Unwanted compliment
July 21, 2008 10:46 AM   Subscribe

How to best respond to a personal remark, framed as a compliment, that appears to be someone expressing negative thoughts about their own weight?

A couple of times in the past month, I have receive a “compliment” about my weight, framed as “you are so thin!” In both instances, the comment was followed by the comment, “I wish I weren’t so fat.” This probably seems trivial, but I’d really like to know how to best respond to a personal remark such as this.

I have no problem simply thanking people for a compliment, but it seems to me that such compliments are really a way to express unhappiness about the giver’s own self-image, and it feels rude to pop out with a “thanks!”, especially when their compliment is followed by a disappointed wish about their own body. I’ve tried to think of something empathic or supportive to say about a person’s wish to lose weight, but so far whatever I’ve thought of sounds insincere to me.

Maybe this is one of those things where there’s just no single answer—if you’re not insincere, whenever you say will sound jerky, and if you are sincere, you’ll be fine. Hopefully, I’m the latter. Would still really like to know if other people have encountered this, on either side—either being the person who has found something appropriate to say, or has heard empathic, supportive comments in this type of scenario.

Quick background: I am a small-boned person of average weight, might be described as thin, but certainly not abnormally so. I have neither gained nor lost weight recently.
posted by dreamphone to Human Relations (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I asked a similar question a few years ago.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:59 AM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


When they say, “I wish I weren’t so fat," you could say, "well, if you get better exercise and make permanent changes to your diet and lifestyle, over time, you will lose weight."
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 11:00 AM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Some people offer compliments with the expectation of a compliment in return. Offering self-effacement alongside lets out even more line for your flattering reply. As for what you should say, stay away from anything that equates thin with good and overweight with bad. Compliment their fashion style, facial features, or hair, and mean it.
posted by carsonb at 11:03 AM on July 21, 2008


I think it's situational, although it does put you in an awkward situation. (Although they most likely didn't intend it, or even forsee it.)

If it's the least bit true, I'd probably go for a, "What are you talking about, you look fine!" type comment. Obviously, though, if they're 500 pounds overweight, "You look fine!" isn't going to be seen as sincere. (If you're comfortable with this type of thing, you could maybe got for a, "Aww c'mon, it looks like you've lost a good deal since I saw you last!" I always saw that as an implicit insult ("You're not as fat as you used to be!"), but most people don't.)

Otherwise, carsonb's advice is good.
posted by fogster at 11:09 AM on July 21, 2008


When they say, “I wish I weren’t so fat," you could say, "well, if you get better exercise and make permanent changes to your diet and lifestyle, over time, you will lose weight."

Uh, I doubt very thoroughly that is what they want to hear.



Some people offer compliments with the expectation of a compliment in return. Offering self-effacement alongside lets out even more line for your flattering reply.

This sounds more on the mark to me. I know lots of people that do this kind of thing, all to get compliments. If it is a chronic thing (ie. compliment grubbing) that the person does all the time I would consider maybe offering unhelpful comments like "Aww, thats too bad." as a reply to try to train them to quit it, but you run a pretty mega risk of insulting them and hurting the relationship.
posted by gwenlister at 11:11 AM on July 21, 2008


Didn't see ThePinkSuperhero's similar question because my search terms ("unwanted", "compliment") didn't turn up that question. Thanks for pointing it out.

I really like the following response (included in that batch of responses), which feels like the most sincerity I can pull off (because I really believe it): "All of us have something we don't like the size of." I think I might try that next time. Still would love to hear any other thoughts.
posted by dreamphone at 11:16 AM on July 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Is the person you are talking to male or female? Not to be sexist, but in my experience this is a specific type of conversation that functions entirely differently depending on the gender of the participants.

Men will generally want to "talk shop" in these sorts of situations, talking about what kind of exercises they do and whatnot. Women tend to expect more supportive/commiserative responses, such as personal anecdotes about having your own problems.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:17 AM on July 21, 2008


Aha-I just realized that I unintentionally omitted my sex: female. The people that are saying "I'm so fat" are women as well.
posted by dreamphone at 11:20 AM on July 21, 2008


When they say, “I wish I weren’t so fat," you could say, "well, if you get better exercise and make permanent changes to your diet and lifestyle, over time, you will lose weight."

Uh, I doubt very thoroughly that is what they want to hear.

