1. JT*

        I guess it’s different for women, but as a guy I’ve gotten comments on my weight (sometimes accurate, and sometimes wrong) and I just ignore them or say “Oh thanks.”

        Someone leering at another person (esp a guy looking at women) and saying it has harassing overtones. But a misguided compliment doesn’t seem so bad to me.

        1. twentymilehike*

          Someone leering at another person (esp a guy looking at women) and saying it has harassing overtones. But a misguided compliment doesn’t seem so bad to me.

          It is different for women, but I can’t really put my finger on how. Most of the time IME the comment will come from other women, which are usually just annoying. They think it’s a compliment to tell you how thin they think you are, but trust me, there are plenty of women out there that struggle to gain weight, not just lose weight. Society has trained us to think we need to be perfect and that we never just naturaly are good enough.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think it’s often different for women because women gets loads of messages from society (and sometimes internalize them) that their value is based on their physical appearance, to a much larger extent than men’s is. This sucks, whether you’re attractive or unattractive or somewhere in between. It sucks to feel like you’re constantly being appraised, and that even when your looks are the last thing on the mind, someone else is gazing at you and making assessments about your appearance, even if the assessment is a positive one. It’s because women have a really hard time getting away from being assessed like that — by pretty much everyone around them, including themselves — in a way that isn’t as intense for men.

            1. Rana*

              Plus the standards by which you’re assessed are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you weigh more than the ideal, you get comments about that, often quite brutal ones. If you weigh less, you get different, but also annoying, comments. And they pop up in all kinds of situations, even when there’s no reason for it. It gets tiring.

              1. Twentymilehike*

                Rana, that’s a great way to say it … There’s just no winning sometimes. Someone will always be judging for one thing or another!

    2. Rana*

      Ugh, yes. What’s also bad is when people act like you’re being thin “at them” (as Captain Awkward puts it). Not only should they not be judging my body (at least not where I can hear), the state of my body* should not be taken as some sort of passive-aggressive message about the state of their own.

      *one can sub in a whole lot of other things here, about which people feel guilty or weird: drinking/not drinking, wearing nice clothes/dressing down, etc.

      I also tend to find “diet talk” boring. Eat or don’t eat, just don’t tell me about all the REASONS behind why you are or aren’t.

  19. Michelle*

    Kudos to the OP for remaining gracious under pressure with a rude client and also for tackling her difficulties in life.

    I really like the idea of having a favorite sport, cookbook, or local farmer’s market to promote instead of having to give up your privacy/their comfort. That was a great suggestion above.

    I’m surprised no one has commented on client #1’s non-verbal behavior: “he gave me a good solid look up and down….then called over his colleague” and prompted the other colleague to comment on her appearance!? Ick.

    1. mimimi*

      Yes! That IS icky.

      I have a co-worker who does this sometimes (a woman) – the look up and down. She does it quickly though. It’s like she’s just throwing a little quick shade in my direction. She’s very nasty and kind of a bully and there are very few people she likes, so I don’t attach too much importance to it.

  20. Andy Lester*

    It’s pretty simple if you think about it: Don’t ask people about stuff that would be TMI if they volunteered it.

    It’s rude for someone to come to work one day and say “I lost a lot of weight!”, right? Or to say “Look how great I look with my new haircut!” Or “Bob and I have decided we’re going to start trying to have another child!”

    So if it’s inappropriate to discuss those topics when person X brings them up, it’s just as inappropriate for person Y to ask person X.

    Medical problems, family planning, problems at home, your sex life (or lack), money (or lack): All these things are out of bounds at work no matter who starts the conversation.

    1. Amouse*

      I agree in theory that you are correct about these topics but I just think in reality, it is so much more complex than that. What is or isn’t appropriate for discussion at work can vary wildly with the culture and the people involved.

    2. JT*

      Someone telling me they lost a lot of weight or are happy with a new haircut doesn’t seem rude to me. Why is it rude?

      Sex life, perhaps lack of money seem rather personal, so forcing that info on someone is rude. But money in general? A guy I work with won a lot of money in the lottery in the past and told so. So? That’s a nice story and he’s happy.

      1. Your Mileage May Vary*

        I think it’s because it’s prefaced with “look how great I look”. Begging for compliments is considered rude.

        I guess if you came in and said, “I tried that hairstylist you recommended and I was pleased with the result”, it wouldn’t be rude because you were continuing a conversation. But to just announce how great you look has too much of “everyone look at meeeeeEEEEEeeeee!!” written all over it.

  21. Kit M.*

    I have nothing to add to the good advice others have given, I just wanted to say I sympathize with your desire to not give positive reinforcement to their comments. One of my friends used to be anorexic, and I would hear people compliment her on how much weight she lost. Ever since then I’ve felt like I had a moral imperative not to respond positively when I received compliments on my weight. But, yeah, sometimes there’s not a lot you can do but say “Thank you” and move on.

    1. Cassie*

      When I was younger, I went through a phase where I started eating very little in order to lose weight. It was pretty insane – I lost about 14 pounds in 3 weeks. This was back when I was still in ballet and I remember one day where the teacher said “Cassie! Do you even eat?!” and everyone in the class laughed. All I could do was offer a meek “yes”, although it was simultaneously mortifying and pleasing to me that people were actually noticing my weight loss.

