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The Boston Globe

Magazine

Miss Conduct

Wearing thin

The skinny on dealing with misplaced compliments about a dramatic weight loss.

> I’ve lost weight due to an illness. I get compliments daily on how great I look, and acquaintances ask me how I’m doing it. “I stopped eating dairy, grains, sugar, and alcohol” is true but implies that my transformation into scary-skinny is by choice. On the other hand, “I can’t keep food in my digestive tract! Doctors are stymied!” seems a bit TMI. How do I get people to stop complimenting me without opening up a personal discussion?

Anonymous / Boston

The exact same thing has happened to me, and it’s awful. I have literal gut-level sympathy for you. To start, it helps  to realize that the emotional and social symptoms of digestive failure are as legitimate as the physical symptoms. That the mood swings and awkward moments didn’t represent some kind of failure to cope — they were, in fact, problems I was coping with. And I coped even better when I stopped blaming myself for them.

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When it comes to the social symptoms, here’s the thing: Our bodies, whether we like it or not, convey information to other people. It’s bad enough when your body betrays you accurately, like when the flu makes you look and smell as nasty as you feel. But things get really awkward when the most likely explanation for your physical state isn’t the correct one. People with invisible disabilities get scowls when they take priority seating or parking. If you are the partner or parent of a person who got a black eye in a fender bender or soccer game, you best learn to walk a social minefield, stock up on arnica gel, and pray.

You dropped a significant amount of weight in a culture that equates thinness with healthiness and valorizes rapid weight loss, so everyone assumes you meant to and begs for your secret. (For an unpacking of those cultural assumptions, Google the Health at Every Size movement.) Paradoxically, we’re also a culture alert to eating disorders, so some folks may be complimenting you as a roundabout way of seeing if you’re developing a problem. Whatever their motives, yours are to set your boundaries and reassure others.

Here is what you say: “I’m glad you think I look good.” Say this sincerely, but don’t say “thank you.” Complimenting a person’s weight is not appropriate.

“It’s actually some kind of health problem, though.” Say this in an authoritative tone, or as though it were an item of mild curiosity.

“It’s being taken care of.” Briskly. The phrasing, while honest, implies you’re getting better, which lets the person off from feeling as if they should do something about you.

Then change the subject. “Speaking of food,” you say, to convey that eating is not somehow a forbidden topic, “I’ve been thinking of getting a farm share/seeing if there are leftover bagels in the conference room. What do you think?” Say whatever comes to mind. (I’ve been “thinking of getting a farm share” for years and have found it so fecund a conversational topic that actual produce seems by now superfluous.)

This script allows you to take control of the dance, and the other person should and probably will follow your lead. Those who don’t can be shut down with the appropriate balance of justice and mercy.

 Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

EXPECTING TROUBLE AT FAMILY PARTIES THIS SUMMER?Write to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com for advice. And read her blog at boston.com/missconduct.

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