When is it ok to comment on another person’s body?

When is it ok to comment on another person’s body? Spoiler alert: Never!

By Elisha Carcieri, Ph.D.

As a relatively new mom of an 11-month-old, I’m on the tail end of almost two years of a complete metamorphosis. In nine months my body grew to accommodate another human, delivered that human into the world, and has since been slowly returning to its original, albeit changed, form.

Something bizarre happens when you’re pregnant. For some reason, people take this as an opportunity to comment on physical appearance, especially size and weight, perhaps more so than they do with non-pregnant women. Most don’t mean any harm, and most of the time no harm is done. But even so, I ask…why do it? And I beg…please stop! For the most part, commenting on another person’s body size is, at the very least, unproductive and unhelpful, and at worst a triggering assault on the already high-jacked consciousness of an eating disorder sufferer.

Oftentimes pregnant women will receive comments such as, “looks like you’re ready to pop!” or, “any day now, huh?” But what if that’s not the case? Saying this to a woman who has many months of pregnancy ahead of her has the potential to bring up all sorts of emotions and uncertainties. I recall a stranger stopping me on the street to give me her business card for prenatal water aerobics. She asked me how far along I was and promptly added that I was “showing early for being only 6 months along” and could therefore especially benefit from her services.

As a society, we’re generally obsessed with weight loss, wellness, thinness, and, with regard to pregnant women, “bouncing back.” I think there is an assumption that if you’re saying someone is small or thin, then its fine. But my caution against body comments rings true for comments about thinness or smallness just as much as it does for fatness, largeness, bigness, etc. It can be difficult to understand how comments about smallness might affect someone. We all want to be thin, right? But for a woman carrying a baby, being told you’re looking small can be scary and can bring up unwarranted uncertainties and fears. I can recall being told at the end of my pregnancy that I looked small. “What a tiny baby bump,” “you don’t even look like you’re about to have that baby.” (Mind you, this was the same body that elicited the above “big for 6 months” comment.) These comments came after my doctor told me that I was, in fact, measuring small during that particular week of pregnancy. It took some work to cope with and wrangle the anxious thoughts running through my head. I went on to deliver a 9lb baby…further illustrating the fruitlessness of sharing our flawed perceptions of another person’s size or shape.

The truth is that you just don’t know what another human is dealing with at any given moment. You’re also not likely to be telling them anything they don’t know already. So what’s the point?

Experiencing these comments on my body during and after pregnancy has had me thinking about how difficult it would be to tolerate for someone with an eating disorder, and how difficult comments on body shape and size must be for those with eating disorders even in the absence of pregnancy. I do want to clarify here that no eating disorder is caused by comments made by another person or even necessarily by the negative body image that can result from being on the receiving end of body-focused comments. We don’t know what causes eating disorders. Eating disorders are likely the result of a myriad of genetic/biological, social, and psychological factors. However, we do know that for many men and women suffering from an eating disorder, there is often a core overvaluation of weight and shape in the person’s overall self-concept that places them at risk for engaging in efforts to control their weight or shape. This dieting or extreme restricting food intake can result in binge eating and subsequent control behaviors such as vomiting/laxative use/over-exercise/further restriction of food intake, resulting in a vicious cycle.

For a person in the throes of an eating disorder, a positive or approving comment on weight loss can serve as fuel to the already burning fire that is the eating disorder mindset. Also, what is the message we are sending when we comment on another person’s appearance with approval only when there is an observed weight loss? Isn’t the underlying message that that person is not worthy of approval when their weight is higher? Why would you want to send that message to a loved one? Alternatively, for someone in any stage of recovery from an eating disorder, comments on weight gain can be difficult to manage. I’ll also say that even for those of us who are neither suffering from an eating disorder or in recovery, fielding, and processing these comments simply sucks.

So, the next time you feel compelled to comment on another person’s body shape or size, no matter the circumstances, just don’t! Ask them about themselves, share something about yourself, tell them how great it is to see them, or comment on the weather if there is nothing better to talk about. There is little to gain and much to lose from body-focused comments, no pun intended.