      It just seemed so wrong to me, though. As a teacher in ballet with many years of in the field, she would be able to recognize disordered eating in her students. And it wasn’t like I was out sick with the flu for a few weeks or anything.

      Truthfully, I don’t even notice when people lose or gain weight (helps a lot now that I’m no longer in ballet). When my coworkers ask me if I’ve lost weight, I usually respond “I don’t think so, I’m just more tan” or “Oh, I think it’s because you haven’t seen me lately”. (I think I read somewhere that if you are more tan, you tend to look slimmer).

    2. Ellie H.*

      I used to have an eating disorder and consequently I cannot stand to have anyone comment on what I am eating or even comment about food in general, especially when directed at a particular person is eating, even when intended positively. It just makes my skin crawl. I hate eating in front of people besides my parents and close friends. Given that I have to eat at work every day I get a huge surge of anxiety before I eat snack and lunch just praying and praying that nobody will comment on what I am eating or notice what I’m eating or even say anything about food in general. I even kind of try to hide my food in a creepy animal instinct. I can’t eat in front of people so if someone starts talking to me while I’m eating I have to stop (and sometimes then re-heat up my food). It’s not even that I expect a negative comment, it’s just that any comment produces this visceral reaction of discomfort. One of my coworkers very frequently makes joking remarks about certain foods being unhealthy, how “bad” it is etc. She’s very petite and I’m thin, so I have no idea why she makes this kind of remark to me, unless she has an unhealthy perspective on food, but this explanation is pretty incongruous with the rest of her behavior. I usually ignore the remarks with a noncommittal noise but it’s still stressful.

      I didn’t really realize how much this bothers me or precisely what it was that I was feeling until I spelled it out like this, so I guess this is something I could think about working on. Food for thought (ha, ha, ha).

      1. Elle D.*

        This. I had anorexia as a young teen, went through counseling and treatment and recovered in the sense that I was a healthy weight through most of my late teens. Even so (as I’m most with similar experiences can understand), I still had an unhealthy relationship with food and my body/self esteem, so when I was faced with some stressful/traumatic situations in my early 20s I turned to binge eating and gained a substantial amount of weight. Upset with the way I looked, I became obsessed with exercise, trained for a marathon and lost most of the weight I’d gained.

        Because I had a very public transformation, those who met me when I was heavy and don’t know my history feel that I am some kind of diet and fitness guru. I constantly get asked about my diet, exercise routine, and frequently have people make comments about what I eat. They think they are being complimentary, but to me it feels horribly invasive, judgey and makes me want to crawl out of my skin. I normally say something like “I just try to make healthy choices” and change the subject, but I tend to feel terribly uncomfortable during the rest of the interaction.

        I realize this is a societal norm and people think they’re being friendly, and I try to respond accordingly, but sometimes it is so hard. For this reason, I have never once commented on someone’s weight, food choices, etc. unless they bring it up themselves – and even then, I’m quick to change the subject once I politely pay them the compliment they’re looking for.

      2. Cassie*

        I get uncomfortable when people make comments (either “positive” or “negative”) about what I eat. A boss (who runs miles a day) once commented on how the fries I was eating are unhealthy so I said “I know, right?!”. That kind of leaves them with nothing more to add, since you’re agreeing with them.

  22. Blue Dog*

    Most everyone I know wants to lose at least 10 pounds and are looking for the secret (the same way someone might ask for a recipe of a dish). Just give them a one word answer like “Yoga.” Most people would simply shrug and move on.

    1. mimimi*

      How about “cholera” or “dysentery” for that one word answer? Or “rabies”? That’ll shut ’em up!

      I never comment on someone’s weight. It just seems so very personal. And it seems like by mentioning it, I am saying, “This is important” or if we’re talking about weight loss (as others have noted) “You looked worse before”. I just avoid any mention of it.

        1. mimimi*

          “Colic”, “Scurvy”, “Worms”, “Distemper”?

          No disrespect to anyone who has any of those.

          1. Michelle*

            As soon as Blue Dog said “one word answer” the word “Dysentery!” popped into my head–mimimi called it!

      1. jesicka309*

        I’ve had people comment that I’m looking slim after I’ve had bouts of the runs… I get so tempted to say ‘Why thank you, this is the first time in a week I’ve been able to leave the toilet, so I’m pretty happy with the result.’
        Deal with that, nosy nosers.

  23. jesicka309*

    I have a couple of friends (guys) who have been big the whole time I’ve known them. A couple have really started to drop off the weight, they’re dieting and swimming an djust looking so much happier. I’m so proud of them. But I don’t know if I could ever say anything to them… I’ve mentioned to another close friend (this guy’s best friend) how great Chris was looking, and he said “Well go tell him!” And I said “Oh no, I couldn’t do that. Can you just pass along that people think he’s looking great!”
    I wanted to give the confidence boost, but didn’t have the close enough relationship that you need for that.

    The only person that can comment on my weight is my mother, my boyfriend, his mother and my best friend. That’s it. Anyone else is restricted to saying non-weigth associated things like ‘you look great’ or ‘you’re looking more energetic, getting better sleep?’. If anyone mentioned my weight at work they would get the side eye (and probably a note to HR if they were repeat offenders, like SOME men in my office).

