unwelcome body comments image

At some point in her life, almost every woman has the experience of having someone dish up an unwelcome comment on her body image.

These comments come in many forms. Sometimes, they sneak in and masquerade as a compliment, such as:

‘You look great, you’ve lost so much weight!’

Other times, they are downright rude, ‘Are you pregnant?’

Or painful. ‘I don’t think you should be wearing that.’ 

When I’m starting work with a new client, we typically unpack everything that has lead to their struggles with food and dieting. More often than not, this is intimately tied to our experiences with body image. After all, the desire to be thinner underpins so many of our doomed dieting efforts and battles with food. Body image and weight loss struggles are intimately linked.

I choose to believe that most people mean well. But regardless of whether a comment is well-intentioned or motivated by meanness, the bottom line is this:

Judging other people’s bodies is never helpful. 

Even if you think you are positively reinforcing somebody’s weight loss, you are really only reiterating that person’s belief in their weight dependent worth. How is that person going to feel when the weight piles on again (as it does for 95% of people)? Will they perhaps worry even more what you think of them?

I’ve also heard people say that put downs ‘motivate’ people to lose weight. Here’s a fact – nothing you could say to somebody in a larger body is likely to be half as harsh as what they are already telling themselves. Do you think that larger people aren’t already hyper-sensitive to their weight and society’s general view of fatness? That person doesn’t need your volley of insults to add to their own.

Thirdly, judging, comparing and taking stock of other people’s weight and body size also doesn’t serve you. There is always going to be someone less (stereotypically) beautiful than you and somebody more so. When you stop critiquing other people’s bodies – even if it’s just in your head – you are also giving yourself permission to stop picking on your own.

Here are some ideas of what to do about unwelcome body comments:

 

1) Practise what you preach.

Set a precedent by not engaging in weight centric talk yourself. I am NOT saying that you deserve or ‘asked for’ an unwelcome body comment. However, this strategy can help to mitigate the chance that you’ll be blindsided by a putdown during ‘weight talk’.

2) Set boundaries. 

I don’t think that any of us are doing ourselves or other women a service by playing meek and nice to unwelcome body comments. Whilst I don’t think that we need to be aggressive or self-righteous about it, I do think it’s helpful to speak your truth and be assertive.

Earlier in the year, I experienced a health challenge that confined me to bed for almost 2 months. During this time, I wasn’t active, eating was a big effort and I therefore lost some weight.

Around this time, I caught up with a family member who hadn’t seen me in some time. This person made three remarks over lunch about my weight that made me feel really uncomfortable and even a little angry. This was my response,

‘{Insert name}, thank you for caring about me. I know that you are saying this out of concern. That said, I’m really uncomfortable with you talking about my weight. I’ve had a difficult time with my health and am doing the best that I can. I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t bring this up again.”

The outcome? My weight has not been mentioned since and our relationship is totally AOK.

3) Choose your company wisely.

Whilst you can’t choose family, you can choose friends. I have literally extricated myself from friendships whereby girls gossiped about body image, diets, looks and weight loss. I know these topics don’t make me feel good and are triggering for me. I also know that if these people are willing to compare strangers’ bodies, than mine will not escape their scrutiny either.

4) Although it is unfair, don’t let it define your worth. 

Although it’s unfair and unjust, we can’t control who, what or when somebody is going to put down our bodies. What we can control is how we let that define us.

In Linda Bacon’s incredible book, ‘Health At Every Size‘ there is a questionnaire that asks, ‘Do you feel good about your body, even if it doesn’t look very good’?

This point seems a little paradoxical at first but I absolutely LOVE it. This concept of positive body image means that we don’t have to think our body is aesthetically beautiful in order to love and appreciate it. It also offers us a construct of body image that says our worthiness is independent of how our body appears to the world.

