“You’re so brave to wear that. I wish I had your confidence.”
I didn’t take it in the first time she said it, this new colleague. I was distracted, anxiously preparing for the important work meeting that was about to begin. My breath was shallow and quick, heart fluttering like a hummingbird in my rib cage. For the first time, I’d be representing my nonprofit organization in a national meeting. I smiled apologetically and told her I hadn’t caught what she’d said.
“I was just saying I wish I had your confidence, to wear that,” she repeated, this time gesturing toward my belly. I wore a conservative, tailored knee-length black dress with a high neck and long sleeves, a thin cream-colored belt at my high waist. The meeting had a dress code, and my clothing looked largely indistinguishable from that of my peers—most of whom were also women in their early 30s.
I smiled and thanked her for the compliment, but I couldn’t figure out what she meant. Like most young professional women, I’d learned to dress crisply without attracting attention to myself. As a woman, in order to maintain my credibility among people who didn’t share my feminist politics, my clothing couldn’t appear too suggestive or sexualized, and as a queer woman, I was wary of others perceiving my clothing as too masculine.
Her comment stayed with me for days, percolating in the back of my mind. What distinguished my style from that of my peers? What had been so “brave” about wearing such a thoroughly unremarkable, standard dress? What made my black sheath dress so brave, my confidence so enviable? I tried to find explanations, but I reliably came up short.
Out of everything she said, “you’re so brave” had thrown me the most. Every definition I knew of “bravery” relied on first feeling fear. After all, what’s brave about doing what doesn’t intimidate us? I hadn’t felt fearful when I dressed that morning, nor had I worried or wondered how my clothing would be perceived by my colleagues.
It wasn’t until days later that I realized she wasn’t complimenting me for braving my own fears—she was complimenting me for soldiering through hers. I was only brave if my body was meant to be a source of shame, something to be shut away, covered up, rarely seen and never discussed. And she simply couldn’t conceive of someone with a body like mine daring to get dressed, daring to be seen, daring to show up in the same places as someone with a body like hers.
My heart broke for her and ached with isolated frustration for myself.
These so-called compliments are at once well intended, backhanded, and ubiquitous. Find a photograph online of a fat celebrity who’s dressed nicely (a feat, given the dearth of clothing options for fat people), and you’ll also find gushing compliments and headlines about their “body confidence” and “bravery”—headlines that simply don’t often exist for thinner celebrities. This practice has become so commonplace that Lizzo called it out in a Glamour profile on the singer. “When people look at my body and be like, ‘Oh my God, she’s so brave,’ it’s like, ‘No, I’m not.’ I’m just fine. I’m just me. I’m just sexy. If you saw Anne Hathaway in a bikini on a billboard, you wouldn’t call her brave.”
These compliments often come from a sincerely good place: a sense of wonderment and disbelief, genuine appreciation for people who buck societal expectations of what we’re meant to look like. Sometimes they come from people who struggle with their own confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes they come with a touch of yearning. Whatever their tone, they’re often intended as heartfelt compliments. The woman’s compliments, as with most aimed at fat people’s perceived bravery, weren’t sinister.
Still, complimenting fat people’s “bravery” and “confidence,” kind and generous as it may feel, often serves as both a reflection and a perpetuation of anti-fat bias. Many fat people—myself included—experience those compliments as a bizarre reminder of the shame we’re meant to carry for simply living in our bodies.
Self-confidence is a wonderful thing, of course. It’s risky and liberatory to do and wear what you want, despite what anyone else thinks. But complimenting fat people’s “bravery” or “confidence” often comes with a sense of amazement—because, simply put, it is unthinkable that we would be confident. Complimenting fat folks’ “confidence” is a reminder of a deep-seated underlying assumption: You, of all people, don’t have anything to be confident about. It implies, too, that we’re “brave” for simply daring to show ourselves in public, because we ought to know that our bodies aren’t meant to be seen.
These compliments reveal more about the person paying them than about the fat person receiving them. Praising fat people’s “bravery” and “confidence” is a subtle kind of othering, a reflection of the speaker’s values, biases, and limited understanding of fat people’s experiences. Fat people are only “brave” if you expect us to be ashamed. I wasn’t “confident” for wearing a standard black dress, nor was it an act of “bravery” to dress like my thinner peers. I didn’t feel confident or brave about my body that day. I didn’t feel anything about my body that day. I felt distracted, anxious about making the right impression. I wanted to make my coworkers proud, to represent our work well. But to the thin woman who complimented me, that was all overshadowed by my body.
These compliments are not among the most harmful factors facing fat people, but they can be profoundly frustrating because of the bias they reveal but refuse to confront. They reflect an imagined reality of anti-fatness: an awareness that the deck is stacked against fat people, and an assumption that we must live in constant fear of daring to be seen.
And fat people do have to overcome more concrete biases to love ourselves. Fat people face employment discrimination, profoundly biased health care, sexual harassment, and more. A 2012 study published in Obesity: A Research Journal surveyed 2,671 fat Americans about their experiences with weight stigma. A majority of participants reported that they’d experienced nearly every form of stigma they were asked about: Other people made negative assumptions, hurled nasty comments. Doctors made inappropriate comments. Loved ones expressed embarrassment at their size. Even anecdotally, many fat people have harrowing stories about the bullying we’ve faced at the hands of even our families and partners. And fat or thin, nearly all of us have been exposed to pervasive cultural messages that fat people are unlovable, undesirable, and should be neither seen nor heard. Fat people are there to be spoken about, not spoken to. It stands to reason, then, that being seen, wearing clothing, eating in public, and participating in public life the way that thin people do would be regarded as some kind of daring acts. And yes, acts that would presumably demand our “bravery.”
But complimenting fat people’s “bravery” also serves as a subtle, strange renunciation of responsibility for that anti-fatness—wonderment at fat folks’ perceived resiliency for simply being seen, and zero self-reflection on the ways in which we create the conditions that require fat people’s “bravery” and resiliency. That is, it’s easier to compliment fat folks’ “confidence” than to stop doing the things that demand our “bravery” in the first place. And while some fat people may feel brave for wearing clothing we’re told not to, that, too, is a testament to the ubiquity and power of the anti-fat bias we face—bias that largely goes unchecked in the moment and is often only obliquely referenced after the fact, in compliments about our perceived confidence.
Complimenting someone else’s “bravery” or “confidence” isn’t necessarily a harmful thing, but it is often rooted in a painfully limited understanding of fatness and fat people, a disregard for how we’re actually feeling, and a bright, hot projection of your own beliefs onto the bodies of people who are fatter than you.
I can’t tell you what to say, nor can I tell you what your motivations are for saying it. But I can offer you some questions to reflect on and some prompts to interrogate your own beliefs about fat people, whatever your size.
Paying these compliments doesn’t make you a bad person, nor will they be universally rejected by the fat folks around you. But remember that you can mean well, pay sincere compliments, and those compliments can still reflect a deeply limited worldview about fatness and the experiences of fat people. They aren’t an indictment of your character or goodness, just an indication of what you don’t yet know and where you haven’t yet grown.