      1. jesicka309*

        After nearly 7 years with him, she’s my second mum. She tells me off about not eating enough vegetables and gets in the jabs about eating too much fast food just like my real mum.
        It’s never in a mean way though, always in a ‘you should put some more salad in that roll that you’re eating, it’s much better for you…and you know, they say it’s 80% about diet!’
        She doesn’t have any daughters and we’re close enough that I let her get away with it. She’s much nicer about it than my real mum anyway haha.

  24. Not So NewReader*

    I think that social context is important here, too. What is the stat? Something like 3/4 of Americans are over weight? It’s very high. And people are arguing about large sodas- etc. It’s nuts out there. We have never seen such an issue in our country before now. There is constant chatter in the news about weight loss, junk food, kid’s lunches. It never stops.
    All this only makes it more likely that people are going to comment. I am not saying it is right- but I am saying the influences around us do drive our behavior to some degree.
    OP, once in a great while you will encounter someone who reeeally wants to lose weight, too. They may want your advice and your help in some way. You’ll know these few people when you finally do see them. You’ll see their sincerity.

  25. Mike*

    I will pass along a maxim that my life coach passed on to me when going through counseling:

    “You can’t control what others do, but you can control what you do.”

    Please don’t take this as victim blaming or anything like that. It’s simply a very pragmatic stance on the healing process. Part of it is dealing with these triggers in the real world in real time. I am triggered by certain things that I am not even aware of sometimes. You will never have control over what others say and do, but you always have control over how you react to your surroundings. It actually sounds like you’re not doing too bad! Keep it up, and it gets easier.

    As for comments about weight, at one point I lost 20 pounds right before Thanksgiving. I was with my family and they all commented about how good I looked, etc. I didn’t mind that so much, but my grandma kept coming up to me with this smile like I had climbed Everest, rubbing my stomach, and telling me how proud she was. It was really uncomfortable. I think if someone keeps making comments or makes way too big of a deal over it (like in the OP), then yeah it’s invasive. It ceases to be a passing “congrats”. However, there are legitimate reasons to compliment someone on their weight loss, such as knowing about it ahead of time. Even then, it should be a simple congratualations and then move on. That’s my stance, anyways. I decided a long time ago that there are a lot of ways to trigger something for a person, but I also find it unreasonable in 99% of circumstances to consider every possibility of how what I am saying might affect the person(s) I am talking to. No offense to the OP.

    1. Mike*

      Also, for people who will think, “Oh I must have looked awful before I lost the weight.” I find this to be an incredibly deprecating mentality to have, and it’s not the other person’s fault. Just because you look better now does not mean you looked awful earlier.

    2. JamieG*

      I just want to comment that “you always have control over how you react to your surroundings” isn’t necessarily correct, particularly for people dealing with PTSD. You mean it as an empowering statement, but there are some people for whom that isn’t true; telling them that they -could- be controlling their reactions when they might not be able to isn’t very helpful.

      That said, no you can’t (and shouldn’t be expected to) avoid saying anything that might possibly trigger someone; but commenting on weight, especially in the workplace, is never appropriate regardless.

      1. Mike*

        I just want to comment that “you always have control over how you react to your surroundings” isn’t necessarily correct, particularly for people dealing with PTSD. You mean it as an empowering statement, but there are some people for whom that isn’t true; telling them that they -could- be controlling their reactions when they might not be able to isn’t very helpful.

        I totally agree, but it doesn’t sound like she was having a flashback or a response that is necessarily conducive to PTSD. It could indeed be triggering depending on the day, but if you look carefully, what I said is in exact accordance to how she acted. Essentially, the OP handled it perfectly, so this should be empowering to her. I was also reiterating what Allison said just with a different spin. One can operate on my advice however he or she wishes. It is intentionally open because it puts the power into the individual’s hands to control his or her actions in situations such as these. However, for all we know, she might not and may never have had PTSD.

        but commenting on weight, especially in the workplace, is never appropriate regardless.

        Again, I think this really depends from person to person and situation to situation. In an unsolicited situation or in a situation where an individual has been explicit in his or her desire not to discuss his or her weight, I agree totally. However, I can think of some situations where it could be appropriate.

    3. Jamie*

      I decided a long time ago that there are a lot of ways to trigger something for a person, but I also find it unreasonable in 99% of circumstances to consider every possibility of how what I am saying might affect the person(s) I am talking to

      That’s why we have the social conventions we do to stay away from person topics unless you know someone well – although obviously not everyone adheres to these conventions.

      Google “percentage of women in US with body issues.” A quick google shows anywhere between 80-97% of us have some degree of issue with our bodies. 10 million women in this country are currently battling eating disorders. That doesn’t account for the millions more who aren’t actively engaged in their disorders but for whom it’s a continuous struggle.

      I just deleted a rant that was way too personal to post – but suffice to say that the absolute best thing that can be said about commenting, unsolicited, on someone’s weight is that you have appraised their body and found it satisfactory. So even best case scenario is rude.

