Say What? Coping With Comments About Your Weight

How to deflect criticism and accept compliments

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

It was the first time her mother had met her intended. The lights were low in the restaurant, music playing.

The waiter put down a basket of bread -- and her fiance pulled it beyond her arm's reach.

"My mother saw what a control freak he was," reports the now-50ish writer, who asked that her name not be revealed. "It took me longer to see it and break the engagement." (Incidentally, she weighed only 125 pounds, but her fiance had already made remarks about her little tummy.)

Whether they're wordless or spoken loud and clear, comments about weight and weight loss can sting -- even when they're given with the best intentions. Just about everyone who has struggled with weight has moments that stick in memory.

A few of the worst offenders we heard about:

  • The father who described his overweight daughter, age 10, as a "grotesque baby elephant." Some years later, the same woman's mother said, "I guess you're more acceptable now that you're older."
  • The doctor who inquired, "Are you too fat to have sex?" (As one member pointed out on the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic message boards, "obese" -- not "'fat" -- is the correct medical term.)
  • The networking friend who said, "I am shocked that you, as a lawyer, have not gotten your weight under control. I would never recommend you for a job."
  • The boss who saw fit to break the news that "you'd be so much prettier if you lost a little weight."
  • Normal-weight friends who ostentatiously say to waiters: "I'm doing the low carb thing, so no roll for me, please." (One overweight woman reports that a waiter turned to her after one of these little announcements and said, "You just don't care, huh?")
  • The guy who said, "Guess if we ever went out, it would be to the gym first thing, huh?"

Where Do They Get Off?

Larrian Gillespie, MD, a urologist/gynecologist who is the author of The Goddess Diet, says as a doctor, she sometimes has to comment or advise about weight and weight loss. But in her personal life, she doesn't do it.

"When someone tells someone they have 'such a pretty face,'" she says, "there is a subconscious tagline that the rest of you isn't so hot."

Gillespie advises dieters to respond to that patronizing chestnut with: "Thank you, so do you." That leaves the person nowhere to go with their next, supposedly constructive, comment.

Part of the problem, especially for women, is that we are so often judged by our physical attributes, Gillespie says: "How you look is hooked to your success."

There is also the implication that an overweight person is stupid: Can't they read that extra weight is unhealthy? There is no shortage in the media of what some overweight people call "U&D" articles -- for ugly and doomed.

Part of the problem is that people often don't understand complicated conditions like obesity.

Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health in New York, says obesity may be a result of underlying genetic tendencies, thyroid problems, or even lack of exercise. But it's hard to exercise when you're heavy, so it's a cycle, she says.

"Others may never understand the struggle overweight people go through," says Catherine Vieira-Baker, PhD, a psychologist with the May Institute in Walpole, Mass., a behavioral health facility.

"This whole country has poor eating habits. People don't differentiate between those who are trying hard and those who aren't."

Some people, Gillespie says, venture to advise out of a sense of misguided caring. Her own daughter has a medical condition that caused her to gain weight. "She has to tell people to accept her as she is."

"Don't forget," she adds, "what people say comes from their own back story. Sometimes prejudice is a way of gaining superiority." Often these comments hide hostility or a desire for you to fail in your dieting efforts.

How to Respond

On the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Daily Journaling: Friends Talking" message board, Elizabeth0505 posts that whenever she eats anything "vaguely unhealthy," she gets the "I-know-why-she's-fat" look.

"Deal with judgmental people one person at a time. There isn't a formula."

Even if it was your only meal of the day, you could be eating a hamburger and have people throw looks!

"Consider the source," advises Viera-Baker. "Is this person someone you need to wrap up energy in? It depends on the nature of your relationship with the person. If you know this is a sincere person who cares about you, you may not take offense."

Diet4Me, on the "Daily Journaling" message board, says she deals with judgmental people one person at a time.