Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: A worker in my building is morbidly obese. We're not acquainted; I know her name because that's my job, and if she knows mine at all, it's only because of my function. We are effectively strangers. She has recently lost a lot of weight. I feel like cheering. I really hope someone, somewhere, is cheering for her. I just don't see how it could be me, so I guess I'm looking either for what I might say, or advice to stay out of it. Thanks.
Answer: I think it would be great, assuming the opportunity presents itself organically, if you gave her a compliment along the lines of, "That blouse looks really pretty on you."
Giving a compliment based specifically on weight is so fraught. People who tackle a weight issue, be it too much or too little, are often inundated with comments, and it can really be burdensome.
Plus, there are often emotional issues that come with either the weight problem or with how life changes after it, and, as a stranger, you are not equipped to know whether there are any here.
Plus there's this: "Great, we have no interaction ever, and then I halve my weight, and you can talk to me now?" I don't agree with this myself - we're all dealing with one thing or another, and a "yay for you" from the world when we have a personal victory is just one of the little things that makes life worth living - but many do, and they have a fair point.
Anyway, I think the safe spot at the center of this Venn diagram is a genuine compliment on something else you notice about her appearance.
Comment: I recently lost more than 100 pounds. I had lost more than 70 before anyone outside my family mentioned my weight loss at all, and that was horribly depressing; I felt invisible. It feels wonderful when someone notices my hard work and success.
Comment: Please don't compliment her. What if she lost weight because she was ill? What if she tried hard to lose it, but gains it again? Why are you, a stranger, so invested in this?
Comment: I've been exceedingly grateful that only two of my coworkers have commented on my weight loss. Even my closest friends have restrained themselves to rarely mentioning it. It has made the whole process a lot easier that no one has made a big deal about it.
Comment: The person I remember most, and who really had an impact on how I handle this with others today, is the acquaintance who quietly asked whether everything was OK, and when I explained that, yes, the weight loss was on purpose, gave a sweet compliment along the lines of you look great and how did you do it (basically complimenting the effort, not just the result).
Comment: I would be creeped out hearing a man I don't know well tell me, "That blouse looks great on you," as it definitely sounds like he's commenting on my body.
Chat with Carolyn Hax