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Imagine this: You’re standing in front of a mirror, getting ready after barre class, when your pal clutches the flesh of her midriff and begins a lament for its supposed hugeness.
“Ugh, I’m so fat,” she says, as if expecting reassurance that she’s totally not. “Gross.” (She’s still totally not.)
Or you could be grabbing a beer with a buddy, at which point he glares toward his not-quite-Hemsworth torso and remarks, “Man, I should really get to the gym more often,” perhaps nudging you to chime in about your own insecurities.
Either of these examples, on the other hand, could be you. You might be looking for a way out of this “Vivarium”-style twilight zone of self-doubt.
Welcome to the world of negative body talk, where few of us ever really know the right thing to say. Allow us to be your tour guide along the great river of awkwardness and help you navigate these rocky waters.
First, let’s dispel a myth: “Fat talk” isn’t solely the domain of teenage girls, as stereotypes would have some people believe. Research suggests that both men and women put themselves down.
And people of all ages engage in negative body talk.
Setting up a confrontation with yourself is a sure sign that both sides are headed for a painful knockout. Imagine a version of “Face/Off” where Nic Cage plays both leads. You’re in for a bewildering time.
(Actually, that basically exists in the form of the movie “Adaptation,” and it’s very good. That might not have been the best example. Either way, talking down to yourself helps no one.)
Trash-talking your appearance can put a dent in your self-esteem, crank up your social anxiety, and increase your risk of developing an eating disorder.
So why do we do it if it makes us feel bad?
“We live in a society whose ideal of beauty is so narrow that few men and women fit into it, and most of us feel our bodies aren’t good enough,” says clinical psychologist Alexis Conason, PsyD. “Expressing to others how terrible we feel about ourselves can be a desperate attempt to feel better.”
According to Dana Harron, PsyD, a psychologist specializing in body image and eating disorders, making self-deprecating comments about your weight may be a misguided attempt to come off as likable and nonthreatening to others.
“Women are primed by our culture to compete with each other,” says Harron. “When you body-bash, you’re also making a social statement that’s saying, ‘I’m not a threat. I hate my thighs too. So don’t worry about me — I’m not going up against you.’”
Men and women alike are under the false impression that women prefer a gal pal who puts herself down to one who says she’s confident.
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed, author of Nice Girls Finish Fat, calls out this contradiction: “Shame can be much more comfortable than pride for some people because it feels so familiar. Women, in particular, get the message that it’s not acceptable to say ‘I’m OK with my body,’ so they focus on their mistakes, put themselves down, and become self-effacing, often thinking it makes other people more comfortable.”
It only goes to show that negative body talk makes people feel worse, and it may not even be effective at making you more likable. Case in point: Lizzo’s following.
If you feel great about yourself, that vibe passes to others.
If we want to end negative body talk, it’s important to be sure to continue positive body talk. Keeping quiet about the things we like about our bodies only reinforces the maddening norm that it’s OK to put ourselves down.
That’s not to say we should lie about feeling good about ourselves when we actually don’t. (In fact, studies show that repeating positive affirmations when we don’t believe them can sometimes backfire, making us feel even worse.)
It’s best to be mindful of how you really feel but practice self-love at the same time.
However, some people feel that they can’t voice honest satisfaction about the parts of their bodies they think are just swell and super-duper. (For example, I give thanks to my nose for its many years of service, in spite of its unwieldy size.)
These people may be missing a prime opportunity to show a strong example to others who are on shaky ground with their appearance, Koenig says.
In general, when a discussion turns to negative body talk, you can always validate what your companion is saying before shifting the conversation.
Rather than describe any level of butt-jiggliness, you can (accurately) observe, “Isn’t it ridiculous that we’re all so preoccupied with this?” and bring up a new (much more interesting) topic, such as how good “Face/Off” would be if Nic Cage really did play both roles. (I have fully reversed my stance on this. No regrets.)
Koenig also says it’s perfectly fine to remove yourself from a situation that makes you uncomfortable or to make a solid commitment to avoid spending too much time with people who seem fixated on their bodies’ flaws.
For those common scenarios that you can’t seem to avoid, try these game-changing phrases to shut down the body-bashing.
1. Inner self-talk
The scene: While lifting at the gym, you see a person you think is skinnier or fitter than you. Your first impulse is to list in your head every way you fall short by comparison — either in the locker room or later that night over drinks with friends.
The solution: Avoid expressing negative thoughts about yourself out loud. No matter how negative your internal monologue is, giving voice to it only reinforces its power over you, Koenig says.
It’s way better to bring these self-esteem-damaging thoughts to a mental health professional who can help you sort out why they may be distracting you in the first place.
“Talking badly about our bodies can distract us from deeper, less conscious issues we don’t want to face, putting the focus on something we think we can control,” Koenig explains.
2. Gossip mongers
The scene: At a party, a friend pulls you aside to voice her disapproval of a mutual acquaintance’s eating or exercise habits.
The solution: Ask the disapproving friend, “How do we know what her body needs or doesn’t need? Are we in her gut?” Conason says.
Or steer away from the physical: “Well, I’m not friends with her because of how she eats or what she does at the gym. I love her because she’s funny, smart, and loyal, and she lives near my favorite pizza joint.”
And if your companion continues to talk smack, Koenig suggests these words of wisdom: “I’m uncomfortable focusing on what other people eat or weigh. It’s really none of our business. I don’t like to be judged on what I eat or weigh. Do you?”
If your friend persists, deliver the real zinger: “Don’t we have anything better to talk about?”
3. Social media
The scene: Scrolling through your Twitter feed, you come across a friend’s put-down of her physique. Even if it contains quips, as tweets often do, you may pick up on an underlying self-doubt that inspires concern.
The solution: Conason suggests sending a private message along these lines: “I saw your post, and it sounds like you’re feeling down about your body. Let me know if you ever want to talk about it. I’m here for you.”
4. Food guilt
The scene: You’ve just wrapped up dinner out with friends, and one or more of them starts agonizing about having eaten something other than salad or “indulging” in “too much” dessert. “This will all go straight to my hips!” they say.
The solution: Reply, “You know, we have been trained to worry about these things, and I, for one, am so done with it. I’m trying not to obsess about eating and weight and feel so much better when I don’t. If you’re eating, just enjoy it! Be kind to yourself.”
Nixing negative body talk starts with you or the friend you hear participating in it. Feeling uncomfortable in our skin is, somewhat unfortunately, pretty normal.
But actively putting ourselves down, playing into a friend’s cycle of self-criticism, or being snarky about other people’s weights and eating habits doesn’t do anybody (or any mind) any good.
Instead, arm yourself to stay strong: Make a pact with your close friends to shift the focus away from your bodies the moment complaints crop up.
Read up on all the ways advertisers manufacture “perfection.” Photoshop “retouching” has gone off the rails. Snapchat and Instagram filters haven’t helped in the slightest.
Don’t embrace the idea that you’re not enough just because it might help companies sell products. Work on yourself in the meantime, sure, but do it because it feels good, not because it might make you look good.
Make sure you’re being kind to yourself and learning new reasons that you are great every single day. Confidence is the sexiest Snapchat filter of them all. And trust that there’s so much more to you than how your clothes fit or how your torso, thighs, or arms measure up to someone else’s.
In the immortal words of Mr. T: Quit yo’ negative self-jibba-jabba, fool.
You are enough.