Say that! It’s wonderful to hear someone admires you. Especially when body-image issues are involved. I know that for the longest time when someone complimented me I had trouble accepting it. I thought they were trying to find nice things to say out of pity, and it soured their kind words for me. No matter what was said, I always appended self-critical statements afterward, Sure, I did a good job on that, but it was luck, never be able to repeat it; they’re just trying to say something so I feel “appreciated” but it’s not genuine, they really think I’m a stupid cow.
The great thing about words is that they have power. This is the reason people make mantras to tell themselves everyday. If you hear a thing enough, eventually you internalize it. Often we internalize the bad, but it is possible to internalize the good. By telling him that you admire him, and reinforcing that message over time, eventually he will start to internalize it — IF it is delivered in a non-threatening way.
Your anger and passion about this are useful tools, but keep in mind that trying to get through by pushing on an internal truth will only cause a person to withdraw. You want to state your admiration without invoking feelings of pressure or dismissal in him — for that you will need to have a frank discussion and figure out a way for him to express (in a way you can hear) that he feels uncomfortable, and come up with a strategy for backing off and resetting the dynamic between you to a good place. This is not easy, I cannot express that enough. It took many years of trial and error for my spouse and I to find a balance, and it still goes out of kilter sometimes.
I’m not sure if it is useful, but I wrote an article about living with depression and the well-intentioned things people say that are completely unhelpful. It may nor may not be immediately relevant to your friend’s situation, but it may help spark some communication between the two of you as to what his reality is like and how you can avoid those well-worn paths.
Every failure is an opportunity to learn and do better the next time!