Actor Chadwick Boseman died last week of colon cancer, a diagnosis he kept secret from the public for four years.
During his illness, Boseman was mocked online for his noticeable weight loss.
Weight or weight changes are usually shrouded in a variety of factors.
Without knowing the full context, a cursory comment might inadvertently praise or shame someone dealing with a serious physical or mental health condition.
Chadwick Boseman, the actor best-known for starring in Marvel's "Black Panther," died August 28, after four years of silently battling colon cancer.
During that time, Boseman was seen and pictured looking much smaller in bulk than his character in the global-hit movie.
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As is often the case, one picture sparked a million comments, and a discource that took on a momentum of its own. Fans and media offered their opinions, speculating about the cause of his weight change online. Many took that speculation to the comment section of Boseman's own social media posts.
Though some fans reacted with concern, wondering if he might be sick, others mocked and shamed the actor, implying that he must be using drugs. Some lamented his loss of muscle.
—key. (@keywilliamss) August 29, 2020
We now know that many mistakenly assumed Boseman's weight change to be a personal choice or lifestyle change, rather than a serious illness. It is just another example of how we so often miss the mark, with hurtful consequences.
The revelation of his death, which explained the weight loss, underscored a lack, and a need, for compassion in the way we talk about weight loss or gain without knowing the broader picture.
"The fact that Boseman had been criticized for his weight loss speaks to how superficially most people view others when their sole basis for judgment is the images they see online," Coffey said. "It's up to us to remember that what we see doesn't represent anything close to the whole story. It's on us to practice being respectful of and compassionate toward all people and all bodies, always."
The conversation about Boseman's body-shaming echoes previous vitriolic debates about celebrities like Adele and Jason Momoa, and is a reminder that sometimes the best policy for commenting on weight loss is to simply mind your own business.
Don't assume a person's health based on their weight
It's a myth that weight gain, or loss, is automatically better or worse for health. That depends entirely on context, including a person's overall health and life circumstances.
The reality is, healthy bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and external appearance is a notoriously bad marker of internal health, research has shown.
Weight fluctuations can happen for a variety of reasons, including by choice, from unexpected shifts in physical or mental health, or due to changing circumstances in someone's life.
That doesn't stop people from making frequent jokes or jabs about weight online, however. Body shaming, which can happen to people of all genders and sizes, is linked to poor self image and worse health outcomes, according to research.
Boseman faced criticism for losing weight from his muscular Black Panther appearance, highlighting how being perceived as too skinny or small can be one source of shaming, particularly for men.
—Michelle Rennex (@michellerennex) August 29, 2020
But weight gain can be subject to even more stigma. Even famously-ripped actor Jason Momoa was body-shamed for appearing in public without his signature six-pack abs. A muscular, lean physique is one of many idealized body images that can be unrealistic for most people, requiring good genes and a lot of work to achieve and sustain.
Both losing and gaining weight could be related to a variety of mental health issues or physical illnesses. These include cancer, as in Boseman's case, but also anxiety, depression, and more.
The best intentioned weight comments can be harmful
As a result, well-meaning compliments about someone's weight changes could be embarrassing if it was unintentional and something the person is self-conscious about. Even worse, it could send an accidental message that you value their appearance more than their overall health, potentially reinforcing unhealthy habits of weight management, including eating disorders.
Instead, consider framing your compliment or comment in a weight that doesn't center weight, said Rebecca Scritchfield, registered dietitian nutritionist and the author of Body Kindness, a book about developing positive body images without dieting.
"It's possible to be aware that weight stigma exists in society and it's wrong while remembering that you love your friend unconditionally at all sizes and with any self-care habits," she said. "In this way you are waiting for your friend to be the person who brings up weight, and you're supporting their happiness and worthiness at the same time."
And if you have concerns about someone's health based on their weight changes, you should do some self-reflection before you speak up to assess your true motivations and intentions, Scritchfield said.
"I would consider asking yourself: 'Why must I say something about weight loss and what do I hope will happen as a result of the conversation?'" she said. "If you still feel compelled to bring up a weight concern, ask for permission to talk about it first, write down exactly what you want to say, sleep on it and make sure that you believe the chances of you being helpful are greater than the chances of doing harm."
If you're not sure, ask (or mind your own business)
Since weight changes are complex, discussions about it should be too, Coffey previously told Insider with regard to Adele's weight loss photos.
If you suspect someone may be proud of their weight loss or gain, and want to support or affirm them, it's best to just ask them directly how to do so, Coffey said.
"Ask them what they doing, how they're feeling, and then celebrate whatever thing they express pride in," she said. "Let them tell you what they want you to be excited about for them."
These approaches are related of the concept of "body neutrality," which focuses on how people feel and what they can do, allowing for fluctuations and nuance in their relationship to their bodies without implicit judgment.
Although this can be a helpful tool for engaging with weight change in a more nuanced way, whether comments on someone's weight are appropriate really depends on your relationship to that person.
If you don't know someone well, or don't know the circumstances of their weight change, it's a safe bet to just keep your opinion to yourself.
"The only person's body, story, history, and circumstances that we can possibly judge honestly is our own. And even there, our aim should be respect and compassion, first and foremost," Coffey said.
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