But when people are fishing for compliments, especially under the guise of giving one, why should they be told what they want to hear? Won't that just perpetuate habits that make people want to avoid them?
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 11:33 AM on July 21, 2008


I have a friend who does this but instead of saying she's fat says, "But I'm crazy, so..." or "You're so popular and no one likes me..." etc. It drives me fucking bonkers. Usually, I ignore it and stew later. However, last time I replied, "You know what: I'm really tired of listening to you say negative things about yourself. I don't know if you really believe them or are unaware of how often you say these things or if you are fishing for compliments or what... but I'd like you to stop." She was at first offended and denied it happened often but then later called and said I was right and that she "doesn't know why" she does it and wants to stop as well and she appreciated me taking her to task.

She hasn't done it (with me around) since.
posted by dobbs at 11:34 AM on July 21, 2008 [5 favorites]


I respond with something like "oh, that's too bad!"

I avoid complimenting them or arguing with them, which is what you're "supposed" to do.

That friend usually stops fishing for compliments, which makes me happy. Haven't lost any friends over it yet.

Adults are responsible for their own self-esteem.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2008


For the record, I am female and these are female friends.
posted by sondrialiac at 11:39 AM on July 21, 2008


I'm assuming you're not talking about friends here (annoying friends at that), but rather acquaintances. That said:

"What are you talking about, you look fine!"

That one sounds good to me. Unless, of course, they really don't. In those cases, if it applies, then Compliment their fashion style, facial features, or hair, and mean it.

The same has happened to me, also "you look really great", or "you're so pretty" and I never know what to say, because I feel it'll sound fake even if I mean it. I do have a problem with compliments and I'm also at a loss for words as what to reply even if not much is expected back. "Thank you" sounds weird for some reason, so I mostly just smile and talk about something unrelated in my usual somewhat dysfunctional way.

The only easy one is "you have beautiful eyes, I wish I had your eyes". Answer: "oh no, these are ornamental only. I'm blind as bat without my contacts" (which is true). Not much help with the weight issue unless you're anorectic, though...
posted by neblina_matinal at 11:42 AM on July 21, 2008


I say something about how I am at the age where my metabolism is starting to slow and my luck won't last forever. I don't have to "return" anything, plus it's like commiserating and tends to not make people feel bad.

FWIW, I know plenty of people who work out way more and eat much healthier (and eat less) than I do, yet are still overweight, so making comments about those items is mean and unnecessary.

I hate it when people say things like, "Why are you ordering it fat-free? You're so skinny you don't need to do that." Duh, how do you think I intend to stay this way?
posted by ml98tu at 11:45 AM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I would say:

"Aw, kiddo, being down on yourself isn't going to help matters. I think you're lovely just the way you are, and really fun, to boot. I do feel lucky to be naturally thin; I know it's not really fair that some people struggle more with their bodies than others."

I think that's a nice way of communicating that you care about how she feels, and are sympathetic, but not about to suffer the foolishness of the ridiculous compliment-fishing that the "oh honey, you're not fat" legions have made so terribly cliché. If you want to go further and actually engage her in a conversation about how to fix this problem, that's a next step, but in no way is that your responsibility when she does this.

Behavior like that really chaps my hide, since I totally am overweight, and I want to be able to talk about it without the stupid "oh but you're whatever whatever blah blah blah" awkward compliments.

And of course, it's possible that she's just saying "You're thin. I'm fat. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Oh well." Which is totally okay, in my book. You don't have to reply at all when someone is just grousing over their goddamn burdens.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:50 AM on July 21, 2008 [4 favorites]


M.C. Lo-Carb!: But when people are fishing for compliments, especially under the guise of giving one, why should they be told what they want to hear? Won't that just perpetuate habits that make people want to avoid them?


...


ml98tu: I know plenty of people who work out way more and eat much healthier (and eat less) than I do, yet are still overweight, so making comments about those items is mean and unnecessary.


I guess I was trying to more imply this kind of thing. ml98tu just made it clearer what I was trying to say. I 100% agree with you that giving people compliments when they are fishing for them (especially when the do it a lot) is NOT what you should do. I just think there are other ways of offering unhelpful/not what the wanted responses that maybe won't hurt their feelings so much. Thats all. :)
posted by gwenlister at 11:52 AM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


When they say, “I wish I weren’t so fat," you could say, "well, if you get better exercise and make permanent changes to your diet and lifestyle, over time, you will lose weight."

Oh for fuck's sake, people, do not say this. It's obnoxious, condescending, and presumptuous. You very likely have no idea what this person's exercise and diet are like or why it is that way. Even if you do, it's still obnoxious and condescending.
posted by Shoeburyness at 11:57 AM on July 21, 2008 [8 favorites]


I think not saying anything is best here. Giving a compliment and trolling for one in return is tacky.
posted by pieoverdone at 12:02 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


What the shortcoming is -- fat, unpopular, unstylish, smelly, whatever -- doesn't matter. This sort of thing is about taking an opportunity to wallow, and to open the door for a potential compliment. The mechanics are such that the recipient isn't supposed to *feel* put upon...but at this point in social evolution, we all know better.

