Soledad O'Brien's Guide To Twitter Trolls, Body Image, & Compliments

Photo: Courtesy of Soledad O'Brien.
Soledad O'Brien knows that the spotlight can take a toll on body image. As an accomplished television anchor and correspondent, an executive producer, and the CEO of multi-platform production company Starfish Media Group, she's spent years in front of a camera and under public scrutiny, especially on social media — and she's not immune to the inevitable negativity online. Now, she's speaking out about it as a Dove partner for the #SpeakBeautiful campaign to encourage more positivity on social media.

"I’m really active on Twitter, I love Instagram, I’m on Facebook a fair amount," she tells Refinery29, "but [when] you roll out of bed and you grab your phone and the first thing you see is 'you're a dumb blank,' or 'go back to blank' absolutely does make you feel bad about yourself."

O'Brien's trolls often zero in on her looks (as trolls are wont to do to women who dare to to achieve professionally or merely exist online), and over the years, she has perfected her strategy for dealing with the haters. She's also learned a thing or two about accepting compliments and celebrating her body, and recently, she shared her tips with us. Read on for her self-love wisdom.

Social platforms can be toxic places, especially for women and especially for women who are also public figures. How do you deal?
"Sometimes it feels as if, within three interactions with someone you might not agree with...the conversation becomes immediately nasty… It’s almost like things devolve into complete and pure hostility in a moment online, and it just feels like an assault upon you. I’m sort of divided: Is engaging them feeding the trolls?

"But at the same time, I do think it’s important to sometimes send a message about sticking up for yourself. I think it was on Twitter, there was a guy who had a picture of me — it literally sounds like a 10-year-old, because he said ‘That’s a five-head,’ meaning a big forehead. I was just like, What? Why am I reading this? Why are you here in my feed insulting me about my face, which, by the way, I’m perfectly fine with? I like my face just fine. I am actually cool with my forehead. It’s such an unwelcome and unwanted, nasty comment, but it does — even if you try not to let it — it does kind of infiltrate how you feel. So on that particular day, I definitely engaged him. I do think sometimes you need to push back. I think my message was something like, 'Listen, I like my forehead, I like the way I look, thanks.'

"It’s a challenging time online, I think especially for women. Women are often just attacked; there’s no other word for it. It’s like, Why are you engaging in this? If you hate me, go away! I invite you to leave my feed... Instead, sometimes people intentionally follow me just so they can be horrific."
Has your approach to handling online negativity changed over time?
"I learned pretty fast that not answering was not going to work for me, and I actually found a very nice way [to answer]. I never answer back in a nasty way, because then I think you are rolling around with pigs in mud. What I’ve started to do, which I find very effective on Twitter, is to just tell people, 'I’m going to pray for you. Have a great day.' And it really is a response, and it’s a way to kind of say, 'I don’t support this comment, and I think you’re an idiot.'

"And then what happens is you end up inviting people to answer that [original nasty comment] — they’ll just jump in, but it won’t be jumping on in a bad way. You’re not encouraging people who like you and support you to also jump in and pummel people, which again, I don’t support… Don’t do it for me, don’t do it against me, and I think [my response] sets a tone of Listen, we’re having a respectful conversation here, go away. And if it happens again, then I just block people. The mute thing on Twitter has been the greatest thing ever. I think once I started doing that, I felt better, because I felt like I was in control of how this conversation was going to go."

Some of the harshest criticism women face is our judgment of ourselves. How have you seen that manifest, and what can we do about it?
"I think it is very hard for women to just take a compliment. Just take the damn compliment! I think I was guilty of this as well, but I’ve been pretty good about getting over my challenges with it. When someone compliments [you], just say 'thank you' and then shut your mouth... It became very clear to me pretty quickly that the minute you sort of deflect [someone's] compliment — 'Oh, this jacket, oh my god, I bought it for $9.99, oh my god, I’ve had this bag forever' — you actually are almost insulting the person. You’re sort of saying, You’re an idiot, because your compliment is not worthy.

"I began to realize people did it to me... I would say, 'Ooh, cute dress,' and they would explain to me why I was completely wrong, it was not a cute dress, and they got it on sale. I was like, Wow, this feels really bad, I was just trying to give you a compliment and this person is actually making me feel like I’m wrong, giving them a compliment. So I just think when I started feeling that from other people, I realized I had to stop doing it, too."

Right now, Refinery29 is celebrating our campaign to "Take Back The Beach" and reclaim women's right to take up space in the world, no matter what we look like. How would you describe your relationship with your body?
"I saw a great thing on social media the other day. Someone had taken a magazine that said 'How to get a beach body,' and they had circled it, and they said, 'How to get a beach body: Take your body to the beach.' I loved it, because it was [fighting] this idea of 'you can’t go until you look a certain way.'

"I can make people feel that it’s okay to feel good about yourself, it’s okay to feel proud about your body. The day that I felt most proud — and it really I felt about how I looked — was when I had my first child. I gained a ton of weight, I gained 50 pounds with each kid, so I was big, and I was just like, This body is for something, not just wearing my bikini.

"Now I do Bikram yoga, and I’m strong — and I can do stuff I couldn’t do 10 years ago. I feel good about it. I’m turning 50 and I’m happy with how I look, and it’s not because I’m super skinny or I’m super hot — my body is serviceable, I’m healthy, and when I try and I work out and I try to build muscle and all those things, I like the way I look. I feel strong, and I guess that’s what I’m going for. I’ve moved away from hot and moved into strong."

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

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