Yes, This Subtle Behavior Is Still Body Shaming & It Needs To Stop

Illustrated by: Norah Stone

Welcome to Unprofessional Advice: a column to help you handle problems of all kinds. With zero professional experience and a complete lack of credentials, I will take on your issues with compassion and humor (and I'll keep it anonymous, obvs). Got a question? Email me at

Dear Kelsey,

What's the line between being body positive and being honest when something really doesn't look great? I really struggle with being "too superficial" sometimes and wanting to tell people that, while I appreciate their confidence, maybe a certain style of clothes really doesn't fit their body type or maybe a certain color lipstick really isn't great with their skin tone. I tend to be the girl in the dressing room at a store that will say things like, “TAKE THAT OFF NOW AND BURN IT. NO ONE SHOULD EVER WEAR IT.” When in doubt, or if I can tell they like it but are unsure, I'll resort to a neutral question: “Would you wear it out of the store, RIGHT NOW?” But where is that line between body positive/supportive and brutal honesty?

Just Being Honest

Dear Just Being Honest,

Whenever I get a letter like this, my mind jumps right to the caveats: Maybe she says these things in a funny, friendly way. Maybe she’s exaggerating. At least she’s trying to find the right thing to say. But you seem to be a fan of brutal honesty, so I’m just going to be honest. This behavior is pretty unacceptable.

I appreciate that this is something you struggle with — and more than that, I appreciate that you are struggling with it and not just saying, “Oh well, that’s who I am!” So, I really do hope this helps. If you can dish it out and take it, I give you major credit. Okay. Here we go:

This is not about finding the line between being body positive and being honest. In a nutshell, body positivity is the premise that all bodies are equal and should be treated as such, period. It’s very simple, but we complicate it with messages, like “dress for your body type,” and emphasize the need to find clothing that “flatters” you. Those are framed as positive terms, but really they’re just saying, “Hide the bad parts and play up the good parts” — and therefore, there are “bad” and “good” parts. You see where I’m going here?

A while back, I did a story about VBO (Visible Belly Outline), in which I wore clothes that actually made my belly visible, rather than hidden. I had literally spent my entire conscious life trying to make my belly less visible, so doing something like this was a massive, terrifying leap. And it was one of the best things I ever did for myself (and for everyone who’s had to deal with my insecurity). I wore a pencil skirt and the world kept spinning! Society didn’t banish me to exile! No one ran up to me on the street screaming, “TAKE THAT OFF NOW AND BURN IT.” I guess it was a good thing you weren’t in the neighborhood that day.

I don’t wear pencil skirts all the time now, but I don't avoid them. Above all, I’m not scared of them. I’m not scared that if I wear the “wrong” clothing, I’ll become the subject of ridicule and so-called brutal honesty.
Illustrated by: Norah Stone.
So, I suppose it’s admirable that you’re considering body positivity at all, but really this is just about rudeness. People can and should wear whatever the hell they want. It’s just none of your business to police them. Your idea of attractiveness may not be theirs. Furthermore, they may not be considering beauty to begin with. And hey, what if they’re stepping outside of their comfort zone and try something new? The problem is that you’re assuming your opinion is the truth and therefore sharing it is being honest. It’s not. It’s being judgmental.

Okay, time for caveats. Look, if someone asks for your opinion, go ahead and give it. (Here’s a caveat to my caveat: Know your audience. If it's, say, a friend who really struggles with self-loathing, maybe don’t feed that beast.) But don’t do so thinking that you’re giving anything but that. You’re not right or wrong — you just have a stance.

I think your neutral-question approach is probably your best bet, in any scenario. But really, do your best to make sure it’s actually neutral when you say it. In fact, if you’re really concerned about body positivity, then practicing neutral responses is a great practice. I do it myself. We’re all so used to judging and flattering ourselves and each other that it’s become a knee-jerk response. Responding to bodies with neutrality is one of the most powerful things you can do.

But unless you’re specifically invited to comment, just stay out of it! If they say they hate it, don’t back them up with reasons why you hate it, too. If they seem unsure, let them figure it out. If they like it, let them like it! If the clothes are on their body, then it fits their body type (because there is only one type of body: body). If they’re into the lipstick and you’re not, oh well! Who cares?! It’s clothing. It’s lipstick. This is not a reality show and you are not the designated Mean Judge.

If you can appreciate someone’s confidence, that speaks well of you both. So, when in doubt, go with that. Whether it’s a friend or a stranger asking, “How do I look?” it is never a bad thing to say, “You look confident.”


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