      And believe me, people who want to discuss their weight loss with the general public are not shy about bringing it up first. The people going on and on about what they lost and on what diet, cleanse, whatever…engage those people.

      But assume if someone doesn’t discuss their body with you that they aren’t looking for your opinions about it.

      1. Lily*

        “the absolute best thing that can be said about commenting, unsolicited, on someone’s weight is that you have appraised their body and found it satisfactory. So even best case scenario is rude.”

        Absolutely! I haven’t had to deal with weight comments but strangers seem to think it is okay to ask me about “where I come from” and even disagree with me. There is no polite way to judge people to their face!

        1. Jamie*

          The disagree with you?! If you’re an expert on anything I’d think it would be your own personal history.

          1. Lily*

            Yes! I can only think that they have already decided on possible answers and want my confirmation.

            There isn’t a polite way to ask someone to tell you the information which will allow you to classify them either racially or ethnically in the group where you think they belong based on appearance. I have to go back 2 generations to give a “satisfactory” answer. I loved Andy’s examples, because people really can be that persistent!

            I finally understand why alarm bells ring in my head when an interviewee starts to discuss my background with me. If they are questioning my judgment of my own identity, how likely are they to accept my judgment of their performance?

            1. the gold digger*

              Oops. The only time I ask someone where she is from is if I think she has a Spanish accent and might be a native speaker. I am always looking for someone to practice my Spanish with.

      2. Mike*

        Please allow me to talk a bit more about the big picture and to separate the situation from the self. I think this issue has more to do with society’s perception of what body image can be rather than what it actually can be, so I think this issue deserves a bit more nuance than it’s receiving. As it stands, men and women both are viewing body image in a more and more unhealthy way as the media begins to portray what is attractive as more and more unattainable for 99% of the rest of us (and really it’s dishonest for the 1% of us that are actually in the photographs due to editing tricks). One example I can think of off the top of my head is walking by Hollister in the mall. They were doing a promotion trying to get people to go into the store, so they had a male and female model standing outside wearing Hollister clothing. The woman was actually dressed very conservatively, and the ensemble looked pleasant and non-objectifying. The male model was wearing Hollister clothing, but the shirt was a button-up that wasn’t buttoned up. Obviously, they were trying to show off his pecs and abs. The message was obvious: if you’re a guy, you need to look like this; if you’re a girl, come in and see all of the hot guys while you pick out a cute outfit. In fact, in all Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch stores, you will see a muscular, thin, hairless male model in a giant picture right at the entrance. At one point I remember there being one that was totally naked save for a towel covering his groin, and they don’t sell towels. Likewise, at a store like Victoria’s Secret you will see murals of fit and firm women wearing skimpy lingerie. Basically, the message being displayed is that you have to be perfectly symmetrical, thin, and fit to be attractive.

        The response it seems is to avoid talking about appearance altogether. However, I think there is a healthy way to talk about appearance. There seems to be a negative stigma attached to objectification, but I don’t think it is totally unhealthy to be objectified to an extent. Total objectification of a person is absolutely wrong. That is, if the inherent perception that other person has of you is of or relating to your looks or some other aspect of your body, that is bad. People are not that simple, and they should be treated as not simple creatures. But to totally ignore appearance? I think most people like that kind of recognition, and I think it is healthy to accept compliments on looks.

        As for interpreting a compliment as you looking “satisfactory,” I think that is more indicative of your own self-perception rather than how the other person perceives you. That isn’t to say that I am attempting to invalidate your experience or otherwise invalidate you as a person. By all means your experience is valid, and you have a reason to feel the way you do. However, if you detach yourself from the situation and consider a comment like “you look great” it’s a stretch to say that such a comment could be reasonably interpreted as “you look satisfactory.” Plus there is plenty that can be read into that, for example health, energy levels, and overall improved self-esteem which are all noticeable.

        For me? I tend to err on the side of caution because I know it could create problems for me. If I do make a comment and someone asks me politely (or rudely, really) not to, I will respect that person’s request. Ultimately, I don’t think the onus is on me to not pay a compliment to someone because he or she might maybe interpret it improperly. Something like “Damn girl, you look sexy” would absolutely be inappropriate, but I don’t think that’s what we are talking about right now. In the end, I think most of it comes down to how one views oneself rather than how the rest of the world views a person.

        1. Andy Lester*

          I don’t think the onus is on me to not pay a compliment to someone because he or she might maybe interpret it improperly.

          Why do you think it’s appropriate to assess how acquaintances in the workplace look and then inform them of your opinion?

          1. Mike*

            Like I said, it’s nuanced. It isn’t that it’s always appropriate or always inappropriate. It depends. That’s why I also have a general rule of erring on the side of caution. However, you never know what a personal boundary is until it is communicated to you. I really think that people are viewing this in an extremely simplistic manner that is not appropriate for the topic we are discussing. For example, me complimenting someone on his or her appearance might be something that would brighten that person’s day. They might not like it. They might be indifferent. Who knows until they find out? If 1 in 3 people don’t like being complimented on their looks and the other 2 do, is it unreasonable for the one person to simply say, “I appreciate the compliment, but I prefer not to discuss my appearance at work.” I don’t think so.

