There are approximately 850,000 studies and scholarly papers on the subject of body image currently available online. Here’s a handful of those titles: “Teasing & Its Long-Term Effects On Body Image;” “Does Knowing Hurt? Self-Perceived Overweight Predicts Future Physical Health and Well-Being;” “Negative Body Image Related To Depression, Anxiety And Suicidality.”
The same takeaways emerge over and over again: A. Body image has a deep and lasting impact on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. B. Our body image is heavily influenced by the comments and reactions we received from family and friends. And, C. No matter what those comments are, they never seem to make us feel better about our bodies. One paper examined parents and grandparents of preschoolers, interviewing them about how they themselves became aware of their own body weight as children. This is my favorite line, maybe ever: “No participant described the emergence of body weight awareness in positive terms.”
Oh science, girl, you are a hoot.
Comically obvious statements aside, I’m always glad to see academics and researchers investing in this subject. (I should add that most of the research refers to body image specifically in regards to weight, and a lot of it is focused on females. That’s a can o’ worms for another day, but just know that it’s there.) Negative self-image is an individual experience but it has systemic consequences. And theoretically, this issue should have a less complicated solution than, say, arctic ice melt. (Side bar: Can you imagine what society would look like if no one had to spend time getting over their crippling shame and self-loathing? To what would we devote all that extra time and thought? Maaaaaybe arctic ice melt?)
The thing that baffles me about this wealth of incredible research is that it all seems to be dancing around the solution. The answer is right there, yet we’re still asking the same question over and over again, in different ways. It pops up outside of academia, too. We catch our kids scrutinizing their reflections in the mirror before heading out to school, eyes dropping to their legs, their little tummies. We look at photos with our friends and watch their eyes tear up, “I’m so fat.” And we answer right on cue: “You’re not fat. You’re beautiful.”
What are we supposed to say? What can we do? That’s the constant question. Some variation of it pops up in my inbox every other month. My sister lost a lot of weight recently, and she’s really happy and proud of herself. How can I celebrate her new body without implying that she’s better now that she’s thin? Or the opposite: My boyfriend gained 10 pounds this year and he’s constantly beating himself up in front of me — calling himself fat and flabby. How can I convince him he’s not fat?
Ordinarily, I would point out that issues related to weight and self-acceptance are so complex that there is no right answer for everyone — or if there is, then I certainly don’t have it. But this time there is, and I do.
How do you celebrate your sister’s newly thin body? You don’t. How do you tell your boyfriend he’s not fat? You don’t. How do you inform your children of their body weight so that they perceive this message “in positive terms?” Well, I don’t have kids so I won’t tell you how to parent. But good luck with that.
When it comes to body talk, there really is no "rightest" way to do it. So just don’t go there. That path is riddled with landmines, and you never know when you’re going to step on someone’s history of childhood bullying, their eating disorder, the internalized media garbage we’re all marinating in on a daily basis. Furthermore, no matter who you’re talking to, the message you’re spreading is a lousy one. You cannot compliment someone’s smaller body without tacitly implying there was a problem with the larger one they had before. You cannot soothe someone by saying, “you’re not fat, you’re beautiful” without simultaneously saying that fat is not beautiful. So, to recap: Don’t do it.
But what do I say to my sister? asks the email in my inbox. Do I just stand there, stoic and mute, when she reaches for a high five? To that I roll my eyes because no, of course not. Not engaging in body talk doesn’t mean not talking at all. The key is this: Respond to the feeling — not the body.
That’s it. That’s the whole answer. High five your sister’s excitement. “It’s great to see you so happy!” Reach out to your boyfriend with compassion. “I know how tough it can be when your body changes. I’m really sorry you’re feeling so awful. I love you.” That part is crucial, in any scenario. If you’re talking to someone you love, make sure they know you love them now, you loved them before, and your love will remain unchanged, even if and when their body does.
This is easier when you’re soothing someone who’s sad. But it’s just as important for the celebratory times too. You don’t have to rain on your sister’s skinny parade by reminding her that deliberate weight-loss attempts don’t statistically last, long-term. But you can bear that thought in mind, while consistently demonstrating that your love for your sister is unconditional. Then, if and when the day comes when she gains a few pounds back — or her appearance changes in some other way — then she will know on a fundamental level, that you are someone she can go to. You are someone she can trust.
Might this throw her off at first? Yeah, definitely. If you’re close, she might even get offended that you didn't directly compliment her weight: “What? You don’t think I look good?” If she takes it there, you can be honest and just tell her you’re trying this new thing where you don’t make comments on other people’s bodies. That’s a perfectly reasonable and true response, and even if she’s still irked, at least she’ll understand where you’re coming from. Again, just remind her that you love her. It’s hard to be that pissed at someone who’s just said “I love you.”
Making this shift is awkward initially, no doubt. I was recently texting with a long-distance friend who’d moved away for a job. When I asked how things were going, she replied with something like, “Great! I moved up at work, I’m getting a dog in two weeks. AND I started this new diet and lost 15 pounds!!!” It made me uncomfortable at first. I mean, for one thing, she’s my friend. She knows I’ve been writing something called The Anti-Diet Project for four years. For another, it just struck me as odd that losing 15 pounds was a life event one would put on the same list as getting promoted — or getting a dog! I wanted to hear about the dog! But then I remembered that this wasn’t about me. She’d used all-caps when describing her weight loss, not the new promotion or pet. Odd or not, it would have been just as weird for me to skip over her message as a whole and go straight to the part I wanted to talk about. The important part was that she was so excited. She was holding up a virtual hand for a high-five. So I took a minute to choose my words, then high-fived her back: “Wow! So much going on — that’s fantastic! I’m SO happy things are working out so great out there. I miss you!!!” And then I put like 12 emoji.
It took a minute, but she replied, with just as many emoji as I had. I imagine, in that pause, she was probably wondering why I hadn’t congratulated her on losing weight. It is a social norm, after all: When we notice people have lost weight, we’re supposed to say something (“You look great, by the way!”). And when we notice people have gained weight, we’re supposed to shut the hell up. And that polite silence speaks volumes. Ultimately, though, my friend got the message: I was happy for her. I missed her. Not her slightly smaller body.
Body talk is a hard habit to break. It’s like learning to drive stick shift, and you can expect a fair amount of stalling as you practice shifting gears. But that doesn’t mean you should give up and go back to the easy, automatic responses. If we all learned to notice and to honor things other than one another’s bodies then — well, then we’d live in a society of people who valued things other than appearance. We could save our comments, our compliments, our time, our energy, and our emoji for things that actually mattered.