When someone thinks about body-negativity, they might think about bullies or petty girls saying nasty things in an effort to make themselves feel better. But what if it’s your friends doing the damage, and what if they don’t even know they’re doing it?
Weight, exercise and diet have become such staples in conversation among young women. It’s not necessarily bad to discuss your lifestyle with friends, but those conversations can quickly become harmful when they unintentionally trigger body-negative thoughts. Whether it’s a thinner friend complaining about feeling “fat” or someone complimenting your physique, all of this draws extra attention to body-image — a topic that already occupies far too much space in many young women’s minds. Deciding how to react can be tricky, since they didn’t mean any harm, but there are ways to try and deal with the situation without making your friends uncomfortable.
1. Change the subject
“I have one friend who will often complain about needing to get in shape for some event or another, or make comments about how she's been slacking off about working out regularly or eating well. I know she doesn't mean it to be insulting, and obviously everyone has their own goals in terms of health, weight, etc., but it can be so discouraging to hear her complain and worry when she already looks great and has very healthy habits,” says Sarah*, a junior from Mizzou. “I've never confronted her super directly by saying that it makes me feel bad about myself or anything. Partly because I don't want to cause any conflict and partly because I don't want to draw too much attention to it.”
If you’re trying to avoid confrontation, slyly changing the subject is an easy way to get off of the topic. Maybe your friend is talking about how she hates that she had to buy a size eight when she’s normally a six. Instead of focusing on the size of the pants, keep the subject on clothing by mentioning that you like the raw hem, or that the jacket she also bought is really cute.
“Usually, I just try to say something supportive and change the subject,” Sarah says. If you have combative friends or are non-confrontational yourself, this method might be best to avoid making one comment into a big deal.
2. Refer them to an outside source
Rather than become that preachy friend telling people how to live their lives, you can subtly give them another resource to try and get the message across.
“I've read an awesome website that I always refer to when I have friends who tell me they struggle with body image,” says Michaela Bonner, a junior at Regent University. “It's called Beauty Redefined, and it completely takes the focus off how you look on the outside, and helps women focus on what their bodies can do, rather than how they look.”
Michaela Bonner says she refers to Beauty Redefined when her friends are struggling with healthy discussion of body image; their Instagram shares inspirational quotes, stories from high-profile people and general advice on how to rethink beauty. Just following their Instagram page can give your friend quick reminders to avoid body-negativity as they go about their day. “One of my favorite quotes from the website is ‘Your body is an instrument, not an ornament,'” Michaela says.
Beauty isn't the villain in the fight for positive body image. It only becomes the villain when we worship it as our highest achievement, define it in narrow and unattainable ways, and measure our worth (and others') according to whether or not we fit its ideals. Noticing or admiring someone else's beauty doesn't have to diminish you, deplete you, or make you feel worse about yourself. If it does, it's probably because you're comparing yourself and unconsciously feel that you're in competition with other women. *You're not.* Consciously take yourself out of the competition when feelings of self-comparison creep in. If it's images of women you don't know that are triggering your body comparisons and anxiety, especially through advertising and social media pages, consider unfollowing or taking a break from those images. They're generally *designed* to be idealized and spark your feelings of needing to do/be more in $-driven ways. Unfollowing doesn't mean you dislike those women, it's just a necessary act of self-care. Beauty exists, and it can be appreciated in others without dividing and conquering us as women. Remember that she might be beautiful, but she's also more than *just* beautiful. Don't define her by her looks. Move beyond surface comparisons by really connecting with her if possible. Rather than seeing other women as opponents in the never-ending, depressing fight for "most attractive," other women can be your greatest allies in learning to *see more* than bodies in ourselves and others, and then to *be more* by moving on to much more important things! #morethanabody #seemorebemore #beautyredefined
3. Be honest
Sometimes honesty might actually be the best policy. If you’re really close to the friend who’s unintentionally contributing to your personal body-negativity, it’s probably best to just nip it in the bud.
“I think in those situations the best thing to do is express your feelings about those comments,” says Dajin Kim, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin. “I've definitely had some friends that would point things out about myself that I couldn't change under the pretense that they were just ‘helping’ me out but after I told them how I felt about it a real friend would understand and make the necessary changes.”
It doesn’t have to be a big thing. You can just simply say “Hey, can we talk about something else? This conversation is making me a little uncomfortable about my own body.” You don’t have to spill everything about your body image. Just say enough so they get the picture.
4. Take a little time off from that friend
If you’ve tried different tactics and your friend continues to unintentionally cause you to feel bad about your body, maybe you should just take some time off from that friend. It can be hard to change people’s ways, so maybe just hanging out with some other people can give you some much needed space. If your friend is otherwise a good person, you probably don’t want to cut them off, but it’s important to reflect on whether the friendship is overall healthy for you.
5. Focus on yourself
The best way to become resilient to the body negativity that unfortunately pervades society is to shift your personal perspective on body image and beauty. You might have a hard time changing other people, but you can change yourself. Realizing your worth will make it easier for you to brush off those kinds of comments. Ideally, your friends will be self-aware of what they say, but you can only do so much to influence them.
Navigating sensitive topics in friendships can be tough. You don’t want to be a nagging friend, but it’s important that the people you surround yourself with aren’t contributing to or creating body image issues for you, even if they mean well or don’t intend to hurt you. You don’t want to dictate what your friends say, but you can control how you react to comments. When dealing with different conversations and friends, try and make a conscious decision to deal with the situation so that you can move forward better friends and a better you.
*Names have been changed.