We live in a culture that's obsessed with body image and an idea of "perfection." We also live in a culture that accepts negative self-talk. In fact, it's often seen as a sign of vanity or selfishness if you don't join in on verbally bashing your own body.
Recently, two friends of mine confided that their days were virtual minefields of comments that made them feel bad about their bodies. From coworkers making comments in the office like, "I really shouldn't eat that cupcake, I've been such a pig this week," to a friend talking about how much she hated her thighs/abs/butt, each scenario featured someone who thought their talk was harmless and socially acceptable because the hate was directed at themselves.
In reality though, an atmosphere of body shaming shapes and affects everyone around it.
Growing up, my mom was constantly trying to lose weight. Whole bookshelves were dedicated to diet guides. My mother has many wonderful qualities — she cared for me while I had cancer and has the ability to be completely present with the seriously ill and dying — but she talks a lot about how her body must make her seem to other people. I can hear the hurt in her voice when she talks about being "the fat one in yoga."
I'd always thought of my mom as a positive force in my life — and she is, absolutely — but I realized that I was using a food and activity tracking app on my phone every day, and half of my podcasts were about weight loss, I had to ask myself to look at my motivations for these actions.
Shame, it turns out, is contagious. Like so many things in life, awareness is key. Here are a few questions to help you ponder whether your words are healing or toxic to others.
Would you say it to someone else?
Even if a comment is self-deprecating and directed at yourself, you're also saying it to everyone around you.
"I'm such a lazy slob for skipping the gym" easily translates to "anyone who skips the gym today is a lazy slob." Excessive talk about your fitness goals or the food you're not eating quickly becomes an unconscious judgement on someone else's choices. Don't assume that just because you feel one way, everyone else does too.
Is It helpful or hurtful?
Be careful about how you share information. There's a thin line between being helpful and being passive aggressive.
Is it a "body positive" statement at the expense of someone else?
"Real women have curves." "Strong is the new skinny."
These statements have good intentions but in reality, they praise one type of body while insulting another. Every body is different and one is not necessarily better or worse than another.
Would you say it in a diverse group?
We all suffer from thinking everyone in a group is like us even though it's usually not true. For me, the best example of this is when people who are temporarily injured call themselves a "gimp" or "crippled."
As an amputee, this makes me uncomfortable because these word are derogatory toward my identity. Whenever possible, try not to assume ability/race/gender/sexuality/age/class. There are certain obvious phrases that shame, but have you ever thought how complaining about how old you look can also be ageist?
Can you apologize when you're called out?
We're all learning. We want to create a more loving environment for ourselves and others. This sometimes means saying we are sorry.
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