            This entire subject is inherently subjective. What, to you, is “[assessing] how acquaintances in the workplace look and then [informing] them of your opinion” means something different to me. Cut-and-dry, it seems that it’s something an overtly opinionated person does and that it’s judgmental and wrong. When done correctly, it can be a way of reinforcing positive self-image. I just don’t buy the argument of “I don’t like it, so you shouldn’t do it.” I don’t like plenty of innocuous things people do that I don’t like, but I just deal with it. Whether that means I ignore it or ask the person to stop, I deal with it and move on.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Most people don’t mind “you like nice.” But that’s different than commenting on someone’s body. In the workplace, I want you pretending you don’t even notice that I have a body, thank you very much.

                1. Andy Lester*

                  There are dozens of thoughtful and insightful comments in this post that address how uncomfortable it can make people having their appearance commented on.

                  I think that ultimately they boil down to the idea that one’s body is private, and is not up for public discussion with mere acquaintances at work. (For purposes of this discussion, your co-workers count as mere acquaintances unless there is some relationship or friendship beyond day-to-day work.)

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Mike, I think you might be overlooking women’s very long history with having their bodies publicly assessed by men for purposes that have nothing to do with “friendliness” or work, and being valued or devalued accordingly. Or hit on, much of the time.

                  I’m at work; I should be a brain to you. You don’t need to be gazing at my body, let alone telling me that you have thoughts about it. It’s not there for you to check out.

              1. Mike*

                I didn’t realize this was inherently a women’s issue. And I am not talking about gazing or checking someone out.

        2. KellyK*

          Ultimately, I don’t think the onus is on me to not pay a compliment to someone because he or she might maybe interpret it improperly.

          It’s pretty presumptuous to make this about the other person “interpreting it improperly.” Or, for that matter, to decide, after reading dozens of comments pointing out tons of situations in which it isn’t the case, that weight loss is always good and mentions of it are always complimentary.

          1. Mike*

            My argument is under the assumption that the person intended to lose weight in order to pursue a more healthy lifestyle and self-image. I also never said that all mentions are complimentary. I even gave an example of when it wouldn’t be. I also said that the issue was nuanced.

            As for interpreting improperly, I was addressing more the issue of what Jamie and others have said when they interpret what someone says about their looks. Jamie specifically said:

            but suffice to say that the absolute best thing that can be said about commenting, unsolicited, on someone’s weight is that you have appraised their body and found it satisfactory. So even best case scenario is rude.

            Saying “you look great” generally means “you look great” rather than “you look satisfactory”. In other instances people are saying that they think that the person is judging them as a person. Maybe, maybe not, but anyone knows that a person isn’t just his or her looks. I think most reasonable adults would understand that this is implied. Another aspect of appearance is how it reflects a person’s personality. There are many factors that influence a person’s perception of another’s appearance. To reduce that down to “He or she is judging me” is way too simplistic to fully describe what’s happening in most cases.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              She didn’t mean “you look satisfactory” to mean “you look just barely acceptable.” She meant it means “your appearance satisfies me; I approve of it.” And the point is that many women, especially at work, feel that it’s not yours to pass judgment on.

              1. Mike*

                Well you said that most people don’t mind “you look nice” but does that not also say “your appearance satisfies me; I approve of it” in fewer words? Do you and I not both believe that if one does indeed feel it is not anyone else’s judgment to pass that one should let the other know about it? I mean, I am hearing mixed messages. On one hand, most people don’t mind “you look nice” but one should not say something about a person’s appearance or body that indicates that his or her physical appearance is satisfactory…which “you look nice” can be interpreted as. Please excuse me, but I am a bit flummoxed by some of the reasoning being used, not just by you but by everyone.

                I understand that women are constantly bombarded with images about appearance and body that are ultimately unhealthy and unrealistic. Men are too and have other similar messages that we are bombarded with. I am confused about why there must be a one or the other mentality. There has to be a happy medium.

                1. fposte*

                  I don’t think it has to be the medium to be happy.

                  Here’s the thing, Mike: if you give as many appearance compliments to male co-workers as to female, to colleagues on and above your level as to people who you outrank, you are a rare individual (and still possibly an inappropriate one, but at least an egalitarian). And if you don’t, you’re treating one group as having more decorative significance than the other. That is a problem. That is not what people are in the workplace for. If you are trying a case before the Supreme Court, it is not appropriate to tell Justice Kagan that she looks nice. That does not change just because the person you’re talking to has less power than Justice Kagan.

  26. Yuu*

    OP, I think you handled it perfectly.

    Try to see it as someone trying to be nice to you – you say thank you to thank them for that sentiment, then change the subject for your own peace of mind.

  27. Eric*

    I lost a lot (50%) of weight over the course of two years. I was never comfortable talking about it since it is a really personal thing and it didn’t feel right to be talking about it at work (I put it in a class with politics and religion). However, I know that people were either asking because they want to know how it was accomplished or to give a compliment so I took it as such and changed the subject as soon as appropriate.

