One of the first things I tell my patients struggling with an eating disorder or body image concerns is that when people say to you, “You look like you’ve gained weight” or “You look so thin”, it is okay and appropriate to say back both politely and firmly, “I feel uncomfortable when you comment on my body and would prefer that we talk about something else.”
We have lost our sense of propriety when it comes to what is and isn’t appropriate to say about other peoples’ bodies. This type of talk begins with the media and trickles down to the family dinner table. The media teach us that there is one clear standard of beauty (i.e., tall, thin, and young) and that until we reach that unrealistic standard, we have a problem that needs to be fixed. Not only are we taught that our bodies are flawed and need to be fixed, we are also taught that our physical “inadequacies” are a result of our own failure or a lack of will power. No wonder we feel inadequate!
One of the ways that media reinforce this idea is by endlessly commenting on bodies, particularly the bodies of public figures who do not fit society’s beauty mold. In the wake of the Grammy awards, we saw numerous media reports commenting on Adele and Kelly Clarkson’s weight. Karen Gilbert, a nutritionist brought in by Fox News, stated that she’s not “judging [Adele and Kelly Clarkson] by their appearance.” Rather, she’s concerned about how they “influence younger girls.” This statement is appalling. Ironically, the influence of this weight-biased news segment could also have an influence on younger girls’ perceptions of beauty and health and perpetuate disordered eating, weight-based teasing, and body shame.
CNN and MSNBC have also devoted whole segments questioning Chris Christie’s health and fitness for office and included commentary shaming him for his weight status. Michelle Obama was even attacked by Rush Limbaugh who said“…it doesn’t look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice…I’m trying to say that our First Lady does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue…” Apparently Mr. Limbaugh is unaware that eating more fruits and vegetables is not meant to make you a swimsuit model, but rather to improve your health. Messages like this are heard worldwide and fuel unhealthy perceptions of beauty, body shaming, and healthy living.
So, what can we do? Are we doomed to the unhealthy messages of body snarking and weight stigmatization? I believe the answer is a resounding “NO.” Change often begins at home and on a smaller scale. One of the first things that we can do is to decrease weight-based commentary within our own social sphere. Telling people they look like they’ve lost or gained weight is rarely helpful and adds fuel to the weight-based obsession of our culture. Further, you never know what someone else is experiencing or whether they may be struggling with body image concerns, the flu, cancer, or an eating disorder that may be exacerbated by these types of comments. Instead, when giving someone a compliment, try to focus on something that you really like about them—the way that they treat others, how hard they work, or their sense of humor. Choose to give people compliments that are actually about them, not their weight or physical appearance.
Another way to combat weight-based commentary is to recognize that when people make uncomfortable comments about your body, you have the power and right to say, “ I feel uncomfortable when you comment on my body and would prefer that we talk about something else.” Many individuals are initially hesitant to assert themselves in this way for fear of making waves and reacting to what seems to be an innocent comment from a friend or family member. However, although normative, these comments can do more harm than good. Often when people are able to assert themselves, they report a newfound sense of freedom and empowerment in regaining control over the commentary on their own bodies.
In the end, I believe that we all have a choice to make regarding what it is we bow down to. What is it that you value? What is it that you celebrate in yourself and others? Are you making this choice consciously? It is my hope that as a culture, we can learn to celebrate the beauty of diversity, all that our bodies do for us, the power of health, and people for the qualities that reflect who they truly are. It’s time to put a stop to unhealthy weight-based commentary on both a global and personal scale! After all, the weight of your worth is not measured in pounds.
By: Dr. Sara Trace