How To Deal With Negative Body Talk From Friends, According To Self-Love Experts
We've all heard comments like "I hate my thighs," "My arms are so jiggly," or "Does this dress make me look fat?" Even simply reading those statements may elicit a negative response deep in your core—and for good reason. Negative body talk can hurt to hear, and if you and your friends engage in it, this is your wake-up call to reassess.
The problem with bonding over negative body image.
You can probably imagine what negative body talk is based on the few examples listed above. It might seem relatively harmless on the surface, until you look deeper at why people do it—and how it affects all parties involved.
In a 2015 analysis1 published in the journal Body Image, researchers looked into why people engage in what they call "fat talk," referring to "self-disparaging remarks made to other people about one's weight or body." The research found that people participate in this type of negative conversation in an effort to reduce anxiety about their body—essentially by venting or "getting it out of their system" through verbalization.
The problem is that it doesn't work like that, according to licensed professional counselor Alicia Muñoz, LPC. She notes that it's common to complain to others in an effort to reduce the discomfort you're feeling and get rid of your self-judgment, but unfortunately, the negative body talk only ends up reinforcing those negative feelings.
"Speaking negatively about your own or another person's body, or commiserating with others who speak negatively about their bodies, doesn't actually 'get rid' of self-judgment and discomfort—it increases it," she explains to mbg. "The things you say get reinforced as you repeat them."
Indeed, the aforementioned study found that engaging in conversations like this has been linked with everything from low body esteem to body dissatisfaction to a drive for thinness and more.
To make matters worse, the research also found that people engage in negative body talk to boost "social cohesion," a term that describes the connection formed by people when they bond over something—which in this case would be feelings of dissatisfaction around their bodies. One friend says they feel ugly, and the other chimes back that they feel ugly, too.
What to do about it.
If you find yourself participating in negative body talk with your friends, your best bet is to nip it in the bud. And if you have a friend that can't seem to let those negative comments go, here's what to do:
Open up a dialogue.
The best approach to virtually any conflict is to open up an honest dialogue about the problem in a calm and compassionate way, and this is no exception. "If you hear friends judging their bodies, stop them gently by saying, 'I don't think it's helpful to talk about any part of yourself that way. How about we celebrate your face/thighs/legs/stomach instead?'" Muñoz suggests.
This can help start the conversation softly, and hopefully, it gets them to reflect on the way they're speaking about themselves.
If a gentle dialogue isn't doing the trick, in come the boundaries. Don't feel bad asking your friend(s) to stop speaking negatively about their body in front of you—you can even cite the research we previously mentioned and explain that it's harmful for everyone involved.
As sexuality doula and educator Ev'Yan Whitney previously explained in an article about nurturing love for your body, "It's my job to make sure I'm filtering those things and that I'm being very mindful and proactive and putting up boundaries around myself. I get to choose which messages I internalize, and I get to create boundaries around the people, places, and things that take me out of my body."
And if the behavior doesn't let up, the final boundary may be cutting off the friendship entirely, if you find it to be particularly harmful. (For more advice there, check out our guide to ending a friendship.)
Tackling negative body image on your own isn't easy—hence why so many people can't help but talk about it with their friends. Knowing this, it's not a bad idea to point your friend in the right direction of resources that can help them, whether it be a therapist or a coach. Suggest to your friend that, if they really feel the need to air out their body image issues, they should do so with a professional who can not only handle it emotionally but help them get to the root of it, as well.
Focus on improving your own relationship to your body.
Last but not least, you can't control what your friends say, but you can work on your own relationship to your body. "Try loving and accepting your body as it is. Appreciate it, even the parts of it you wish were different," Muñoz recommends. Easier said than done, of course, but for starters, she says to try to recognize that the legs you judge (for example) are actually propping you up, keeping you moving, and getting you places.
Negative body talk may seem innocuous in quick, fleeting moments, but over time, it starts to wear us down. We all deserve to feel at home in our bodies, and talking negatively about ourselves is not the way to get there—so stop doing it today, and encourage your friends to stop, too.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.