Is it an insult for someone to comment you used to be thinner?

Deb asks: Sara and Alex are Aunt and nephew. Sara is 50 years old and Alex is 14. They are very close. One of the days they spent together Alex looked at his parents wedding album (29 years) and saw a picture of his Aunt Sara. Alex said to his Aunt Sara “You look thin.” This upset her because she thought Alex didn’t think she is thin now, because everyone always tells her (past and present) she is skinny, and wouldn’t that remark only be said to someone who isn’t thin in the present. Alex did tell her he was joking, then he said he was giving her a compliment and said he thought she was thin then and thin now. The day after she Instant Messaged her older nephew (21 years old, and who she also is very close to and the brother of the younger nephew). She told her older nephew the story, he related it to his mom (her sister) and the next day Sara spoke to her sister, who said “I asked Alex and all Alex was saying was you looked good in that picture, that Alex doesn’t compare what someone looked like in the past and compare it to the present. That Alex, his brother, me and their father all think of you as extremely skinny.” My question do you think Sara overreacted and read into what Alex said? Even Sara’s mother told Sara she thinks Sara is skinny.

Hi Deb –



Well of course I don’t know the people involved, and have no idea what Sara looked like 29 years ago or how she looks now. But I do know a bit about 14-year-old boys.


And what I know about them is that they have basically no subtle social skills at all!


In fact, they’re kind of like me. I jump on people, lick their faces, bite their ankles in fun, all things that a well-trained mature dog would never do.


Now teen boys don’t do that, but they might say something without remotely thinking how it would sound to an adult.


So sure, if an adult man said to Sara, “You looked skinny 29 years ago,” that might well mean that he thinks she doesn’t look skinny now, and that she looked better then. But that 14-year-old? He might mean that she looked too skinny then, not like the aunt he loves now (which could just mean that she was 21 and so shaped a bit differently). Or it could be a compliment that she looked skinnier than other people at the wedding, or other people he knows.


But my main statement to you is that it sounds like he never meant to insult her at all, and so there’s nothing for her to worry about. After all, you say that everyone tells her she looks thin now. Then who really cares what a kid thinks about how she looked three decades ago?!


But how a dog thinks her shoes smell? That’s extremely important, and everyone should care a lot about that! Always!


All my best,


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