  28. SCW*

    I would love to hear more suggestions on how to deal with customers who make personal comments/ask really personal questions of all kinds–not just weight! I work in a library, and patrons ask me about my marital choices, children, religion, politics, weight, clothing, hair, everything that logic and professionalism would dictate as out of bounds has possibly been asked at some point. Some are easy to deflect, but I really get upset with some of the religion questions because people are so persistent and will call you on deflecting the question. I had a guy ask me why I didn’t go to church more often!

    Any tips for politely deflecting overly personal questions from persistent patrons?

    1. FreeThinkerTX*

      You could say something like, “A wise mentor once told me to never discuss politics, religion, or anything personal at work. I think it’s a great idea, wouldn’t you agree?” Lean slightly toward them when you say it, and deliver it with a conspirator’s smile.

      One, it keeps you from answering the question. Two, it puts them in the position of having to say, ‘No, I don’t agree; I want to discuss personal things with you,” which is very awkward for any person who are genuinely trying to maneuver in polite society.

      Now, if they’re rude or an ass about it, practice the raised eyebrow and say simply, “Wow,” while getting on with your business.

    2. JessA*

      I’ve worked in retail (as a cashier) at various points in my life and I really hate that. The company I worked for was a high-end retailer, where there was a heavy emphasis on guest service. I actually had a guy come through my line one day and he told me that his daughter had a question for me. (I’m guessing she was around 6 or 7) So I look over the counter so I can see her and I ask her what her question is. She asks me if I believe in Jesus.

      (At the time, I was not practicing religiously, so the question really ticked me off.)

      I felt that it was inappropriate for the girl to ask me and even more inappropriate for her father for putting her up to it. As much as I would have loved to put them in their place, I smiled and did not say another word. I figured that my bosses couldn’t fire me for keeping my mouth shut.

      I know there in a tendency (or mindset) in customer service oriented jobs to satisfy and delight every guest or to partake in the whole “the customer is always right” mentality, but sometimes you have to set boundaries by either creating an awkward silence or by saying “hey, I really don’t discuss this publicly.”

      That’s just my two cents.

    3. Heatherbrarian*

      (Sorry if this appears more than once – I am having Internet problems…)

      I’m another librarian and I feel you! (I generally refer to my POSSLQ as my “partner” and, when calling him such in front of patrons (admittedly a topic I never should allow myself to discuss with a patron in the first place), have sometimes been flat-out asked whether I am a lesbian.)

      The standard response to certain personal questions which I try to remember (but do not always succeed) to give is, “Professionally, I have no opinions on [politics/religion/etc.].” If pressed, you can say that you do of course have personal opinions but your job is to set them aside as soon as you come on duty, so you do not discuss them with patrons. Repeat as necessary.

      Doesn’t help with the questions about your marital/family status or some other personal questions, or the creepy guys trying to come on to you, but it’s a start.

  29. Anon*

    In my office, a woman has lost a lot of weight and looks really good. I’ve wanted to tell her for a while how nice she looks, and decided not to, because I do feel weird commenting on weight. But she really does! This confirms that I will simply keep my mouth shut and go back to work.

    1. Jamie*

      Which goes to show discussing this stuff here does make a difference in the real world.

      The thing about comments is that some people like them, some hate them, but I’ll admit it’s a weirdly accepted topic for small talk (although it shouldn’t be IMO).

      But like them or hate them what they are is stating an opinion of someone’s body after you’ve appraised it. Bottom line that’s what it is. And assessment and evaluation. That’s why it’s inappropriate at work.

    2. Laura*

      I lost a lot of weight after I had my kids (baby weight + some extra I’d been toting around for awhile before that), and the compliment I always appreciated the most was, “You look like you feel great!” I *did* feel great, and not as much directly because of the weight loss, but because I was happier and smiling more and dressing better. “You look like you feel great” — not prefaced or followed by any other comment about what might be causing the person to feel great — makes the compliment not about the weight loss or any other physical detail but about the mood the person is projecting. And it’s also a useful check for whether it’s appropriate to comment…do I look 10lbs lighter but also like my dog just died? Maybe don’t tell me how great I look, because obviously I don’t *feel* great.

  30. BCW*

    I find this very interesting. I hope no one takes this the wrong way, but sometimes reading this blog makes it seem like the best intentions you have in an office are always taken in the wrong way by someone. If I noticed someone lost a lot of weight, I wouldn’t think twice about paying them a compliment about it because I know its a tough thing to do. But apparently that is bad now too. I don’t mean to dismiss the OPs issues and what she has gone through, but sometimes I feel that people should lighten up. I mean, can I not say someone’s haircut looks nice in fear that they donated it to their sister who has cancer? Where is the line anymore between trying to genuinely pay someone an innocent compliment and having to be super sensitive to anything someone may have gone through at some point in their life? I think if everyone started always worrying about stuff like this the office culture would turn into a very cold, unfriendly place.

    1. Jamie*

      There are plenty of topics of friendly conversation which don’t involve getting personal with people. It has nothing to do with avoiding deep issues – just avoiding commenting on things which in a work place are none of your business.

      My daughter has no food issues whatsoever and not a week goes by where a co-worker or customer doesn’t ask her how she keeps her cute little figure, how does she stay so skinny working there (fast food), and how cute she looks in her uniform.

