How to Comment on Someone’s Body (AKA Please Don’t)
Today’s topic is one that I feel particularly drawn to discuss. It’s something that I think we have all experienced, but perhaps never really thought about how to shift that experience to support the mental health of ourselves and the people that we interact with.
Body image is an issue that is nearly impossible to avoid. For women especially, but ultimately people of all gender identifications, we have been given feedback about our bodies from an early age. We live in a society where that is simply part of the culture. We have countless industries that are fundamentally based on the idea that we aren’t good enough – if we were, we wouldn’t need their products.
So, how can we combat this? How can we show up for others to promote a positive body image? What is the best way to comment on someone’s body?
My answer may be controversial, and although I am absolutely open to discussing differing viewpoints, I stand strong in this perspective: We do not benefit from commenting on the appearance of other people’s bodies (or our own, for that matter). This includes compliments.
When you comment on someone’s body, it sends the message that this is where your attention is going. It further deepens the notion that we are more valuable and worthy when we look a certain way.
I remember one of the first times that I really paid attention to my body. I was probably about ten or eleven years old and I’d recently gone through a growth spurt, growing an inch or two over the course of one summer. My gymnastics coach made a comment that I had “thinned out a bit,” and I remember noticing that he said this as if it was a positive thing.
Prior to that, I really hadn’t thought about how my growth had affected the weight distribution of my body. My understanding was simply “I am taller.” But after this comment, I remember going home and looking in the mirror, really studying my body in a way that I hadn’t before.
“Am I thinner?” I asked as I stood and looked at myself in the full-length mirror hanging on the back of the bathroom door. I realized that I was, and took note that this was a good thing.
It’s easy to see why commenting on something in a negative way would harm someone. Being teased for being overweight or having pimples is obviously hurtful. But ultimately, ALL comments on someone’s physical body can hurt them, even if meant with the best intentions.
The body is not stagnant. Weight fluctuates, health ebbs and flows, skin eventually begins to show signs of aging.
If you compliment someone on their weight, it can become something they feel like they must maintain in order to stay beautiful. The thought of losing this thing that has gained praise becomes terrifying.
I’d like to note that “terrifying” might seem like a word that is a bit extreme to use. However, as much as it might not be the same kind of terrifying as realizing that there is a burglar in your home at night, it can weigh on a person’s mind every single day, slowly eroding their well-being over time. The severity of the effects are often not realized until spoken aloud or reflected upon in retrospect.
Furthermore, commenting on someone’s body not only affects them, but it also affects you. It deepens the neural pathways that 1) tell you that the shape and size of your body holds particular value, and 2) train your attention to notice and analyze someone’s appearance (whether it be someone else’s appearance or your own).
By challenging yourself to focus on other aspects of people beyond their appearance, you “train your brain,” as they say, to do this automatically. Although it takes an effort at first, in time it will become habitual for your attention to go elsewhere.
If you were asked why you love your best friends and family members, I am sure that you would never say that it has anything to do with what their body looks like. Deep down, you know that these things are not important. But when you comment on someone’s body, you act as though they are, and this cognitive dissonance hurts everyone. What seems like a small thing is actually quite large. A single sentence can change the way someone looks at herself, talks to herself, and treats herself.
In the same day, I have been both praised and shamed for my body. One felt good at first, but ultimately, I realized both were just as destructive. Both told me, “you are being judged by the shape and size of your body.”
The best way to comment on someone’s body is not to comment on it at all. Look for something else to say – something that reflects what you value about them as a human. The next time you’re with a friend, comment on her strength, her intelligence, her radiance, the way she makes you laugh, the way the makes you feel.
There is so much more to see beyond our skin. I know we all know this. It’s time to start practicing it.