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Love Your Body

Backhanded compliments: Even celebrities can't escape them

Cindy Ord / Today
Mindy Kaling recently told Jimmy Kimmel that she is the recipient of a lot of backhanded comments.

Weight and age are two of the many things we are terrible at talking about. We think we're being so nice when we tell friends how great they look after losing weight. Or how, "there's no way you can be 35. Seriously, you don't even look 30." Um, thanks? 

The irritation of the backhanded compliment is something Mindy Kaling and Jimmy Kimmel commiserated over in an interview on Kimmel’s late night show recently.

“I am … the recipient of a lot of backhanded compliments about it,” Kaling said. “People are like, ‘It’s so nice that Mindy Kaling doesn’t feel like she needs to subscribe to the ideas of beauty that other people do.’ And I’m like, I do subscribe! They’re like, ‘It’s so refreshing that Mindy feels comfortable to let herself go and be a fat sea monster.’” Kimmel said that after slimming down, he’s gotten his share of weird comments, too – you look amazing, ever since you lost the weight!

Jennifer Aniston, 45, recently told WWD how the "you look good for your age" line irks her. "Women and men today in their 40s are so much healthier than they were 30 years ago in their 40s," the actress said in an interview with the magazine. "It was a different time." 

It’s not too much of a stretch to call such superficially well-meaning comments microaggressions, a term psychologists define as “verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups,” according to a paper by Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology at Columbia University. Microaggressions have chiefly been studied among racial groups, but some experts believe the idea could easily apply to heavier Americans, too. 

Rebecca Puhl, who has studied weight discrimination and weight bias extensively, said she hasn’t seen any research specifically looking at microaggressions and weight. “But I’m sure this is an experience that many individuals have in the context of body weight, especially considering how prevalent and socially acceptable weight bias is in our culture,” said Puhl, the deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

Even straightforward, actual compliments are difficult for some women to accept, research has shown. The TODAY/AOL Body Image Survey found that when given a compliment, about one in five women either respond by insulting themselves ("I look terrible") or acting surprised to be given a compliment at all ("Really?").

Studies have found that men tend to accept compliments, but women tend to wave them away. And women tend to compliment each other on appearances, whereas men focus on achievements, research has shown

But backhanded compliments? That's a whole other thing.

“Given the nature of these backhanded compliments, they may also come from friends or family members. Very often in our studies, people report that they most frequently feel stigmatized about their weight by family members or friends,” Puhl continued. “Sometimes family (or) friends may think that they are providing a compliment when in reality the underlying message is that a person isn’t acceptable at a larger body weight, or that they are inferior because of their body weight.”