When I receive putdowns about my body – which, when you put yourself out there on the internet as a ‘positive body image’ dietitian, happens more than I’d like! – I often come back to this simple premise. Although it hurts, and although I’m still acutely aware of my perceived ‘imperfections’, I know that I’m still worth a damn anyway.

5) What’s one opinion worth? 

There’s a fantastic saying that goes, ‘In order for you to insult me, I’d have to first even care about your opinion.’

Think about the person who’s just put your body down. Really, in the larger scheme of life, is this someone that you deeply care about? And what authority do they have in deciding if your body’s good or not?

And lastly, remember this; N = 1 is not a good sample size! One result would never prove or disprove a hypothesis in science, so why let one person’s comment shape your body’s worth?

6) Chat it out with a supportive friend. 

Having people who love and support you unconditionally can be really helpful when somebody shakes your sense of self. Some days, a friend or family member who can remind you of how wonderful you are – just because you’re you – is the best antidote to a body put down!

Coaching is another effective way to get outside support, strategies and encouragement to deal with these experiences. Having a cheerleader in your corner, a person who is dependably there to keep you focussed on feeling good about your body and food can be life-changing!

Check out MFC coaching services here

 

7) Reframe your compliments

I am ALL for complimenting other women and making them feel good! And I don’t think there’s anything wrong in complimenting on appearance either, so long as the focus is not on a women’s body image or weight. Instead, try to choose qualities that have to do with an action, quality or effort, such as;

‘You are glowing!’

‘You look so healthy/vibrant/radiant/happy.’

‘I love your dress.’

‘That colour looks beautiful with your eyes’. 

 

8) What does it say about THEM rather than YOU?

If somebody is so hung up on weight or appearances that they need to verbalise that with you, then what does it say about them?

Even if that person fits the beauty ideal, guess what? None of us stay young and beautiful forever. I feel compassion for people who think that looks matter enough to put other people down about theirs…’Cause ageing’s a  bitch and how happy are they going to feel when their looks fade?

9) Open your mind

I am deeply conscious of the fact that I don’t have the lived experience of inhabiting a large body. Reading about weight bias is a whole other scenario to experiencing it! But what I do have is years of experience listening to people who do walk this world in larger bodies. The stories they tell me break my heart.

I am regularly told that these people don’t feel seen as a ‘person’ but as a ‘fat person’. They share how every doctor, friend and health advisor tells them to ‘lose weight’, instead of treating their health complaints as a separate issue worthy of as much attention and care as a thin person. (Just for the record guys, weight loss is NOT a cure for the flu!!) They tell me that being seen as a ‘fat person’ means that they are judged as being lazy, gluttonous or even stupid before they’ve even had a chance to open their mouths.

I encourage you to explore your own weight bias and how it could be influencing your life. If we didn’t suffer from this same prejudice about fatness, would we worry so much if people called us fat? Or complimented us for not being so?

10) Call it, then channel it into something worthwhile

Women, more so than men, tend to rate significantly higher on tests of agreeableness. This means that we tend to be more passive, amicable, eager to please others and adverse to conflict. From an evolutionary perspective, this was important to keep peace in tribal communities. And whilst agreeableness sometimes has its place today, it doesn’t always help us.

A highly ‘agreeable’ woman is far more likely to internalise and personalise a harsh remark. Agreeable people lay fault at their own feet before holding other people accountable. But in no circumstance, do you ever, ever have to put up with somebody putting down your body. And under no circumstancse are somebody else’s abuse of you somehow your fault.

So call it – even if it’s just in your mind. This comment is not your fault. You didn’t deserve it and in fact, nobody deserves to be put down about how they look. For me personally, when I remember this, it helps me to put a bit of an emotional shield up around the situation and protect my heart from the hurt that things like this can cause.

Then…go put your energy where it can be useful! Channel your anger, indignation or hurt into an activity that lifts you up. For me, that’s something active and creative, like yoga and drawing…But you know what works for you best!

Over to you! What do you find helps in these situations? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

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