      It’s complimentary in that they approve of how she looks – but it skeeves her out that not only are they checking her out but they have to let her know they are thinking about her body and have approved. It’s grosser when there is an element of sexual interest – but she hates it even when the little old ladies do it thinking they are nice.

      And the thing is plenty of people don’t mind talking about it – so you should feel free to chat them up about it…but if someone doesn’t discuss their own body with you it’s not your place to introduce the topic.

      At least in a perfect world. In the real world it happens all the time and those of us with more stringent boundaries need to learn to deal and ignore it.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        “It’s complimentary in that they approve of how she looks – but it skeeves her out that not only are they checking her out but they have to let her know they are thinking about her body and have approved.”

        This is the thing that I think a lot of people really don’t understand about these comments.

    2. fposte*

      I don’t think it’s that the best intentions will always be taken the wrong way, I think it’s important to realize intentions are not the whole story, though, and that we all need to be aware of other people as well as our intentions. People can understand you didn’t say something to be hurtful but still be hurt, right? Just like if you accidentally run over somebody’s foot, the fact that it’s an accident doesn’t mean their foot doesn’t hurt. And the etiquette that you don’t comment on people’s bodies isn’t a new thing, either–it’s actually quite old.

      If you are friends with somebody and you know they’ve been trying to lose weight, that’s one thing–you have information that allows you to think that they’d be pleased that you noticed. But I think it’s worth listening to the conversation here which makes it clear that a lot of people *wouldn’t* be pleased. And since it sounds like you’d be saying something because you think they’d like it, realizing that a lot of people don’t like it might help you decide whether that’s a situation where you should compliment or hold off.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      BCW, I think it’s not that people here don’t understand that these comments are well-intentioned, and I’m sure no one here would jump on someone for making them in real life. But it’s worth talking about the fact that they’re not always appreciated, that they do cause discomfort for some people, and that ideally people would think about the broader context before they make them. So it’s not a matter of “anyone who makes comments like this is a rude person,” and more “if people gave this more thought, they’d realize that these aren’t wise comments to make because ___.”

      That seems to me like a useful discussion to have, and one that thoughtful people will come away influenced by, and that’s a good thing. I know that it’s made me a lot more thoughtful about when and where I give these types of compliments — which I, just like most people, have generally given without thinking about it too much. Isn’t that a good result?

    4. Andy Lester*

      sometimes reading this blog makes it seem like the best intentions you have in an office are always taken in the wrong way by someone.

      Change the “are always” to “can be” and I think that’s a valuable lesson to take away from reading this blog. So, too, is the idea that what is perfectly OK for one person may not be seen as OK by someone else.

      Take the following progression of compliments, all of them well-intentioned.

      * “You look nice.”
      * “Nice shirt.”
      * “That shirt suits your figure.”
      * “That shirt makes you look especially curvaceous.”
      * “Nice rack today.”

      Maybe we can agree that “You look nice” is OK, and “Nice rack” is not, but where’s the line in the middle? And, for many people, the distance between the two may be very small indeed. At its core, every one of them says “I have assessed your appearance”, and that can be an uncomfortable position for the listener.

      There are so many other ways to interact in the office, and so many other pleasantries to be had, why not just leave assessments of others’ bodies alone?

      1. BCW*

        Again, not to be rude, but people’s appearance is assessed every day. Thats a fact of life. If they weren’t, people wouldn’t look in the mirror every day before they leave the house to make sure they look good. I’m not advocating saying everything that pops into your head, but at the same time, I don’t want to feel like I have to walk on egg shells anytime I open my mouths. I know some women who genuinely would be offended if they got a new hairstyle and no one commented on it. But based on some of these comments, it would seem that doing it to others may hurt their feelings. I just feel like, as someone pointed out earlier, intent does matter, and sometimes you need to look at the intent before your feelings are hurt. And there really is a difference between overtly sexual comments and general compliments, I think most logical people can see that.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Again, I don’t think people are getting outraged when it happens — but what you’re hearing people say is that it makes many of them uncomfortable for reasons that you’d never be privy to — and which are perfectly reasonable (health conditions, eating disorders, sexual abuse histories, etc.).

          So knowing that, why wouldn’t you want to incorporate that into your thinking about these issues?

          1. BCW*

            Trust me, in my daily life I try to avoid offending people at all costs. I also like giving compliments as a way to just be friendly and maybe brighten someone’s day. But people get offended these days at so much that its hard to keep straight what person A finds offensive while person B thinks is a lovely thing to say. I’m just saying that, and maybe its just me and how I was raised, if you know its coming from a good place, just smile, say thank you, and move on. If its something that happens repeatedly and you are uncomfortable, then sure say something. But otherwise why get upset about something like that.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think that’s the disconnect — most people aren’t getting upset. They’re just privately wishing you’d stop.

              (Some people, like people with abuse histories, might be getting upset — but I’m sure you understand it in that case.)

            2. fposte*

              Where intent particularly matters to me, BCW, is that you’re saying these things with the intent of pleasing–which means that the information that it often doesn’t please people should be relevant to whether or not you say these things. Because if you keep saying them just because you think people *ought* to be pleased, knowing that many people don’t like it, it’s about what you like, not about what they like, and your intent isn’t what you think it is.