I think dobbs' suggestion is most effective for killing the practice at its root.
posted by gnomeloaf at 12:10 PM on July 21, 2008


Boy, I haven't heard that exchange for a while. And I haven't said it for a while either. In my experience, on both sides of the conversation, people who say "I wish I wasn't so fat" often aren't really that fat. They're not the skinny ideal that they wish, but they want reassurance that they're not actually overweight. I know that since I've failed to regain my pre-baby figure, the last thing I want to talk about is my fucking weight, even in the guise of complement fishing.

So my advice would be to say "Thank you. And you're not fat" and then change the subject - either pointedly or subtly, depending on the person or situation. That's what I remember people doing to me, and it seemed to let even my socially-challenged former self know that the compliment was noted and the subject closed. Responding this way makes it clear that you don't really want to start a conversation about dieting or self-image. That's not to say that you can't have valid and fruitful discussions on the subject, but they shouldn't start with the other person putting herself down in relation to you, which reduces a complex topic to a simple competition.
posted by bibliowench at 12:16 PM on July 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


I think everyone's so wrapped up in this kind of question being a "bad thing" that they're more focused on trying to help the OP stop getting these questions. But really, are two or three of these questions a month that bad? If the person asking you is a friend, and having a down day about themselves, does it really hurt to just respond in kind with a compliment? (Why do we have to "kill the practice at its root"?)

Personally, I'd thank the person for the compliment, and respond in kind about something I really meant (eyes/hair/clothing/cheekbones). You received a lovely compliment about your figure, they get something to feel good about, everybody wins here.

And - geez - I would definitely not respond with aggressive statements about their exercise and eating habits. Holy heck. How rude!
posted by twiki at 12:23 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


"I'm sorry you think that. I've always believed we're as beautiful as we feel we are."
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:39 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nothing really to add, except that Emily Post and your grandmother had it right. Never make personal remarks, even positive ones.

Okay, one thing to add. Try a neutral-to-the-point-of-discouraging-reply "mm hmm, do you think so?"
posted by nax at 12:45 PM on July 21, 2008


If someone says "You're so thin! I wish I weren't so fat," the response I give is either "Hush" or "Please". It's an easy way to acknowledge that they aren't fat without going all out and enabling their hamfisted compliment-grubbing.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:38 PM on July 21, 2008


WHATEVER YOU DO, don't say "you're not fat!". because this just leads into more conversation about how she totally is fat, and her hair is bad too.

also, you know, some people ARE fat and so to say "you're not fat" is just redonk.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:14 PM on July 21, 2008


I think it's possible that friends who do this are trying to address the issue of weight difference in order to let you know that they know a difference exists, and that they don't want it to negatively impact the friendship.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 2:15 PM on July 21, 2008


There seem to be two sets of answers in this thread: those for compliment fishers who aren't fat, and those for compliment fishers who in fact are.

That difference should be treated as irrelevant.

If you find yourself judging of the accuracy of their bait line, using one response or the other based on whether you agree, you've already lost. They are trying to get you to show whether you think they are the dreaded "fat," "crazy" or whatever other stigma they're concerned with avoiding. They want that judgment, to either placate themselves or wallow. Your opinion isn't the truth, it's your opinion. Their own distorted opinion is more "the truth" for them, anyway, and so, they'll ask again and again, thrashing against the bars of their emotional cage. It's pointless. Don't participate.

Treat the disease, insecurity, and not the symptom, codependent behavior.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:19 PM on July 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


AV for the win. Don't participate in any judging activity in one direction or the other. Accept the compliment and move on. If they want to talk about their weight, they'll eventually learn a more functional way to begin that conversation.
posted by Miko at 2:56 PM on July 21, 2008


I had a lot of people give me similar comments. I'd usually go something like this...

person: (holding their gut in shame) wow man, you're so thin.
me: (with a sad face) it wasn't easy. Not by a long shot. OH GOD FEED ME!!


Or...

person: (holding gut in shame) dude, you look great.
me: at least you get better food. (looking around suspiciously) I'll trade you a rice cake for a corndog?


Obviously, dieting isn't that bad, but I find that adding misery to their vision of my lifestyle makes their lifestyle look better in comparison, albeit in a humorous fashion.
posted by Zeker at 5:24 PM on July 21, 2008


« Older Age discrimination in UN hiring?   |   Do burglars read AskMeFi? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.