With popular magazines that share tips on how to achieve the “perfect beach body,” and Instagram accounts that are flooded with “fitspiration” consisting of six-pack abs and “body progress” pictures, it is no surprise that many women and men struggle with body image issues. The diet and fitness industry makes a profit by convincing us that our bodies are inherently flawed. After all, if individuals felt that they were perfect just as they are, weight loss products and “bikini body” workouts would likely lose their appeal.
However, the influx of unrealistic beauty ideals in the media is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a myriad of factors that can contribute toward the development of negative body image. According to educators at Brown University, these factors may include “the frequency with which we compare ourselves to others,” comments from friends and family members, a history of sexual or physical abuse, and “ideals that we develop about physical appearance.”
When a friend, family member or significant other is struggling with their body image, it can be difficult to know what to say. The following are three tips for supporting a loved one that is experiencing body image concerns.
1. Avoid using “fat talk.”
It might be tempting to talk about how terrible you feel about your own body around your loved one. After all, you may think that they will be able to commiserate with you over your mutual dislike of your bodies. However, engaging in “fat talk” around your loved one will likely only serve to reinforce their own negative feelings about their body. “Fat talk” is defined as “any statement that reinforces the thin-ideal standard of beauty and contributes to men and women’s dissatisfaction of their bodies.”
It is also critical that you pay attention to the way in which you are talking about the bodies of others. Try to avoid making negative comments about anyone else’s body. Even though you might not think this will impact your loved one, it promotes body shaming and could cause them to feel worse than they already do. By utilizing “fat talk” you are perpetuating an unhealthy societal attitude, which may be contributing to your loved one’s body image challenges.[video-ad]
2. Compliment them on things are that unrelated to their appearance.
A common impulse when you know that your loved one is struggling with their body image is to tell them that they look beautiful. There is nothing wrong with affirming that you think that they look great. However, it could be helpful to focus on complimenting them on things that are completely unrelated to their appearance. It is likely that they already spend too much time and energy thinking about what they look like. Therefore, shifting focus onto more meaningful things that you appreciate about them could be beneficial.
Help your loved one to see what you truly value about them as a person. Over time, hopefully they will realize that there are so many things about them that matter more than whether they fit into an arbitrary societal ideal of beauty.
3. Ask them about what else might be bothering them.
As a culture we have learned to project the feelings that we have about our worth and ourselves onto our bodies. Often the statement of “I feel fat” is a way for people to mask the expression of their true feelings of inadequacy, lack of control and unworthiness. Therefore, the next time your loved one tells you that they “feel fat,” encourage them to be curious about what else could be bothering them. For instance you could say, “It seems like you are really struggling today. Is there anything else that’s stressing you out?” Not only could this help them to begin to uncover the deeper issues that might be contributing toward their feelings of body-hatred, it also demonstrates that you care about them and their feelings.
It can be difficult to watch a loved one talk about their body in a negative and hateful way. It is important that you make sure to take care of your own mental health and engage in self-care activities. After all, you cannot be an effective support to someone else if you are not taking good care of yourself.
Above all, be patient with them and validate that they are doing the best that they can. There are so many men and women who struggle with body image issues, however healing and body-acceptance is possible. Emily Brown, a writer, emphasized this best when she stated,
“I actually do love my body and enjoy moving it, dressing it and taking care of it. I realize that without it, I can’t experience the joys and sorrows of this life. The best part is when I do feel turmoil over food or dissatisfaction with my body; I know automatically that it is about something deeper. I take those moments as a cue to dig deep and I usually discover I am stressed, or I haven’t been taking care of myself. Now, I see these moments as gifts that help keep me in touch with my deeper calling. I am a living, breathing example that healing is possible.”