How To Actually Respond When People Say Bad Things About Their Bodies

Far too many of us have been there: You're having a casual conversation with friends when one of them chimes in with a negative comment about their body or a desire to hit the gym today because they ate too many sweets. It's demoralizing, limiting, and (all too often) contagious — and it's not good for anyone involved.

"Most Americans, especially women, feel bad about their bodies and desire to be thinner," says Shayla Holub, PhD, associate professor and program head for psychological sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. "We receive messages that suggest that being thin is good and being fat is bad from media in all forms."

And it doesn't help that many of us also hear these messages from our peers on a daily basis. The problem is that these comments don't just affect the person making the complaint — studies suggest that so-called "fat talk" is associated with increased body dissatisfaction, and Dr. Holub, who advocates for changing the way we think about weight, says that these types of disparaging remarks from peers "can reinforce those [media] messages to the point that we internalize them."

When we're told at nearly every turn that we're supposed to feel bad about our bodies, it can be hard not to internalize the negative noise around us. But Dr. Holub says that educating ourselves about where these insecurities come from can help.

"When we realize these messages are not coming from sources that are encouraging us to be healthy, but instead are sources that are trying to control and confine us — forcing us to look a certain way, making us feel less valuable when we do not — we can begin to overcome them," Dr. Holub says.

Of course, just because you've started working towards eliminating negative body talk from your life, that doesn't mean your friends will automatically follow suit. So how do you respond to a friend who makes negative comments about their body so that both you and your friend move away from the vicious cycle? Ahead, we break down eight strategies.

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Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Figure out where the comments are coming from.

According to Dr. Holub, the first thing to do is think about what's driving your friend's comments. Are they reflective of an actual body or health concern, or is your friend just making disparaging remarks out of habit?

"I would talk with her and help her find the support she needs, which might mean seeking out a mental health professional," Dr. Holub says. "There are so many people who do have real body image concerns, and we do not want to diminish their concerns."

After a negative comment is made, see if there's more to it than force of habit (which, of course, is also not a good thing), and if so, encourage your friend to discuss her body image with a mental health professional.

"If you notice that your friend is frequently putting herself down when it comes to her body, you should ask more questions about her relationship with her body, food, and exercise," says Heather Senior Monroe, a licensed clinician at Newport Academy. "When words create unhealthy emotions — such as shame, anger, sadness, or disgust — which then turn into unhealthy eating practices, there is cause for concern."

If you're concerned your friend may have an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association is a great place to direct them for resources on how to get help. NEDA even has a 24-hour helpline if your friend needs immediate crisis assistance — all they have to do is text "NEDA" to 741741.
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Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Don’t empathize with the comments.

"It is easy for women to say 'Ugh, I know, me too!' when they hear these types of comments," Monroe says. "The first thing you can do is refrain from putting yourself down."

Instead, use this opportunity to connect with your friend and figure out what's going through their head. Ask them if they're simply looking for reassurance, rather than expressing a real desire to lose weight. If simple reassurance is what they need, figure out another, more productive way for them to communicate that to you in the future.

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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Shut down the comments without anyone noticing.

Not looking to start a whole conversation about body image? Then keep things simple and just pretend you didn't notice the comment.

"You could simply ignore the comment and move forward," says Carolyn Black Becker, PhD, co-director at The Body Project. She says that this strategy has worked for a number of her students.

Of course, this may not be effective enough for every situation — it will depend on the person making the remark — but sometimes, the best way to disarm negative body talk is to not give it a forum at all. Setting this precedent can be a subtle cue to your friends that you won't participate in negative body talk.
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Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Tell your friend that you prefer not to talk about bodies in a negative way.

If you'd rather be more explicit, Dr. Becker says that another simple way to shut down the negativity is to tell your friend that you don't engage in fat talk. Period.

Dr. Becker recommends saying something like, "I prefer not talk about the size or shape of my body or the bodies of other people," and then you can just change the topic of conversation.
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Photographed by Bianca Valle.
Address the comments with compassion, rather than combativeness.

If a friend makes negative comments about their body or lack of exercise in front of you, be honest about why you feel the comments are harmful — without making them feel judged.

"You can point out that you have heard them mention more than once wanting to workout and be more healthy, and ask if there is anything you can do to support them," Monroe says. "If they are legitimately concerned about their health, then it is important to be respectful and encouraging of healthy habits."

Ways to do this include inviting your friend over for a nutritious, home-cooked meal instead of dining out, planning a workout get-together, and simply being compassionate if your friend is struggling to implement a nutrition and exercise routine. NEDA also recommends complimenting a friend's personality or accomplishments as an implicit reminder that beauty is more than skin deep. If you have a specific situation you want to talk out, NEDA's online helpline allows you to chat with volunteers for recommendations on how to help a loved one struggling with body image (1-800-931-2237).
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Photographed by Katie McCurdy.
If the comments don't seem indicative of a larger problem, turn them into a teaching moment.

"If she is saying this because this is 'just what people say,' then I think it is a great time to discuss the messages we hear about our bodies, thinness, and fatness, and about how these expectations can be hard to live up to," Dr. Holub says. She recommends starting a conversation with open-ended questions, like: Isn’t it a lot of pressure to feel like we are expected to look a certain way?, Where do you think these messages about beauty come from?, and Do you think it's fair to judge others because of their appearance? If not, why do we judge ourselves?

NEDA recommends challenging the thin ideal by discouraging the idea that a particular weight will lead to greater happiness, which many of these negative body comments presuppose, and try not to take media representations of self-esteem and body image at face value. Make a habit of challenging the images you see in the media amongst your friends, rather than potentially considering them aspirational. If something is making you or your friends feel bad, think about why you feel that way and why that representation may not be in line with reality. It's also important to avoid categorizing foods as "good" or "bad."

Of course, not every social situation will be one in which you can (or want to) launch into an in-depth conversation on body image. And you may not feel well-versed enough to feel like you have anything useful to share — and that's okay. But if you're armed with the knowledge and up for it, sharing what you've learned about body negativity and opening up the conversation can be a good strategy.
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Photographed by Katie McCurdy.
Focus on overall health and wellness.

Another strategy, according to Dr. Holub, is to refocus the conversation to emphasize health and wellness beyond appearance.

"If we focus on health, we will actually end up making healthier choices anyway and develop healthy habits that are much more sustainable," Dr. Holub says.

Encourage your friend to appreciate what their body can do, rather than how it looks. Don't allow your friend to deem food "good" or "bad," and instead focus on guilt- and shame-free nutrition talk (the principles of intuitive eating are a great place to start).

Like we said, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of demonizing certain types of foods or feeling as if bodies must always be improved. Make a conscious effort to avoid these traps, and focus on health and wellness if the subject comes up at all (since there are certainly many other interesting things to talk about).
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Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Challenge your friends to only engage in positive body talk.

Oftentimes, fat talk happens so frequently because it's modeled for us in society, whether that's through television, movies, magazines, or our parents. It can feel comfortable and easy, even harmless. These are habits we have to actively choose to break out of, Dr. Holub says.

Once you've discussed why your friends are making these types of remarks, you can mutually agree that your future conversations will be focused on body positivity, rather than using your friendship as an open forum for negative body commentary. It might be a matter of figuring out more productive ways to express a need for reassurance, or reframing why you or your friends might desire to get stronger and healthier.

At the end of the day, making this kind of commitment will benefit everyone involved, even if it takes a while to get there.

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