Among other things, the 2016 Presidential election is bringing our country’s body image problem front-and-center. As Secretary Clinton seeks to highlight Mr. Trump’s longstanding history of weight-shaming comments in the debates and her campaign ads, the media has picked up the bait and run with it (the pinnacle of which might be The New Yorker’s cover art featuring Mr. Trump as Ms. Congeniality), calling Mr. Trump out on the misogyny in all its manifestations.
But what about when these comments hit closer to home? When the people you see every day, or on special occasions, comment on your body size, it can be more than a little tricky to know how to respond, and sometimes even trickier to figure out how to continue feeling good about yourself.
Here are a few strategies to help you step out of the shadows of body-shaming comments:
Start with Self-Care
One way to deal with others’ negativity is to first cultivate a sense of calm and confidence within. What this involves is highly variable from one person to the next. It might mean developing and actively seeking out your personal support system or talking through your feelings with a therapist. It might mean focusing on personally meaningful goals that have nothing to do with your appearance – perhaps seeking adventure by trying new things or traveling new places, working towards a career or educational goal, developing and tending to important relationships, or contributing to your community in some fashion. It might mean taking the time to breathe well or meditate or ‘just be’ on a daily basis.
- Have you lost weight?
- Those jeans aren’t flattering for you.
- You’ll probably feel better once you tone up and lose the belly.
Body-shaming comments, sometimes disguised as compliments, likely reflect a cultural, deeply internalized, implicit weight bias to which few people seem to be immune. According to weight stigma research, health-care providers and even eating disorder specialists exhibit weight biases. And children report suffering from the negative weight-related attitudes of not only peers, but parents, educators, and physicians as well.
Even if the comments you are hearing reflect a societal over-investment in thinness, rather than any specific hurtful intent, consider if explaining how the person’s statements are offensive to you might be worth your while. Perhaps your perspective is that you’re trying to focus less on size and more on other meaningful markers of psychological or physical health (e.g., “It hurts my feelings when you make assumptions on what will make me feel good, especially when I want to pay more attention to feeling good overall.”). Perhaps you feel great in your body exactly how it is, and find it disrespectful when someone suggests you ought to feel otherwise (e.g., “Actually, I feel good as is – I like how I look – and I don’t appreciate the suggestion that I shouldn’t.”). Perhaps these comments drive an unhealthy desire to diet strictly or binge eat, or make you feel more anxious or depressed, or make you more likely to body-bash yourself (e.g., “Comments like that upset me and make me want to do things that I know are not actually healthy for me.”). [PS: If this sounds familiar, studies suggest that you are not alone.] Talking about the negative impact of these comments might liberate you from it; at the least, it flags the issue for the commenter in a meaningful way so that person can think about their words more carefully in the future.
If you feel safe enough in the relationship or the situation, you can use negative body- or eating-related comments as an opportunity to provide relevant information. This could include a discussion about the health at every size movement, the relationship between eating disorders, thinking ‘thin is ideal,’ and the dieting mindset, the known negative impacts of critical self-talk (sometimes called ‘fat talk’). Discussing how we are taught by the dominant culture to perceive our bodies and the nutrients we put in them in a certain way, and the hazards of the tone of these ‘lessons,’ can be a good way to get people thinking more before they speak up.
In some instances, weight- and body-related comments made toward you have more to do with the person’s over-concern about their own body size or body dissatisfaction. To the extent that you know a negative comment reflects someone else’s issues, take a moment to locate your empathy for the seemingly universal struggle for body satisfaction. You may decide not to react at all if the comment is particularly triggering for you; or, you might try to change the conversation, either by offering a positive counterpoint or simply switching topics altogether. If you’ve figured out some of the aspects of self beyond size that inspire self-confidence for you, consider engaging the person in a conversation about this. Discuss the benefits of finding other things that make them feel good about themselves and paying just as much, if not more, attention to them than appearance.
Hang in There, and Disengage when Necessary
Taking good care of yourself, talking to people about how their comments make you feel, educating them, and digging deep for empathy take a lot of effort. This effort can deplete you, and the open communication may be jarring or overwhelming for others. Be patient with yourself and with others. Remember that you are entitled to feel intolerant of and enraged by body-shaming comments, but replacing these deeply embedded ideas will take time (and may not be possible with some people). It is okay to decide that certain comments (or people) are simply not worth your energy. In fact, if the experience of talking to a specific person is more traumatizing than the hurtful comment itself, it will be necessary to take care of yourself by disengaging. It is okay to be upset or frustrated, and essential to talk to someone who you know will be supportive about your feelings, rather than to take these feelings out on yourself.