Commenting on Appearance May Perpetuate Diet Culture, Here's What to Do Instead

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While a majority of us can agree that weight conversations are rarely helpful, comfortable, or appropriate, the topic continues to seep into many of our daily lives. Even if the noted observation is intended as a compliment ("you look so thin!"), appearance-based conversations can trigger insecurities and perpetuate a diet culture mindset.

What Is Diet Culture?

The reality is that we live in a society that is influenced by diet culture. This is the belief that your appearance and shape—specifically thinness—are more important than your health or emotional wellbeing, explains Susan Albers, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and New York Times best-selling author.

According to Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, and the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia, diet culture tends to promote “good” versus “bad,” especially when it comes to foods, restricting calories or promoting exercise as punishment for poor eating habits, and normalizing negative body talk. Unfortunately harmful consequences often result from associating morality with food. 

“For example, people often feel unworthy, guilty, or anxious if they do not eat a ‘clean’ enough diet, reach a standard of beauty that is unattainable or have a smaller, fitter body that symbolizes the tenets of discipline and hard work,” Laing points out. “If a person is not perceived as having these qualities due to their larger body size, the unfounded assumption in diet culture is that they are simply lazy or lack willpower.”

Why You Shouldn’t Comment on a Person’s Appearance

While a person might initially think that commenting on appearance can be harmless, or even beneficial, this is almost always untrue. In fact, when someone makes a comment about another person’s body, it often suggests to that person that their body is supposed to look a certain way or be a certain size, explains Lisa N. Folden, North Carolina-licensed physical therapist, NASM-certified behavior change specialist and the owner of Healthy Phit Physical Therapy & Wellness Consultants in Charlotte, North Carolina.

If at any point a person’s body no longer fits the confines of the societally suggested mold, whether they gained or lost weight or altered their appearance in some other way, they may feel less worthy or valuable, even if this change occurred long before or after the comment was originally given. 

“When someone gains weight, the assumption is often made that they are ‘letting themselves go’ or becoming more unhealthy, when in fact, they may be working out regularly, drinking lots of water, getting excellent sleep, and managing their stress and mental health flawlessly,” says Folden. “By all accounts that matter, they are pretty healthy, but their body is not societally seen as the picture of health and that is what stands out.”

Why Commenting on Weight Can Be Harmful

Sometimes a change in body size is the result of a medical circumstance, be it mental, physical, or emotional. If someone has lost weight, even if it was intentional, it might not be the appearance a person is hoping to attain—commenting on that appearance may perpetuate an unhealthy notion of what they should or should not look like.

“Making a casual comment about someone’s changed body or weight loss might seem like the kind thing to do, but it encourages the idea that thinner bodies are healthier and more worthy of attention, and this is problematic in perpetuating diet culture,” advises Dr. Laing.

Here are some main reasons why commenting on weight can be harmful and counterproductive: 

May Be Triggering

You never know a person’s experience with weight—physically, mentally, and emotionally. For example, that individual may have struggled with an eating disorder in the past. While your compliments may be well-intentioned, Laing warns that weight-related comments could be encouraging risky and unsafe habits to maintain their changes or to lose more weight. 

Weight May Be Associated With Disease

Weight loss could be due to an illness, like cancer or an autoimmune disease. In fact, one study found that unintentional weight loss in people over the age of 65 was associated with an increased risk for morbidity and mortality. Such diseases that are often accompanied by the symptom of unexplained weight loss include cancer, cardiovascular disease, and liver conditions.

May Lead to Shame if Weight Is Regained

A growing body of research has shown that even those who are successful in losing weight from dieting often gain back the weight they lost, sometimes more.

“Given that it’s unlikely that individuals will be able to sustain short-term weight loss, praising that weight loss can lead to increased fear of public scrutiny and self-recrimination when weight is regained,” explains Danielle Keenan-Miller, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles. 

May Harm a Person’s Self-Perception

Culture has often dictated that there is only one way that a person should appear—thin. As such, many people have developed a body image that responds strongly to advertisements on product labels, images in magazines, videos online, or to direct or subtle judgmental comments from others, notes Laing.

“It is acceptable in many communities to engage in ‘fat talk,’ sharing stories about eating forbidden foods, joking about body dissatisfaction, or speaking negatively about your own body or others,” she continues. “Body image can [be impacted by] being praised, subtly teased, or overtly bullied about your appearance.”

It’s Not Always Within Someone's Control

Despite what many of us are taught to believe, weight is not something that is always within our control. In fact, Dr. Laing clarifies that weight cannot accurately estimate the amount of fat or muscle mass that a person has, nor does it take into consideration ethnic variations that may impact body composition or size.

“Fluctuations in weight can happen due to changes in muscle mass, hormonal status, and hydration, and increases in weight are often indicators that our bodies are responding how they should to these factors,” she says. 

What You Should Do Instead

Commenting on appearance, especially weight, may feel natural upon seeing a person you haven’t seen in a while or when someone has changed their appearance in a significant way. However, it’s better to avoid the topic at all costs. Bodies are meant to change and weight and appearance will fluctuate throughout different seasons of life. 

Other types of compliments—about a personality or life accomplishments—are far more encouraging and powerful than commenting on someone's weight or shape, recommends Keenan-Miller. She believes everyone should let loved ones know that their inner beauty is seen and appreciated.

“Often it’s enough just to share how excited you are to see someone or to highlight something about that person that you really value,” she says. “If a friend brings up their own weight loss or gain, I would suggest responding by saying ‘You were beautiful in my mind and you’re beautiful to me now.’” 

A Word From Verywell

Avoiding comments about outward appearance helps those around you know how you'd prefer to be communicated with; it may even make them rethink how they communicate with others, too. Weight and appearance are personal, often vulnerable topics best left discussed in a medical setting with a safe health care professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is diet culture?

    Diet culture promotes the idea that thin is the ideal (thus best) body type. It is not inclusive of other body sizes or shapes.

  • What is health at every size?

    Health at every size, also known as the HAES® principles, was developed by the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) and is currently defined as promoting health equity, supporting ending weight discrimination, and improving access to quality healthcare regardless of size.

  • What is body neutrality?

    Body neutrality is the feeling of appreciating one’s body in a neutral way—it’s a midway point between body positivity and body negativity. It’s understanding that your body is your vessel in which you are able to live, carry out your day-to-day responsibilities, and love those in your life—respecting its purpose and all that it is able to do. In other words, body neutrality means appreciating your body for other aspects aside from weight and appearance.

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gaddey HL, Holder KK. Unintentional weight loss in older adults. Am Fam Physician. 2021;104(1):34-40. 34264616.

  2. Vierboom YC, Preston SH, Stokes A. Patterns of weight change associated with disease diagnosis in a national sample. Latham-Mintus K, ed. PLoS ONE. 2018;13(11):e0207795. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0207795

  3. Hall KD, Kahan S. Maintenance of lost weight and long-term management of obesity. Medical Clinics of North America. Medical Clinics of North America. 2018;102(1):183-197. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012

Edited by
Lily Moe
Lily Moe for Verywell Fit

Lily Moe is a former fitness coach and current Editor for Verywell Fit. A wellness enthusiast, she can often be found in a hot yoga studio, trying a new recipe, or going for a long run in Central Park.

Learn about our editorial process