Are You Accidentally Body Shaming Your Friends? 9 Ways to Tell
Diet, fitness and body-related talk can turn toxic. To ensure you’re not unknowingly bringing your friends down, here are nine ways to check yourself before you accidentally body shame them.
If given the choice, we’d surely want to inspire body confidence in our friends rather than make them feel bad about the way they look. But sometimes the things we say — no matter how well-intentioned, seemingly neutral or self-directed — can really hurt the people we care about the most. Instead of being motivational, diet, fitness and body-related talk can turn toxic. To ensure you’re not unknowingly bringing your friends down, here are nine ways to check yourself before you accidentally body shame them.
1. Talking About How Fat You Feel
We’ve probably all done it. In a moment of feeling not so great about yourself, you might make a comment to your pals about how "fat you feel." According to psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, these comments can be really hurtful to other people. “Often, lower-weight friends complain about their thigh or tummy fat, which is barely visible or simply normal,” she says. “This is shaming to someone who is of a higher weight.”
Trainer Alyssa Royse, owner of Rocket CrossFit, a gym at which all body shaming language and imagery is banned, agrees. “If they are bigger than you are, you just told them that they’re fat,” she says. “And even if they’re not, you told them that fat is bad, which may feed an already-troubled relationship with their body, food and body fat.”
2. Giving Unsolicited Food and Exercise Advice
Finding a lifestyle that makes you look or feel great is exciting, and it’s understandable that you may want to share your newfound knowledge or experience with others. However, when you give eating or workout advice that’s not wanted, you begin to plant seeds of doubt in those around you, says certified body love coach Brittany Baxter.
“What you are saying — despite the good intent — is that what they are doing when it comes to their bodies is not good enough,” she says. “You are also indirectly implying that the bodies of those around us are not good enough as is and that they can’t trust their own bodily instincts.”
3. Expressing Guilt Over Certain Foods
Making statements like “I shouldn’t be eating this” can make others feel insecure about their food choices and bodies, says New York-based therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, who specializes in eating disorders and body image.
Psychologist Crystal I. Lee, Psy.D., who works with young women dealing with body-image issues, says that constant discussion or obsession over how much you eat and what you eat feeds into the notion that food has a worth attached to it and is not simply fuel for your body. “Even if you’re just commenting about your own eating habits — as in, ‘I can’t believe I just ate that cupcake!’— you have to ask yourself how your friend who just ate a cupcake feels now that you’ve said that,” she says.
Read more: 9 Ways to Clap Back at Body Shamers
4. Commenting on What Others Eat
On the other hand, directing your food opinions at someone else's plate is even worse. “Friends might think they’re helping by pointing out the calories or fat grams in the food someone is currently eating or in what the person ate earlier,” psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig says, but this behavior is not only rude, it is also very shaming.
But you don’t even need to say a word to make someone feel uncomfortable. “If you find yourself staring at a friend while they are eating you may make them feel like they are doing something wrong,” therapist Kimberly Hershenson says. It’s probably better to keep your eyes on your own (hopefully delicious) plate.
5. Giving Backhanded Compliments
Sometimes, if you’ve been complimented on your appearance and want to return a sentiment but don’t know what to say, you might accidentally say something that’s anything but complimentary. “For instance, saying to someone in a bigger body, ‘You have such a pretty face,’ is a backhanded compliment at best,” says psychologist and certified eating disorders specialist Stacey Rosenfeld, Ph.D. You may think you’re being kind, but consider how it might translate to the person you’re speaking to.
6. Using "Good" Versus "Bad"
Employing the good-versus-bad binary when talking about food and exercise can spark guilt and shame in other people, body love coach Brittany Baxter says. “Pointing out how ‘good’ we’ve been this week can make those around us experience a sense of guilt and shame if they haven’t been as ‘good’ as us,” she says. This indirectly tells people that if they aren’t behaving the way you are, then they're inherently “bad.”
Similarly, commiserating over how “bad” you have been is toxic too, even though many women in particular use this kind of language as a way to bond, according to Baxter. “This only serves to reinforce how bad, guilty and shameful that person is, and it reinforces that their worth is only dependent on their body and how ‘good’ they can be,” she says.
7. Avoiding Activities Because of Your Body Type
Telling your friends that you can’t, for instance, go to the beach because you’re not “bikini ready” is another self-deprecating way you could inspire shame in other people. “It sends a message to those around us, who may exist in a similar body or a bigger body, that their bodies are not good enough as is,” body love coach Brittany Baxter says. “This is incredibly damaging because it implies that you, and no one else, for that matter, are allowed to live life and feel comfortable in the body you exist in.”
8. Greeting Someone With a Comment About Their Looks
One of the first things you might say to a friend (especially if you haven’t seen the person in a while) is, “You look amazing!” Or, if you notice a change in the person’s body, you may even ask, “Have you lost weight?” Seems innocent, right? But it could actually be triggering. “Even though it’s not your intention, you just sent the implicit message that the person’s body is the most important thing about them,” says certified life coach Stephanie Rose Zoccatelli.
“To add to that, you don’t know how they lost the weight. Did they do some extreme unsustainable diet? Are they grieving? Reasons behind it could be deeper than you realize.” The solution? As psychologist and eating disorder specialist [Angela Grace, Ph.D.]((www.heartcenteredcounselling.com), suggests, simply say, “It’s great to see you!”
9. Labeling Other People’s Bodies
“When you say something like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that she’d wear that with that butt,’ you are telling everyone within earshot that only some bodies deserve fashion freedom and pride,” personal trainer Alyssa Royse says. “Any time you judge anyone’s body, you’re feeding into a larger culture of body shaming that impacts just about everyone in it.”
Furthermore, dubbing someone the “fat friend” or even saying that you have a “mom bod” play into stereotypes that “undermine our ability to embody and express our truest and fullest selves,” says women’s advocate Ava Miles, author of “Goddesses Are Sexy: Enjoying a Loving Self-Image.” “They are the kind of tropes that become the basis for popular TV shows, movies and books. Let’s set aside our knives and look for the good in others instead.”
So... What should you say?
Instead of commenting on a friend's body, think of the countless other things you could compliment them on instead: for example, their intellect, sense of humor, kindness, reliability, work ethic, compassion — just to name a few. Acknowledging these traits shows your friends you care and appreciate more than just what's on the surface. Try it and see!