              If you really know people, then you probably do know what’s welcome. But if you don’t know them, treat them like you’d treat a new boss–no physical compliments or complaints.

        2. Andy Lester*

          people’s appearance is assessed every day.

          That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to give voice to those assessments.

          a difference between overtly sexual comments and general compliments

          Of course there is a difference, but who can declare where the difference is? In my progression of five examples above, where do you draw the line between OK and not OK? And can you agree that where you draw the line might not be where someone else draws the line?

          intent does matter

          I suggest that intent doesn’t matter at all. It might make a difference to the speaker, but to the listener who can’t know the speaker’s intent, all he has to go off of is what the speaker has said.

          Even with the best of intentions, it’s easy to be insulting. Consider the following, all said with good intent:

          * “You really ought to be going out more.”
          * “Keep on smoking like that, and you’ll be dead in five years, and you won’t be able to say I didn’t warn you.”
          * “Why do you waste your time reading that trash?”
          * “How can you let anyone treat you like that? If you had any self respect, you’d tell him where to go.”
          * “A good plastic surgeon could fix that.”
          * “Now’s the time for you to have children, while you’re still young enough to cope with them.”
          * “You just think you’re in love.”
          * “You ought to have your colors done.”

          In everyone one of those cases, the speaker has the best of intentions, and yet every one of them is an insult. (That list is taken from a longer piece by Miss Manners on unsolicited advice.)

          1. BCW*

            Well, we’ll just agree to disagree about certain things like intent mattering or not. But there is a difference between someone telling me that the outfit I’m wearing looks bad in order to save me embarrassment and them telling me that to make me feel bad about myself. So if for you, intent doesn’t matter, then thats fine but for many people it does.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think intent is sort of a red herring here. Most people who make these types of comments mean well, and most people receiving them know that. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that many people don’t appreciate having their bodies/appearances appraised and hearing your verdict delivered, even if that verdict is a positive one.

              1. Amouse*

                I don’t if other people can relate to this or not, but when people would make me uncomfortable by constantly complimenting me on my weight loss, that discomfort would also be mixed with my own guilt over knowing they meant well and that I should be grateful for the compliment because it was a social norm. I felt like i was a bad person for feeling uncomfortable about it.
                So there are layers in this.

                1. W W*

                  Yes! And I have experienced friends and family who get offended and angry when I say “I’m not comfortable talking about weight.”

                2. Ellie H.*

                  Yes totally! This applies to a huge amount of things in life. Your discomfort is hugely compounded by feeling guilty about your own failure to adequately “appreciate” it enough.

              2. Jamie*

                I think this really just comes down to people having different life experiences – and there will always be those who think those who are bothered by that which doesn’t bother them should “lighten up.”

                This blog can be enlightening in that it’s a forum to read about the points of view and opinions of those who have different experiences.

                For me it’s not that BCW feels the way he does – many, many people do. It’s just that – to me – the way he’s expressing it feels really dismissive of people who don’t share his mindset that physical assessments are welcome if positive.

                And the idea that the right to say what you like trumps the right of other people not to have to hear your opinion is a really common belief.

                And you’re right, Alison, I didn’t see anyone say that they freak out or get upset – just that they wish people would keep their opinion to themselves when it comes to their body.

                Some people like to be complimented on their body. Some don’t. Some (speaking as a woman working in a male dominated field in a male dominated industry) resent the f**k out of being reminded that no matter how hard we work that’s what still matters.

                Because quite frankly – I think we’ve all heard it – we all work or have worked with people who think they are being so nice by telling us how thin, fit, nice, cute whatever we look – and I don’t throw a fit. I ignore it and if it persists I tell them it’s not a topic I discuss at work (in a nice way) and that ends it. But in the back of my head I’m annoyed and amused that anyone thinks I care about their opinion on this.

                Again – personal friends with whom you happen to work are different as the boundaries are different.

                I’ll shut up now – I’m happy to agree to disagree on this.

  31. Natalie*

    Before Family Guy got uncancelled and apparently also unfunny, they occasionally had their moments. Depending on the audience I might borrow this one:

    Used Car Salesman: You’re looking great! Have you lost weight?

    Peter: Nah, I’m just parting it on the side.

  32. Editor*

    I once worked for someone with Edwardian sensibilities (really — she actually told one of the teens at the library to put down a heavy box of books because she would “damage her female organs”).

    My boss felt she had to compliment people, but she relied on euphemisms in certain cases. One male student who came back to visit after a few years had visibly gained weight. Her greeting, predictably, was, “My, you look so prosperous.”


  33. Anonymous*

    In the past 2 years I’ve lost nearly 170lbs. People comment on my weight all the time. Like you, it makes me severely uncomfortable. Even moreso when it’s men who also include some sort of sexual reference… “You look good! .. especially from behind.” “Don’t lose too much weight – a man likes something to hold onto!” (said with crude hand gestures and hip thrusting). I am not the type of person who lets people walk all over them. I am typically very confident and able to assert myself. However, for whatever reason, these sort of comments make me completely freeze up and I respond very little or not at all. I don’t know how to handle them and it makes me feel inferior and worthless. Hopefully we can both take some of the advice from this blog and make our lives better.

  34. romantic gift Ideas for him*

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